The news for religion in the United States keeps getting bleaker. A new study out this week found that since the 70’s there has been a 75% increase in the amount of American 12th graders who don’t believe that religion is important to their lives. In addition, teenagers are half as likely to attend religious services today as in the mid to late 70’s. If this trend continues, religion in America will go the way of Britain and France, where more than 50% of British citizens don’t consider themselves a part of any religion and 42% of French citizens say they are either atheists or agnostics.
What can we do to stem this decline? It turns out that social science has a lot to say about religious motivation. According to Richard Ryan’s extensively researched and empirically sound theory of human motivation, known as Self Determination Theory, religious motivations can be divided into two types: introjected and identified.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that all religions in the West, are facing unprecedented threats. A recently published research study by Pew shows that nearly twenty three percent of Americans -- the vast majority under age fifty -- are religiously unaffiliated. The study on Judaism that Pew released last year shows that this trend is also reflected amongst Jews, where one in five Jews in America do not identify themselves with Judaism as a religion. Simply put, a vast amount of Americans just don’t see the relevance of religion.
Thus, they are voting with their feet and are not engaging with religion or religious communities. This is especially true for young people. In a recent conversation about this phenomena with a senior colleague, he told me that we need to focus on the people that are already part of our communities and inspire them. All the rest, he said are just so self indulgent that there is little possibility that we can ever reach them. He implied that we are better off just giving up on the unaffiliated.
After eighteen hundred years of persecution at their hands we Jews are challenged by any love directed at us from Christians. Nonetheless, many of us have made peace with Evangelicals expressing their love and admiration for Jews and for Israel. But Catholic love for Jews, well that’s a different story.
But there it was, Father Guiseppe, a Catholic priest, was offering me an all expenses paid trip to Israel for a conference of rabbis, bishops, cardinals and priests. When I asked what he wanted in return his response was, “nothing, we recognize that Christianity has its roots in the Jewish faith and we therefore want dialogue with rabbis. This trip and conference is simply a gesture of love from us to you.” Although I was deeply skeptical, his sincerity coupled with my constant desire to visit the Holy Land would not allow me to reject his offer.
In my fourteen years of practicing as a rabbi I have been asked numerous times to offer counsel and support to couples in failing marriages. Despite the fact that it takes two to tango, often the breakdown of a marriage is more the fault of one party than the other. Yet, no matter how the marriage ends and who is at fault, if the husband does not actively agree to give a Gett (Jewish religious divorce) immediately after the wife requests it he is always in the wrong no matter what.
From a religious perspective, the Torah is very protective about the feelings and dignity of women — even more so than that of men. The Talmud warns men to never hurt their spouses feelings and or cause them to weep. It cautions men to be exceedingly careful about their spouses dignity and honor (Baba Metzia, 59a) and to respect and honor them more than they honor themselves (Yevamot, 62b, Maimonides, Ishut, 15:19). These guidelines are based on Biblical sources and have been codified into Jewish law. Furthermore the Talmud tells us that in matters of worldly and household affairs the women’s opinion takes precedence to that of the man’s (Baba Metzia, ibid).
Clearly a man who refuses his wife’s request to give a religious bill of divorce for any period of time after it is made clear that from her perspective the marriage is over, is contravening these extremely serious sections of Jewish law in the most grievous manner possible. But refusing to give a Gett is also the mark of a man who lacks basic human empathy and common decency.
What pursuits are worthwhile pursuing in order to live a life well lived? Philosophers have been debating this question since time immemorial. Starting with Epicurus 2300 years ago to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill some philosophers have argued that to be ethical one should pursue actions and policies that bring about the most pleasure and the least amount of pain to the most amount of people. Thus, to them life is all about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is called Utilitarianism.
There are many counter arguments to this approach to life. The most convincing one to me is the fact that, when asked, most people would rather choose a life of struggle and achievement rather than one of pure unadulterated pleasure that contained no opportunity for personal achievement. Simply stated, a life that contains nothing but the pursuit of pleasure would not be fulfilling for most people, it would instead result in a life that feels empty and depressing. Actions that lead to such a state surely cannot be the aim of life.