Questioning Continuity

What is Judaism supposed to do? What difference is it supposed to make, to its members and followers? To the world around it? To history? What is its telos?

by Joshua Gutoff

Recently, representatives of rural communities in the Midwest gathered to discuss a growing crisis. Less than half of the younger generation were choosing to go into farming. The best agrarian minds came together to discuss how their schools were failing, and to see what they could do to ensure that the vast majority of their children would remain behind the tractor as their parents and parents’ parents had done before them. Universal training in combine repair? MOOCs for learning animal husbandry? Subsidized tours of Nebraska? Surely, if there was better farm education, the chain of tradition would be maintained.

Well, no. It didn’t really happen; it would have been pretty pathetic if it had. While the trend is real, it has nothing to do with a “failure of education” but is the result of a range of irreversible social, economic, and political forces that have been in play since the Industrial Revolution, if not before. This does not mean, of course, that some young people will not choose to remain on the homestead, or that many of them will not think of themselves proudly as sons and daughters of the land, but family farming will not be the norm. We would think oddly of anyone who expected it to be.

Let’s talk about “Jewish continuity.” Whatever one may think of the Pew report, it is undoubtedly true that the last few generations have seen a fair amount of attrition in the Jewish community – attrition from every stream of Jewish expression. The result has been the elevation of “Continuity” as one of, if not the, main goal of the Jewish community. Formal and informal educational programs are designed, funded, and promoted to address continuity, which is generally understood to mean that Jews will 1) Self-identify as Jews; 2) Marry Jews; and 3) Have children who will repeat the process. Even other goals, such as “having a rich Jewish life”, are justified by the extent to which they support continuity.

The assumption underlying all this programmatic effort is that something is broken. That is, if our educational institutions were functioning appropriately, we would expect to see a self-replicating population. After all, that’s the way things had worked up until now, isn’t it?

Yes, but. It’s not at all evident that throughout history Jews were actively choosing to remain Jewish only, or even primarily due to a deep personal connection. More than we’re generally willing to admit, Jews may have remained Jews because they had no other choice, for a variety of reasons:

  • Legal. In the pre-modern world, permission for Jews to live in a particular city or state was granted to a community, not individuals. The choices were obedience to the religious norms of that community, or conversion and separation from everyone, and everything, familiar.
  • Intellectual. Peter Berger has pointed out that our intellectual horizon – what it is possible for us to believe – is strongly conditioned by the beliefs of those around us. It is highly unlikely that an individual will reject a view held by virtually everyone in her community for an as-yet-unarticulated alternative.
  • Social. Even after formal emancipation, Jewish participation in the culture at large faced a variety of barriers, some formal, like quotas and restrictive covenants; others the polite (or not-so-polite) anti-Semitism that labeled Jews as socially undesirable. The taboo against Jewish-Gentile intermarriage was far from one-sided.

Can we really assume that none of these played a role in Jewish continuity, and that it was only Judaism’s own centripetal force that insured Jewish continuity? With the legal and social barriers to full participation in the broader society gone, and no one but the ultra-Orthodox even trying to be insulated from secular thought, as were pre-modern settlements, what kind of “continuity” should be expected as the norm, or even seen as a reasonable goal?

I want to be very clear: I hold as a central value the continuation of Judaism and the Jewish community, and I am certainly not arguing in favor of mass assimilation. What I am arguing for is a communal discussion based on as clear a self-understanding as possible, and an agenda built around reasoned and reasonable expectations. What would it mean, then, to accept the idea that the erosion of group identity is the ineluctable cost of entry into the modern (post-Enlightenment and post-Emancipation) world?

I’d like to suggest a few possibilities.

First, we lose the discourse of blame-and-guilt. Many of our children will not believe in God, or not join a synagogue, or not celebrate Shabbat, or not marry a Jew. Many of them will be unwilling or unable to follow our advice in all kinds of areas: they attempt careers in the arts rather than go to engineering school; they may drop out of college, or enter into unfortunate relationships. Their lives will take all kinds of paths that we did not recommend or expect – sometimes, directions we’re sorry about, or even disapprove of. But generally, as long as they are reasonably happy, reasonably productive, and reasonably mensch-like, we don’t think of their lives or our parenting as failures. By the way, This doesn’t mean that rabbis need to perform intermarriages, any more than a baroque quintet needs to play klezmer music. But the language of “That’s not the kind of ceremony I do” is leagues away from “I reject you and your wedding.”

Second, we find other goals and justifications for our programming. Recent publicity for a Jewish High School touted two particular advantages. One was a high percentage of acceptances to Ivy League colleges; the other, the greater likelihood that Day School graduates would eventually have Jewish spouses. Now, neither of those is bad, per se, but really? Why promote the study of Aristotle? There are many reasons, but one of them is not that students will grow up to be, or marry, classicists. What is the value of a middle-school literary magazine, or youth gymnastics, or band, or camping, or of the myriad of activities we support? True, they may be useful if the child later decides to make certain life choices, and they might even have certain long-term benefits. But the real reason we support them is because they are powerful, or joyful, or meaningful experiences in themselves. What are the Jewish skills, texts, experiences that could justify themselves similarly?

Finally, we define a different measure of success. Sometimes institutions, projects, organizations, don’t last, but only by the narrowest, shallowest of definitions would they be considered failures because of that. Success and failure have to do with purpose: does this enterprise do what it was meant to do? Was the New York City Opera Company a failure because it went bankrupt? Surely the trustees failed, but the Company itself? If its goal was to become the most important force in opera in the world, well, probably. But if it’s goal was to create great and reasonably accessible art? It was probably a success.

What is Judaism supposed to do? What difference is it supposed to make, to its members and followers? To the world around it? To history? What is its telos?

Of course, a response might be that there cannot be a long-term telos to Judaism without a long-term Judaism, and so continuity has to precede anything else. But that is simply wrong. “Continuity” without content is simply about brand. It is not only hollow, but it is self-defeating, as it presents no compelling argument for itself. Why be Jewish (whatever that means)? So there will be more Jews? I don’t think so.

Another response will be to ask how is it possible to come up with a single answer, a single vision of what the purpose is. To which I say: Wonderful! Let us come up many visions, many goals. And let us think of them like educators: pick worthwhile goals, identify means of assessment, and design strategies. We might end up making a real difference, to our students, our communities, our world. And that should be considered a success.

Joshua Gutoff is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education, and Director of the MAJEd program, at Gratz College.

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  1. Dan Ab says

    Your farm example has similarities to something I recently wrote on the Conservative driving teshuva from the 1950’s. The issue was less halacha and more that the movement placed an all-in bet that the future of Judaism was in non-walkable suburban communities. They lost that bet and haven’t been able to open sufficient Conservative-branded synagogues where the next generations of Jews actually live. This doesn’t explain everything, but, like the farm example, declining synagogue membership is partially due to fewer synagogues near the places Jews live.

    I also agree with the larger questions here on the point of various initiatives. “Continuity” and teaching “Jewish values” seem to always come up because these are the easiest things for people to agree on and the hardest to define. My more specific answer is that I want to give kids the skills and desire to want to and be able to actively contribute to Jewish communities as an adult. The nice part of that definition is that it’s community specific. Any educational institution can look at the adults in their community, think about they those adults do, and try to figure out what they need to do to get their kids to that point.

    Your day school point is also fascinating and is something that’s bothering me for a while. The data showing the effect of day schools (vs the upbringing of kids whose families send them to day schools) is phenomenally weak. Even ignoring upbringing, the day school effect on continuity isn’t THAT big. The real effect of a good day school is that kids will almost definitely know more Hebrew and understand more prayer and Jewish texts by the age of 18 than any other formal education program. This is the big day school differential, but too many day schools seem terrified to actually highlight this as the central reason to send a child to them.

  2. Sandra Lilienthal says

    I would also like to point out that no matter what we do in our education programs (pre-school, day school, religious school, camps, adult ed., etc.), we are very unlikely to succeed if Judaism is not lived in the home. To truly be and live as a Jew (and I am not referring to ritual observance), Judaism much be an integral part of one’s life. Accumulating knowledge, no matter how good the knowledge is, is not enough. I know less knowledgeable Jews who live a passionate Jewish life. I know non-Jews who are extremely knowledgeable about everything Jewish. Knowledge, albeit important, is not the end-all.

    We, educators, can only succeed if the impact we hopefully cause on our learners can be translated into actual Jewish living: whether it be keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat, or being very involved with a synagogue, JCC, or school. In order for that to happen, each student – child or adult – will need to find that Judaism IS relevant to their lives today. And unless our learners can find relevancy AND are connected to Judaism outside of our learning programs, our education efforts will not achieve what we hope for.

  3. Melissa Werbow says

    Thank you for this piece. I love the line ‘“Continuity” without content is simply about brand.’ I think the most compelling reason to be Jewish in the modern world has to be “Because it makes my life better.” Whether it does this by adding more community, more kedusha or more meaning (or hopefully all three), I think each generation must practice Judaism because of what it does for them – not because of guilt from past or future generations.

  4. Rabbi David Bockman says

    Good article, Josh. Maybe part of the problem is that the ‘funders’ are not on the same page as the ‘people who carry out the program of Judaism.’ The things I’m passionate about are generally not the things that excite people who are in the business world, so much. That pretty well sums up why I became a rabbi and they became successful business people. I suppose I’m glad that Judaism has developed rabbis rather than embracing the leadership model of kehuna (hereditary priesthood), as had been the Biblical standard. What we have lost in training and expertise over the years we have certainly more than made up for with thought and enthusiasm. And I for one am glad that we rely on those who are self-selected for enthusiasm and intellect and inspiration and the desire to both lead and teach. But we would be fooling ourselves to expect that EVERYBODY in a Jewish community would treasure those qualities equally. Perhaps it is insane to expect that the metrics used for success in the ‘world of the funders and machers’ will show most Jewish collectives to be extremely successful. And if I as a rabbi in the field for twenty-eight years now (can that be right?) still have a hard time pinning down a metric of my own rabbinical success, why should it be any easier for us as a community or communities to decide on a metric that will have widespread acceptance or agreement? For one thing, the timescale on which success is measured for those of us in this field is too long: if the next generation keeps kosher, or is sensitive to others’ weaknesses, or feels a strong connection to God and the world (for example) these are surely things that we may have had a hand in assuring, but they occur on a time scale vastly longer than might interest money people. I also think that one of the most crucial qualities for being a rabbi, cantor or Jewish educator is that we care about and invest in the long-haul versus the short-term. It’s only people such as this who truly deserve to (and will) vouchsafe the future