The Jewish community celebrates the High Holy Days this time of year. Those days begin with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which inaugurates the period in which God evaluates whether or not we are worthy of life for the coming year. They extend through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, during which Jews complete their atonement for the sins of the past year, and during which God seals the Book of Life. And they culminate in Sukkot, the celebratory Feast of Booths, during which Jews commemorate the journey through the wilderness, and Simchat Torah, a celebration of the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading.
Each of these holidays has its own mystical wonder, its own ceremonial uniqueness. On Rosh Hashana, prayers include long, ancient poems musing on the wonders of God; at our meals, we say new blessings over the coming year. On Yom Kippur, we fast and pray, avoid wearing leather, don white garments, and imitate the angels, reminding ourselves and God that man can aspire to a higher way of life. On Sukkot, we repair to outdoor booths covered by greenery to help us recall that the material world is temporary, and that the spiritual world remains eternal. Finally, on Simchat Torah, we dance madly and joyously with the Torah scroll, proclaiming the kindness of the God who gave it to mankind.
It’s all meaningful, and wonderful, and, yes, fun. But it’s fun with a deeper meaning. It’s fun that puts us squarely in 3,000 years of history, a millennia-long tradition that connects human beings with the Divine.
So why are non-Orthodox synagogues turning to goat yoga to draw crowds?
According to the New York Times, Rabbis Perry and Leah Berkowitz, a brother-and-sister pair who run “an unconventional congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” held nontraditional services on Rosh Hashana. The services contained a gospel choir and conga lines, and “touched on social and political themes including racism, anti-Semitism, Black Lives Matter, climate change, and homophobia.” The Wall Street Journal describes other synagogues where rabbis, “eager to woo younger people to High Holiday services, are holding programs in a beer garden, replacing deep reverential bows with goat yoga and celebrating the end of the season with glow sticks in a mosh pit.”
Of course, these are all attempts to fill the pews at non-Orthodox synagogues, or to draw unaffiliated young people to “non-traditional” services. In reality, they have little to do with Judaism at all; they’re warmed-over secular humanism, with some Yiddish fixings. They offer nothing of the history of the Jewish people, the eternal bond between mankind and God, the values implicit in the Torah that connect the Jews to their Creator. So while their curiosity factor may bring in some looky-loos, they’re bound to fail at attracting congregants over time.
Orthodox synagogues, in which participants take Jewish law seriously on a daily basis, keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath, have no such problem. They are packed during the High Holy Days. They have no need for special outreach programs or other tricks to lure youngsters through the door. The walls of most of them aren’t thick enough to keep out the sound of playing children in the next room. The median age of the average Orthodox Jewish adult is 40, compared with the average age of 52 of other Jewish adults. Orthodox Jews are disproportionately married (69 percent) compared with non-Orthodox Jews (49 percent), and they average 4.1 children to 1.9 children for the non-Orthodox.
The division between conservative and liberal believers is not unique to Judaism. Liberal churches all over America seem to believe that ditching old-fashioned Biblical values in favor of feel-good trimmings will draw young people back to Sunday services or mass. Just talk some social justice, offer some free pizza, bring in a band, and young people will flock back to the pews. Except that isn’t happening. Mainline churches are losing members while Evangelical churches are gaining them. Fertility rates among more observant Christians are higher, and their children are more likely to stay Christian.
All of this makes sense. Religion makes certain claims about morality and mankind and God, three elements of the world that do not change over time. It suggests that values are not subjective but objective, not transient but permanent. The moment it degrades into a byword for mere secular morality with some ceremonial additions, it loses its raison d’être. If young people want social-justice preaching on a Sunday morning, they can simply head down to their local Starbucks and strike up a conversation with a barista. There’s no need to sit in an uncomfortable pew for three hours, only to be told that the key elements of religion are hackneyed.
Religious observance isn’t going to disappear, despite the ardent wishes of secularists, nor should it. It provides not just a feeling of communal and individual meaning, but the groundwork for Western civilization itself: a belief in morality, in the power of reason to suss out God’s intentions, in free will and in purpose. It is not a coincidence that as Europe has cast out religion, it has reaped a social and political whirlwind.
The tension between religion and reason and the consonance sometimes achieved between them have driven the development of our civilization. Doing away with the former in favor of goat yoga isn’t going to keep it alive, or preserve the world on which it is built. Centuries from now, nobody will remember Perry and Leah Berkowitz on Yom Kippur. But Jews will still be fasting, praying, and reading the Torah.