The Pew Survey: What Would Alfred E. Neuman Say?

A seminar at the Jerusalem home of Israeli Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon

A seminar at the Jerusalem home of Israeli Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon

“Thou Shalt Not Commit Sociology” one of my profs in grad school half-jolkingly commanded us.  At present we watch Jews doing what they do best, worrying about the “ever-dying people,” building Jewish identity by talking about what constitutes Jewish identity.  Wise heads like Andy Bachman and David Wolpe remind us that all we can do in this blessedly free society revolves around remaining true to the guide to the good life the Sages provided about two millenia ago.  Build serious lives and communities through three things all of which create human dignity:  taking Jewish minds seriously via study (Torah), taking Jewish souls seriously by helping them dig deeper and reach higher by prayer and lives of sacred acts (Avodah), and taking Jewish hearts seriously by realizing that the only true response to life’s confusions and losses and pains remains relationships and love, for oneself, for one’s neighbor, for the stranger, in other words building caring communities that embrace those inside and outside of it (gemilut hasadim).  Any person who works hard at any one of these but hopefully at ever-shifting emphases on all three makes a  good Jew, and any community that takes these virtues seriously constitutes a viable, even praiseworthy place to live, and all the other labels for that community become pretty meaningless.

All of that “stuff” forms the content of a Jewish life well-lived.  But frames of lives matter too.  Jewish history tells the story of all sorts of communities, with all sorts of variety of content:  languages, dress, occupations, high cultural expressions, you name it.  But they also featured strong frames, actual boundaries, mechanisms of self-government that generated and defended Jews and Jewish life.  That reflected unfortunate circumstances of perceptions and practices of others towards us, as well as our own positive commitments to our origins and destiny and essential separateness.

We in America lack such a frame.  Even the Orthodox struggle to maintain their frame, as the moderns among them try to balance/compartmentalize/synthesize the American dream and Jewish imperatives.  The rest of us?  Little evidence suggests that we know or even believe in the importance of the frame.  Zionism constitutes one answer, a frame of a politically sovereign people, a civic space, and a distinctive culture.  But for us here we lack all three of those elements.

So forget about Pew.  It tells us what we already knew.  We will lose a lot of Jews to freedom.  We can gain a lot of other Jews thanks to freedom.  For every Jew who falls away another may return, one who wants to write the next chapter of their life and goes in search of meaning, and discovers what Judaism tells them about life, what vision of life Judaism actually builds.  Such teaching and learning and growth happens when we set a time limit on the amount of precious time we allocate to worrying about our selves, and then open up a Jewish book, explore an idea or engage in a Jewish practice.  Less sociology and more Torah.  Only teaching will save us.

Founder and Executive Director, Tzion; Teacher and Scholar, Gann Academy

Posted in American Jews, Israel, Jewish Education, Jewish Law and Practice, Jewish Organizations, Jewishness, Judaism, Life, My View, My Writing, Religion, Teaching Tagged with: , ,
View or download my professional vita.
[David] has a brilliant mind; he is a scholar of great range and depth; he is a deeply devoted father and husband; his outstanding abilities at organization are manifest in the splendid Me'ah Program he created and fostered; he is a forceful and moving orator; he is a man of both compassion and commitment; he is a teacher who fortifies and inspires; he is a natural leader; and his contribution to the Jewish community is legendary.
Sacvan Bercovitch, Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature, Harvard University

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