The philosopher Thomas Molnar states that at present, religion is accepted and even flourishes, but only as a kind of "psychic weekend from too much materialism, exacting work, and blatant immorality." Molnar's criticism is acute; religion today has become a kind of lowest common denominator in many circles, an escape from pornography and politics, or just that big bad world outside. But escape is not the stuff from which spirituality is founded. Whether it is liberal Jews tired of a stripped down version of Judaism organized mainly around the bar-mitzvah and a smattering of ritual, or at the other end of the spectrum Orthodox Jews whose Shabbos joy is organized around the shul kiddush, there has been a feeling for several years now of the spiritual train having gone far off the track.
The cliches regarding this derailment are powerful and, to a great extent, true. Modernity has assaulted truth; exploded the meaning of words; shredded the comforting grip of authority; laid simple faith to waste. Children, often mirroring the adults they see, are unable to imbibe a pure faith because they are so tossed and turned by how the post-Kantian universe has turned language, love and truth inside out. Sometimes one despairs that students have been so thoroughly moulded by Hollywood and Wall Street that any recovery from relativism and MTV is unlikely.
And yet there are moments that give rise to the possibility of reviving Jewish consciousness in young people. One such moment occurred to me one year just after Rosh Hashanah. A girl who had not outwardly manifested any real drive for the spiritual or interest in deeper discussions of meaning, told me that her rabbi's sermon had been dominated by references to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. "Dr," she said, "I hear enough of that stuff every day. For the few days a year I go to shul, I want to be free of all that. I want something else." Her comments are noteworthy for their challenges as well as their contradictions.
Firstly, as assimilated as she feels, she still has a desire for something other than the nightly news when she goes to shul. Thus contrary to how we might think, Jews do not want their Judaism served up diluted. They want intensity and meaning. They want spiritual guidance and insight. I once had a student, a good sincere Modern Orthodox boy aged 16, complain to me that his rabbi--a good, sincere Modern Orthodox man of 50--talks of absolutely nothing that he cares about at all, be it relating to a God who seems silent and absent; be it confronting his inner turmoil about a whole host of emotional issues; be it the question of what is real and how to gain access to it; be it autonomy versus authority.
But on the other hand, my female student goes to shul a few times a year and expects some kind of spiritual fulfilment. If you talked to your spouse three times a year, we'd call that marital breakdown. And though my student wants something, she doesn't know what it is. What are we looking for? What do we hope to find? Are we not seeking nothing short of salvation, for the redemption of our lives and the perfection of the world? Jewish spirituality in our time has often become a very shrunken thing. It does seem that the Protestant enthusiasts have done this far better than us - the ability to talk about their saviour in a way shorn of embarrassment and filled with delight. The problem remains, as Erich Fromm once noted, ourselves.