By Rabbi Daniel Stein
One of the most fun parts of my job as a rabbi in Easton, Pennsylvania is the opportunity my congregation affords me to teach at Lafayette College. The smart, inquisitive students inspire me, and help me feel (kind of) culturally relevant as I move closer to middle age.
Recently after a student expressed an outlandish idea, a classmate responded, “You do you.”
“Huh?” I asked.
“You do you,” she said again, but with slightly more emphasis.
“I heard you, but I don’t really know what that means.”
“It means that even though I don’t really understand why he’s expressing that opinion, I think he’s entitled to it. You do you.”
Recently, Colson Whitehead suggested in the pages of The New York Times Magazine that “‘[y]ou do you’ perfectly captures our narcissistic culture.” Whitehead doesn’t get it. “You do you” is symbolic of a generation of young people who are deeply postmodern: they believe that personal integrity is linked to the ways in which an individual strives to be their authentic self. They are radically accepting of diversity, while people who embrace popular culture without critique are sometimes degraded as being “basic.” My students would relate well to the famous hasidic story of Reb Zusha’s entry to heaven: “God isn’t going to ask me why I haven’t been more like King David; he’s going to ask me why I haven’t been more like Zusha.”
I was reminded of this a few months when I had the opportunity to watch a student leader address a large audience. He had a speech impediment which, I’m ashamed to say, was both distracting and intriguing to me. I was inspired that he had chosen a role that required public speaking, but was curious to know how his peers really felt about him. I opened up Yik-Yak, an app known for, among other things, promoting a culture of cyberbullying. Instead of the nastiness I’d been conditioned to believe I’d find, the most liked ‘yak’ was “Everyone’s swiping right for so & so.” Not only were the college students seemingly unbothered by the speech issues that distracted me, but they were also interested primarily in his ideas, intellect, and passion. They found his authenticity not just compelling, but sexy.
More recently, I asked a few of my students at Lafayette what they’d look for if they were to join a synagogue. Their answers anecdotally confirmed what research has been telling us in general about the decline of denominationalism in American spiritual life: “I don’t care if there is a guitar or not, or if services go for two hours on Saturday or just one on Friday evening,” one student said, “I want to be a part of a community where people are valued for the diversity of their ideas – where everyone is encouraged to cherish the beliefs they hold dear, and where our conversations are enriched by the vibrancy of disagreement. I want to be in a community where we can speak openly about important issues – God, Israel, interfaith relationships, sexuality – without fear of judgment.”
This worldview creates compelling challenges for our communal organizations. Our communities can sometimes be homogenous, both in terms of ideas and demographics. Young Jews take diversity as a given; peer groups are incomplete if they don’t have a wide representation economic, cultural, racial, and sexual attitudes and beliefs. If we don’t want our communities seen as “basic,” we need to make sure that they are open to the kind of radical diversity that today’s college students assume as a starting point for conversation.
To that end, we need to remove barriers to entry that make our communities inaccessible to young people. A few weeks ago, comedian Marc Maron’s podcast featured playwright Annie Baker, a 34-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner. Reflecting on the ways in which ticket prices impact audiences – and therefore the type of plays produced, she observed, “It is kind of unconscionable to charge more than $50 a ticket; when you pander to people [who can afford those prices], young interesting people don’t come.” Baker suggests that the kind of theater created out of a concern for attracting a wealthy audience is at best conventional, and at worst stodgy and undaring. The same is true for our legacy institutions: as long as structural, financial, and ideological barriers to entry exist, we will not be able to attract the kinds of smart young people who we hope will inherit them.
“In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form,” Whitehead writes, “tautological phrases like ‘You do you’ provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.” My sense, though, is that “you do you” represents not narcissism, but a generational aspiration towards collective self-esteem and self-worth; today’s young people hope to be comfortable enough in their own skin that they are able to embrace the other without feeling the need either to fear them or shame them. Our institutions could benefit from a similar optimism: a drive to create communities that are engaging, interesting, and open enough to thrive on their own, without the need to attack competing beliefs. We should view divergent ideas as opportunities for dialogue, not threats to conformity. We should hope to create a Judaism that, instead of being “basic,” is diverse, rich, complicated, and open.
Rabbi Daniel Stein is the spiritual leader of Bnai Abraham Synagogue in Easton Pennsylvania, and a faculty member in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Lafayette College.