How can I ensure my grandchildren establish a Jewish home? How can we secure a young Jewish connection with Israel? How do I make sure my children attend Hillel when they get to college? The list goes on.
As a young Rabbi, I often get asked about the next generation and how to secure their connection to Judaism. While each of the topics above certainly demands its own conversation, my internal thinking generally revolves around the same theme. By the time one is faced with existential questions about securing Jewish connections, it may already be too late. The real solution? Securing a connection to the Jewish intellectual tradition.
There is perhaps no better time of year than to revisit this central topic than Shavuot, the time of our receiving the Torah. It was at Mount Sinai that the people of Israel became concentrated, jumpstarting our multi-generation evolution from a group of tattered slaves to the cultivators of the ethical monotheistic tradition.
It was at Sinai—the pivotal stop on the journey from slavery to nation-building that we were endowed with the tools to ensure our multi-millennia continuity and success. And, whether we believe the story of Sinai to be historical truth or cultural memory, it was at Sinai where we received the starting chapters of a book that is still being written.
The Jewish intellectual tradition was not just our beginning, but our continued life force. It was the Torah that allowed the prophet Jeremiah, in the wake of the destruction of the first temple and subsequent exile to Babylonia, to implore a lachrymose Jewish community to continue on and foster a viable community.
It was the study of Torah that the sages declared to be a substitute for the second temple when it was razed by the Romans, dubbing every Jewish study hall a Mikdash Miat, a miniature temple.
Today, in nearly all of our synagogues the Torah is adorned with a crown. The metaphor is clear; when Jews lost political autonomy and their own political leadership (historically in the form of a king), the Torah and our intellectual tradition were there to fill the void. As long as Jews maintain their connection to our intellectual tradition—one can hear the talmudic sages deliberating—Judaism can survive, even without a centralized local authority or body-politic.
Our intellectual heritage wasn’t just there to aid us in times of hardship but ensured continued inspiration and underpinned a strong sentiment of peoplehood across the Jewish world.
The Talmud relates a story of a young Hillel who was too poor to afford membership into the Jewish study hall. Dismayed, he climbed up on the roof in snowy weather, nearly freezing to death, hoping that he would be able to listen in and glean some of the teachings of the sages. Years later when Hillel became the head of the academy, he would abolish entry fees and open the doors to all who want to study. Such was the importance and attachment to Torah study.
In the medieval ages, Jewish merchants would travel the known world, often spending weeks in foreign communities. At the end of a long day, they would have sought out the local Jewish Beit Midrash, study house, hoping to hear a novel teaching or idea. They may not have spoken the local language—and almost certainly would have missed their families, their homes, and perhaps even their local cuisine—but when a portion of the Mishna or Gemera was taught, a Jew from anywhere in the world would have understood.
We don’t all agree about politics, Zionism, what constitutes authentic and acceptable Jewish practices, or even the deliciousness of bagels and lox, but our texts belong to all of us.
A rabbinic teaching suggests that the Torah was given in a desert, as opposed to in a temple or in the land of Israel, due to the fact that a desert is a place of ownerlessness. So too, the Rabbis taught, the Torah doesn’t belong to one group of Jews but all of us equally.
Torah is the beating heart of Judaism. Open its pages and you will be transported into a multi-thousand-year conversation spanning the globe. If we want to secure the Jewish future, we must take our hints from the past. There is a reason that Jews have been able to survive against all odds, a reason the great novelist Mark Twain questioned that “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
The answer to Twain’s question, along with many of the wider problems facing the Jewish world, is a deep engagement and connection with our intellectual tradition. This Shavuot let us make a renewed commitment to the study of Torah.
RABBI DANIEL LEVINE is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and Is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine. He can be reached