From Generation to Generation

March 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Recently, I was teaching the Introduction to Judaism course at SUNY Plattsburgh. The subject was ‘Jewish ideas of redemption’ and the reading had touched on how things changed in Israel in 1967.

‘What happened in 1967?’ I asked them.


I smiled. ‘Please don’t tell me that’s when your parents were born.’

One student raised his hand: ‘My dad was born in 1967,’ he ventured.

For those who lived through it, 1967 was a watershed year. That year was the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured territories in Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

But for the students in college right now, it is ancient history, an event that took place around the time when their parents were born. Think of a major historical event that took place around the time when your parents were born, and you have some sense of their relationship to it. It’s rather remote.

This experience had me thinking about something I had read: as you might recall, two weeks ago, I wrote about the Vern Bengtson’s book, Families and Faith, which is a scholarly multi-generational study of the transmission of faith from one generation to the next. In his work, he also summarized the differences between generations in their views on religion. It was fascinating, which is why I wanted to share it with you.

In one of the chapters, Bengtson gives insight into how each generation is molded by the events that it experiences in its formative years. And it really explains a lot. The kids in college today don’t remember how vulnerable Israel was prior to the Six-Day War. They don’t share that sense of miraculous deliverance. For them, the outcome is already preordained and cannot end any other way. And that changes how they relate to Israel.

So let’s walk through Bengtson’s work, to find out what’s unique about each generation, and to see what else is of interest [all of the quotes that appear below are from Chapter 2, “Religion and Spirituality Across Generations,” pages 21-53.]:

The first group is the WWI Generation (born 1890-1915)

According to Bengtson, this group does not talk much about God; religion is a given part of their experience, but not something that’s regularly discussed. As Bengtson writes, “Each of the elderly members of the WWI generation we interviewed expressed a firm belief in God or a higher power, yet many struggled to articulate their beliefs.” However, he explains, “despite such difficulties in articulating their beliefs, several members of the WWI cohort described their faith in God as being strengthened by evidence they find in everyday life, especially in the natural world.” This group, for example, would be the most likely to enjoy a sermon about feeling close to God while gardening.

Interestingly, he writes, “Beyond social value, it was difficult for members of this generation to articulate the role of religion in their lives.” When they attend, they are here for the community.

The next group is the Depression Era (born 1916-1931)

“Members of the Depression Era generation,” Bengtson writes, “came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Nearly all of those we interviewed reflected on the impact of one or both of these events on their lives, noting the great sacrifices made by their families and the resulting ethic of hard work, patriotism, practicality, and thrift.” I would bet, on this basis, that this generation is the one that bought the flags for the bimah, born out of a sense of gratitude to the two nations represented here for having provided a safe place to live.

“These individuals experienced circumstances caused by the Depression or the war that were beyond their individual control. They credit a protective, benevolent God with seeing them through these difficult and sometimes life-threatening times. Through sheer determination and a strong faith in God, they persevered and even thrived. An emphasis on hard work, beginning in childhood, is reflected in their religious beliefs as well, where actions speak louder than words. Being faithful and committed to God is important and is evident in what a person does but not necessarily what one says or thinks.” As a result, this group is less interested in services and more interested in service. They are more likely to respond to a call to help clean up after Passover than a call to fill the pews for the festival service.

Next, we come to the Silent Generation (born 1932-1945)

Bengtson writes: “Whereas members of the Depression Era cohort that we spoke to described God as a powerful being that provides guidance from on high, beginning with the silent generation – a relatively small group that was born during the lean times of the Great Depression and World War II but too young to experience the full extent of the Depression or to serve in the war – we see increasing discussion of the accessibility of God and of [God’s] ‘embeddedness’ in everyday life.” Their lives are not marked by momentous historical events in the same way as the older cohorts: they focus more on the daily aspects of life.

“Taking this a step further than the WWI cohort whose members offered descriptions of God in nature,” he writes, “ many in the silent generation expressed the belief that a higher power dwells within the human spirit. This sentiment is especially common among those who have no religious affiliation or who question their faith in God.” If you think about it, this position makes a lot of sense: they learned about God from the example of their parents, the ones who picked up the pieces after the war and rebuilt their lives. This group would most want an existentialist sermon about finding God within.

The next group is the Early Boomers (born 1946-1954)

This group is different than the ones who come before it. “Early Boomers frequently talk about religion as something one does and spirituality as something one feels through one’s relationship with God.” In fact, Bengtson writes, “Some Early Boomers take this distinction a step further, describing religious practice as being determined or scripted by a religious institution and spirituality as ‘personal’ and emerging form within an individual.”

“From these interviews we see the leading edge of Early Boomers was born in the wake of World War II’s carnage and came of age during a period of extensive social change in the United States. Political unrest, rising divorce rates, changing mores about gender and sexuality, and the increasingly influential role of the mass media in the 1960s and early 1970s coalesced to destabilize the relatively conservative social conventions of the 1950s.” This group has personally experienced some of the greatest changes with regard to the expectations of their own gender roles, for example. A woman who was not allowed to have a bat mitzvah as a girl could become a rabbi in later life.

That kind of rapid change can be very stressful. “Perhaps because of this,” Bengtson continues, “Early Boomers often mentioned that they relied jointly on religious institutions and spiritual practice as coping mechanisms and sources of emotional support; they emphasized the healing qualities of religion and spirituality.” But some have turned away: “for some in our sample – Jews in particular – the impact of the war and other tragedies proved too much to cope with, prompting them to question their faith in God.” And I do meet people who feel this way, who say that they don’t believe.

This group is the most likely to appreciate a sermon that speaks of the difficulties of finding faith.

And we now turn to the Later Baby Boomers (born 1955-1964)

“Whereas the Early Boomers we spoke with seem to value both the religious and the spiritual realms,” Bengtson writes, “the Later Boomers are less comfortable with ‘Religion’ with a capital R. Many reject what they perceive as the institutional nature of religion in favor of a more personal spirituality. Whereas all but one of those we interviewed believed in God and nearly all identified as ‘spiritual,’ only one-third claimed to be ‘religious.’”

Religion, by its nature, changes slowly. If these individuals were in favor of the liberalization that took place in the 60s and 70s, then they are likely to be skeptical of religious organizations that were slow to change in response to the times. And if they were against that liberalism, they might be skeptical of religious organizations that were trying to stay relevant.

Regardless, that skepticism has meant that “for many Later Boomers, religious practices such as going to religious services detract from, rather than encourage, a deepening spirituality.” That’s a key difficulty for congregations to overcome when speaking to the Later Boomers. I tend to approach the issue as one of rebuilding trust.

This group is the one most likely to enjoy a sermon about what’s wrong about religion and what we can do about it.

Then we come to Generation X (Born 1965-1979)

This is my generation, and I definitely fit the pattern. As Bengtson writes, “Religion informs many of the decisions religious Gen Xers make, including those related to raising children. Indeed, many we interviewed described how helpful religion is for raising children in today’s complicated world.” I would agree!

Bengtson also writes of “another theme that emerged” in these interviews: “religiously independent thinking. Many take temporary breaks from religious practice and feel free to selectively adopt doctrinal beliefs in order to make religion work for them.” Apparently, we’re a flexible bunch, not particularly prone to dogmatic thinking.

And we tend to emphasize independence. “In fact,” he writes, “‘independence’ is one of the few themes that bridge the gap between the believing and nonbelieving members of Generation X. For the believers we interviewed, freely choosing a more flexible approach to religion ultimately allow them to remain committed to their faith. For the nonbelievers in our sample, however, ‘independent thinking’ about religious beliefs and practices translates into a rejection of God altogether.”

We also want proof. As Bengtson explains, “one of the reasons for the nonbelieving Gen Xers’ lack of belief in God” is that “they can’t take the leap of faith required to believe in something that isn’t empirically verifiable.” We tend to take a scientific world-view for granted.

So my generation loves a good sermon about how to belief in God if you don’t have proof.

And our last group is the Millennials (for the purposes of this sample, they were born between 1980 and 1988)

So let me start with the good news, from a congregational perspective: “Unlike many of the Later Boomers who, regardless of affiliation, actively reject organized religion in favor of spirituality, most of the Millennials we spoke with do not demonstrate the same level of antipathy to institutionalized religion.” That’s great to hear.

And now with the bad news: “Those who profess belief often do not attend church [or synagogue] regularly.” However, even the bad news is laced with the positive: “Many commented favorably on the sense of community provided by a church or synagogue, and still others suggested they are shopping around in order to find a congregation with the right ‘fit.’ Furthermore, some Millennials, like many Early Boomers, describe the complementary nature of religious practice and spirituality.” So it is likely that they will join at some point; they are still deciding.

Interestingly, “many Millennials hesitate to adopt a single religion uncritically and in its totality, preferring a flexible belief system that draws from religion but is not entirely dictated by it. A tendency to draw from a range of religious perspectives or to selectively choose from the tenets of a particular religion reflects the nonjudgmental attitude of many Millennials. An open-mindedness and appreciation for diversity was one clear theme that frequently emerged in the Millennials’ interviews, whether they were speaking about religious or nonreligious ideas.”

I have noticed that members of this group tend to appreciate it when I take a non-dogmatic approach to religious observance. And they will question everything – such as the commandment regarding circumcision, for example – and are particularly appreciative when I can make a cogent argument for a practice or observance beyond ‘it’s our tradition to do so.’

As for me, I plan to take this research to heart when I am writing my High Holiday sermons this year. I’d like to do a suite of sermons addressing the value of participating in the Jewish community, using this material to construct arguments that will make sense to each generation, not just my own. And I am thinking that I will also use it when I teach the adult education course on Zionism later this April, to explain the variety of views on the subject.

In the meantime, I am interested in hearing from you: does your own religious experience make sense in the context of your generation? Or do you find that your personal narrative is one of difference? I’d love to know!

Shimini — When we are wrong

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

For whatever reason, it has been decreed in this country that pita bread must have the taste and consistency of packing foam. In Israel, however, where pita-baking is a cottage industry in its own right, pita has that sweet yeasty flavor of just-baked bread. 

What is different about Israeli pita is the oven that it is baked in: it is a large unglazed ceramic globe, standing as tall as a man, with hot wood fire at the bottom. 

To bake the bread, small flat pancakes of dough are slapped to the inside wall of the oven, like doughy starfish. When the dough peels itself off the side of the oven, the bread is done.

A skillful baker will know this moment instinctually and place his wooden oar under it to catch its fall. If you wait at the bakery in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, you can buy a dozen of them right from the oven. 

I’m afraid that this week’s Torah portion, however, does not mention the sweet satisfaction of pita bread. Rather, it relates to an unpleasant surprise you might find one morning if you are tasked with the care and use of these ovens: what happens when a small animal crawls inside one of these ovens and dies? Might you still be able to use the oven?

According to the biblical law, the answer would be no.

“The following shall be unclean for you from among the things that swarm on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and great lizards of every variety; the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. Those are for you the unclean among all the swarming things… And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break… Everything on which the carcass of any of them falls shall be unclean: an oven or stove shall be smashed. They are unclean and unclean they shall remain for you.”

That’s the rule: an earthenware vessel must be smashed – no exceptions.

Yet, being as these ovens are enormous, they cannot be cheap to make. Finding a dead creepy-crawly in one of these ovens would likely be a crushing loss.

It would preferable, then, to discover an option that does not involve destroying an entire oven. What if, for example, the oven is made in a different fashion – what if it is one of those new-fangled tiled ovens, like what is used for bread-baking in Europe – then what happens if it houses an unwelcome swarming thing?  Maybe you could cut the bad part out and leave the rest of the oven intact? 

The Talmud has a rather fanciful explanation for how the matter was decided. 

“It has been taught” in tractate Bava Metzia, that “on that day” when this issue was decided by the sages, “Rabbi Eliezer brought forth every imaginable argument,” as to why a tiled oven could be made clean again, but the sages “did not accept them” and ruled that it should be destroyed, just like a pita oven. 

Said Rabbi Eliezer to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’  Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – and some say, four hundred cubits.  ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.”

“Again he said to them: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!  Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards.  ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.”

“Again he urged: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the walls of this academy prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined inward to fall.  But Rabbi Joshua rebuked” the walls, “saying, ‘When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute, what right have you to interfere?’  Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they become upright again, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.” 

Again Rabbi Eliezar said to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters, Jewish law agrees with him?’ But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven!’”

“What did he mean by this?  — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice,” instead it says that we should ‘follow the majority.’ 

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah, who is the prophet who never died but instead wanders the earth and speaks with rabbis. And Rabbi Nathan asked him, “‘What did the Holy One, the one who is blessed, do in that hour?’ Elijah responded: ‘He laughed, saying ‘My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!’”

It’s a fanciful story, rather unexpected, and quite funny. We should assume, of course, that the rabbis knew full well that carob trees do not uproot themselves. I also suspect that it is not a coincidence that this story is structured like a fairy-tale, with three examples. Like ‘three bears’ or ‘three wishes’ or any other group of three in the fairy-tale genre, here we have the three proofs, the carob tree, the stream, and the walls of the academy. 

After this triad comes the climax of the story:

“On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in a fire.  Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.”

Though in modern times we don’t normally practice it, Jewish law does allow for excommunication.  It’s actually a form of shunning; it can be done for a specified period of time or done indefinitely, but it ends when the person has repented. So, we learn, the sages excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer even though he was quite right about the oven. But why would they want to do that?  

Let me fill in the background, and tell you the backstory: the rabbis are living in exile, in the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, and they are worried about survival. Rabbi Eliezer was defying the majority in his obstinacy.

Because he was always right about these kinds of things – that is to say, if a voice where ever to come down from heaven to weigh in on an argument, it would surely back his position – he therefore had the kind of personal prestige that could create a genuine rift in the rabbinic world, one which the sages feared could be fatal to the fledgling community.

So they had their reasons for excommunicating him. They were afraid. And they let their fears get the best of them.

Said the sages, “‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered Rabbi Akiba,” a highly-respected scholar, “‘Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy his whole world.’ What did Rabbi Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits” from Rabbi Eliezer.  “‘Akiba,’ said Rabbi Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened today?’  ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that your companions are shunning you.’”

Thereupon Rabbi Eliezer “tore his garment,” as a sign of mourning, “and put off his shoes and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.” It is a heartbreaking reaction – clearly Rabbi Eliezer had only been seeking the truth, not trying to tear the community asunder.

It would seem to me, then, that even if the community had a very good reason for its actions – and ensuring the survival of the community would qualify as a good reason – it does not have the right to wound an individual in this manner.

We see a similar situation in this week’s portion as well. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu made a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

Shortly thereafter, however, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task:

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’”

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ rebuke. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things: ‘See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’”

If you are paying close attention to the text, you can visualize Aaron rolling his eyes when Moses is speaking: ‘Really, Moses? Really? I just lost two sons, and you’re worried about how, when and where the goat of the sin offering was burned?’

Moses is a mensch, of course, and knows when to let it drop. He admits that he is wrong: ‘Yes, Aaron, you’re exactly right. I have forgotten what’s most important.’ As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

Disputes will arise, of course, and well-meaning people of good faith will disagree. But what we learn from our Torah portion this week is that we have a responsibility to be gentle with each other, even when we are right – and most especially when we are wrong about being right.

How do we see to it that our next generation is Jewish?

March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

My dad once quipped: every Sunday we’d take our kids to church and then afterwards to Kaplan’s Deli. Little did we know that for our daughter it would be the deli tradition that stuck!

What can I say? It was a good deli.

So, how do we know what will stick? And is it really possible to know? Recently, an important work of scholarship by Vern L. Bengtson provides insight into which traditions will and won’t stick. In his work, Families and Faith, Bengtson details the results of his multi-generational study of the transmission of faith-traditions from one generation to the next.

So let’s look at what he had to say to families who are interested in handing down their religious traditions from one generation to the next:

  1. Parents have more religious influence than they think. It’s easy to get the message that youth today are unresponsive to their parents’ religious training. But the results of this study show that, even years later, parental religious socialization has been effective.”[1]

    If that is true, how then did I become a rabbi? In my own case, I had been socialized to join a liberal congregation and participate in its religious life. I didn’t remain in my parents’ religious tradition, but my adult spiritual life certainly finds echoes in theirs.

  1. Fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad…our study indicates that relationships with parents that are felt to be close, warm, and affirming are associated with higher religious transmission than are relationships perceived as cold, distant, or authoritarian – regardless of the level of parental piety. Moreover, this is particularly true for relations with fathers.”

    If you’ve met my parents, you know that they are anything but cold, distant, and authoritarian: obviously not the issue here.

  1. Allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity. This might be difficult for devoutly religious parents to accept: Encouraging freedom of choice in religion and being open to a child’s religious experimentation can be effective in promoting religious continuity. Holding a tight rein on one’s children might work for some parents, at least in tight-knit religious communities where church and family activities are closely intertwined and the community is religiously homogenous. But in more open or diverse contexts with competing moral and cultural perspectives, parents who encouraged some degree of exploration while still providing a firm religious foundation have higher success rates, at least in our sample. This may seem puzzling, but we found that, in many of our high-continuity families, children who experienced freedom of choice were likely to follow their parents’ religious example.”

    What does he mean by that? He means that if your daughter really gets into the religious and spiritual practices of yoga as a 20-year-old, and you don’t express any sense of alarm with regard to her practice then it’s still pretty likely that she’ll follow your religious practices and affiliate with a Jewish congregation when she becomes a mom. That’s especially true if you both have a warm and close relationship with her and you have woven regular religious practice into your home life.

    So, what about my experience? My parents were very open to my exploration of religious identity and did not object when I started learning about Judaism. So, how did it happen then that I chose a different one than their own?

    It wasn’t them. The difficulty arose with regard to the church that we attended. The denomination was a religiously-liberal denomination, in keeping with my parents’ views. But the pastor was not. Specifically, in his case, he was very much opposed to homosexuality, viewing it as a grave sin. 

    So when one of my friends was outed as a lesbian against her will by her brother, my pastor was not able to provide me with any comfort as I tried to comfort my friend. He only offered condemnation of my friend’s orientation. He thought that the social isolation and persistent ridicule that she experienced in response to this event was fully deserved. Never mind the fact that she was 11 years old.

    The dissonance I perceived between what he preached and what he practiced, at least with regard to compassion for the pain of others, pushed me away from the church. I was offended by his stance, deeply offended. And so I left my church and didn’t look back.

    Now to look at Bengtson’s fourth point: 

  1. Don’t forget the grandparents. Increasingly, family influences are extending beyond the nuclear family of mothers and fathers to involve grandparents and great-grandparents…For many children, grandparents are the de facto moral and religious models and teachers in lieu of parents who are too exhausted or too busy on weekends to go to church or temple. As longevity continues to expand, even great-grandparents are continuing to exert religious influence, as seen in several families in our study.”

    My grandmother, of blessed memory, was a devout woman. And she absolutely loved that I chose the rabbinate. She’d tell me, ‘we all worship the same God,’ and she also said, ‘had it been an option when I was young, I think that I would have been a pastor.’ She drove up from Texas to see me off with a blessing before I left for rabbinical school; she sent me spending money throughout my school years. One of the very last things she did before she died was attend my ordination. She modeled a deep commitment to religious life.

    If you are a grandparent and you are hoping that your kids will raise Jewish grandchildren, what should you do? Don’t lecture, nag, or guilt them into doing anything. It won’t help, and it very well may cause genuine harm.

    The absolute best thing you can do is offer to take the kids for a weekend whenever you can do so and then engage in the observance of Shabbat and holidays. Go to services, light candles, and say the prayers. Model engagement in Jewish life as a natural part of your own experience. Your grandkids will be paying attention: they are watching you carefully with the intent of copying everything that you do. So don’t worry; just do. The grandkids are watching.

  2. Don’t give up on Prodigals, because many do return. Devout parents are often devastated to find that their children have become Religious Rebels, young adults who have rejected their parents’ religious tradition and converted to another religion or dropped out altogether. But one implication of our study is this: Many Prodigals do return.”

    In my case, it’s pretty clear that I won’t ever be returning to my original religious tradition. But that’s because I’ve invested so much of myself into this path. I’ve been Jewish nearly my entire adult life: I reached adulthood a bit more than 20 years ago; I became Jewish just shy of 20 years ago. Most folks aren’t as clearly invested in religious observance as I am, and most folks don’t have as strong a need as I did for my religious tradition to make rational sense.

So, given what we know about religious continuity, what can rabbis and congregations do? Here’s what Bengtson had to say: 

  1. “Focus on the family as a unit—much more than most congregations do today. If churches [and synagogues] want to retain the next generation, they must not ignore families and strengthening connections across generations in their programming…They may have programs they call ‘intergenerational,’ but these involve bringing together individuals of different ages – children, youth, adults, older adults – not parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren…The findings of our study suggest there is a need to focus on whole families and on strengthening intergenerational bonds…”

    Fascinating. According to this research, the most successful programs (at least in terms of Jewish continuity) that we offer here at Temple Beth Israel are the holiday parties: our Rosh Hashanah family dinner, our Hanukah party, our Purim service and carnival (this weekend!), our Passover Seder, and our Rabin Religious School end-of-year bar-be-que.

    In practical terms, this is what it means: if you want to encourage Jewish continuity, come to our Purim service on Sunday and bring the kids and grandkids.

    Even if you don’t have kids, it’s helpful if you attend, because the kids will appreciate a full house. It tells them: this is important.

  2. “Take a long-range view. A second message to religious communities concerned about youth is this: Don’t panic…Clergy should be reminded that historically religious intensity has ebbed and flowed and that this has been particularly evident among youth. The present era of a lower rate of church affiliation and participation may represent a temporary dip over time.”

    Over the past 150 years, our congregation has ebbed and flowed as well. What has made a real difference for us has been the commitment on the part of previous generations to building a legacy. Their efforts – specifically, the efforts toward consolidating two congregations into one, building a beautiful and well-crafted building, and creating an endowment – have given us staying power, even when times are tough. We’ll be here for the long haul.

  3. “The younger generation does grow up…The seemingly diverse religious expressions seen among teens and twenty- to-thirty-somethings may change in the course of their lives as they grow up and grow older. For some young adults, a return to their religious tradition occurs when they marry; for others, this happens with the birth of children or later on, with the onset of the empty nest, grandparenthood, or retirement, or even later, with aging-related challenges concerning health or the death of a spouse. If church [or synagogue] seems irrelevant to a nineteen-year-old, that might change for her as she becomes a mother of school-age children or a seventy-three-year-old widow when the social support of a congregation may become increasingly important…”

    Our congregation has grown in the past two years; and nearly all of the growth has come from young families. Right now (with God’s help) we’re on track for doing a half-dozen or more bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies in 2027. And, consistent with the findings of this research, our other demographic group that has grown in the past two years is our retirees. Those are the two groups most likely to join a synagogue.

  4. “Religious renewal has often been sparked by generational innovation. There is another way to view the story of ‘discontinuity’ in religious transmission: the possibilities for religious revival or reform because of young adults’ critiques and departures.

    Each generation has its own preferences, and will want to put its stamp on the organization. So we will need to adapt to their tastes and interests as time goes forward, to make sure that families and individuals across the spectrum of ages feel welcome and valued in our congregation. Some of those changes will seem strange to older generations, but they are a necessary part of congregational life.

With all of that said, I’d like to close on his most hopeful note: “Finally, the results of this study are also relevant to sociologists and social scientists studying the family. They suggest that most families are doing pretty well in their primary functions, which are… to foster companionship and to raise children, providing them with the moral wherewithal to make the right decisions as adults.”

Of course, he says, “Intact families tend to have an easier time of this than parents who have divorced; religiously homogenous parents are more successful than parents in interfaith marriages; parents who are warm and affirming do better than those who are cold and distant; and families where grandparents reinforce the parents’ religious socialization efforts succeed more than where they do not. But where any of these supports is lacking, other family mechanisms can compensate; families are wonderfully resilient.” That’s wonderful news indeed.

Happily, so is our congregation; it is also wonderfully resilient, largely because we are, in a sense, an extended family. We reinforce the messages in the home and provide a community for sharing the joys and sorrows of living. I hope that you make yourself right at home.



[1] All of the quotations here come from Chapter 10, “Conclusion: What We Have Learned and How It Might Be Useful,” in Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengtson with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 184-206.

Vayikra — sacrifices

March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? I mean, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?

As I explained last week, in the 12th century Maimonides argued that the sacrificial system was absolutely necessary: if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’”[1]

The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompted God to provide an alternative:

“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”[2] 

This early form of worship might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for it was an accommodation to the weakness of human beings. 

This week I’d like to look at someone from the 19th century, someone who read Maimonides and agreed with him, someone who attempted to extend and update Maimonides’ medieval arguments so that they might be more in line with the philosophy of modernity.

Hermann Cohen was a philosopher and academic who was the chair of the philosophy department at Phillips University Marburg at the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th. He was also proud participant in the Reform movement. In his major philosophical treatise, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen argued that the sacrificial system was an important step in the development of rational religion.

In his view, the sacrifices were the first step in the evolution of prayer.

Cohen argues that the catalyst for this evolution – from physical sacrifice to verbal prayer – was the searing words of the prophets, who would vocally criticize the sacrificial cult. Consider, for example, the following passage from the first chapter of Isaiah:

“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? – says the Lord –
I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.’”

And why is God not listening, you ask? The next verse provides the reason, along with its remedy:

“Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.”

When we see this kind of criticism, it is possible to understand how the Israelites were able to let go of the sacrificial system when the Temple was destroyed. Isaiah and like-minded prophets emphasized the need to engage in ethical behavior, rather than the need to engage in meticulous observance of Temple ritual. Even without the Temple, it was indeed still possible to act in an ethical manner. So his words provided a clue as to how to respond when the Temple was no longer standing.

But that still leaves us with our initial set of questions: what was the act of sacrifice trying to accomplish? And why is it no longer necessary?

To answer those questions, Cohen cites a Talmudic concept: shegagah, the accidental or unintentional sin. Specifically, he is referring to the idea that an intentional sin might be reckoned by God to be accidental if a person makes a concerted and whole-hearted attempt at repentance.[3] In Cohen’s words:

“To err, to go astray, is humanity’s lot, but therefore shegagah is the limit of one’s fault. Whenever this limit is overstepped, only God knows what happens to someone. Human wisdom is at a loss in the presence of the possibility of evil in humanity.” We don’t know how to respond to evil, and furthermore, we don’t know how to forgive sins.

Thus, Cohen argues, “The Day of Atonement maintains the fiction of the unshakable moral preservation of everything human: all human sin is shegagah. Therefore God can forgive without relinquishing God’s justice.”[4]

Let me explain what that last line means. If God were always merciful, there would be no justice in the world because all things would be permitted. On the other hand, if God were always just, there would be no repentance, because nothing would ever be forgiven. So, to preserve both justice and mercy, one should say that all human sin is shegagah, accidental sin. Yes, it is a sin – hence the need for justice – but it is also an accident – hence the need for mercy. Is that a fiction? Of course: but it is a necessary one for moving forward with repentance.

It’s a radical idea that he is proposing here: God’s love is such that any sins we might commit should be reckoned as accidental. All we need to do is turn and repent.

But it’s one he firmly believes. As Cohen writes, “It is the essence of God to forgive the sins of humanity. This is the most important content of the correlation of God and humanity.”[5] This is how God relates to the world.

We are, in essence, already forgiven, even before the act of turning toward God.

We are in need of rituals, however. A sinner is unable to achieve a sense of expiation and forgiveness through his or her own efforts alone.

Let me explain: if you have done something wrong, you want to make it right. But even after you have apologized and righted the wrong, there is this lingering sense of not-rightness. You need to be forgiven. For this reason, Cohen argues, you need a congregation and a ritual. As Cohen writes, “The individual needs the congregation for his or her confession, and within the congregation, sacrifice.”[6]

Thus, the great glory of the sacrificial system was that it established the custom of public worship involving a set ritual. That’s a necessary step in the evolution of religious understanding.

But, to fully understand how this process evolved, it is also important to note here that the priest was not the one granting atonement. Rather, God was the one granting atonement, and doing so in response to a ritual act.

So when it was not possible for the priest to engage in this ritual anymore – after the Second Temple was destroyed – it was entirely possible that a different kind of ritual could be substituted for the sacrificial act. If it is God who is granting atonement, then the priest is helpful but ultimately unnecessary.

So, for example, in the case of the Day of Atonement, it was possible to replace the sacrificial system with the recitation of words – which is precisely what happened.

It was possible for the Israelites to change from one form of worship form to another in the wake of the destruction because the necessary theological structures were already in place. The prophets declared that ethical behavior was more important than ritual behavior. And the priests were clearly acting as a go-between rather than a replacement for God. So without the Temple, what is needed? The answer is clear: ethical behavior plus a ritual for achieving atonement.

What should we make of this evolution now? And what does it tell us about ourselves?

Prayer forms are always changing, and appropriately so. Our prayer looks different than it did a hundred years ago. At the same time, prayer must include elements from the past. Even when our needs change, we crave continuity. Our prayer has a lot in common with the prayers of a hundred years ago.

We also learn from this example that we are not so different from our ancient forebears. We need a ritual to release ourselves of that sense of wrongdoing. We are forgiven, of course, even before we ask: but we need some way of expressing our sorrow, our sense of wrongdoing, and our intention to make things right.

So, when we read the book of Leviticus, we ought to read it with that frame of mind: this is not an ancient book of Temple procedures; it is, rather, the timeless expression of our longing for God. 


[1] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), III:32, p. 526.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the Bavli: Rosh Hashanah 17b and Yoma 86b.

[4] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Simon Kaplan, transl. Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 223. I have changed the translation here to make it gender-neutral.

[5] Ibid., p. 213.

[6] Ibid., p. 200.

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