Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Can Jews take “Yes” for an answer?

Judaism, the religion of affirmation and joy, is equal to the task of engaging a generation that's terrifyingly free of guilt

I am pleased that my prior article, “Pewish and Jewish,” has prompted some discussion on this site and elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that some resort to personal attacks, but, hey, it comes with the territory. My job, both as a rabbi and journalist, is to provoke response.

After all, I had the gall to suggest that the Pew survey of American Jews heralded some potential good news, even while pointing to some disturbing trends. I fully expected to hear a chorus of disapproval from those most invested in perpetrating visions of doom and gloom. It must be terrifying to purist Ben Gurionites, for instance, that American Jews are perfectly content to remain in exile, and to die-hard revisionists that they perceive no anti-Semitic threats. It absolutely kills denominational apparatchiks that Jews are veering away from synagogue affiliation and that, while intermarriage rates have somewhat plateaued, they remain high. Even the Orthodox took a major hit in this survey. The number of those increasing their observance level over the course of a lifetime pales in comparison to the number of Jews who are fleeing from faith, including Orthodox Jews. And those who wish to castigate liberals, how they must bristle that after all those millions invested to defame President Obama in last year’s campaign, American Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic.

So it was easy for lots of people to be upset that I found positive news here. Many of their responses are knee-jerk predictable, with the emphasis not on the “knee.”

But most of all, it seems that what bothers people is that a new generation of American Jews is choosing to take it’s Judaism straight up, without the bile and the castor oil. Can it really be Judaism if it’s guilt free?

Well, yes, it can.

Judaism is a glass-half-full religion. Our prayers are filled with affirmation, each one ending with a resounding “Yes!” (which is what the response “Amen” means). Our stories abound with miracles, our history with moral heroes; our sacred moments are filled with joy. Judaism believes in an upward sweep to history. On paper at least, Judaism appears optimistic to the core, a faith based on messianic aspiration and a positive view of human potential. 

Unfortunately, however, most Jews have been glass-half-empty people, weighed down by our glass-mostly-empty history. Just a decade ago, an American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews showed that only 9 percent of those surveyed thought anti-Semitism would decline over the coming five years. That survey was conducted exactly one year after an identifiably Jewish senator nearly became Vice President. 

Golda Meir once said: “Pessimism is a luxury a Jew cannot allow himself.” But Abba Eban called us the people who could “never take “yes” for an answer.” This despite the fact that our tradition has provided us with an eternal hook-up to the YES network, a chance to permanently transform that “oy” to “joy.” 

Now, it appears from Pew that a growing number have subscribed. And I contend that that’s good news. I contend that it’s negativity that is aberrant to the normative Jewish message, not optimism. I contend that, with American Jews so widely accepted that Christians are lining up to marry us, we have an opportunity to capitalize on the enduring power of the Jewish message. I contend that the relinquishing of the “oy vey” worldview is a good thing. So sue me.

Leonard Fein has said that the principle enemy of Jewish continuity in this country is not assimilation or anti-Semitism, but boredom. To that I’ll add irrelevance. We need to give American Jews more ways to connect Judaism to their lives in ways that are both exciting and relevant. At a time when old ways are being questioned, even and including conventional concepts of God, identity and observance, we need to be at the cutting edge of creating new, exciting and relevant paradigms. The poll reflects that thirst, not a wholesale abandonment of Jewish connection. It also reflects an anticipation that new ways of intensifying their Jewish connection exist.

And indeed they do. Birthright Israel is a key one, but there are more. I see the Pew survey as the first indicator that technology has provided Jews with ways to remain connected even as they eschew traditional forms of affiliation.

I believe that there is no longer such a thing as a “three-day Jew,” the one who connects with Judaism only on the High Holidays.

I’ve always felt that this three-day thing was overrated. Even the most marginal Jew occasionally finds his way to a synagogue for bar mitzvahs, funerals, concerts or lectures. The “three-day” moniker was just another way to foster guilt and degradation, to reinforce the hierarchical nature of Jewish life and to highlight the alienation many feel from institutional Judaism. But it never had much to do with true levels of Jewish engagement.

Centuries ago, the Baal Shem Tov literally blew the whistle on such derogatory labels with his tale of the shepherd who came to services on Yom Kippur, and who, when moved to pray, pulled out his shepherd’s whistle and blew. The congregation was outraged, until the founder of modern Hasidism asserted that only the shrill blasts of this uninitiated stranger had enabled everyone’s prayers to pierce the gates of heaven.

The Dalai Lama hasn’t seen the inside of his holy place since 1959, yet no one calls him a three-day Tibetan. It’s time to stop bemoaning the drop in institutional affiliation and recognize that Jewish identification is now being fostered in ways that community leaders and pollsters cannot possibly measure (and unfortunately, the Pewsters didn’t even ask) — much of it anonymously, online.

Now, everyone has complete access, in the office or at home, to a Jewish library larger than the cumulative libraries of every great rabbi for the past two millennia. The entire Talmud, the venerable Jewish Encyclopedia and reams of Torah commentary are just a click away. And I know that people are clicking.

Jews are asking questions and deepening their Jewish involvement all the time. The level of commitment may be shaky, the degree of ritual observance inconsistent and the lack of literacy disconcerting, but they are out there and they should not be dead to us.

They may be intermarrying the daughters of presidents and cavorting at clambakes on Shabbat, but they don’t feel even a smidgen of guilt about that, so it’s time for us to hear what they are whistling and reach out the them without condescension. Because it is their earnest expressions of guiltless Jewish pride that are opening the gates of heaven for their return – and ours.

We are an ever dying people. And we’ve never had it better.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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