Pondering the future of Judaism

Galit Lev-Harir

By Galit Lev-Harir

In late August I volunteered at the Interfaith Partnership booth at the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park. The booth was designed to enable different faith groups to display articles relating to their faith, and to have volunteers onsite to be present and answer questions from the public about the Jewish religion.

While I was sitting at the booth, a man came up and asked me the following question: “I’ve always wondered – What is Judaism? Is it a religion? Is it a nationality? Is it a cultural group?” I smiled – thinking how savvy the inquisitor was – and replied, “It all depends on who you ask.”

Indeed, Judaism is different things to different people – and I believe it is that difference that defines each individual’s relationship to his/her Judaism and to Israel. To some people, Judaism is merely a religion. Religion is a very personal thing; each individual decides his/her belief. Most of us do not believe in imposing our beliefs on others. Therefore, if Judaism is only a belief about a divine presence, there is no logical reason to think that such a belief must be passed down to one’s children.

A friend is currently studying to be a Methodist minister. One day, she and I discussed the fact that her husband does not attend church regularly, nor does my husband attend synagogue (despite the fact that he was raised in an Orthodox home and attended yeshiva for three years). We also talked about how we would feel if our children chose not to follow in our religious affiliations. She said she would be accepting as long as her children found a belief system that worked for them. However, I would find it much more difficult to accept if my children were to abandon Judaism and raise their children in a different faith.

In October 2008, I experienced an “aha” moment when I realized what Judaism means to me. I was in New Mexico, listening to representatives of a Native American consulting firm talk about the Tribal Nations in New Mexico. They explained that while outsiders tend to group Native Americans as one people, in reality, each tribe is its own “nation,” with its own language, its own culture and its own religion. They explained how the tribes have struggled to maintain their identities in light of their displacement from their traditional lands, and how they find it difficult to pass on their cultural heritage to their children, because many of their children simply want to be American and aren’t interested in their ancient customs and traditions.

The more the consultant spoke, the more I realized the similarities between Native Americans and the ancient Israelites who are known today as the Jewish people. After all, the ancient Israelites were simply a tribe who settled in their ancestral land and who were later dispossessed. While in exile in Babylon, they struggled to maintain their identity and to pass on their traditions – and their yearning to return to their native land – to their children. They developed rigid laws in order to ensure that their children would continue in their ways. Strict rules regarding food preparation and eating guaranteed that their children would not be able to eat with people of other faiths, which limited interaction with outsiders.

For me, the connection to our ancestral homeland, Israel, is an essential component of the Jewish tribal nation, aka, the Jewish people. However, most American Jews under age 35 do not agree. According to a recent study, as quoted by Daniel Gordis in Tablet Magazine, “Eighty percent of Jewish Americans 65 years of age and older said that Israel’s destruction would, indeed, be a personal tragedy for them. But amazingly, 50 percent of those 35 years old and younger said that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy. Similarly, a 2011 study of American Jews showed that the younger the cohort, the lower their support for Israel.”

I think the reason that younger Jews are less connected to Israel is because younger Jews tend to view Judaism as merely a religion, a personal belief, if that. I wonder if this may be due in part to the fact that many supplemental religious schools – charged with delivering comprehensive religious instruction in a limited number of hours – tend not to emphasize Israel in their curricula. For many young Jews, most of their knowledge about Israel comes from the TV sound bites that emphasize the conflict with the Palestinians. Relatively few Jewish children in America grow up feeling that Israel is their homeland.

Gordis’ recent article in Tablet Magazine was entitled “No Jewish People Without Israel: Why the future of American Judaism as we know it depends on the survival of the Jewish state.” I believe that while Judaism as a religious belief can continue to exist without Israel, there can be no Jewish people – no Jewish nation – without Israel.  

So what is Judaism? For the past three thousand years, it has been a religion, a nationality AND a cultural identity. But what will it be in the next generation? That all depends on how we choose to educate our children.