Next generation blues
Vayera — Genesis 18:1-22:24
October 20, 2010
Our usual mirrors are flat (or “plane”); they provide a true reflection of ourselves. Sometimes, however, it is instructive to consult the concave variety that turns us upside down. Torah is just such a concave mirror when it provides models so opposite to us that we learn to abandon destructive paths we are on before they lead to disaster.
Such a concave image comes from this week’s story of the Akeda (the binding of Isaac). As father and son travel toward their shared moment of doom — “one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered” (as the midrash puts it) — we hear twice that “the two of them went on together.” The first time, says Rashi, Isaac does not yet know he is the sacrificial victim. It is a preconscious moment when, by default, not determination, a father and son walk on together — their normal way of being. By the second time, however, Isaac’s fate has dawned on him. But he does not bolt; he stays the course. Now, father and son (the first two generations of Jews) make a conscious decision “to go on together.” According to tradition, Abraham was aging, and Isaac was 37 years old.
The Akeda is an upside-down image of ourselves. We too have an aging population (the baby-boomers) and a generation in their 30s (their children). But the similarity stops there. Unlike Abraham and Isaac who “went on together,” our two generations are at ideological loggerheads. The baby-boomer parents built federations, supported synagogues, shunned intermarriage, and erected denominational divisions. They see salvation in Israel, suspect spirituality, and appreciate the Eastern European ethnicity of their own parents and grandparents.
Not so the next generation. According to sociologist Steven Cohen, young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s find their parents’ institutional life “alienating, boring, coercive, and divisive.” Young Jewish adults are accepting of intermarriage. They have little or no preference for Jewish friends. They prefer universal causes of social justice (albeit, sometimes, under Jewish auspices) over federation-supported causes for the Jewish people alone. They consider Israel a problem, not a solution. They have no patience for denominational wrangling. They are in search of meaning, not ethnic solidarity. They do not ask how to be Jewish but why be Jewish at all. They do not join much, certainly not synagogues.
Much of our future depends on whether synagogues can rise to the occasion and become relevant to next-generation Jews. Their grandparents joined synagogues out of civic obligation; the baby-boomer parents joined to educate their children and provide them with a bar or bat mitzva. It is not clear why, or even whether, next-generation Jews will join at all — unless, of course, synagogues become less “alienating, boring, coercive, and divisive.”
Synagogues had better do so, because America was founded with religious congregational identity at its core — and the last 30 years have only intensified that centrality. If America’s synagogues go under, so too will America’s Jews. Our next-generation problem and our synagogue problem are inextricably intertwined.
Ironically, Abraham and Isaac almost colluded in the Jewish people’s demise! God had to stay the hand of Abraham the executioner. In reverse mirror imagery, it is the inability of today’s Abrahams and Isaacs to collude in anything at all that threatens the Jewish future. And it is not clear that God cares to intervene a second time. The question boils down to whether we, like Abraham and Isaac, can reverse course and “go on together.”
In our preconscious default mode, we went merrily about our institutional agendas without regard for the eventual generational turnover. But our Isaacs are turning 37; the turnover is imminent! In this moment of dawning consciousness, we can choose to change direction.
That change has begun. This very month, for example, synagogues from around the country and across denominations are meeting to discuss a nondenominational outreach to next-generation Jews, what Synagogue 3000, the convener of the conference, calls Next Dor (Next “Generation”). Synagogues will be asked to collaborate across denominational lines; to temper their traditional child orientation that alienates young adults who may have no children and who (in any event) seek spiritual enrichment for themselves; and to invest in young rabbis who take Judaism into the bars and coffeehouses where young Jews gather, without demanding synagogue affiliation in return.
Filled with aging Abrahams, these synagogues will be announcing to today’s Isaacs that they do indeed want to “go on together.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).