Posts Tagged ‘Pew report on American Judaism’

The journey that makes Jacob into Jacob comes to a full circle in this week’s parashah.  It starts at the beginning of last week’s portion, when Jacob, while sleeping, has a vision of angels and of God.  God assures Jacob of God’s continuing presence, no matter where Jacob travels.  Jacob, equal parts believer and skeptic, gives the schizophrenic response: “How awesome is this place,” along with striking a bargain with God – food and clothing in exchange for Jacob’s fealty.  He builds a matzeivah to mark that spot and renames the place Beit-El – “house of God.”

His return to Beit-El this week to get confirmation of the new name received while wrestling with God/divine being/self can be seen as a profound moment of self-assessment.  Look at what he has experienced: being tricked by Laban, years of chafing under Laban, the intricacies of balancing the personal dynamics of his two wives, the fear of facing his past through his reunification with Esau, his daughter taken forcibly and then the violent revenge exacted by his sons Simeon and Levi.  In a few short decades Jacob has acquired quite a history – a history befitting the trials of an entire people, really.  Indeed, his new name will become just that – the moniker of a people.

As God declares that Jacob will become Yisra’el, the one who struggles with God, what is he thinking?  What pieces of his past, his experience does he see as the formational parts of his identity?  What does Jacob feel is his very essence?  Is he Jacob the successful sheep breeder?  Is he Jacob the one who confronts God and holds his own?  Is he Jacob the onetime trickster restored finally to his brother?  Is he victim or is he hero?  Is he father or still a struggling child?  We do not know.  The response that Torah records is that Jacob, upon officially receiving the name Yisra’el builds another matzeivah.

We, Jacob’s descendants known as Yisra’el, have been pushed to a moment of self-assessment.  The Pew report titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” is causing a lot of angst over the data it contains.  We Jews are being forced to answer Jacob’s question – who are we?  Everyone who reads the report focuses on a different aspect of all this data that seems to define who American Jews are right now.  For most, probably the most eyebrow raising statistics have to do with the results of interfaith marriage.  Putting aside the question of what the actual inter-marriage rate is, only 20% of all interfaith couples are raising their children “fully Jewish.”  A companion statistic shows only 14% of interfaith couples join a synagogue.  Understandably many Jewish professionals see these figures as disastrous.  For them it is the most telling statistic in the entire Pew report.  But not for me.

No, I am far more disturbed by a different statistic.  In response to the question, “What is essential to being Jewish?” the number one answer, with 73%, was “Remembering the Holocaust.”  Wow!  This placed ahead of “leading an ethical life,” and “working for justice/equality.”  Far, far down the list were “Being part of a Jewish community” and “observing Jewish law,” with 28% and 19% respectively.

Allow me to state the obvious interpretations of these figures.  For the overwhelming majority of American Jews, remembering the Jewish victimhood of the Holocaust is more essential to their Jewish identity than any lesson on morality, justice, ethics, God or obligations to the community.  In other words, being a living memorial to Jewish tragedy strikes a deeper chord with American Jews than any Jewish call for positive living, than the call for a relationship with God, or for positive action through our mitzvoth – be they ritual or ethical.  How ironic that a religion that focuses so much on life, on our obligation to build better lives; to live full meaningful lives, has most of its adherents focused on an identity through the tragedy of death.

I understand how important the Holocaust is in Jewish history.  I am the child of a survivor.  I am in the process of researching a book that will give the account of my family’s journey through the war years and the Holocaust.  But for me the real lesson I have come to appreciate in meeting and interviewing my family’s survivors is the rich, meaningful JEWISH lives so many have built in the aftermath of tragedy.  How have we Jewish professionals allowed the richness and beauty of Judaism to be overshadowed by an obsession with Jewish victimhood?

The answer, of course, is multi layered.  It contains the use of the Holocaust to spur Jewish fundraising.  It includes the use of victimhood to justify the existence Israel (which needs no such justification).  It includes religious school teachers who were moved to teach nothing but the Holocaust. (I recall that when I arrived in Tallahassee the Holocaust was being taught in 4 separate religious school grades.  Why? Because the teachers wanted to).  And of course it includes the depth of the tragedy.

So now we wrestle.  Those of us who work in places we wish to refer to as a “Beit El,” “house of God,” have to wrestle with this.  How do we offer/teach/lead a Judaism that is spiritually rich, intellectually honest, emotionally inspiring and uplifting – to offer an essence to Jewishness that builds pillars for a rich Jewish future instead of simply monuments to the tragedy of death?  And yes, this really is wrestling with God and humans.  In what way will we prevail?

Remember that Jacob builds a matzeivah at Beit El, once when he leaves and again when he returns.  What is a matzeivah?  It can be either a pillar or a monument.  Each is a very different thing.  A pillar is an active part of a living structure.  A monument is a memorial to that which is gone, that which is past.  Each Jewish congregation, indeed each individual Jew is a matzeivah.  We just have to make the choice as to which definition we will be.

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