Jewish Students Profess Identity, Discard Belief
"It is easy to be an atheist, a skeptic. My hope is that students will dare to be emotionally honest, instead of falling into an easy blase attitude...The most individualistic thing to do on the Harvard campus now would be to become a religious man."
This challenge was issued by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, Associate Director of the Harvard B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation. He was thinking specifically of the mass of "non-committed" undergraduates who call themselves Jews because of Jewish birth, but who identify with neither their Judaic heritage, nor active religion.
Among those who indicated on the questionnaire that their background was Judaic, only 35 per cent would concede that they "professed Judaism as a religion, agreeing wholly or substantially with its beliefs and traditions." Forty per cent considered themselves Jewish because they were either "born of parents who considered themselves Jewish, even though you have discarded Jewish ideas," or "have interest in certain cultural features common to Jewish tradition." Significantly, no one reached by the survey stated that he completely rejected his Judaism, although one admitted that he was a "Jewish atheist." In total 42 per cent of the Jews polled did not believe in a "one-person God."
While over a quarter of the students at Harvard College are in some way identified with Judaism, only a tenth of them are members of Hillel. The others hold a wide variety of political and religious views, according to the questionnaire, and a large number indicated that their ideas were still in a state of flux. Some of their answers indicated a confusion, or at least a transition in many attitudes towards religion.
A case in point was the question, "I regard active connection with a synagogue as essential to my religious life." Many of those who replied in the affirmative were among the least frequent participants in synagogue activities. Significantly, the Orthodox Jews, whose religion is woven inextricably with daily life, indicated less than 15 per cent affirmative. Among Conservative Jews over 20 per cent regarded synagogue connection as essential, while Reform Jews showed the highest number affirmative, 30 per cent.
But the figures on actual attendance at services reveal that professed need for synagogue membership does not entail participation. Among the Orthodox who were polled about a third attend services weekly, or twice a month; the Conservatives' figures show that about 85 per cent attend synagogue no more than "several times a year," while among the Reform Jews the figure is over 90 per cent.
Rabbi Gold was somewhat disturbed by this "flirtation with commitment." "I do not favor the lack of earnestness indicated by casually picking and choosing ideas rather than determined searching." This searching--academic wanderings among new and different philosophies--is not eschewed by traditional Judaism; in fact, the pursuit of knowledge is revered as in perhaps no other religion.
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom,
And the man that obtaineth understanding....
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, And all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her,
And happy is every one that holdeth her fast. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
"We should not stop at potentially dangerous ideas," stated Rabbi Maurice L. Zigmond, Director of Harvard Hillel. "We must study all the facts, for learning is basic, and learning gives the possibility of choice." Is it too optimistic to believe that such open inquiry will lead the Jew closer to Judaism? Zigmond says that he is not worried about Jews merely flirting with commitment "because there will be commitment at some time or another."
Very nearly two-thirds of the Orthodox, as well as Conservative and Reform Jews, indicated that there had been a period in which they reacted either partially or wholly against their religious tradition. However, in over half the instances, the reaction occurred during secondary school, rather than in college, as might be expected.
The University community, the curriculum, and the teaching attitudes offer a distinctly Christian tradition. Rabbi Gold maintains, though, that the prevailing faith, not only in American universities, but in Western civilization, is not even Judeo-Christian, but Greco-Christian. How does the Jewish student, with only a poor knowledge of his own faith, fare when he meets such foreign and challenging philosophies for the first time?
Rabbi Gold sees the student in a quandry, suffering from two basic deficiencies: first, he has no fundamental understanding of himself as a Jew; and second, he has no exposure to varieties of thought. "The Jewish student begins to see his Judaism through Christian glasses. This is deplorable, since it distorts his understanding of himself as a Jew. One has to know who he is as a Jew before being exposed to the Christian views."
There are many other factors besides the influence of professors which affect the student's attitude toward religion, Rabbi Zigmond noted. "You always have to bear in mind that a student's attitude toward Judaism is closely linked with his attitude toward his parents, since in Judaism, the parents represent Jewish tradition," he said. The opposite sex also exerts a significant influence in shaping the student's religious views, he added (15 per cent said that the "influence of friends" was responsible for a change in attitude).
But the core of the University is its courses and its Faculty. "Some of the attitudes and ideas presented to students studies it, learns it and ab-who implants these ideas can be of great influence on the future of students," says Zigmond. Sometimes when a foreign idea is presented, a student studies it, learns it and absorbs it; other times he studies it, learns it and rebels from it.
Another attitude the Jewish student may have toward Christian or agnostic ideas he meets for the first time in his reading or his philosophy course was noted by Harry A. Wolfson, Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy, Emeritus. "Because the Jew doesn't have the background, he is made curious. It is the impact of novelty...There is some disadvantage, but I look at it like taking a new course. The Jewish fellow has to learn something new, but he came to college to learn something new."
What strikes the brash newcomer is not only the new and different philosophies; it is not even the fact that he must re-measure the world about him with the new yard-stick of values presented to him by the University; what is most novel, and disturbing, is that he must re-measure himself. If the Jewish student has not gained firmly established roots, if he has not created a self-image, the process can be disconcerting.
Torn between conflicting philosophies, the student may turn away from Judaism completely; or he may come back to it with new intellectual tools, seeking to mold a familiar image. "Some people think that Judaism becomes more respectable when it wears the cloak of popular philosophies," Rabbi Gold said. "It is quite likely that students prefer to discuss Jewish questions on grounds more familiar to them: how does religion relate to things taught them at the University? How does it fit in with different philosophies?" Religion is discussed from the reference frame of their new value system. This is inimical to the study of religion. The values used to comprehend Judaism are thus foreign to it.
Religion seems to be gaining back some of the respectability it used to have. In his twelve years at Hillel, Rabbi Zigmond has noticed a trend in the University toward greater acceptance of religion, and greater recognition of the importance of religion in the lives of students. He sees this as part of a trend in America toward greater affiliation with churches and synagogues.
"Judaism is now not something to be avoided," he asserted. "It is not so much something one must apologize for." What has disappeared more than anything is the antagonism on the part of Jews to identifying themselves with Judaism. Zigmond said that this was a feeling Christians had shared, a feeling that affiliation with religion was something to be avoided. The student seems to be less in conflict with his heritage and his background; it is either a lively interest about his background, or apathy that does not carry any resentment. In the jargon of some other Ivy League colleges, religion is increasingly "shoe."
Agreement comes from David Riesman, Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences: "It is less fashionable to be cynical about religion," he said. "There is fun poked at the return to religion, but this is part escapism. Students are more open, less in the spirit of Mencken."
Hostility to the Jewish scholar has receded in recent years, Harry Wolfson noted. "If a Jew writes a good book, he can get it published as easily as a non-Jew. I don't believe that there is an analogy between scholarship and social and economic life," he stated. Jewish scholarship has been characterized in modern times by the broad way it deals with its subject, Wolfson said. In nineteenth century scholarship Jews had the most liberal and most universal approach; no Jewish philosopher or student of philosophy ever dealt with his subject