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.

3 thoughts on “Planting the Seeds of Jewish Identity

  1. I believe the main problem we face is in the question we raise. We are focusing on the means to the end, Judaism, instead of the actual goal, a relationship with HaShem. Avraham was not connected to Judaism, he was constantly engaged with HaShem and lived his life in that framework. HaShem literally told Avraham where to live and where to go. Today, by listening to the words of Torah, we have a chance to hear the voice of HaShem and be engaged with Him and in that sense follow in the footsteps of Avraham. Reciting Sh’ma daily, and the v’ahavta paragraph remind us to engage with HaShem in every aspect of our lives. If we live this way and teach this to our children, our children will naturally be engaged with Judaism because Judaism provides the ritual structure and practice for this continual engagement. On the other hand, if we don’t focus on HaShem, then the rituals are simply empty shells void of true meaning with little change of ringing true as important for our children and future generations.

  2. I think in our attempt to appeal to everyone we bend so much that what we have left is a bland result. I often feel that we are dumbing down our Judasim instead of having people search to rise in their beliefs, and to have them study and to learn more. Making it easy for people does not produce a good result. The move away to find something more challenging. But, if you search for something that is challenging and have to apply yourself, you will appreciate the result more and continue coming back for more, and more and more.

  3. Kushner’s point is an interesting one, but it may also point a way forward: there are many people who reject the prevailing values of the surrounding culture (like Avram did) and want to stand apart. America is a unique culture that allows this, at some cost. Some people go live on communes, others start vegetarian restaurants, etc. The interesting thing about the Pew research is that many people self-identify as Jews that have no connection to religion. They still want to be part of our people, our value system. This means that long after you recognize that Ha’shem abandons the just and the order of lighting the candles of the Hanukiah has zero impact on the light produced, we still have something to sell in the marketplace of ideas. Maybe we need to strengthen the counter-cultural elements of Judaism: value of teachers, frugality on all expenditures other than tzedukah, concern for community safety, etc. Most soldiers do not have an interest in the broader ideology of the war in which they fight, but they will still follow their sergeant out of a protected place out of obligation to other members of their squad. I think the same is true with theology and connections of individuals to the Jewish people at large. . .

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