The Stormy Sea of Religious Change

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Torah Portion: Pekuday ("These are the records...")/
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh/Shabbat Shekalim
Exodus 38:21-40:38, Num. 28:9-15, Ex. 30:11-16

Haftarah Portion: II Kings 12:1-17

"These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses' bidding…" (Ex. 38:21)

Last week the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a groundbreaking report on the U.S. religious landscape. The forum's study of the religious affiliation of more than 35,000 Americans is a contemporary adaptation of the ancient Tabernacle records. What religious traditions are most prevalent in our society? Which faith communities are gaining adherents? Losing adherents? How do 21st century Americans give voice to their religious faith?

Arguably the most striking feature of the Pew report is the remarkable diversity and fluidity of American religious affiliation. 28% of respondents report that they no longer practice the faith in which they were raised. Some have chosen another religious tradition, while others now claim that they have no religion at all. Indeed, the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly. The number of people who say they have no affiliation with a particular faith today (16%) is more than double the number who report that they were not affiliated with a particular religion as children. Among young Americans (ages 18-29), 25% state that they are unaffiliated.

As for American adults who do identify with a particular religion, the Pew Forum concludes:

"Constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. Those that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths."

The contemporary records paint a complex and dynamic portrait of American religious life. People move in and out of faith communities and denominations with relative ease. Americans change their church and synagogue affiliations comfortably and with great frequency. "Unaffiliated" is a growing, acceptable option for many religious individuals. These trends are all hallmarks of our proud, stubborn American religious identity.

Amidst the ebbs and flows of the stormy sea of religious change, I find comfort in the conclusion of the weekly Torah portion. As the Book of Exodus draws to an end, the people of Israel celebrate the completion of the first building campaign in Jewish history. They behold with pride and joy the work of their hands and hearts: the ohel mo'ed (Tent of Meeting) and the mishkan(Tabernacle). What was the ultimate purpose of these sacred objects and sites? How did their kedushah (holiness) differ from one another? The editors of theEtz Hayim Torah commentary note:

"At this point, there are two embodiments of holiness in the Israelite camp: the Tent of Meeting and the tabernacle. We can think of them as representing a theology of encounter and a theology of presence. There are moments (a wedding, the birth of a child, an escape from danger) when God erupts into our lives with a special intensity that transforms us but that is too intense to be lived constantly. Then there are times when God is a constant presence in our lives (marriage, parenthood, years of good health) in an equally real but less intense manner. The challenge is to recognize God's constant presence in our lives without its becoming so ordinary that we take it for granted." (Etz Hayim, p. 572)

For people who affiliate with a religious tradition, and those who do not;
For individuals who practice the faith of their childhood, and others who have embraced a new faith;
For men and women who are searching in the religious marketplace, and those who seek spirituality elsewhere;
May each of us encounter the Divine presence in the special moments, and the ordinary moments, of our lives.