More Secular? Or More Spiritual?


There were a number of articles and comments on the Internet last week about a new report from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey to the effect that the number of American Jews who consider themselves religiously observant has declined by more than 20 percent over the last two decades while the number of Jews who consider themselves secular has risen. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent. The report’s authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, reportedly attributed the increase in secularism in large part to high rates of intermarriage.

Kosmin and Keysar aren’t completely negative about intermarriage, however. As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, “Keysar said there was a benefit to intermarriage, as many more people were now connected to Jews in America and around the world. ‘If you maintain Jewish culture, you bring new people into the fold,’ she said. ‘We tend to look at [Judaism] as religion, but if you look at the other aspect of culture and history, there are many aspects of Judaism that are open.’ The emphasis on Jewish culture could help fight anti-Semitism, Keysar said.”

Nina Amir, who has frequently written for us in the past, disagrees in the San Jose Jewish Examiner that intermarriage leads to less religiosity. “We would not be practicing Jews at all – in fact, I wouldn’t be writing about Judaism and Jewish spirituality and mysticism – if my husband had not been a non-Jew who later decided to convert.”

The growth in secularism seems to be at odds with the recent Synagogue 3000 study by Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Larry Hoffman that found increased interest in spirituality among young adult Jews, including the Orthodox, and the non-Orthodox with one Jewish parent, in particular. We blogged about that study just four months ago. This may be a matter of definition – when Kosmin and Keysar talk about religiosity and religiously observant, they may not be talking about those who are spiritual but not interested in traditional forms of prayer. As Rabbi Brad Hirshfield of Clal is quoted in, the study “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity — the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

2 thoughts on “More Secular? Or More Spiritual?”

  • Thanks for including my post in your blog!

    I’ve often argued that I’m more spiritual than religious, and I teach, write and speak about practical spirituality — ways to fit spirituality into our busy lives. I believe that Jews leave Judaism when it doesn’t work for them, when they can’t connect with the practices, and when they can’t find what they are looking for within its teachings. Many Jews have left Judaism seeking what I call “something more.” I did, too. I returned, however, when I discovered that what I had found in other spiritual (not necessarily religious) traditions and what I was looking for could be found within Judaism as well.

    This exodus has nothing to do with Interfaith marriage. I strongly believe Interfaith marriage brings Jews back to Judaism. People leave Judaism or become secular Jews because of what is lacking in how Judaism is presented and practiced organizationally. We don’t have to be overly religious, however, to retain our Jewish identity or practice; we can be spiritual. Nor do we have to throw up our hands and simply become secular Jews with no religious practice. We can renew our Jewish practice with creativity accompanied by respect for tradition and laws. That’s exactly what Jewish Renewal offers: a creative, spiritual, energetic — often practical — renewal of what is best about Judaism. We can each do the same in our own way.

  • Do these studies simply ask people what their practices are and how they identify, or do they also ask why?  What are the forces that pull people away from synagogue engagement?

    I recently read The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, by Rodger Kamenetz, which is about a group of rabbis who went on a cross-cultural exchange to visit the Dalai Lama less than ten years ago. It’s an engaging read. Explores Buddhist meditation, spiritual practices & mystical thought the author felt was missing from the Judaism of his childhood. Another, similar title is Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen, by Brenda Shoshanna, a woman who was raised Orthodox but ventured into Zen practice, ultimately combining facets of both faiths (Jewish and Buddhist ethical values are not so different, as she describes them.)

    As I see it there are “dry” – intellectual, analytical, airy, methodical, political, extroverted – ways to engage in Jewish life, and “wet” – spiritual, god-conscious, psychological, introspective, emotional – ways to approach Judaism. Judaism offers both – but are those who are drawn to the “wet” side finding that aspect when they go to synagogues?

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