We Jews worry a lot. One of the indicators of that is that there is a near-obsessive conversation that takes place about our future. “What will be with the next generation?” is a question that has been asked throughout the years. When we lived in close communities, we feared for our safety. When we have lived in freedom, we feared for our continuity.
One of the issues that concern me is how we sustain a meaningful Jewish life that is both open to the world and preserves that which is essential in Jewish living. I have been asking this question for as long as I have been a rabbi. I see a generation that grew up in a traditional Jewish world that is connected through their kishkes (guts). They love being Jewish. And although many are not particularly observant, what they observe is very important. The depth of their connection comes both from their parents, who were more religiously observant, and the period of time when they grew up; post Second World War, the Shoah and Israel’s wars for Independence and survival. And it was their survival that was threatened. The next generation grew up in an open America, a liberal society, a place where they were accepted and did not feel existentially threatened. Jews were strong, wealthy and influential. There was a large assimilated Jewish population. Many ‘returned’ and became very traditional. Many continued to identify, but their level of knowledge and their level of observance waned.
I don’t want to over-simplify this and I know it needs a much larger historical and sociological look. But I am thinking about something important – I see a vast number of Jews who truly identify as Jews, but feel alienated from synagogues, Jewish communal life, and yes, even Israel and its policies. So, I ask two questions: 1. What is it that they identify with? And 2. How will they be able to retain a connection?
These are questions that I’d like you to respond to. Write me!
I’d like to begin with one idea. I believe that what they are responding to and feel attracted to are the values that come from our tradition; both our texts and our observances. And I think that so much of the values conversations have been lost. What is really important to us beyond the constant conversation about survival? How important is community and how do we create enticing, supportive and meaningful communities? How important is open dialogue and conversation? How do we reflect the voices for diversity and difference and acceptance? Are we open to new avenues of spiritual expression? We have to begin to grapple with new questions and be willing to view our tradition in the context of the great social and, dare I say, political problems of our day?
There are a few hallmarks of Judaism that make me feel certain that we will continue to grow. One is that, from the beginning of the Torah tradition, we see that we come from a small and enslaved people. Our very beginnings were about how we take our experiences, grow a values perspective about living a human life, and use that in the world. Now we have ample opportunity. And the second one is that from the rabbis we learn that no one has an absolute corner on the truth. Our tradition is filled with dialogue, disagreement and argument and sometimes agreement… but we believe in a growing civil discourse. And this is lacking, but essential to our values.
We all need to continue to learn. We all need to stand for that which we value. We all need a community where these, combined with celebration, is expressed. And together we can grow with a renewed sense of who we are.
Rabbi David Steinhardt