By Rabbi Steven Garten
A true story told by Robert H. Mnookin in his book The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World.
“I was on sabbatical in Oxford and enrolled my daughter in school. At that time English schools had a required course called Religious Education. The course would be taught by the headmistress. In the first class meeting the headmistress asked if there were any students not of the Christian faith, so my daughter raised her hand and told the class that she was Jewish. The headmistress asked my daughter if her parents would object if they were to read selections from the New Testament as part of the course. The headmistress was assured that even though they were from a different background that there would be no objection. When told what occurred I asked my daughter, ‘how did it make you feel?’ to which she responded, ‘When are we actually going to become Jewish?’”
The episode was one of many which led Mnookin to begin thinking about what it means to be Jewish. Like many bright, well-educated and successful people, he thought it was enough to simply say that he was Jewish. Being Jewish, he thought, was a matter of descent. Yet, here he was in Oxford, England, and his high-school-age daughter was challenging this view, arguing that if being Jewish is going to be more than a nominal residual identity of no inherent value, then it should be a religious identity that needed to be studied and practiced. The paradox, as per the book’s title, emerges when he discovers that in America – and, one could argue, in Canada as well – the diversity of beliefs, diversity of practices, and diversity of affiliations leaves one wondering what standard of religious practice could be established that deserves to be called “Jewish.” Though left unstated, it appears that his real concern is how one can perpetuate Judaism unto the next generations in the absence of a clearly defined path.
The dilemma being described is not new. We have always worried about the next generation. Tevye did not spring ex nihilo out of Shalom Aleichem’s imagination. There were Tevyes in every generation asking how we would survive. What is challenging to our peoples’ survival is that in this current age, when hyper-individualism reigns and so many Jews imagine it is necessary to recast their distinctive religion in “universal” terms in order to survive, what will serve as the foundation for the path forward? The older paradigms promoted as salvationary no longer seem effective.
We do not engage in uniform religious practices, if we practice at all. While the level of anti-Jewish feelings and events is on the rise, most of us do not consider ourselves persecuted. Our lives are not noticeably inconvenienced by hatred and prejudice, they are at best challenged. Israel has become a source of communal conflict instead of unity. We no longer loudly proclaim “We are one” as the clarion call of a community campaign. The unifying power of Israel’s survival has devolved into cells of pro-Israeli political choices, anti-governmental choices, and yes, even cells of Jewish groups unsure of the need for a Jewish state. The last challenge to our survival as a community is the growing number of intermarriages. Though the majority of Canadian Jews continue to marry within the faith, according to the 2018 survey of Jews in Canada, the issue remains divisive. Some promote ideas of welcoming, some still promote ideas of neutrality, and yes, some still actively preach the evils of intermarriage.
Chanukah has passed. It is one of the most observed festivals on our religious calendar. It is the perfect example of our paradoxical existence. We want our children and grandchildren to learn to love our holiday. Yet how many of us taught the “miracle story” as truth? Religious practice requires that the miracle is the underpinning for a celebration of lights. How many taught their progeny that Judah Maccabee was the progenitor of the IDF, a strong resilient Jewish army that can protect our people from the next oppressor? How many of taught our descendants that eight days of presents is certainly better than one day of Christmas? The variety of approaches is myriad. Which one we take reflects how we see our identity, though of course, there could be mixed identities and mixed messages.
Purim is the next chag that we observe. Perhaps the winter will be a wonderful time to consider how the celebration we envision complements the identity we wish to express.