What are the ingredients that enhance Jewish continuity? What has been the secret sauce that has granted contemporary Orthodoxy a relatively high level of continuity as a movement? And, knowing that within Orthodoxy continuity is far from a sure thing, what can each segment of our community, each institution and family, do to make it more likely that our children and students will follow us?
Successful generational transmission of faith depends heavily on the quality of both the practiced faith and the generational relationship. In that light, to probe the generational staying power of our faith, we should aspire to meet the following standards: modeling a robust religious life that is encompassing, consistent, joyous and mission-driven, and building relationships characterized by warmth and trust. These standards can serve as points for meaningful reflection (cheshbon hanefesh), or as aspirational goals for our communal and familial religious life.
Modeling a Robust Religious Life
What are the components of a robust religious life?
Encompassing: The Torah’s commandment to teach our children Torah is expressed in the opening paragraphs of the Shema as the presentation of an encompassing way of life: “Teach these [words of Torah] to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand and as an emblem between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.”1 The clear message is that Torah cannot be effectively taught as a tangential pursuit, but rather as a pervasive presence that informs every aspect of our lives.2 The more completely Torah fills our lives, the more it serves as the essence of the legacy that we share with our children. Even in the healthiest of families our children are less likely to continue our hobbies than they are to maintain our fundamental way of life. This bodes well for those whose home and family life truly revolve around their Judaism and whose educational and life choices reflect that focus. This is not true of all Jews, Orthodox or otherwise.
Consistent: Nobody is perfect at living up to his or her values, but blatant inconsistency invites rejection. Pretenders are not effective teachers or transmitters. The Torah3 describes the pretender as “shoresh por’eh rosh v’laanah,” a root from which bitter and poisonous growths will sprout. As the Ramban noted, while it may be possible for an individual to maintain an external religious life while hiding his or her true feelings beneath a veneer of compliance, this will not work for his or her children or students. They will see right through it. And there is nothing as disenfranchising from religion as the real or perceived hypocrisy of its adherents and advocates.
Consistency is not just about avoiding faking. It is also about living up to our true values. Materialism, arrogance and judgmentalism are inconsistent with our belief system and a significant source of disenfranchisement.4 Simplicity, humility and generosity strengthen the bonds of faith.
Joyous: Happy customers are the best generators of business growth. Rav Moshe Feinstein5 famously saw this as the cause of the failure of Jewish continuity amongst so many immigrants who heroically maintained their faith and Shabbat observance despite overwhelming adversity. While they may have been strong enough to accept the sacrifices of observant Jewish life—“iz shver tzu zein a Yid”—their children would not be so similarly inclined. We cannot expect our children or students to be heroes. Instead, we—parents and teachers—must convey an attitude that demonstrates trust in God that we will not lose out materially by serving Him, and that we appreciate the profoundly rewarding experience of a Torah life beyond anything the material world could possibly offer.
The Torah6 surprisingly describes its worst curses being visited upon those who failed to serve God with joy and gladness when blessed with so much. One may suggest that it is not the lack of joy in observance per se that is the cause for punishment, but rather that lack of joy will ultimately lead to wholesale abandonment of the faith by future generations. To paraphrase the daily blessing over the Torah, if the Torah is experienced as something sweet in our mouths then indeed our descendants and theirs and the descendants of all the Jewish people will continue to be engaged in Torah. And it is conversely clear that a contributing factor to the massive failure of Orthodox continuity in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries in Europe, Israel and America was the sadness that resulted from the poverty and suffering that were the lot of so many in our community of faith.
Mission-driven: Another contributing factor to that epic past failure of Orthodox continuity—aside from the poverty and suffering—was the strong attraction of the many movements, the “isms,” that characterized that period of history. Jews were drawn away from an Orthodoxy focused on its own survival to the transformative movements of the time, such as Zionism, which aspired to change the Jewish future, and socialism, which sought to revolutionize the world. Indeed, the turnaround for Orthodoxy only began when the pioneering and revolutionary spirit moved members of the younger generation to find their way back and reinvigorate Orthodox life. And it is thus a genuine source of concern that our generation of Orthodoxy is more complacent, having “made it.”
Chaim Rabinowitz is a seventh-generation Yerushalmi whose great-grandfather, a follower of the Alter Rebbe, the great Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, moved the family to Jerusalem more than 150 years ago. Yet, shortly after Chaim and his wife married and had their first child, they left Israel to be the Chabad emissaries in Brisk, a city with a few hundred Jews located within Belarus, White Russia, an area that had once been home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. And they have not looked back.
I met today’s Rav Chaim Brisker at Ben Gurion Airport, riding a rental car shuttle, and he explained his life to me in minutes: People think this work is mesirus nefesh, an act of self-sacrifice. I really do not think it is. Let me explain. Many afternoons we have a “kollel” in Brisk. What is our kollel? At 5:00 pm, some of the Jews we’ve established connections with come to our center for a glass of tea and a bit of Jewish learning and prayer. On a good day, ten or eleven Jews come. Who do you think provides them with a warm drink? Who helps them to put on tefillin or shows them the place in the siddur? Our children are our staff. From when they are eight or nine years old, they are there with us, welcoming Jews, taking care of them, even teaching them. Do you know what this has done for our children? Had we stayed here in Yerushalayim, our children would be consumers, sitting around waiting for us and for others to do for them. Now, they are leaders, givers, people who make life better for themselves and for others. That is a priceless benefit. That is not mesirus nefesh.
The above is one striking example of a sense of mission, but it is far from the only model. We can be similarly driven when we live as people of faith recognizing the inestimable value of living our private lives according to God’s word, of studying and certainly teaching a Torah that sustains the world, living with personal spiritual ambition and with the commitment to be God’s hand to extend His kindness to those who need it most.
We must model lives of faith that are encompassing and consistent, joyous and mission-driven. In a sense, these are communal values that in large measure—though not completely—are established as the values and mores of a broad religious community. But continuity cannot be built on communal values alone; it requires the more personal next step of relationship, the ultimate medium of transmission across generations. That is an equally compelling task that we must accomplish individually.
Building Warm and Trusting Relationships
How can a parent best transmit faith to the next generation? What are the ingredients that should characterize their relationship? While we will speak specifically to the familial relationship, these same ingredients are fundamental to the successful educational setting.
Warmth: The Midrash7 provides a striking image of parental communication.
When God first appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, Moshe was new to prophecy. God said to Himself: “If I appear to Him in a loud voice, I will frighten him. If I appear in a low voice, he will disregard the prophecy.” Thus God chose to appear to Moshe using Moshe’s father’s voice, whereupon Moshe responded, “I am ready; what does Father want of me?” God responded, “I am not your father; I am the God of your father. I came to you gently so that you would not be fearful.”
This encounter begins the process of the Exodus that we commemorate on Pesach. It is remarkably fitting that the vehicle for perpetuating this story and for passing our faith across the generations is the Seder, where fathers turn to their children, welcoming their questions and sharing with them the story of our People. On every Seder night, as at the outset of the original redemption, God speaks to the Children of Israel through the voices of their fathers. And as the Midrash teaches, the voice of the father is meant to be the perfect pitch; not too strong to be frightening, but not so soft as to be disregarded.
Trust: Our bedrock of trust is strengthened or weakened by our experience as children. Parents are the visible sources of a child’s existence and support. If they are there for the child, he will tend to be more secure and trusting; if not, it will be a challenge for him to have trust in both man and God.
The Ramban8 wrote that the direct Jewish experience of prophecy at Sinai positioned the Jewish people to reject any competing claims by other prophets, and when we communicate that experience to our children, they too will know it as the truth, essentially as if they had seen it themselves. They will be certain that we did not testify falsely to them, that we would not bequeath to them something meaningless and valueless. Our children will have absolute confidence in us, trusting our account of Sinai as completely as if they had seen the events with their own eyes.
Are you confident that your children feel that way about you? I hope so. Do you think everyone feels that way about their parents? Absolutely not. But if that is the case, why would God build the faith of the generations on the word of our parents, if that is something so uncertain, fragile and subjective?
Perhaps it is because God recognized that if we were not able to trust our parents, no verification or proof from any other source would enable us to grow our trust in Him either. Trust in God is so deeply intertwined in the trust we have for our parents that it is fitting for our faith in God to be built upon parental trust.
Yes, it is certainly possible for a person to develop faith in God despite the failures of trust at home. Yet that faith will need to be found through creative discovery, following a path such as that of Avraham Avinu. But Jews are not expected to discover God. Our standard pathway is to develop faith in God built on tradition, which is based in turn on trust in the people in our lives, first and foremost our parents.
We must always bear in mind that the Jewish people have not survived as a community of ideas. The multitudes who were attracted to monotheism by Avraham did not remain as part of our community of faith.9 Jewish continuity began when Avraham built a family. Once that core of faith and trust—the glue of familial relationship—was established, we could welcome converts—virtual children of Avraham—to join that family.
Family, warmth, trust. A community of faith will be strongest when its members view and treat each other with the love and loyalty of family. A family will transmit its faith across generations when its bonds of warmth and trust10 are strong, when the home is characterized by calm, consistency and safety.
A Final Word—God’s Role
“‘As for me, this is My covenant with them,’ says Hashem, ‘My spirit that is on you and My words that I have placed in your mouth will not depart from your mouth and from the mouth of your children and from the mouth of their descendants from this time on and forever.’”11 God is eternal. To the extent that we share Torah as carriers of His spirit and communicators of His word, we tap into that eternal quality. And to the extent that we recognize, acknowledge and seek the role of God every step along the way, to that extent we will be blessed with His critical assistance to assure our continuity. As the sainted Chafetz Chaim advised: “The prayers of a father and mother shall be constant that their children should be engaged in Torah, [and become] righteous people, with good character.”12 Kein yehi ratzon.
1. Devarim 6:6-9; see, as well, Devarim 11:18-20.
2. Vern L. Bengston, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations (New York, 2013), 39-40.
3. Devarim 29:17.
4. Faranak Margolese, Off the Derech: How to Respond to the Challenge (2005), 79-80.
5. Darash Moshe, Bereishit 31:14; Iggerot Moshe, YD 3:71.
6. Devarim 28:47.
7. Shemot Rabbah 3:1.
8. Devarim 4:9-10.
9. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 29.
10. Bengston, 73-74.
11. Yeshayahu 59:21.
12. Mishneh Berurah 47:10.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.