Judaism for Nones: Millennials and God, with Rabbi Mark Wildes

January 25, 2016

The “nones” are on the rise in the U.S. with 33 million Americans identifying as having no religious affiliation. Atheists shouldn’t get too excited, though, because 68% of the unaffiliated indicate that they do believe in some sort of god. What kind of god do the nones believe in? This week’s guest, Rabbi Mark Wildes, wants it to be the God of Abraham.

Rabbi Mark Wildes is the founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, a program for young Jewish professionals in their 20s and 30s with little or no background in Judaism interested in connecting with the community. With the unaffiliated being concentrated heavily in the young adult demographic, and with 1 in 5 American Jews identifying as nones, Rabbi Wildes believes there very well may be something about Judaism that could draw in millennials, those who are looking for a certain kind of moral guidance that includes both purpose and reason.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, January 25th, 2016. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of the humorous news podcast with the People Live, which I hope you’re all happily subscribed to. And this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. We hear a lot about the rise of the nones. The n o n e s, not n u n s meaning atheists, agnostics, people who say that their religion is nothing in particular. And an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center recently found that the nuns are now 23 percent of American adults. That’s up by almost half since 2007, largely because of millennials. But here’s the thing. Most nuns say that they believe in God. Well, what God did I believe in and which religion, if any, is best positioned to capture their apparent openness to some kind of spiritual structure in their lives. This week’s guest would argue, I assume that would be the oldest religion of the book, Judaism. Rabbi Mark Wild’s is the founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience, a social, educational and spiritual events organization for millennials. He’s been running that since before a millennial was even a word. He blogs for the Times of Israel on the Huffington Post. He has a YouTube channel. He plays the drums. He’s the new face of modern religiosity. So I wanted to talk to him about the future of faith and reason and what these kids are up to these days with their loud music and their silly hair. Rabbi, welcome to Point of Inquiry. What are the kids up to these days? Why are they less religious than ever? But they still say they believe in God. 

Well, first of all, thank you for having me. And I appreciate the intro on and being invited to share my thoughts. It’s really interesting. The Pew study is revealing something that I’ve I’ve seen I’ve been seeing personally in the last 10 to 15 years, where you have a lot of well educated young professionals for the lack of a better term, searching and sensing a deeper dimension in life, but really being uncomfortable with organized religion. And so I’m not surprised to hear that so many people who consider themselves atheists or not into religion, however you want to define that, are still people who believe in a higher being. I think the millennials today are deep, probing, interested people in something beyond the physical and the material. I think this is a gross generalization, but I’ve been working with millennials last 20 years. I really believe they’re searching. They’re searching in a way that when I grew up in the 80s and then the 90s, I don’t think people were searching so much. I think it was much more of the ME generation. And this group today senses there’s something transcendental sensor’s. There’s a deeper dimension to life, but doesn’t really want to get wrapped up in what they perceive to be a divisive, misogynistic, what some people even perceive as racist expression of religious values and all these different streams. I’m trying to, of course, show and demonstrate that Judaism is not any of those things, but a lot of people have really there’s a lot of baggage and Islamic radicalism has not made it easier. But it’s as old as history itself, because before Islamic radicalism, there were Christian crusades and before that there were, you name it, from almost every religion. There’s a lot of blood spilled in the name of God. 

And people don’t want to be affiliated with this with movements that are violent and that don’t jive with their contemporary values. 

So, yeah. So then then my response to that would be then then why retain the artifice of a formal religion at all? Why be a rabbi and why believing in Judaism, if the yearning of young people is for something that’s transcendent, something that’s beyond themselves, something that’s ineffable? Why not just revel in the inevitability of it and and do away with all of these bloodthirsty cults from thousands of years ago? 

It’s a great question and it’s a question. You articulated it very well. It’s not it’s not being articulated in that way. But that’s really what people are asking. What do we need? All the trappings and the rituals and the ceremonies. I really believe and I’m not speaking about Christianity, Islam. I’m speaking more about Judaism now, but I don’t think it will last. What went meaning? I don’t think the Jewish people will be sustainable through the 21st century, even if it’s not concretized in the structured form of expression through what we call in Hebrew, the midst votes, which are religious observances. And they’re not simply rituals. I mean, I’ll give you an example. It’s nice to feel like we should do something wonderful for each other. But what the Torah Classical Judaism demands is that every Jew who considers himself observant is supposed to give a certain away money away from their annual earnings, supposed to be 10 percent. And it really demands that of us in a very practical kind of way. And it’s a tall order. It’s not a simple thing. It’s thankfully after taxes. But we’re supposed to give a certain amount. And it’s not dependent on our feelings. And I believe that if millennials just are I don’t want to say out loud, everybody’s allowed to do whatever they want. Everybody has free will. But I believe that if the structure of organized Judaism is to be removed and and the only thing that is expressed are people’s feelings and intuitions of the transcendentalism, I don’t think people are going to be helped in a consistent fashion. I don’t think that Judaism will last. It’s nice to talk about the concept of rest and. Tranquility. But if you don’t actually cease from walking on the seventh day and observe what we call the Sabbath, then I, I don’t think the Jewish people are going to last. And I don’t think the great ideas that Judaism brought to the world, the concepts of ethical monotheism, are going to remain if they’re not concretize and expressed in real practical behavior. And what’s unique about Judaism is that it demands a certain type of behavior, more than a dozen ideology. Philosophy is important, but it’s kind of pie in the sky really matters at the end of the day what you do. And that, I believe, will keep certain beliefs alive. 

But if we just allow all of us to just feel spiritual and do spiritual according to whatever definitions we come up with and how we’re feeling at that particular time, I just don’t think it’s going to last. 

So that’s really interesting. I think there are two things that I’m hearing there that might be worth unpacking separately. One is, would it be possible to retain these structures, these sort of secular structures of Judaism honoring the Sabbath day, going through the practices and rituals with which we mock births and deaths, I guess, honoring the traditions of of the ethnicity of Judaism without buying into a bunch of historical fairy tales about what Moses may or may not have done in thousands of years ago in the Middle East. That’s the first question. And then the second would be, are you implying that religious myths are fictions that we need to believe in order to sustain our in order to perpetuate ourselves as a people, as Jews? 

OK. I actually think both of those questions are very interrelated. Can you do it without actually people believing that they’re based on any kind of historical truths? It could be done. I think it’s a little hollow. 

And I mean, I guess my point would be the only historical truth that’s pertinent is the fact that these this is a group of people who have been through a lot, who have been around for thousands of years, who have believed certain things about themselves, who were put through the one of the greatest challenges that any people have ever been put through in the 20th century and have emerged from that and have contributed a lot towards culture and art and literature and all of those in philosophy, all those kinds of things. Is that not enough? 

Do you need the do you need the supernatural? 

I think you need the supernatural. I really do. That’s not to say. And I’ll tell you why in a minute. But I just want to be misunderstood. It’s not to say that a person can engage in these things without believing at all. You don’t have to believe in these things to engage in these practices. For example, Shabbat keeping the Sabbath and putting down the cell phone and refraining from engaging in the in the everyday crazy world one day the week. A lot of people are finding satisfying and something that they really need on an emotional level. I don’t necessarily think you need to do it. To express that there’s a God and that that God created the world in six days and rests on the 7th, which is biblically why we keep Shabbat. I think people can do it even if they’re keeping it for a different reason or they’re finding a different value in it. Having said that, the purpose of these commandments, I think, will be lost if they’re not rooted in the very source or the very reason or in the history which brought them about, you know. So the question is, will, is there a value in the world believing in a higher being? I personally think yes. Can that still happen if people don’t route their ceremonies, their rituals or religions in these historical ideas? It could happen here and there. I think it will be spotty. I don’t think it’s sustainable. And I also think you’re losing a lot of what it was really all about. I think it’s better to be more specific. You know, you’re asked in Judaism to live a certain kind of lifestyle. And if you want to send your kids to a Jewish day, school costs money. And you’re asking a 25, 30 year old person now who may live in a very, very lovely neighborhood with good public school system to shell out twenty twenty five thousand dollars a year so that their kids can get a Jewish education. Why should they do that? Exactly. If they don’t believe that this whole thing is really based on something authentic and historically true, if it’s just something that’s really nice today and gone tomorrow and it’s kind of working for me, but maybe it won’t work for my kids, I just don’t think it’s going to. You know, I had a situation just last night. One of my students who lives in Dallas, Texas, called me. His father was very, very sick. And he called me to tell me that, you know, the doctor is about to pull the plug and he wanted to know whether that was OK. The father was hooked up to a respirator. And I got on the phone with the physician. We had this very interesting conversation. How do you define life? And if the brain stops functioning but the heart is still beating? Does that mean we can, quote unquote, pull the plug? People need answers to these questions and people sense that that answering them selves is, to put it mildly, presumptuous. And we’re getting more technologically sophisticated and advanced in our society. And we’re gonna be able to clone people at some point and we’re going to start playing God. And the question is, do we have some sort of value system to navigate these issues? And I have a very close friend who started what’s called Halachic Organ Donor Society. Its name is Robbie Berman to encourage Jewish people to donate organs because obviously they can save lives. But at what point is it permissible to harvest an organ when the brain stops functioning? Does the heart have to stop beating? And there are a lot of other life and death types of questions that unless you believe in a higher being, that’s and that that higher being has somehow expressed a will to mankind is to definitions for these things, then we’re just sort of running through life hodgepodge ing it. I once spoke with an ethicist from, I believe, Columbia Presbyterian, and she admitted to me that the ethics and the mores that they follow in hospitals today keep changing. And they are based essentially on the winds in the prevailing society, what people are thinking. And they’re just people are looking for something permanent, more permanent, more everlasting that is rooted in something beyond ourselves. So going back to your original question, you can’t escape that no matter how upset people get with religion. People sense that there’s got to be some kind of value system that that we, you know, could benefit from from applying to our lives. And that isn’t simply based on my own opinion and my own theory. 

Yeah, I mean, I completely hear what you’re saying. And I think many secular moral philosophers would agree with you. The question is, is the solution to be found in the ethics of books that were written by people who had no understanding of neurology or physiology or biology thousands of years ago, or when your counseling the the son whose father is about to be taken off life support? And when you’re speaking with that physician, are you, in fact, smuggling into the religious conversation a whole bunch of secular ethical precepts that we’ve learned through science, that we’ve learned through biology that come from modern moral philosophy and understanding of, for example, the development of embryos in terms of the abortion debate is far beyond what it was thousands of years ago. So I agree we do need a value system to navigate the world, as you said, and it would be undesirable to run through life. Houge punching it, as you put it, but maybe hoj punching it is the best that we have. And maybe what we’re actually maybe there is a solution, maybe in other words, the secular agnostic. Scientific or moral philosophy? Community could do a better job about structuring a set of precepts. And I think people like Peter Singer, for example, do do this. They try to start from from ground zero and structure a set of moral moral precepts that are defensible using reason. And that, in fact, if you look at the way that religious people were speaking as recently as 100 years ago, the rampant racism, the incredible sexism and misogyny, the advances that we’ve achieved since then are not coming from a closer reading of scripture. They’re coming from some kind of secular moral philosophy which religious people have gotten on board with. Do you ever thought about that? 

Yeah. You’re making some excellent points. The first the first thing I’ll just respond to is science. So amazing book that was authored by Jonathan Sacks. I don’t know if you you heard him. He’s a former chief rabbi of Great Britain and he’s brilliant. And he called this book The Great Partnership, because he really looks and I and I very much agree as science and religion is complementary. The Bible is not a book of science. 

The Bible is not there to study, as far as I’m concerned, to know what happens when you want to study that. You need to go to school and you need to study from experts in the field of science. And that’s why actually it’s considered a mitzvah. It’s a great precept to study science in Judaism. My monitor is a great Jewish philosopher, wrote this in his treaties that if you want to develop an appreciation for God, you have to study his world. But he didn’t say you study the Torah to understand the world. He said you study science. And he considered himself a student of Aristotle. He was very enmeshed in Greek philosophy, got himself into a lot of trouble with his with his colleagues because of that. But he was a real renaissance rabbi, if you will. But science is very important. And I do think because science is advanced, particularly last hundred years has literally exploded with discovery, we can no more. But the question is what to do with science and how to navigate these thorny questions and issues like life support, organ donation, facility issues. 

Those are values and values. I don’t believe can emerge from this is just my personal opinion. But I do share this with a lot of millennials, and it does resonate. I do not believe that mortals can determine the values themselves. I think that we are all looking deep down. We are looking for a value system that is beyond us because we sense as creatures that the creator somehow has to guide us in the way we need to behave in this world. And I think we have much better and deeper insight as science marches forward, as we learn more and more. But ultimately, what to do in that situation when someone is hooked up to life support? You know, we could argue to a blue in the face, we will never come up, but we will never know. Is this my opinion? And is it any better than what someone came up 20 years ago? Will it be better and 20 years from now? I think millennials are looking for. I wouldn’t say absolute truth because I don’t believe that’s possible for us to posit absolute truth. But they’re looking for something beyond. And when I answered my student last night, I did not quote rabbis to him or sages or philosophers. 

I gave him an opinion that I think is rooted in what I believe to be God’s own will, as expressed in the Torah. 

And I know that may sound very old fashioned, but so just to clarify, from where are you getting are you getting that way? Can you can you clarify for us a little bit of what that process. 

I mean, it all depends on the issue, but any issue, any medical ethical issue is all based on passages found in the Bible as understood throughout the ages by the great Jewish philosophers. Now, of course, there’s a human element, but there are things that are clearly rabbinic made up by rabbis and sages to enhance our spiritual existence. But there are other things that they’re just we’re just using the sages to understand the words of the Torah. I mean, I’ll give you an example. One of the most favorite quoted parts of the Bible to show that the Bible is archaic and its violence is an eye for an eye. Right. An eye for an eye. Now, we don’t read the Bible, literally. I don’t believe in reading the Bible, literally. That’s that’s called fundamentalism. We have an oral tradition that teaches us how to understand phrases. And no one, no rabbi ever understood that phrase of an eye for an eye to mean that, God forbid, we would take we would get, you know, gouge out someone’s eye if they, you know, even intentionally took out the eye of another person. We don’t believe in that. It means damages. And there’s a long. Of thousands of years. There is no one who reads that literally. And it’s the same thing when it comes to end of life issues, fertility issues, abortion. The reason that, you know, Judaism is classically against abortion, but there are exceptions. If the life of the mother is threatened, we abort the fetus and we save the life of the mother. That’s where Judaism is different from Christianity. But that’s not made up by rabbis. That is derived from actual verses in the Torah as understood through the oral tradition. It’s a complicated conversation. But just because we’re involving rabbis doesn’t mean that they made these things up. It means we’re using them as the greatest scholars in understanding the biblical text. And that’s essentially where I derive my value system, what I try to teach to other people. I’m not saying everybody buys everything. I’m not saying everybody agrees with what I’m saying. But I think at the end of the day, there’s a fundamental question and that is where should our value system come from? And if you intuit that there is something greater guiding the world, or at least in Einsteins view that created the world. Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God. He believed in a god of Spinoza that created the world, the god of creation, and not a God that was involved in it. Now, whatever your view is, if you believe and subscribe to some kind of transcendental power source that willed us into creation, you’re gonna want to know what is that power source? Think, if you will, in terms of the way we should be living or behaving. 

Well, yeah, I’m I’m glad you mentioned Spinoza. Because, you know, you just you just mentioned somewhat dismissively that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re just taking that the rabbis of antiquity or the scholars or the sages are making this stuff up. It means that they’re deriving their conclusions from a close reading of the Torah. But in fact, I think one reason why Judaism is more appealing to a lot of people than the rigidity of either conservative Islam or of, I suppose, fundamentalist Christianity is that there is this long tradition of philosophical thought, which is a lot more ephemeral about about its religious claims, about its ontological little cosmological claims than other religions. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if all we will are relying on. It was 5000 years of really, really wise people giving their conclusions about how we ought to live. And it’s notable that people like Spinoza and Einstein and my money’s who you vote, who you’ve mentioned, all three are heroes of people like Christopher Hitchens and other other atheists that Spinoza has has had a huge impact on secular thought, not religious thought. So I think that that’s that’s interesting. And I wonder whether you agree that there is a certain flexibility to Judaism that makes it sort of uniquely well positioned at the moment to avoid the rigidity with which people perceive other faiths. 

John Shook hundred percent. And I think you’re hitting on something that is unique to Judaism. You know, I have kids who began studying Talmud in fifth grade, sixth grade. And they are my my seventh grader right now spends three hours a day studying Tom Flynn. And if you’ve ever studied Tom Flynn, it’s all about debate and argumentation and scholarly discourse and nobody gets defamed or I don’t even know what the word is. No one is is is considered heretical for asking anything in the Talmud. And that is the kind of spirit that is, you know, Molk. Many young Jewish people, not everybody are raised with that. You know, I went to law school and law school was like I wouldn’t say it was a breeze, but it was almost an extension of my religious education, which was heavily tongue medically based. And if you’ve ever studied Talmud and I don’t know if you know this, but they’re studying it in Korea now, believe it or not, if you’ve ever studied Talmud is a very open discourse where truth is arrived at through logical reason and argumentation. And the best thing you could ever do in a classroom in the Talmud class is what we call stumped the rabbi. If the student who might be 17 or 18 years old or twenty five years old is able to stump his 85 year old rabbi, that brings what’s called in Hebrew the greatest Narcis, which is joy that a teacher could ever have. And it’s really about arriving at truth. And there’s this open dialog and we’re just very, very comfortable with that. And I don’t know if that exists in any other part in other faiths or other more conservative parts of other faiths. But I will tell you that that exists within the most orthodox of communities in the Jewish community. That kind of argumentation. That’s number one. Number two, we you know, we call it the. Face. But I think Judaism will be better described as Jewish knowledge. There is an element of faith that you need to have in order to sort of buy into all of this clearly. But there’s a lot of reason and rationality and exploration that a person needs to do in order to arrive at a religious, observant kind of lifestyle. We are not interested in creating robots who don’t think don’t analyze things. And again, I think it’s borne out of this spirit of Talmudic discourse. But it’s also because we believe in scholarship and it’s no coincidence that Jews have discovered so many wonderful cures for so many problematic illnesses. And, you know, out of proportion, winning Nobel Prizes is just what we do. It’s not something we should wear on our sleeve or consider ourselves better than other people for doing something we want to try to win. We’re the people of the book. We’re about learning and studying. And it’s not simply about accepting dogma and faith, irrespective of how irrational it is. I do think there’s a piece that is faith and that we call that the leap. But I don’t believe that that leap should be leaping over a chasm. It should be a reasonable leap because we’ve spent the rest of our lives studying and understanding and appreciating from a rational perspective that this stuff makes sense. Now, not everything makes sense. And there are things that we’re asked to believe in that don’t. To be perfectly honest, make 100 percent sense to me. But, you know, I’m in a marriage. Thank God for 20 years now. And I don’t think I would have lasted if I only did things that made 100 percent sense. No relationship can operate completely based on what’s rationally arguable. Sometimes you just do things because you’re committed to the overall relationship. But Judaism prides itself on fundamentally being, you know, a sensible religion that doesn’t just add meaning and fulfillment. But that is trying to arrive at a deeper understanding intellectually and doesn’t just value faith for the sense of faith, which which is much more of a Christian thought. 

I mean, I do think that you are I perceive two discrete strands which you perceive as unified, which is the religious faith and then the ethnic grouping of Jews, and they come in their intellectual contributions. You probably have good reason to believe that your wife loves you and that you love her and that the two of you are committed to each other. You probably don’t have as good a reason to believe that the Red Sea actually parted and Moses was able to walk through it. So there are certain things that one has to sort of pay lip service to in religion that are a different level, a different order of magnitude of faith leaping, shall we say, than the thing than the way that we normally use the word faith in our everyday lives. But I wonder what your thoughts are just pragmatically about the future of Jews? Because I thought it was interesting that you said that you don’t think Will will last out a century if we don’t have faith. I was bomb its food. My dad’s Jewish. My mother is ostensibly kind of Catholic. Jewish. I’m not religious. I maybe go to synagogue once a year if I’m lucky. But I have a huge sense of pride in the legacy of my forebears, in the tenacity of my grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor. The contributions of people like Einstein, who also was not a deep man of faith. And to some extent, I went on to drag you into into international geopolitics here. But the behavior of the Likud in Israel and the continuing building of settlements in Palestine and so on, I think has helped millennials like myself to become estranged from Judaism and become estranged from from their people. And I wonder whether or not it’s as pessimistic as as you think, whether or not I can sort of construct my own version of Judaism in my own house with my own gratitude for for the legacy of my people without buying into either the faith or the geopolitics of it. 

I think you can, albeit it you won’t be embracing the entire picture. 

There are really two parts of being Jewish, as far as I’m concerned, is the people who would aspect and then there’s the theological the religious component. But part of the theological and religious of being a Jew means that you’re buying into the people who notion. And if you are someone who’s proud of the intellectual contributions of Judaism to the world and you’re someone who’s supportive of the state of Israel because you understand as the Jewish homeland, even as it may have policies that you disagree with or even are offended by, even perhaps, but because you identify as a Jewish person, you feel. Part of the people of Israel, even if you completely discount all of the theology and philosophy and you don’t, you just don’t buy it, but you’re proud to be Jewish. 

That is part of our theology, actually. And a lot of people don’t know this about Judaism. Judaism is it’s both a ethnicity and a religion. It is not simply a religion. 

It is both meaning becoming part of it, being part of a certain group of people who also practice or believe in certain things. But even if you don’t practice or believe in those things, if you identify. Right. So, for example, someone who converted to Judaism, they have to accept two things. And we learn this actually from the Bible, from the Book of Ruth. I don’t if you’re familiar with the beautiful story of Ruth, who was a bit more by Princess, who married a Jewish person but then converted, she converted because she wanted to be part of it. 

But she said to her mother in law, no, only she said she not only said that I’m accepting God, but she said, a, miss me, your nation is my nation. 

And one of the things you ask someone converting to Judaism is that do you know that the Jewish people have been persecuted maybe more than any other nation on the Earth? And if the person says, I know I still considered a privilege to walk among them to be part of that people, then that is step number one. 

Step number two is a religious component. So I do think that there is a place and in my work at MGM, I work with millennials. 

I heavily stress this identification with the people of Israel, even if you don’t identify or the religious components do not nicely resonate with you so much. 

And that’s what I would also say in response to your comment about Israel, because you know the expression two Jews, three opinions. You think people in the United States argue about Israel has the most divisive and critical media maybe of any Western country in the world is something I’m actually very proud of. And I think it’s incredible that it’s not going to necessarily mean Israel and its government always does the right thing. But if you identify as a Jew, you’re going to always want to try to stand by Israel and support her even as your critical, perhaps, you know, of certain policies. But there’s a fundamental buy in because you see it as your as as as somehow an expression of your own personage. And that’s difficult because I think I think a lot of American Jews don’t identify with Israel so well. And therefore, when they when Israel does something or says something that offends them or goes up against their values, then they distanced themselves because they consider themselves Americans first and Jews second. I don’t know if you remember that famous story when Henry Kissinger once met with Golda Meir, when they had their first meeting. So, of course, very prominent Jewish secretary of state under the Nixon administration. And he’s meeting with this woman who’s the prime minister of Israel. And he says to her, don’t think that just because I’m Jewish that I’m going to put Israel first. I am first an American. And second to Jew. I’ve been American Jew, not a Jewish American. And Golda Meir famously responded, That’s OK, because in our tradition, we read Hebrew from right to left anyway. 


But that really you know, that really kind of sums up a lot of the you know, of the issues. But what I try to encourage people to do and we have a very diverse audience at MGE and we’re based on the Upper West Side, which is the bastion of American liberalism and a lot of Jewish people who come to our programs. We do not want to alienate people by seeming like we’re way on the left away, on the right or even centrist. I really try to keep my mouth shut about politics in terms of my own personal opinions. But the one thing that I try to encourage through our trips to Israel and through whatever marching in the Israeli day parade is that we’re proud of Israel, even as we might be critical of her because we are the people of Israel. 

When we talk about that, about being the people of Israel, about being an ethnicity as well as her religion, is there anything is only a little part of you that. 

That finds that that sticks in your craw because, you know, if one looks at the world at the moment and throughout history, you would not conclude that a lack of sectarianism is our problem or the lack of tribalism is our problem. 

You look across the Middle East and the sensibility of Sunnis as being Sunnis and Shiites as being Shiites. 

It’s problematic, and I sometimes wonder whether or not I’m complicit in that and whether it would be a better world if we were all able to like, would it be such a bad thing if one hundred and fifty years time there were no Jews and Muslims? They will play with secular habits who are all citizens of the world. 

Yeah, it’s a great question. I’ll tell you what, I struggle with this every time I listen to John Lennon’s Imagine, because if you’re familiar with the words, my dad was John Lennon’s lawyer. I got to meet him when I was a kid. And I’m a ridiculous Beatles and particularly John Lennon fan. And that song, which is so popular to this day, imagine there is no this and there’s no that. There’s no religion. There’s no nationality is just one. And it’s it’s beautiful. It’s this utopian kind of world. If we could just rid ourselves and strip ourselves of these things that divide us. So, you know, emotionally, it’s it’s got some real pull. But intellectually, if you think about it and you take a step back and you ask yourself, what would the world be like? On one hand, you probably right. Might be less divisiveness, but there would also be we would we would simply not have the intellectual contributions that all of these different great faiths and peoples, ethnicities and cultures have brought to the world. The answer is not to destroy these distinctions that make us who we are and allow us to contribute. The trick is to somehow figure out a way to learn love, respect and tolerance. And that is incredibly important. And we’re doing a very poor job at that. And that’s why you just last week I mentioned to you before I invited a reverend who actually knew a Martin Luther King to talk a little. 

And just to clarify, sorry to interrupt, but if people listen to this later, this is the week after Martin Luther King Day. So MLK Day is fresh in our minds. Yeah. Continue. 

Right. So I invited his name is Gregory Jackson. 

He’s a pastor of black African-American pastor in Hackensack. And the group is very large church. My brother, when he was mayor of Engle, New Jersey, introduced us in his succah on our holiday off. And I got to know the pastor. I just think he’s an awesome guy. He marched in Selma with with the Reverend Martin Luther King. And he has what to say on Black Lives Matter today. And I brought him in to talk about that. 

And the week before I spoke, I interviewed in a mom to talk a little about where are all the moderate Muslim clerics in decrying all the violence being perpetrated in the name of radical Islam. And I really think that if we can have I mean, this is not going to solve the problem, but it’s a start that there needs to be more of these Kumbaya moments between leaders in the different streams and as opposed to just cutting out these differences and distinctions and losing our true identity and what we can bring to the table in the world, because I really think that’s what will happen if one hundred and fifty years we lose this. I think we lose so much more. The question is, in the next hundred and fifty years, can we start learning how to live together and respect each other’s differences? And we’ve done a terrible, terrible job of that. Everybody gets in there a little corner and self congratulate their own religion and their own accomplishments. And it’s very, very negative about each other. And we’re not we’re not reaching across and finding common ground and the common ground. Not to sound overly trite, but there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us, even among, you know, the three different streams of the great Abrahamic religions, but other groups as well. And I want to I want to spend the next ten or fifteen years. If I could, doing this and trying to demonstrate to the world that we can have a lot of love know, because right now we can’t really think of a way of keeping all these religions and keeping all of these different ways of thinking and living and having a peaceful world. We really think that they’re mutually exclusive. And I understand that because that’s the way it looks. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And I again, there’s nothing in the Jewish religion, as far as I’m concerned, that would necessitate all of these other religions and all of these other ways of thinking and living to simply vanish in order for Judaism to thrive and to be vibrant and continue to contribute to the world. And I think Christianity and Islam and every other ideology out there needs to ask themselves the same question, can I do what I need to do and become even more popular and more successful? And at the same time, somehow being bracing of the other, even if I totally, totally disagree. 

Well, are you optimistic? Let me upwell. Right. We can wrap it up with this question, but are you optimistic that that is. Possible within the traditions of Islam and and I guess Protestantism to single out one of the more evangelical strains of, you know, because Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. But you cannot read the Koran and conclude anything else than that. This is a religion that should be spread by the sword if necessary. I mean, I’m not saying that all will be some sort of a violent or that they behave that way. But this is you know, we are not going to reach this this kumbayah moment through a closer reading of scripture. It’s going to be people ignore all of scripture and are willing to sort of regard it as being just lead secular lives and pay lip service to it, to their religious traditions, truly. 

Right. I don’t think that they have to lead secular lives and pay lip service. But I think they’re going to have to do something with the scripture and they’re going to have to learn to reinterpret. And they’re going to need some Islamic scholars who are moderates to stand up and say, this is the way we’re going with this. And until that happens, unfortunately, there’s not going to be any change from within. And I really believe that’s how the best kind of change takes place. No one who’s Muslim is going to pay any attention to anything I have to say or someone who is Christian or who’s secular. It has to come from within. And that’s what the imam and I discussed. Now, he does this in his mosque every Friday when something terrible happens, the name of Allah in the name of the Koran. He gets up and he says, this is not what we believe. And he has his all of his interpretations. And that needs to spread. And the moderates and the more balanced the Muslim clerics need to be more vocal. I think it’s much more possible now between Christianity and Judaism. 

I do, particularly within the more Protestant face. But even among Catholics, there’s just things have calmed down a lot and they seem to have erupted, unfortunately, in the Islamic world. But I, I. Forever remain optimistic. I cannot believe that God, who we’re all trying to somehow worship and connect with once his children fighting like this. And I can’t believe that I that I don’t have counterparts in all of the religions and in all of the value system. And and secularists. Everybody who believes in whatever they believe in and don’t believe it. We’ve got to start believing in love and intolerance and in mutual respect, in, you know, irrespective of what the other person is spewing. That’s got to be the mantra in the next century. 

Yeah, we in the we in the secular and agnostic and atheist community would agree with you that God doesn’t want us all fighting. We would just conclude that for different reasons than you do. It’s great to talk to you. Rabbi Mark Wild’s, the founder and director of Manhattan Jewish Experience. Thanks for being a point of inquiry. 

It’s an honor and a pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.