Planting the Seeds of Jewish Identity

Shortly into the story of Abraham, we encounter Judaism’s great patriarch as a military hero.  A war broke out when an alliance of four kings invaded the lands of five kings, and in the skirmish took as prisoner Lot, the nephew of Abraham.  When Abraham hears that his nephew has been taken prisoner, he marshals his troops and attacks at night, defeating the four kings, winning Lot’s release and, in the process, seizing the invaders’ possessions and taking additional prisoners.  Abraham returns home and delivers all that he had taken to the five kings.  The king of Sodom says to him, “Give me the prisoners and take the possessions for yourself.”  But Abraham refuses, saying that he doesn’t want to give the wrong impression that he grew wealthy because of the generosity of Sodom’s king rather than the beneficence of God.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, my mentor and teacher, understood the King of Sodom’s offer to Abraham as being similar to the unspoken offer made to America’s Jews: “Ten li ha-nefesh, v’har’chush kach lach…give me the souls and take the material goods for yourself.”  Jews came to this country accompanied not only by Jewish tradition and strong memories, but also with ambition, with the yearning to fit in, and with the desire for success measured not only in contentment but also in material wealth.  America offered Jews a bargain- give up your soul, your identity, your passionate commitment to a particular way of life, in exchange for acceptance and for the opportunity to live the American way of life.  To a great degree, we accepted the bargain.  We changed our names, and sometimes our appearances, gave up the ways of life that made us distinct and sometimes required us to be different from everyone else.

The Pew Research Center’s recently published survey of the state of American Jews is quite disturbing, revealing a population that is shrinking and less connected to organized religion.  One in five Jews considers themselves to have no religion at all.  Perhaps the most alarming results for our own movement are the statistics that show a continued decline in affiliation and identification with Conservative Judaism.  The study gives us much to ponder and analyze, and leaves questions for us to answer.  What might explain the drop in engagement with Judaism?  What are the factors that have led to disaffiliation from organized religion?  Could it be that we have accepted America’s bargain?  Perhaps the most important question is, what exactly is it that inspires and sustains engagement with Judaism and nurtures a strong Jewish identity?

A few chapters after the story about Abraham’s rescue of Lot, we read about the Covenant of Circumcision.  God requires Abraham, and all his male descendants, to bear a permanent, physical symbol of belonging to the covenant.  Abraham was circumcised at the age of 99, but future males who enter the covenant with God were to be circumcised at the age of eight days.  Clearly, the Torah promotes the idea that Jewish identity must be ingrained into a child beginning in infancy.  Conversion to Judaism has always been possible, but children are not supposed to have a choice in identity development.  An argument can be made that the best way to nurture any values system is to teach and model values starting at the beginning of life.  That does not mean that a person cannot begin to embrace a Jewish way of life past childhood.  But there is at least some wisdom in the Proverbs, where we read: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he gets older he will not depart from it.”

Yet beginning to develop identity and commitment to particular values even in childhood does not guarantee a lifetime of engagement with Judaism.  The seeds of Jewish identity may be planted in childhood but don’t always germinate or take root.  So the question of what promotes ongoing engagement with Judaism, and what factors encourage and sustain a strong Jewish identity, and a lifestyle that reflects an embrace of that identity, remains front and center.  Certainly, education and Jewish experiences in childhood, including experiences in the Land of Israel, must be considered as crucial to identity development.

The American Jewish community is facing a strong challenge.  Our response to that challenge must begin with dialogue and the exchange of ideas, and I invite your comments.