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!

Getting Lucky

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment


Abraham wishes to find a wife for his son Isaac, and sends his servant to find one among his kinsmen. Approaching the well near where Abraham’s kinsmen dwell, the servant stops and says a prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”[1]

It is a rather odd prayer: He is asking to be lucky.

As the Medieval commentator Abravanel comments: “If the servant relied on Divine Providence and for that reason prayed to [God], how could he invoke the workings of chance and ask [God] to engineer a coincidence when these are two mutually exclusive categories? What happens through the workings of Providence cannot be termed chance or coincidence.”[2]

“Moreover,” our more contemporary commentator and teacher Nehama Leibowitz adds, “is it conceivable for one who believed in Divine Providence to accept the existence of such a thing as ‘chance’ and even go so far as to request that the Almighty…to prepare such a situation?”[3]

Either God is in charge of all of these small details, arranges things to happen the way they do, and therefore it is no coincidence, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck – or – God is not in charge of these details, and does not make such things happen, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck.

There’s a third option, one that Leibowitz proposes: “Abraham’s servant entreated the Almighty as the Prime Mover behind all things to arrange that matters should work out in accordance with his desires.”[4]

In other words, there is luck – God is not a micromanager – but ultimately it was God who created the situation in the first place.

I think that these points would be clearer if we use the metaphor of a casino:

Option 1 is that the game is rigged, and you are asking the casino owner to load the dice in your favor. Except then it is no longer a game of chance. This is what’s called a deterministic universe, in that the outcome is determined in advance. The notion of divine Providence requires at least some amount of determinism in order to work.

Option 2 is that the game is not rigged, and the casino owner is not able to intervene. You get what you get. In that case, it’s not particularly useful to ask the owner to load the dice for you.  This is what we mean when we speak of free will: you pay your money and take your chances. And you get what you get. Free will requires that the outcome is not determined in advance. In order for it to be a real choice, either outcome must be possible. And therefore not already determined.

Option 3 is that the game is not usually rigged, but under special circumstances it’s possible to load the dice, if you should ask the casino owner nicely.  This is what we mean when we use the phrase “Special Providence.” Most of the time the rules are in place, but God can intervene as needed.

I use the imagery of a casino for a reason: Most of us would prefer that we had the power to rig the game. Or rather, that we had the power to convince the casino owner to rig the game in our favor.

Yet, at the heart of it, the rigged game is not just or fair, is it?

Can justice flourish if the game is rigged so that the good always win?

And would you want to participate in a system where what is good is defined exclusively by what the casino owner likes? Let us hope that it is a benevolent casino owner. Most of us would prefer that there was some benchmark, some absolute by which goodness could be measured, rather than having to bend to the caprice of another.

Okay, so let’s agree that God is infinitely good, unlike our hypothetical casino owner, and God is also just, and fair – and let’s say that the notion of God’s goodness is used as the benchmark. Would it work to have the game that is rigged in favor of those who were good, as God is good in an absolute sense?

But now you have another problem: are the ones who are being good really actually being good – or are they merely being prudent?

For example, imagine a cashier at that casino with a cashbox that will be audited at the end of the shift. If the cashier gives you correct change and does not cheat you, is the cashier doing what is right because it is indeed right, or is the cashier merely doing what is necessary to keep out of trouble?

If you know that the cashbox will be audited, and that there are indeed consequences when it is not kept accurate, then it is simply foolish to give incorrect change, except by unconscious mistake.

Interestingly, my friend the Christian fundamentalist believes that people will only do what is right if they know that their behavior is being judged. The cashier with the cashbox, in his opinion, gives correct change only if it is well-known and well-established hat the cashbox will be audited.

I tend to disagree with him about that, but I am also an optimist by nature.

But let’s return to our example: For the game to be fair, it can’t be rigged – right? You pay your money, you take your chances, and you get what you get.

So let’s look again at the servant and his prayer: why would he be asking the casino owner to bring him luck, if the game is not rigged? As if the casino owner could help! And if the casino owner can help, then why ask for luck? You ask instead for a good outcome. The casino owner has no power over ‘luck’. Luck is not helpful here.

This paradox is precisely why some commentators (including me) prefer to read the servant’s statement as a test rather than a prayer: He is calling out to God to be a witness, not a guarantor.

The servant’s camel request is actually somewhat annoying and difficult to accomplish. The young woman is to bring water for him and for all ten of his camels as well. That’s a lot of water – a lot more than what can be carried on her shoulder. The laws of hospitality require that she give a drink to a stranger – so the first part of his test is one of basic civility – but as for watering his camels, well, he’s on his own.

So he’s seeking out a woman who will go out of her way help more than is required of her – and who is strong enough to do it. He has, after all, ten camels with him, and every one of them can drink several troughs full.

To give some Biblical background: In the Biblical stories, the extent of a person’s hospitality is considered a reliable indicator of a person’s character. For example, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah are considered wicked because they wish to inflict harm on strangers in their city. Abraham is considered righteous because he immediately extends hospitality to the three strangers that appear at his encampment – he runs to serve them. And the refrain ‘be good to the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’ appears repeatedly in the Exodus narratives.

So the servant is looking for a righteous woman, and a strong one, and (interestingly enough) one who will talk to strangers. And he indeed finds her in the person of Rebecca.

Though the Bible does not say that his request (or prayer, or test) was fulfilled by God, the narrative gives us that sense: no sooner than he had finished speaking did she appear. And not only does she fulfill the requirements by offering to give him water and to water his camels as well, but it says repeatedly that she hurried to do so. And she does so with such graciousness and charm that she must have seemed heaven-sent.

Still, we need to be careful here. If we accept that this woman is sent out by God in fulfillment of the servant’s prayer, then we also have to accept those times when she does not appear, when the prayer does not work, when things don’t work out right.

This date is also the date of Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazis’ reign of terror against the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Do we blame God for that one too?

Let’s then go back to our casino example: if the game is fair, then it is not rigged. We don’t automatically win. That only happens when we are small children and our parents indulge us.

Good does not always win – but it should. It is a moral imperative that we make that happen, that we engage with the universe and see to it that it is fair and just. The game is not rigged – but somehow the outcome matters, and it matters greatly. Which is, of course, where the casino metaphor breaks down.

Because, of course, we are not merely throwing dice. The outcome matters greatly.

So let’s look for a moment at a different kind of prayer, at the Misheberach, the prayer for healing. The phrase ‘misheberach’ means ‘the One who blesses’ – may the One who blesses, who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca Rachel and Leah, heal this person.

Is this prayer some kind of foolishness? Certainly not. But are we not asking for something that cannot happen? Are we not asking for God to intervene to create a favorable outcome.

Not exactly. When we try to get God to do our will, that is called theurgy. Theurgy is a fancy word for magic. We are trying to cast a spell that will cause the Godhead to do our bidding. The Misheberach prayer is not theurgy; it is not magic.

Nor are we invoking it to say that we think that this illness is some kind of test, in the sense of ‘if we pass this test, then we will be righteous.’

Rather, it is a statement of outcomes. It is the expression of a wish to be whole again, to be healed, the acknowledgement of our fear in the face of disease, our desire to hold on to what we love, our interest in rising above our mere flesh to have a life of meaning.

It is a request that all of the spiritual energy that is available to us – and it is considerable – be focused on the goal of healing, this one person, right now.

The servant was not praying for luck: he was praying for the ability to discern the results of his test. And we are not praying for luck: we are praying for the ability to respond in the best possible way to the challenges we face.

And that is a very real prayer, and a very powerful one.

[1] JPS translation

[2] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

[3] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. I removed the word ‘Himself’ in order to make the phrase gender-neutral.

[4] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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