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There is, however, another way — and here we Jews might learn not from the Catholic Church, but from churches of the evangelicals.
After all, mainstream Judaism is not the only major American religion in a period of prolonged decline. Mainline Protestantism (consisting of Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and a few others) is seeing an even more precipitous drop-off in membership and affiliation. Like the main denominations of Judaism, these old-school Protestant denominations are mired in bureaucracies, committees and boredom. Though there are plenty of exceptions, to most young people, they feel dull.
What has taken their place? In large part, evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and other emotionally juicy forms of Christianity that promise a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a zealous morality and communities of worship that are loud, proud and… loud. Out with the solemn hymnals — in with Christian rock! Out with theology — in with personal experience!
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Similar trends are happening throughout American Judaism: more contemporary music, more spirituality and more experience of a God that, if not as personal as Jesus, is immanent, pantheistic and experientially knowable. We, too, have our evangelical movement, though so far it has barely emerged from the fringes.
Yet if there is to be a third way between “obsessed” Orthodoxies (Catholic, Jewish or otherwise) and the dull mainstream, this kind of emotional, spiritual, gutsy religious life just might be it. Of course, it terrifies rationalists and doesn’t get much funding from the Jewish establishment, which is fixated on peoplehood and other concepts that inspire almost no one. But if there is to be a religious life without obsession, it must be in the neighborhood of the visceral.
Because here’s the secret. While plenty of evangelicals are archconservatives, plenty more are saying just what Pope Francis said: that we shouldn’t obsess over purity laws and should practice love instead. And while plenty of ecstatic Jews are far-right settlers, plenty more are social justice Jews who marry their spiritual vibrancy with social engagement. It is possible to be a progressive, spiritual, soul-on-fire Catholic, Protestant or Jew. And that, not the mealy mouths of the mainstream, is what sticks in the kishkes. Which, I think, is where religion belongs.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.