In his thoughtful new book, The Vanishing Neighbor, on America’s declining sense of community, Marc Dunkelman describes the “Marshmallow Test.” In Walter Mischel’s legendary psychological experiment, four-year-olds were given a choice between eating one marshmallow immediately – or getting a second by waiting until a researcher returned. A decade later, follow-up research revealed that those who delayed gratification for the larger reward were more successful academically, personally and morally, and were also better community members. This notion of “character,” Dunkelman explains, facilitates community building because the forbearance sometimes required to avoid sniping or to continue investing in others parallels the same “grit” and self-control required to achieve and to build a happy, constructive functional life.
This marshmallow teaching is counter-cultural. We are living in the age of instant indulgence. Our often amazing but often soul-destroying modern life is filled with gadgets and structures that feed our impulsiveness, our impatience, our immediate desires, at the click of a button. It is hard to resist – even though research and experience show that character, grit and discipline often pay off in the long term.
Unfortunately, much modern Judaism tries charming our ADD generation by being as slick as the rest of modern culture. Increasingly, we see “easy listening” Judaism, Twitter Judaism, pediatric Judaism; our rich, complex civilization reduced to cutesy, nonthreatening rituals and juvenile homilies that seduce or entertain rather than educating and challenging. Underlying this is a fear that modern Jews are too impatient for a more muscular engagement and will shop for more amusing hobbies if Judaism demands too much heavy lifting intellectually, spiritually, or politically.
At the opposite extreme, the “Thou Shalt Nots” rule, with a masochistic machismo celebrating those who endure the most stringent, ascetic, restrictive religious expressions as somehow winning the “Best Jew” award.
Too much liberal American Judaism today bops along the Judaism-lite extreme while too much Israeli orthodoxy slogs through the opposite, suffocating extreme.
Although many non-religious Israelis are trailblazing creative new Jewish paths, many others still opt out, avoiding serious Jewish expression because they only see this dark, unappealing fanaticism.
Most Jews, wherever they are religiously or geographically, remain stuck, too complacent regarding their particular Jewish expression, sleepwalking through their traditions and assumptions, without questioning them. Most Jews will invest the most energy this Rosh Hashana in planning the right menu or choosing the right outfit. Some might articulate secular-style New Year’s goals of weight loss or professional gain or even improved character. But precious few will set Jewish goals for themselves or try being Jewishly ambitious.
The phrase’s awkwardness and unfamiliarity reflect the widespread complacency keeping us all so static.
This Jewish New Year, let’s be Jewishly ambitious and try passing the (kosher) marshmallow test. Let’s bring more rigor, more intensity into our Jewish observance, without losing the joy, without extinguishing the light. Judaism thrives by balancing “Thou Shalts” with “Thou Shalt Nots.” We need an affirmative Judaism that embraces and celebrates and delights in our traditions, our ideas, our community and our obligations.
The “restrictions” of Shabbat or of Kashrut can actually be liberating. The freedom to distinguish, to separate, and to say “no” sometimes is very powerful. Our family’s Sabbath observance, which includes abstaining from electronics for 25 hours, improves the character of our Shabbat and our week, slowing things down, facilitating more family interactions, uniting us. And by keeping kosher, I affirm my Jewish identity wherever I may be, whatever else I may be doing.
Similarly, my ties to my community – my immediate community, the Jewish people, and Israel – elevate me and my family; they are not just ties that bind.
Unfortunately, some Jews today are failing the Zionist “marshmallow test,” feeling so harassed by our enemies they say – and I am quoting a serious Jewish writer in a major Jewish publication – “A good two or three days out of every week, depending on the news cycle, I wish Israel would go away.”
Zionism is “marshmallow Judaism” on steroids. The link is particularly clear thanks to Georges Yitshak Weisz’s illuminating book, Theodor Herzl: A New Reading, refuting the caricature of Herzl as anti-religious. Herzl saw Zionism as “a return to Jewishness even before it is a return to the Jewish land.” Zionism enables a three-dimensional Judaism of ideas and actions, of feelings and commitments, to be fully realized in a Jewish place, following a Jewish calendar. Zionism – in Israel and abroad – entails taking responsibility for our people – our community – and our state, investing in projects that sometimes take years to succeed. Zionism often reflects Judaism at its toughest, grittiest, most character-building, but most satisfying. Zionism involves fixing the bad while celebrating the good.
Seeking what Herzl called this “new blossoming of the Jewish spirit,” I acknowledge this past year’s complexities, heartaches and failures – noting how sad this Rosh Hashana will be for the families of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Sha’er and Naftali Fraenkel, for the 71 soldiers and civilians Hamas killed, for the 530 wounded. Still, I also relish the babies born, the buildings built, the innovations developed, the values expressed, the traditions maintained, the good deeds done, the lives well lived, in Israel, our miraculous altneuland, “old-new land.”
As Herzl himself did, if I see a problem, I try to solve it, rather than abandoning the Zionist project.
Next year, let’s all try passing the kosher marshmallow test – seeking a richer, more challenging, more vibrant mix of the “Thou Shalts” and “Thou Shalt Nots” in our Jewish lives while savoring Israel’s miracles and addressing its shortcomings. Let’s join together, embracing a more muscular Judaism while singing a new song of Zion that stretches our souls, reinforces our community, and builds the best Jewish democratic state we can.Shana tovah.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and will be teaching at the IDC Hezliya this fall. He is the author of eight books on US history, including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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