Several weeks ago, the week after the White-Supremacist march on Charlottesville, singer-songwriter Billy Joel went up on stage for an encore wearing a yellow Star-of-David badge. Joel, whose grandfather was forced to escape Nazi Germany in 1938, often says that while both his parents are Jewish, he did not really grow up with any religious upbringing at all. “My circumcision was as Jewish as they got,” he explained in a 2001 interview, and while he now identifies as a secular Jew, he admitted to getting baptized in a Church of Christ when he was eleven years old.
The same week, I received two emails from congregants, each containing a column written by two different young women who rediscovered their Judaism during the latest surge in anti-Semitic incidents. “I learned the stories from the Torah but never learned the real meaning behind them,” writes Britni de la Cretaz, “As far as I was concerned they were just that: stories. Stories in the way Harry Potter is a story […] Stories that did nothing to help me understand the world or my place in it. And so, I turned away from the faith I was raised with.”
However, she writes, when the JCC in her South-Florida neighborhood was targeted in a bomb threat, she decided that “now more than ever [she] wants to teach [her] children what it means to be Jewish.” Similarly, Julia Revzin, a young woman who recently came back from a Birthright trip and now lives in Charlottesville, writes about her decision to go and look for the local synagogue the day of the march. “That day it didn’t matter if I was barely Jewish” she asserts, “that I’d never been bat mitzvahed, that my mom was a completely non-practicing Christian […] To a Nazi, there is no such thing as ‘not Jewish enough.’”
What Revzin understood, instinctively, is that “insomuch as we define ourselves as Jews, it is the hatred of others that defines us just as much.” A similar observation was already made shortly after World War II by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. In his formative essay Anti-Semite and Jew, he reviewed several ways in which Jewishness was defined – ethnic, religious and cultural – but concluded that all of them are flawed. A Jew, according to Sartre, is simply a person who others look at and say “Oh look! A Jew.” For an anti-Semite, it makes no difference if you are Jewish according to an Orthodox or Reform standard; if you are Jewish by matrilineal or patrilineal descent; if you were born Jewish or converted; you are Jewish if they identify you as someone worthy of their hatred.
Interestingly, anti-Semitism has been one of the strongest forces in fashioning Jewish identity in the last century. Philosopher and Rabbi Emil Fackenheim famously asserted that the Holocaust necessitated adding a “614th commandment” to the Jewish tradition: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories.” If Jewish people give up on their heritage, their religion, their identity – he claimed – we are essentially doing Hitler’s work for him.
Fackenheim’s idea works. It works really well, actually. Every time Jews appear to be in danger, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, suddenly they find their identity again. Moreover, we are bombarded by displays of Jewish unity. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews – bitter rivals in most days – march together side by side. The Jewish Right and Jewish Left remember how insignificant their differences are in the face of anti-Semitism. Those who spend most of their days escaping their Jewish heritage receive an unpleasant reminder that at the end of the days, they have no choice.
But is it enough?
Is the only thing necessary for the survival of Judaism a healthy dose of terror attacks and some good, old-fashioned anti-Semitism?
Furthermore – if the only thing uniting us as a people is the fact that so many people dislike us, is Judaism even worth preserving? As someone once told me – a university professor, no less! – maybe Jews would be much better off if they would just, you know, stop being Jewish?
Of course not.
But Judaism cannot simply be about ensuring another generation of Jews.
For decades we have been obsessing over Jewish continuity. Will our children remain Jewish? Will our grandchildren be Jewish? How do we ensure that we are not the last link in the chain? What we tend to forget is the conversation about what being Jewish actually means. If “being Jewish” simply means remembering your heritage – why is it so important? If “remaining Jewish” only means marrying within our tribe – aren’t we treading a fine line between preserving identity and ethnic supremacy? If we had to choose between our children being kind, compassionate human beings who could not care less about their Jewish identity, and them being Shabbat-morning-regulars who care more about how kosher their food is than how kosher their business dealing is – wouldn’t we all choose the former?
Please don’t get me wrong here. I would love it if my children grow up to be proud, committed Jews, and I will be greatly disappointed if they do not. But Judaism is about more than identity. It is about more than coming to services or donating to the UJA appeal. It is even more than about food… If my children will eventually choose not to have Judaism as a significant part of their life, I will not see it as their failure, but as the failure of Judaism to present itself as the timeless ethical, intellectual, and spiritual tradition that it is. A tradition that can greatly enhance their lives.
Maybe, instead of endlessly obsessing over apocalyptical statistics about how Millennials refuse to affiliate with the organized Jewish establishment, we should start thinking about why the product is so unappealing? Maybe instead of lamenting the fact that so many young Jews choose to find their spirituality in Yoga studios and Buddhist gatherings, we should spend the energy on making our own religious services more inspiring and transformative. Instead of anxiously wondering if Judaism “changes too much” – ignoring the historical fact that Judaism is an ever changing tradition – we should wonder if our Jewish institutions are not too set in their ways to remain significant and accessible to the younger generation. Instead of fretting over Jewish continuity, we should make sure that what we have is actually worth continuing.
Sermon given during Congregation Kol Ami‘s Rosh HaShannah Morning Services.