My grandparents are from Russia. As a factual statement this is true, but that’s perhaps all it is. Knowing that my grandparents are from Russia tells you almost nothing about me. I feel no connection to the land, people, or culture, I don’t speak the language, and I don’t have the stomach for borscht. Granted, you can point out, I have never taken the time to learn about my heritage. But that’s perhaps the point and representative of a deeper truth – if I’m being completely honest I simply have never truly cared to. Whether or not I ever actually verbalize it, I am more than happy to allow my Russianness to assimilate away.
The exact same thing is happening to millions of American Jews vis-a-vis their Jewish identities. The 2020 Pew study confirmed what we have intuitively known for the last decade: reductionist forms of Judaism cannot survive. In the recent Pew poll when quantifying the identities of young Jews the two categories that grew the most from the previous Pew poll are the ones at each end: “Jews of no religion” and “Orthodox.”
The reality is that the next generation of American Jews do not feel personally, spiritually, or nostalgically bound to Jewish cultural rites and traditions the same way their parents or grandparents do. Young Jews are moving in one of two directions: they are either eschewing any type of rich and sustainable Jewish identity or becoming increasingly traditional. Gone are the days in which bagels and lox, High holiday services, or political/institutional activism around global Jewish issues (think post-holocaust communal regrowth, Israel in the 60’s, or the struggle for Soviet Jewry) can foster a deep and inter-generational attachment to Judaism.
What Jewish organizations across the board need is a return to the core of Judaism. A deep journey of spiritual, moral, and intellectual development in an attempt to connect to G-d that’s rooted in our time-hallowed traditions. Sure we can and sometimes must make changes. For the majority of American Jews, Orthodoxy is not the panacea it is often touted to be. Ideas evolve, traditions shift, and society changes—and we must reflect accordingly—but it is also clear that an American Judaism without Jewish tradition as its premise is bound to fail.
Jewish tradition has long understood G-d as being infinite. The idea of G-d as infinite is far greater than the Maimonadian philosophical idea that one mustn’t make any definitive (and therefore finite) claims about G-d. The idea of an infinite G-d being at the core of Judaism means that, fundamentally, Judaism cannot be reduced to anything other than itself.
Throughout the late 20th century it seems that Jewish communal leaders were constantly trying to reduce Judaism to something more palatable. We can point to the way that many Jewish communal leaders speak about Judaism only in its capacity to create strong tight-knit communities. Or perhaps the way that many Jewish organizations have become centers for social justice, rooted not in our tradition—but in partisan political activism.
But Durkheimian views of Judaism as a social group or ever reducing Judaism to the latest trend of social activism has failed. Young Jews are either following the reductionist logic and wholeheartedly leaving Judaism for these other social or political groups—or choosing to be a part of more traditional (read: Orthodox) Jewish communities.
One of the fundamental realities within our universe, first observed by Aristotle and more recently brought into the public sphere by the Gestalt school of psychology, is that the whole is greater (and can become something totally different) than the sum of its parts. The different parts of Judaism fuse together to form something much greater than any one idea, text, ritual, or lesson from our history. Once one plunges into the holistic picture of Judaism, they will quickly realize that it is impossible to reduce and jettison. Judaism isn’t just certain ideas, social benefits, a set of rituals, beliefs or any other single thing—it is what emerges from this interconnecting web. And should we want to keep Judaism alive and relevant for the next generation—we best keep this in mind.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at TemBeth Tikvah and is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine. He can be reached at Dlevine21@gmail.com