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Taking Judaism Personally

If we want people who are Jewish from birth to engage more profoundly with their religion, we should look to converts—and Abraham Joshua Heschel—for answers

Elias Neibart
December 22, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

In 2021, we were presented with some paradoxical information about the state of American Jewry.

On one hand, a Pew study cataloged the decline of religiosity within Judaism. Indeed, “[a]mong Jewish adults under 30,” 40% do not identify with the religion, instead viewing their Judaism as purely ethnic or cultural. Alarmingly, these “Jews of no religion are among the country’s least religious subgroups.” In fact, this cohort is even less religious than the oft-discussed “Nones”—a diverse group of Americans who say that “religion is ‘not too important or not at all’ important to them.” The evidence from the study was clear: For a growing percentage of Jews—especially young ones—when they discuss the status of their “current religion,” they describe their own religious posture as “atheist,” “agnostic,” “nothing in particular,” or cultural.

But, while Jews within the faith were turning away from religiosity, a crop of young Americans was embracing Judaism. In that same year, a Tablet survey found that “[a]n increasing number of people are converting to Judaism.” However, Americans were not just converting for familiar reasons, like marriage or a desire to take part in Jewish culture. Instead, this rise in conversion was attributed to something remarkably simple yet wholly profound. These converts were drawn to “the ideas of Judaism”—that is, Jewish theology.

That’s puzzling. As the Pew study evinces and the Tablet piece observes, “many Jews from birth know so little about [Jewish theology].” Indeed, the Pew data spells out that Jews from birth have largely turned away from God and, instead, have embraced the cultural aspects of Jewish living. It is those converting to Judaism who are engaging with the deeper theological questions of the faith. Jews from birth shy away from the spiritual and the metaphysical, while converts, with alacrity, confront them head-on.

As a child of a convert, this trend is certainly consistent with my own experience.

Born Catholic, my mother converted to Judaism before her wedding day. As many of us know, the conversion process is arduous. Not only is the convert expected to immerse herself in Jewish teachings, but she also must fend off criticism and pressure from her non-Jewish relatives. In this respect, conversion is a truly courageous act. The process requires careful study, emotional fortitude, and spiritual resolve. In the end, however, after wrestling with Jewish theology, converts—like my mom—emerge as bona fide members of the faith.

The children of converts, however, are not confronted with these challenges, nor do they experience a similarly transformative process. Because of our parent’s courageous act, we are “born” into the Jewish faith. We reap its benefits and its blessings. We get to take full advantage of our Judaism. Our faith is neither questioned, tested, nor doubted. This “birthright,” so to speak, makes many complacent. It often leads us to take our faith and religion for granted. Indeed, growing up I was never encouraged or expected to embark on anything that resembled my mom’s path to Judaism. In many ways, the children of converts outsource their theological journey to their converted parents. Our parents engaged with the core tenets of Judaism, so we don’t have to.

As the Pew study demonstrates, however, this type of superficial Jewish existence is not exclusive to the children of converts. Jews from birth are shying away from God and theology—no matter if their parents converted or not.

To be sure, this trend is understandable. How many of us have met a fellow Jew who has quipped: “Yeah, I’m not really observant, but my mom’s Jewish.” For many, their matrimonial bloodline is sufficient. Why struggle with the spiritual aspects of Judaism if they are already Jewish? Why question or test their faith when their bloodline is dispositive? No matter what, their status as a Jew is inviolable and permanent. They don’t need to earn their Judaism—they were born with it, so it can’t be taken away or diminished.

Converts, of course, don’t enjoy that same luxury. As I have already mentioned, conversion is a taxing spiritual and emotional process. But even after conversion, converts still confront those who question the authenticity of their transformation or the motives behind their decision. Even after genuinely engaging with Jewish theology, the convert’s Judaism is put under a microscope, all while Jews from birth—even those who identify as just culturally Jewish—proceed through life unimpeached.

Nevertheless, this paradoxical state of modern Jewry—Jews from birth eschewing theology while converts embrace it—is cause for concern. But while potentially dire, this problem is not new. Decades ago, Abraham Joshua Heschel warned about the dangers of declining religiosity and spirituality. But he also offered us a solution. In fact, if we wish to heed Heschel’s advice, Jews from birth would be well-served to follow the lead of modern converts.

Heschel was one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. And for good reason. His works, like The Sabbath, have stood the test of time and are still read by Jews and non-Jews alike. However, Heschel was often criticized for focusing too heavily on spirituality. Indeed, he was critical of overly legalistic accounts of Jewish life. In fact, Heschel addresses those themes—spirituality and formalism—in his works Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man. In both, he critiques modern Jewry and presents a two-step path for authentic Jewish living. In both his diagnosis and prescriptions, Heschel was prescient.

For Heschel, all religion begins with “wonder”—“with the sense of the ineffable, with the awareness of reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.” Before any of us can begin to understand God’s essence—that is what God is and what He stands for—we possess an “intuition of divine presence.” In fact, to Heschel, human beings perceiving and sensing wonder—or the ineffable—is an innate aspect of human existence.

All men share an awareness of “mystery”; they are vexed by the “questions [they] do not know how to ask,” and these questions have “poured oil on the flames of man’s anxiety.” In fact, Heschel often compares religious awakening to fire.

“At the moment in which a fire bursts forth, threatening to destroy one’s home, a person does not pause to investigate whether the danger he faces is real or a figment of his imagination. Such a moment is not the time to inquire into the chemical principle of combustion or into the question of who is to blame for the outbreak of the fire.” The same is true for those grappling with religion—"[t]he ultimate question, when bursting forth in our souls, is too startling, too heavily laden with unutterable wonder to be an academic question, to be equally suspended between yes and no. Such a moment is not the time to throw doubts upon the reason for the rise of the question.”

Heschel first recognizes man’s eternal amazement with the ineffable, but he also identifies that mankind’s realization of—yet inability to fully comprehend—the Divine results in anxiety, tumult, and restlessness. And, amid this internal upheaval, as man longs to connect with that which feels so far out of his reach, he turns to religion—to God.

But Heschel instructs that we should turn to religion in a particular way. Jewish living has two crucial steps. And they have to happen one after the other.

In God in Search of Man, Heschel wrote that Jewish life requires personal insight and then memory—the initial recognition that the Divine is your God and, later, the realization that he is also the God of your father.

These are the pillars of Jewish existence. First, Jews should attain personal insight. They should “understand through [their] own seeking.” The problems of the Bible—“good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, love and hatred”—are “as real today as they were three thousand years ago.” So, Jews cannot shy away from “personal religious concern and experience.”

In that journey, Heschel challenges us to go “beneath the tranquility of creed and tradition in order to overhear the echoes of wrestling and to recapture living insights.” Sure, one can “hear from tradition,” but Heschel warned against viewing Judaism as merely a tradition, a religion of “inherited doctrine” where adherents rely on “records of revelation.” A myopic account of Judaism—one that only stressed the religion’s “memory”—would ignore the personal component of the Jewish faith.

To be sure, Heschel did not rule out the importance of religious tradition and memory wholesale. He just thought it was of secondary concern. Jewish memory and tradition should only be consulted and relied upon after one had personally struggled with her relationship with the Divine. For him, substituting Jewish memory for personal insight results in a less authentic form of Judaism.

A Jewish existence disconnected from personal insight worried Heschel. He observed that such a Judaism was not “powerful enough to hold in its spell the soul of man with its constant restlessness and vitality.” In this respect, a Judaism of just memory will certainly not inspire but, more alarmingly, it may also not endure. That’s because of man’s nature. Throughout time, man has been restless and lonely; indeed, Heschel observed that it is a “taste of utter loneliness” that “makes us ready to search for a voice of God in the world of man.” We all realize that “the world without God is [just] a torso.” If Judaism fails to offer a thick account of personal insight, mankind will seek an answer to our restlessness and loneliness in other places. Something else will fill the void that Judaism has left. All people yearn for personal insight. If Judaism doesn’t offer it, then the future of the faith is bleak.

That’s why the Pew data is so troubling. A Judaism of mere culture—where God, spirituality, and faith are not at its center—is similar to a Judaism of mere memory. Both accounts of Jewish life ignore the personal component of the religion. Neither requires its adherents to wrestle with the problems of the Bible— “good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, love and hatred,” which are “as real today as they were three thousand years ago.” More importantly, focusing on culture and memory ignores God and our personal relationship with Him.

In this way, strands of Judaism that just focus on culture or memory obfuscate Heschel’s conception of religion. As he wrote: “Religion is for God’s sake. The human side of religion—its creed, rituals, and institutions—is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.’ When the human side of religion becomes the goal, injustice becomes a way.”

To be sure, “cultural Judaism” may have made Judaism more attractive to a wider swath of the population. But Heschel would likely say that a Judaism that is more palatable may also be spiritually lacking. A faith that rejects principles and personal struggle in the name of palatability misses the mark.

Religion is for God’s sake. Culture is a means not an end. If it becomes the center of Jewish life, the consequences are predictable. Indeed, the Pew study describes the religion’s dire state. A Judaism of mere culture—just like one of mere memory—can neither inspire nor endure.

But there’s hope. As we have seen, there is a cohort of Jews who are embracing Judaism—not just for its cultural trappings, but also its spiritual offerings. This group of theologically driven Jews are, of course, recent converts.

Heschel would approve of these converts’ path to Judaism. The conversion experience, in many ways, is quintessentially Heschelian. The convert does not jump straight to Jewish memory or culture—she does not skip to exclaiming that the “Lord is the God of my father.” Instead, she first strives for personal insight. And after cultivating her individual connection with the Divine, she proudly asserts that the “Lord is my God.” Then and only then, does she embrace memory, tradition, and culture.

In other words, it is converts who are adhering to the Heschelian two-step process, while Jews from birth are failing to meet his call. The convert is attaining personal insight before turning to Jewish memory and culture. Jews from birth, on the other hand, are neglecting the spiritual for the superficial. They are embracing the palatable in place of the profound. Scared to confront the vexing, they opt for the vapid.

As we have seen, that’s a problem. But the solution is simple. If we desire a Judaism that can endure and inspire, one that has God at its center, then the path forward is clear. All Jews—especially Jews from birth—should seek out and attain personal insight. And in that pursuit, we would all be well-served to use the convert’s path as a blueprint.

In short, to revitalize Judaism, we should all be a lot more like the convert.

Elias Neibart is a student at Harvard Law School and a Krauthammer Fellow with the Tikvah Fund.