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.