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Understanding the Millennial Generation

Differences and camps, whether political or religious, are so 20th century. In the 21st (or, if you prefer the 58th) things are different
Israeli college students (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Israeli college students (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The first concern of an effective marketer is understand the people they are marketing to. But whereas studies and test groups only show us glimpses into the world of millennials, the best approach is to analyze the deeper meaning behind their perspective on the world.


Photo Credit: Millennials Jam Workshop: Youth and ICTs beyond 2015

In order to change the world we first need to be receptive to the genuine messages being conveyed. While secular society doesn’t yet speak about the Torah and Talmud – terms which many of us are more familiar with – this does not mean that they are not speaking out a similar topic using the terminology familiar to them.

About six weeks ago I read an insightful article about how millennials view the world. This is the generation that followed in the footsteps of Generation X (millennials are also known as Generation Y) with birth years ranging from the 1980s to early 2000s.

In this article entitled “How Millennials Really Feel About Technology” the 22-year old author paints the picture of a generation “caught in the middle.” While I encourage you to read the article (it’s not long), these are a few lines that capture her sentiments pretty well:

“Unlike our parents, we are less likely to marvel at technology — we are able to multitask, don’t tune out others when we get a text message, and are less likely to post unfortunate intricacies of our lives on social media. And unlike our younger siblings, cousins and perhaps even children, we were not raised with these technologies being an integral part of our day-to-day routines.”

Choosing Camps

Usually the first question that arises when speaking of objectivity is that someone has got to be right?! Isn’t politics (and yes lots of journalism) polarized for a reason? But the author of this article has provided a correct example of what we mean.

Speaking in shorthand (you can read about the spiritual origin of conservatism and liberalism here), conservatives are those who hold on to the values of the past, whereas liberals are focused on the future. Instead of facing backwards, liberals face forward in the hopes of creating a future better than the past.

Once we begin to associate conservatives with religion and liberalism with anti-religion it becomes a conflict. But as explained in this class, there were very many great souls and tzadikim (righteous persons) whose souls derived from the left.

In Talmudic Journalism, we discussed these two camps relative to the mindsets of the “depth of the beginning” or the “depth of the end.” Who is considered greater, the first sages or the last sages? Rabbi Yochanan says that the earlier the sages (i.e., the depth is at the beginning) whereas his brother-in-law Reish Lakish holds the opposite, that the later the sage, the greater he is. What we didn’t discuss there is that there is another way to state the difference in their two approaches. Whereas Rabbi Yochanan’s approach favors what’s called in Kabbalah “an awakening from above,” Reish Lakish favors “an awakening from below.”

At first the topic seems closed. Halachically, we rule according to Rabbi Yochanan. Beit Hillel, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yochanan are considered one halachic tradition, while Beit Shamai, Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos and Reish Lakish are considered the opposite halachic tradition. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe ruled that Mashiach has to come from below, heralding the change from ruling like Beit Hillel to Beit Shamai and Reish Lakish.

Politically we sense this divide very clearly. Whereas governments seek to establish hierarchies founded on some pre-established system, revolutions and uprisings happen from people who aren’t as concerned about what exists presently. Thus this shift from above to below also indicates that Mashiach will come more in the form of a public uprising – hopefully as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, without a single bullet being shot – than as a decree from the Torah leaders and tzadikim of the generation.

Those who are sensitive to this shift sense a world in limbo between two opposite states. To paraphrase the terminology of the writer above, should we embrace the latest technologies or return to a more simple existence without so many beeps and buzzes?

In another recent article called “The Rise of Data Natives,” that author writes how the younger generation fully expects the world to “seamlessly adapt to them and their taste and habits.” While the younger generation is already immersed in technology (which we warned about in our Oculus Rift article), the Gen Xers remember what is was like in the good ol’ days of vinyl records and family time, thus leaving the millennials in the middle.

Learning the New Torah of Mashiach

Where do we go from here? Although our context is Torah and religious observance, surprisingly we initially favor the leftist approach. Start the revolution through peaceful rallies and protests, then eventually (maybe today) the whole status quo and system will change for the better. But instead of encouraging anarchy and the absolution of law, the intent should be the establishment of a new and more just one. The problem then is not with the futuristic mindset, but that this mindset is usually more anarchical than anything else. In order for public uprisings to be beneficial, the proper system needs to be present.

Left to one’s own decision-making, it appears that there are only two choices: either fully immerse in technology and other future trends, or revert to a “slow cooker” lifestyle by shutting down (or abstaining from) social media accounts or the internet for a period of time.

Which approach is correct? Immersion or abstinence? If we are happy to live a quiet life, especially one spent learning Torah free from the distractions of the modern world, while such study is meritorious it doesn’t yet include the Reish Lakish approach to life. The lesson is that while there are tzadikim that are not connected with the current flow and ebb of the world around them, the camps are now shifting as we approach the coming of Mashiach, and peaceful public uprisings have begun to take front and center stage.

Although we still have this duality between abstinence from or immersion into the modern world, as mentioned in the Oculus Rift article, what is lacking is the proper context for this immersion. Politically, this can be compared to a revolution that doesn’t have a clear message as to what new law or system they would like to see enacted. All they know is that the current situation is not good, so they are endeavoring to overthrow and topple it.

How do you create something new without dissolving the old? This is what the sages called the “new Torah” of Mashiach. We know for certain that the Torah is eternal (e.g., no “new testament”). So what then does this “new Torah” consist of?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman stated “there will not be a second giving of the Torah,” meaning that all new teachings must always truly be founded on the Torah as it has been transmitted and developed from generation to generation. The Torah that was given by God at Mt. Sinai already contains all the new teachings and understandings of all the generations up to and including even the deepest revelations that will be taught by the Mashiach.

On the one hand, there is a new world of Divine revelation ahead, but at the same time, the same Torah that was given at Mt. Sinai remains eternally. What terminology does society use to depict this interplay between valuing the treasures of old, while embracing the new? It relates to the struggle depicted by the millennial up above. What should we explain to her and that generation? That indeed you should immerse. But immerse in a future that includes the receiving of the Torah anew, the leap of Nachshon ben Aminadav in our present generation, and not an immersion like that of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.

Millennial Lights

The fact that by Divine Providence this is called the “millennial” generation is also something to meditate upon. The number 1000 is directly related to all that we have been saying. To start with, 1000 lights were given to Moses at the Giving of the Torah. It is also the value of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (ישראלבעלשםטוב), the founder of the Chassidic movement, who sought to awaken and prepare the world for the new light of the Messianic era.

But we can go one step further: Who are the students that most reveal the new light of Chassidut? The “veteran students” (תלמידותיק) which also equals 1000! These students are innovating that which already given at Mt. Sinai. But while they are veteran students, they are also the greatest innovators.

Related to the polarization of politics, and the feeling of being between old and new worlds, no one feels this more strongly that the veteran student of Chassidut. He is the one most capable of taking what seems like an old Torah and showing it to be the newest thing imaginable (without changing one detail).

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About the Author
Yonatan Gordon is a student of Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and co-founder of InwardNews.com.
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