The experiment involved two groups of children: Anglo-Americans, and Asian-Americans.
Both were given word-puzzle assignments: some were allowed to choose which color pens they wanted to use, and others were handed a specific color pen and told that their mother had selected it for them and asked that they do the assignment.
The Anglo children filled out the puzzles fastest when they were allowed to pick their own pen color, while the Asian American children performed best when they thought their mother had picked their pen color and wanted them to complete the task.
Choice is in the eye of the beholder
The previous experiment is described in the remarkable book The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, which explores the different ways human beings use – and benefit from –choice. Contrary to what you might believe, the human experience of free-will and choice varies widely from culture to culture.
In western society, the value of autonomy, where I can act and do whatever is best for me, is one of our highest values – values upon which capitalist economies and the US constitution are based. But as Iyengar points out, for thousands of years and in multiple societies that still thrive to this day, the highest value is still that of the collective whole.
In ancient Rome, as well as in contemporary China, India, Japan, and many other countries, people happily live their lives while still prioritizing the benefits of their emperor, their family, and their collective tradition. The value of personal benefit above all else is actually a very recent development in the 5,000 year old schema of contemporary civilization.
I believe that this inclination is becoming stronger in each new generation of western youth.
And although this “what’s in it for me?” attitude may have many benefits when it comes to trail-blazing, innovation, and autonomy, but the flip side is that tradition in and of itself is becoming less and less of value to our generation.
Remember how when you were growing up you actually did things because your parents asked you to? Are you finding your teens harder and harder to raise, to the point where your younger children seem that much more rebellious than your older ones? I believe this ever-increasing, self-serving western attitude is at the root of these phenomena.
And since we are not about to change society, we may as well change ourselves and the way we educate future generations.
Jewish like who?
The truth is that “this is just how it’s done” is actually not a good reason to do anything (although this may be my own western attitude speaking). However, many traditions do have a good underlying reason but that reason is often completely ignored or not-explained clearly.
But our society is getting less and less tolerant of that.
When it comes to Judaism, if our attitude is only backwards focused, we will find ourselves losing the interest of future generations, as the much-discussed Pew results clearly indicate. If the top expression of being Jewish is remembering the holocaust, that’s not a very sexy personal benefit is it?
If the reason to endure 25 hours of hunger pangs on Yom Kippur or even marry Jewish is because that’s the way my grandparents did it, well, to heck with them. I know how to use a computer and they don’t, so maybe that should be the defining factor.
Reasons like “tradition”, “heritage”, and other words that read like the charter of a large Jewish non-profit may have worked with previous generations. They may be the reasons you are doing what you do.
But this ain’t your Zeidi’s shtetle. We’re not in Włocławek anymore.
Times are changing rapidly, and if we are to succeed in our efforts to secure the continuity (ok, now I’m using “charter words”) of a next generation of fully committed Jews we need to rethink our educational strategy.
Everything we present needs to come with a personally beneficial reason. We need to do what every successful company does but which most Jewish non-profits seem incapable of doing – ask basic marketing questions. What pains does this product relieve? What benefits does it give its users? What’s in it for them?
Today’s generation has plenty of problems. I believe this iPad potty holder sums up most of them. A key engagement tactic should be the matching of these personal struggles with authentic Jewish solutions which I believe Judaism, being timeless and spiritual, can offer anyone, anywhere.
Finding your true self amongst the chaos. Figuring out your personal mission. Handling pain and suffering. Living consciously and connecting to a higher source of meaning. Judaism has all this to offer, as it is rooted in deep wisdom, logical explanation, and sound evidence.
More than ever, our generation needs Judaism; and it is our task to teach it in a new way. The same traditional substance, transmitted in a different form and context.
Start with yourself, and expand outwards.