Think Again: Shavuot, the source of Jewish identity

As an Orthodox Jew who believes that the Jewish people were given the Torah as a nation, I feel that every single Jew is crucial to the fulfillment of our national mission.

My Jerusalem (photo credit: VERA HACHUEL SUISSA)
My Jerusalem
(photo credit: VERA HACHUEL SUISSA)
Last week I helped lead a group of Joint Distribution Committee donors and board members on a tour of one of Jerusalem’s largest haredi communities. We visited the magnificent Belz synagogue, which can seat up to 8,000, and the surrounding complex, which is buzzing 24 hours a day. From there we went to one of the largest Beis Yaakov seminaries, and heard about the impact of some JDC projects there. (I, for one, was pretty astounded to learn that 18 girls in the computer program reached the finals of a Microsoft competition for developing apps, and that 12 of those apps are now available from the Microsoft app store.) And finally, we visited a haredi employment center started by the JDC and since taken over and expanded by the government.
While giving an overview of the haredi community, I shared with the group some of my personal background. As a consequence, at the second stop, a young man about 20 years younger than anyone else on the tour approached me to discuss some commonalities in our backgrounds. He too was a lawschool graduate, had practiced for a few years in a major firm, and was now in Israel considering aliya and thinking about becoming a Reform rabbi.
He posed the following question: “How can a non-Orthodox Jewish identity be preserved, especially outside of Israel?” I wish I knew the answer to that question.
For I have no desire to see non-Orthodox Jews disappear and simply meld into their host populations, leaving behind only a DNA trace of 3,300 years of Jewish history.
As an Orthodox Jew who believes that the Jewish people were given the Torah as a nation, I feel that every single Jew is crucial to the fulfillment of our national mission. But the truth is neither sociology, history nor logic bode well for the long-run preservation of a non-Orthodox Jewish identity. According to the recent PEW study, one-third of American Jews under 35 say they have no religion at all. And the intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox is 71 percent, which means that over four out of five marriages involving non-Orthodox Jews are intermarriages.
In Alan Dershowitz’s 1998 work The Vanishing American Jew, there appears one chart.
That chart shows how many self-identifying Jews will remain from 100 unaffiliated, Reform and Conservative Jews over two or three generations, based on the intermarriage and birth rates at the time. Of the hundred unaffiliated Jews (currently the largest segment of American Jewry) only 13 Jewish-identified grandchildren would remain. The comparable figures for Reform and Conservative were 26 and 38. By the generation of great-grandchildren, the figures were six, 13, and 24 respectively.
And since 1998, birthrates have dropped and intermarriage has increased.
As a matter of historical record, I’m not aware of any Jewish community that has long survived without widespread Jewish religious practice and a core of Torah scholarship. And on the present evidence, no current Diaspora community seems destined to be the exception.
THE KEY to retaining any unique identity is a sense of one’s distinctiveness. Once that awareness was automatic for Jews. They observed numerous laws governing every aspect of life – e.g., kashrut and Shabbat – that readily distinguished them from their gentile neighbors. And they worshiped a different God. Just in case that was not enough, their gentile neighbors were ever ready to remind them of their differences.
But none of those factors operate to any great degree for most Jews today. They differ little from their non-Jewish neighbors in what they eat or how they spend their Saturdays.
Anti-Semitism has not disappeared, to be sure, but rather than reinforcing a pre-existing sense of Jewish separation, it more often cows Jews and causes them to hide their identity. That process is most visible on university campuses. When Muslim students at the Irvine campus of the University of California tried to forcibly prevent then Israeli ambassador Michael Oren from speaking, 30 professors of Jewish studies signed a petition against their criminal prosecution.
When asked to identify characteristically “Jewish traits,” American Jews are likely to pick qualities such as a sense of humor or progressive politics, that are not distinctively Jewish and cannot sustain an identity. Certainly they do not offer a particular Jewish mission. If a young Jew seeks the realization of his or her political agenda or even to perpetuate his quirky sense of humor, it makes no sense to specifically look for a Jewish spouse. Better to cut directly to the chase and choose one’s spouse based on their politics or sense of humor.
NEXT TUESDAY night is Shavuot. Together with Passover and Succot, Shavuot is one of the three festival holidays. But because it has no distinctive customs, such as the Passover Seder, or fun activities like building a succa, it is largely unknown and unobserved among a wide swath of the world’s Jews.
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the event more than any other that has always been at the core of Jewish identity. Every one of our ancestors believed that at Sinai the Jewish people were uniquely singled out in human history to hear as a people “the voice of God speaking from amidst the fire.”
There God revealed with absolute clarity a spiritual realm distinct from our daily physical world. And He gave to the Jewish people a set of laws designed to fashion them into a holy nation by developing their inborn spiritual qualities to allow the fullest connection with the Divine.
For believing Jews Sinai was the central event in human history. Rashi comments that had the Jewish people refused the Torah the world would have returned to its original formlessness. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes in Nefesh HaChaim, the definitive text of the Lithuanian yeshivot, that if the study of Torah were to stop for even a single moment the world would cease to exist. In the Volozhin Yeshiva, there were around-theclock learning shifts to ensure that Torah learning never stopped.
Today, however, the very claim that God singled out the Jews from all the peoples of the earth strikes most Jews as more than a little racist, and the event itself as wildly implausible.
In that view, we possess no specific mission to reveal Godliness to the world, and there is no reason beyond the sentimental to worry about our preservation as a distinct nation.
At the most those who deny Sinai as a historical event acknowledge Jewish law as an organic development from within the Jewish people, akin to English common law. But the Torah explicitly excludes that understanding.
Prior to the giving of the Torah, the people were warned not to go up on the mountain, to create a barrier in front of them. That barrier, writes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, reminds us that the Torah came from without, not from within. It was imposed upon us; in the words of the Midrash, God held the mountain over our heads to compel our acceptance.
The laws of the Torah do not require updating, for they were never up to date. The wearing of tefillin made no more sense 3,000 years ago than it does today. The laws were commanded by an infinite God to show finite Man how he can connect to Him, something that human intelligence alone could not possibly derive.
IF I could offer one bit of advice to the young man eager to preserve a non-Orthodox Jewish identity, it would be to immerse himself in the classic Torah texts. At least discover the abundant wisdom for living in those texts.
Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah, used to start new students with a course called 48 Ways to Wisdom. The idea was first to show them that the Torah works, and only then attempt to prove to them that it is true. Dr. Alan Morinis has done something of the same in bringing classic mussar texts, works on ethics, to secular Jews.
But those Torah texts must be approached with the reverence and awe worthy of works that have fully engaged, engrossed and challenged some of the finest minds in human history, and continue to do so today. Leave behind the impulse to state your own personal Midrash on day one.
What better day to commit to a full engagement with the texts that have always been at the center of Jewish life than Shavuot?
■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.