Jewish continuity: Are we aiming too low?

As a community, we can afford to lift our gaze above the basic goals of survival and continuity. We ought to find ways to fulfill our potential and rise beyond the self through altruism and spirituality.
Family attending a Shabbat meal. (Photo: Getty Images)

The following article was originally published in The Jewish Journal as the cover story. Reprinted with permission.

Many Fridays, I have the opportunity to learn the parsha with a couple of my former students from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

A few weeks ago, we were discussing the famous opening words of Parshat Kedoshim, “Kedoshim tihiyu” (“You shall be holy”). What is this demand?

My two former students, who are in their late 20s and both grew up in observant Jewish homes, said to me: “You know, we don’t really do much of anything Jewish.” And then in the blink of an eye, they said, “Of course, we want to run a meaningful Jewish home and send our kids to Jewish schools.”

I reminded them of how when they were younger, it was their parents who wanted them to be religious, so when they were younger, they were religious for their parents. 

To be fair, these alumni do study the parsha with me regularly, so the suggestion that they don’t engage in many Jewish activities was a bit of an exaggeration. Why am I explaining all of this? I think I’ve discovered a fascinating phenomenon with regard to Jewish behavior that’s important for us in the 21st century to understand.

The latest Pew Research Center report found that the Jewish community is significantly less religious than American adults as a whole. Compared to 41% of U.S. adults who say that religion is very important to them, only 21% of American Jews felt that way. Why is it the case that the “Chosen People,” the “People of the Book,” are less religious than others? 

The question got me thinking. Many of us, in varying degrees, are religious only or primarily for our parents when we’re younger. When we’re older, we become more religious for our children. But that doesn’t really account for when we are 20 or 30 years old. What about those years?

What about the value Judaism gives to us at any time in our lives? Is the goal of being Jewish really only to please our family and then make sure that the next generation is Jewish? Is that really all we are here to do, or is there a greater purpose?

It has certainly been the focus of countless Pew surveys, and it’s how we have measured success in our community for decades. Through identity and community markers like intermarriage rates, synagogue affiliation and how often people attend services, we have invested tremendous resources into assessing how well we are doing at making sure the next generation is Jewish.

We have had endless conversations about how to solve the vexing problem of Jewish continuity and survival. How will we prevent intermarriage and assimilation and how will we fight antisemitism? How will we increase synagogue affiliation among today’s young generation? How do we get more people to be “pro-Israel”?

Those have been the benchmarks for what Jewish success looks like — and to be clear, the survival of the Jewish people is an important ideal. The issue, however, is that we ought to be aiming significantly higher.

Of course, we don’t hear about the “need for Jewish survival and continuity” as much as we used to. Younger rabbis and Jewish leaders across the religious spectrum do not tend to use this lexicon.

As a community, we have learned that our need to survive no longer works as a rationale for inspiring the next generation to engage in Judaism. Moreover, we recognize that it no longer works for us.

But what have we replaced this old rationale with? What is the compelling reason we have to offer for why younger generations should be part of the Jewish story? Why should our children and students be Jewish?

We may have learned that survival is not a good enough reason to be Jewish, but we have yet to fill the gap with something compelling. While rabbis Harold Schulweis and Ed Feinstein have addressed this issue repeatedly, the question of why we do any of this is the question that still needs to be answered.

There is a famous essay by 20th-century philosopher Simon Rawidowicz called “The Ever-Dying People.” In the essay, he argues that the first Jew who was afraid that Jewish continuity would end was Abraham himself. Before Abraham was granted his son Isaac, Rawidowicz notes, he stood and trembled, saying, “Oh Lord … I shall die childless!” (Bereshit 15:2). Since then, the Jews have lamented that their generation might be the last link in the long chain of tradition.

“Our rabbis, writers, politicians, each on his own platform and in his own language, preach and write almost every few weeks or months on the theme: Is American Jewry doomed? Is there a future for Jewry?” he wrote.

That’s ironic, Rawidowicz argues, because we are the ones who have outlived the Greeks and Persians. We are the ones who are still here. So why are we perpetually concerned about whether we are going to fall off the map?

We see a similar phenomenon in the way we approach Israel and Zionism. There has always been a debate within the Zionist movement: Should we focus on Jewish survival or Jewish renewal? Is the purpose of the Jewish state to provide a safe haven for the Jewish people, or is it to renew the Jewish people and be a light unto the nations?

Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am famously engaged in this kind of debate. While Herzl was trying to figure out how to create a Jewish state, Ha’am believed that what the Jewish people really needed was a regeneration of national Jewish culture, and that this had to precede the physical return to the land of Israel.

Meanwhile, Martin Buber argued that there must be Arab-Jewish reconciliation before a state was established. The early kibbutzniks sided with Herzl. Their response to the Ha’ams and Bubers of the world was as if to say, “Enough of your silliness! We cannot delay as the Jewish people suffer. What matters right now is having a state.”

From the vantage point of 2022, I would argue that, yes, focusing on getting a state over regenerating the Jewish people was the correct priority at that time. But now that we have a state, let’s figure out how to enact the ideals espoused by Buber and Ha’am, which is what it means to be Jewish.

Zionism is about more than having a state or being “Pro-Israel.” It is a romantic, aspirational movement. Zionism is not just a survival strategy; it is an ambition to do something majestic, to contribute something noble to the world.

It is about learning the Hebrew language, understanding the history and connecting with Jewish culture. It is the constant effort to improve Israeli society, to call on the Jewish state to live up to its unfulfilled promises.

What are we working toward? What might we contribute?

As Rawidowicz wrote, “Mere praise [of Israel] brings no blessing. Enthusiasm alone is not enough … The diaspora of Israel cannot be uninterested in problems such as those of minorities in the State of Israel or the relationship between state and religion.” World Jewry cannot become merely cheerleaders for Israel.

Tal Becker, a former fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Shalom Hartman Institute, calls us to embrace an aspirational Zionism. He says that the question it seeks to address is not “how do we survive?” Rather, it is “what form and nature should a Jewish sovereign society take?”

To move from survival Judaism to aspirational Judaism, we need to find new benchmarks for Jewish success and a wholly different set of areas on which to focus.

We need to recognize that our communal battle is not intermarriage but illiteracy. The battle is not antipathy but apathy. The battle is not difference of opinions, but indifference.

Why is it so difficult to shift our focus?

Maybe it is hard for us to aim higher than survival because that is the “baseline” mode that we have internalized and to which we have adapted over the centuries.

In the field of positive psychology, “hedonic adaptation” suggests that we each have a set point of happiness that we tend to return to despite major positive or negative events we experience.

Perhaps this explains why we continue to constitute ourselves as an “ever-dying people” despite the circumstances. If we have somehow habituated to a set point of “survival,” then we ought to be aware of this and remind ourselves of the ways in which the Jewish community has surpassed our basic needs.

We have experienced a lot of trauma throughout Jewish history. We continue to carry the trauma of past generations. But just as when an individual experiences a traumatic event, we must learn to work through the trauma in order to experience a meaningful existence.

Yes, Israel faces real and difficult challenges, but a Jewish state exists. Yes, antisemitism in the U.S. is rising, but Jews are part of American society at the highest levels. We are one of the rare generations in Jewish history for whom all of this is true.

To say that 2022 is “the worst it has been” is inaccurate. So while there is certainly much to be concerned about, let’s make sure we are not paying selective attention to the negative aspects of 21st-century Jewish life and ignoring the positive. 

As a community, we can afford to lift our gaze above the basic goals of survival and continuity. We ought to find ways to fulfill our potential and rise beyond the self through altruism and spirituality.

Even in times of distress, survival need not be the primary focus. There is no value to survival for survival’s sake. Instead, we must strive toward another goal.

Survival is not a mission. The way I see it, this approach has actually cost us as a community. Our pursuit of continuity has not been supportive of continuity — it has had the opposite effect.

In other words, survival alone is not a mission because a mission is the purpose for survival. One survives in order that a mission can be undertaken.

In “In Pursuit of Godliness and a Living Judaism,” Rabbi Feinstein writes that “Presenting an ethnic culture empty of meaning but burdened with collective guilt for its imminent demise might be part of the reason young Jews were abandoning Jewish life.”

Survival “cannot be pursued as a communal objective. It is a by-product, achieved only when Jews are engaged in Jewish life, when Judaism is lived, celebrated and internalized,” Feinstein adds, reflecting on the leadership of Rabbi Schulweis.

Survival and continuity are the byproducts of success. When we make them our highest objectives, we do so at our own peril. The best way to ensure Judaism survives is not to prevent intermarriage and assimilation, but to make Judaism compelling and interesting.

Instead of seeking to prevent intermarriage and preserve Jewish tradition, let’s allow ourselves to create and generate.

Thinkers such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik have said that Judaism wasn’t created to fight antisemitism, and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg lamented the fact that the only thing more dangerous than antisemitism was no antisemitism because he saw that, for too many people, antisemitism became the sole reason and motivation for being Jewish.

For the great Jewish rabbis and thinkers, the central purpose of Judaism was more than preserving Judaism. For the medieval scholar Maimonides (Rambam), the purpose of Judaism was the full actualization of our humanity.

For Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov), it was teaching people how to be fully devoted to God. For Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, it was to repair the world.

For all of them, Judaism was a means to a really important end. Judaism is an aspirational religion and Jews are an aspirational people with an aspirational vision.

The provocative philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz underscored this. He said, “I believe in Moshiach” and “I believe in the Messiah.” There is a fundamental tenet in Judaism to believe that the Messiah is always going to be arriving, but any Messiah that does arrive is automatically a false messiah.

Leibowitz’s point is didactic. He stresses that in Judaism, there is a yearning that is critical to live by. Even if we know we will not reach the objective, we should still be aspirational. We should still build and strive toward something. It is the yearning, the aspiration and the actions we take toward an objective that matters.

As Jews we are expected to do good deeds to make the world a significantly better place. “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena,” Pirkei Avot 2:21 states. “It is not up to you to finish the work but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Our tradition reminds us that there is no utopia in real life — the utopia is the actual work that we do toward an aspirational vision of improving the world. And this is what has been our legacy as a people over thousands of years. The constant effort to build toward something is what has always set the Jewish people apart.

The historian Paul Johnson, author of “A History of the Jews” describes the legacy of our community this way:

“Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure…

“To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

Without minimizing the achievement of our survival, let’s remember that our legacy is so much more than that. Let’s work backward from Johnson’s statement.

If we are not doing enough to fight for the equality and dignity of each person, to promote social responsibility, peace and justice, and to help provide the “moral furniture” of society, then we are not doing what we are here to do.

This has been our legacy and mission as a people ever since the days of the first Jew, Abraham. One of my favorite ideas in the Tanakh is from the story of Sodom. In Bereshit/Genesis 18:19, God says that the reason he has chosen Abraham to be the founder of the Jewish people is so that he will keep the ways of God, bring righteousness and justice into the world, and teach his children and future generations to bring righteousness and justice to the world.

Here’s a thought: What if we took this mission more seriously as a Jewish community? What if, instead of focusing on whether our children marry someone Jewish and whether they stay Jewish, we focused on how well they are doing at bringing tzedakah u’mishpat, righteousness and justice, into the world, or how serious they are about acting in a divine way?

What if instead of rewarding our children for attending synagogue or Sunday school, we rewarded them for reciting a Jewish prayer and meaning it, for demonstrating Jewish knowledge, and for acts of kindness, generosity and compassion?

What if instead of asking how many of our young people are “Pro-Israel,” we wondered more about their knowledge of Zionist history, their connection to the Hebrew language, how much time they’ve spent in different communities throughout Israel, or how they’re thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

What if instead of seeking to pass down Judaism, we focused more on passing down Jewish religious character? The Jewish people have survived, but who are we and who are we becoming?

The Jews were not chosen because we are better. We were chosen to do something better for the world and to contribute to the world — to aim higher.

If you are an educator or facilitating Jewish conversations with your peers, continue reading for four ways you could help your students aim higher.

Note: The author would like to thank Sara Himeles for her contribution to this essay.