Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Interview: How is Judaism different from other religions? Humanistic Jewish activist Paul Golin explains.

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in May 2017.

This is the second part of my discussion with Paul Golin. The first article is available.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto 
"The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center," the organization reported in May
(Read more of this introduction here.)

Joseph Ford Cotto: Non-Orthodox Judaism has failed to exempt itself from the downward spiral other religions find themselves in. Might this be attributed to soaring intermarriage rates or is it that those born into non-Orthodox Judaism (a determination which changes depending on the denomination) no longer see their ancestral tradition as relevant to their lives?

Paul Golin: Judaism is unique because it’s not just a religion. Yes, the organized Jewish community is in decline as measured by total synagogue members. The number of Jews in America, however, is at an all-time high. How can that be?

I am a third-generation Jewish atheist. (At least third-generation; I didn’t know my great-grandparents). If Judaism was just a religion, it wouldn’t survive past one generation of atheists. A born Catholic who no longer believes may call themselves a “lapsed Catholic” but ultimately will no longer identify as Christian or pass that identity to the next generation.

The Pew Survey of Jewish Americans in 2013 found more Jews in the US than ever before and estimated that 94% of them were proud to be Jewish, even though they differed dramatically from their fellow Americans in their approach to religion. For example, their belief in God was significantly lower and they attended religious services much less frequently.

And yet the remarkable trend identified is that intermarriage is actually a way into Judaism rather than a way out. More than half of recently intermarried households were raising their children with a Jewish identity, and that’s why the number of Jews grew. Is their Jewish identity religious? Is it cultural? Ethnic? “Gastronomical Judaism”? Sure, whatever, I don’t care. Judaism persists. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan called Judaism a civilization, and Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who founded my movement, similarly saw Judaism as a culture in which religion is just one aspect.

To me, it’s about being on a mission. Diaspora Jews are the eternal minority. We are the outsider, even as we have achieved remarkable insider status in the United States. Therefore, we must champion the minority, the persecuted, the newcomers. Being Jewish means being different; interfaith households are already different compared to either one side or the other, so why not go with the side that has made a virtue out of being different, asking questions, demanding inclusion when the norm was exclusionary uniformity?

Every generation of Jews must determine which ancestral traditions are relevant to their lives. History has shown that the one constant in Judaism is re-creation.