To Some Jews, Faith Means Lox, Bagels and Seinfeld

In September, I had an argument with my wife about Judaism. During the high holidays, I feel the need to go to synagogue, but attendance is limited. You must have a ticket to get in, usually a color-coded one, and if you don’t you must either steal in, or wait on a line for the ticketless, maybe get in late, or attend an off-hours “community” service.

And my non-Jewish wife said this year, as she has said before, I can’t believe that you sell your high holidays.

Christians favor the wealthy, too, I said.

True, but we stopped selling pews around Edith Wharton’s time, she said, and you really do see homeless people in the front row at Christmas.

I couldn’t counter her point on religious grounds. Here you are going to the most solemn service in the Jewish calendar, to stand before God and atone for sins, and you are being excluded on an economic basis, or worrying that you did not spend $250, or fretting (as my sister did) that she was in the place reserved for congregation members. Not very spiritual thoughts.

Looking into it, I found that ticket sales (or ticket distribution to paid congregation members) are essential to synagogues’ survival, because, like me, a broad group of Jews don’t attend synagogue except at high holidays. So tickets are a symptom of a much larger issue: how secular Jews have become. If they had a closer connection to church, they would choose to support it. But once a year they check the box on being Jewish, as I do, and the synagogues know that this is the only time to get money to keep up old buildings.

And it is controversial. The Jewish Forward publicized “pay to pray” last summer, in a front-page article that listed ticket prices (“$150 for a perch on the balcony, $200 for a seat in the mezzanine”) and called on rabbis to defend the charges. (“Let’s be honest,” said one, “how many of these ‘desperately seeking spiritual servicing’ Jews routinely avail themselves of the services synagogues offer and involve themselves not a whit in their maintenance and upkeep?”) Meantime, the Center for Policy Options at the University of Judaism issued a report saying that for the religion to attract “latent Jews,” such as myself, synagogues should reconsider ticketing, as it sends the wrong message, by introducing a “hint of ‘extortion.’”

Then, in October, a Gallup poll came out underlining the larger issue: Religious observance among Jews is lower than any other major faith. Jews are one of “the least religious groups.” Only 30 percent of Jewish respondents said their religion was “very important” to their daily lives, as compared with 60 percent of Americans over all.

Part of this reflects class. Jews are likely the richest ethnic group in America, and like rich Episcopalians or Muslims, tend to believe in material things, not God. (It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven.) But a bigger part is cultural: As Jews have sought success and security in America, they have thrown off traits that embarrass them or present a conflict, and Hebrew religion is one. As the writer Jacob Weisberg says, half-jokingly, Jews think any Jew who’s more religious than they are is crazy. Who can afford to give up Saturday? Who wants to be seen praying with phylacteries, leather straps wrapped around head and arms?

Steve Friedman, a midtown lawyer who has been active in Jewish organizations, is as intrigued as I am by the question of nonbelief, and I met with him several times this fall to talk about it. One day he brought me a clipping from the New Jersey Jewish News , a young man’s letter that he was “working toward becoming an Orthodox Jew”–and being told by his parents and grandparents that he was being “brainwashed.”

“Can you imagine in a Catholic or Protestant newspaper, a kid writing about finding enthusiasm in greater adherence to the dogma, and the question that could be asked is, ‘Am I being brainwashed?’” Mr. Friedman said. “It doesn’t surprise me, because I know: We just don’t believe this stuff.”

What is this stuff? Mr. Friedman told me more about my religion at our lunches than I’d ever learned. I’m not proud of my ignorance, the point is that Jewish religious education is chiefly given to kids, so they can be bar-mitzvahed, and the lessons are not very adult. The Jewish religion is based on an ancient tradition of law that commands us in considerable detail to do some things and not do others, duties or mitzvot . Every year at the high holidays, we must atone for our transgressions. “You have to believe that each year you’re getting judged. That’s for starters,” Mr. Friedman said.

Of course, Jews consider themselves Jewish for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with mitzvot. Because they are scholarly and intelligent. Because they look Jewish and the world regards them as Jewish. Because of their interior decoration budget. Because they love Seinfeld and use Yiddish words. “I’m a bagel-and-cream-cheese Jew,” one former member of the board of the Anti-Defamation League told me.

But none of those activities is a religious one, and the Jewish community is now struggling with this question: How Jewish are Jews who have given up all religiosity? “Give up on the intermarried,” Sura Jeselsohn wrote to The Forward , questioning the “30 percent retrieval rate” in the children of intermarried couples. “Do they conduct themselves Jewishly in some way, and is that way religious or cultural?” The Reform branch of Judaism, which has long disdained ritualistic observance of Jewish law, has lately been singing a different tune. “With the absence of commitment to religious life the Jewish people does not survive. You can’t have one without the other, and we need a renewed emphasis on the religious dimensions,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in response to the Gallup results.

Along with so many others, my family traded off observance for inclusion. My great-grandfather was Orthodox, but by my father’s generation, we were placing medical education over religious education. “Rabbi! What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?” goes an old joke. Jonathan Woocher, the executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America who wrote the report questioning the sale of tickets, told me that while Jewish tradition hallows the “wise student” of Talmud, in America that ideal became “in a sense dysfunctional–we had physics to learn, and medicine.”

For another thing, Judaism is not an easy religion to follow. It’s rule-bound, it’s a way of life aimed at improving individuals and the world. Impatience with Jewish law was one of the theological bases of Christianity and, later, Protestantism, and indeed the absence of law in WASP culture is something that draws the guilt-ridden Jew to the Christian bosom, or bosoms. “Christianity is much more easily grasped. It doesn’t have all these rules, it’s Jesus loves you,” says an intermarried friend who experienced a Jewish renewal in midlife.

Were I to observe Jewish law, my life would change profoundly. I’d have to care far more about community. I’d have to strive for holiness and put aside my fascination with sexual matters, I’d have to eat far less meat than I do. My dinner table would be a quieter place. Gossip is one of the overriding no-nos.

Religious leaders remind me that many Jews are experiencing a revitalization of faith. But they’re a minority, and the efforts to reach out to latent Jews like myself sometimes seem desperate–a guaranteed self-help program for very busy affluent people. Jonathan Woocher said a Jewish professional seeking to educate himself could begin by meeting for an hour or two every other week to discuss Judaism. Not a big commitment. Only once during our discussion did Mr. Woocher use a religious term, when he spoke of the Messiah. Similarly, Makor, an $11 million community center on the Upper West Side aimed at fostering Jewish identity among the young, is “devoid of obvious Jewish symbols such as Stars of David or Hebrew letters,” the Forward reports.

I’ve tried here to make observations, not judgments. Yet secularization disturbs me. The real issue is godlessness, and what it has done not just to the Jews, but to our society. Think of the things that are worshiped in America now to a degree they never have before: celebrity, fame, success, money, status. All of them opposite to any religion’s values. A culture of what The New York Times Magazine called “radical selfishness,” in a special millennium issue in October.

Some weeks back, a journalist–Jewish–called me to discuss a piece on envy. The money culture, he said, was now so regnant that our Ivy League buddies who had gone into journalism and law had come to realize they were the big losers, they should have gone into investment banking or cyberspace. On and on he went, and he was right: There had been a real shift in my cohort’s understanding. Yet he prattled on so shamelessly that I felt suffocated. There was not one ounce of reflection or shame in him surrounding these values–a grown man, lifted up by the most prestigious institutions in American life, and now drooling over billionaires because he is only a millionaire. And no consideration for the masses of Americans who lead their lives according to different values. Let alone the Indonesians in huts making our footgear.

What is enough? This man will never know.

Yes, it’s everyone’s problem, but it is distinctly a Jewish problem, too. As the Gallup poll suggests, there is far more belief among Christians, and there are qualities to admire in people who have a religious understanding, qualities that my rich, envious, overeducated journalist friend hasn’t a clue about. The awareness of mystery, of the irrational, of the larger-than-self. When Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys was seriously injured in a recent football game, his teammates gathered in the center of the field and said a prayer. Steve Friedman told me of a Christian colleague of his who on learning that a friend was sick went over to St. Patrick’s to light a candle. “I told her the first thing I’d do is look up the best doctors in the city,” he said laughing. “Though I’d probably pray for them at home, in my own little way.”

Because lighting a candle is voodoo. But while I am highly secularized myself, still I respect the humility of the religious, the sense that there are larger forces than rational human endeavor. When Jews call religious Christians yahoos or nuts, they actually are attacking their own religion, which has similar proscriptions and commands. Secularization has even put in danger the Jewish legacy of social justice. Where was any expression of concern in the Jewish community over the Government’s role in the destruction of 80-some members of a longtime religious community in Waco, Tex.?

You might counter that the values I’m extolling–humility, not taking yourself too seriously, respect for poverty–are elements of Jewish ethical tradition. But those ethics are not faring very well in competition with the Jewish-American success ethos of the 20th century. Among my friends, the person leading the most Jewish life was raised Catholic. He actually practices tzedaka , the idea of community and justice that is a foremost commandment of Jewish law. “I’m not big on faith, but the whole issue of good works, that you have to be doing something in the world, is one that gnaws at me,” says this friend, Anthony Schmitz. And I know that many Jewish friends would look on Mr. Schmitz’s life running an inner-city newspaper as too humble.

Does it ever strike you that the great ideas of secularism that have now carried the boomers to 50–from the sexual revolution to free expression in Hollywood to New Age North Face Fred Kaplan yoga zone–are limited models for existence, and that all are commercialized? Of course, everyone wants to be spiritual these days. But ethical principles are not just plucked from the air, they are encoded and developed through study and instruction and practice, as the halakah , or Jewish “way,” has been. “The idea of a group other than churches for discussing how you lead the righteous life strikes me as kind of ridiculous,” Mr. Schmitz said.

Even great works of humanist art, from Melville to Camus, deal with the struggle between an individual’s freedom and a religious understanding. Yet in our culture now only Republicans talk about God, and when they do they are frequently called yahoos.

I’m not saying Jews should eat kosher. (“Shrimp with lobster sauce is the national dish.”) Jewish law, when I think about it, strikes me as too outmoded and narrow to contain my American ambition. But when do I even think about it? What I’m talking about is the utter loss of the religious outlook among Jews. At lunch, Steve Friedman told me about some of the duties I don’t know about. Don’t ask the price of something if you know you’re not going to buy it, lest you give a shopkeeper false hope. Don’t treat anyone like an object. Feed your animals before you feed yourself. And try at whatever cost to maintain peace in the household. Soulful rules. We’ve replaced them with a nihilistic materialism.