The Jewish Week (Generation F, Steven Lipman, December 28, 2010) carried an interesting, thought provoking article about the generation of Jews in their 20’s and 30’s who seem to be in search of their Jewish identity. Profiling a young mother, a Park Slope resident, Sher, was interesting although nothing revealing or earth shattering struck me. As a matter of fact, not all that long ago, the young alienated Jews 70’s and 80’s, struggled with the same issues. Then as now young people, beginning their own households were in search of a direction by which their families would be defined Jewishly. Then, they were referred to as “seekers”. And they were! It was the age of the Jewish Catalogue and other self-help books on discovering Jewish traditions and how to “do” Shabbat etc. While there is nothing groundbreaking in this article it does give a new appreciation to the opening line of Ecclesiastes “ein chadsh tachat hashemesh”, there is nothing new under the sun. What is revealing is the realization that there are so many Jews out there who are still Jewish, in spite of their parent’s generation (seekers); a somewhat lost generation searching for Jewish meaning.
With all the good intentions the article is flawed. It typifies the way institutional Judaism, such as federations and the denominations understand Judaism, and how people like Sher define herself through the prism of Judaism. For Sher as for Institutional Judaism, Judaism is defined as a religion like any other religious faith based group. As those religions offer the possibility of spirituality so too is Judaism expected to do the same. Denominational rabbis, in particular the reform and conservative pattern themselves in the same way, even referring to their work as a “ministry”. Judaism however, isn’t faith based, nor is it a religion, nor is its foundations spiritual. Judaism is peoplehood and covenantal. We are a nation, which happens to have folded within it rites and ritual by which we can express our fealty to god (for those who believe in god) and community. Up through the mid 19th century Judaism was accepted and understood universally not as a religion but as a nation. The Reform movement seeking entry and acceptance to the world at large, redefined Judaism as a religion, as any other religion. By doing this, they denuded Judaism to little more than synagogue worship and ritual, and in so doing removed the thorny issue of dual loyalty from the concerns of the overall gentile community.
One doesn’t have to believe in god to be a good Jew and a pillar of the community. One doesn’t have to believe in or attend synagogue to be a good Jew and an upstanding member of the Jewish community. One only has to read nineteenth century Jewish thinkers like Simon Dubnow, Asher Ginsburg and Isaac Peretz who argued the merits of cultural Judaism as the sin qua non of Judaism. Unfortunately, people like Sher have been taught to believe that prayer (personal, private or otherwise) is the means of expressing one’s Jewishness. That simply isn’t the case! To be committed to the Jewish community and to identify with worldwide Jewry is to epitomize a wholesome Jew. To identify with the values of the Jewish community is to find expression as a Jew. To educate one’s children in the history, art, literature, Hebrew language and customs of Israel and the Jewish people is to be a committed Jew. Attending synagogue, praying in language and style that doesn’t resonate renders the worshiper restless. Praying to an objectified god as though He was in the business of doling out and calling in favors must leave one wondering if this is what Judaism is all about. Defining ones Jewishness by synagogue affiliation and membership invariably leaves one in the state of perpetual search.
The perpetuation of the myth that Judaism is a religion of faith serves no one but those directly benefiting from it: rabbis, cantors and synagogue administrators. It is no wonder that Chabad is so successful in their work: they have reduced synagogue worship and membership to one facet of living Jewishly. It is no wonder that Shlomo Carlebach z”l, in his time was so successful in generating as generation of Jews that saw and felt the larger picture. We are a people, a nation with half of us living in Israel, and the rest of us living in the Diaspora. We aren’t exclusively seekers of things spiritual, but also of things cultural, social and political. There are those seeking and not finding spirituality in Judaism turning to other practices such as eastern meditative practices, Buddhism and Hinduism. That needn’t exclude these same people from staying within the Jewish community identifying totally and wholesomely with all things Jewish.
Generation F is no different than the flower children of the 60’s and their spin-offs, the “seekers” of the 70’s and 80’s. Seeking and searching, because they had been robbed of their birthright: understanding that being Jewish was something greater than anything religion had to offer.