I wrote the following ten years ago while attending the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. It is even more resounding today.

I was aware of the demographic changes which reveal a declining and aging Jewish population in the United States and as well as a growing estrangement towards Jewish life by a large number of American Jews, I was not privy to one of the possible reasons for the latter. [1] The nature of Jewish education and more importantly the ideas that are being communicated to Jewish children are in my opinion, at the heart of the crisis facing the Jewish community.

It is clear that each Jewish movement transmits its sense of identity via different means. The Orthodox community transmits its values and its identity through the medium of halakhah which is reinforced on a daily and one might say micro level through observances that permeate every facet of life. For most non-Orthodox families, the process of transmitting Jewish values takes place in events or practices held in common with their Orthodox counterparts (e.g. Shabbat, Kiddush, Bar/Bat Mitzvah K’riat Torah, etc.) albeit in differing levels of intensity, depth, or observance. In non-Orthodox settings a critical aspect of Jewish training for children is relegated to Hebrew school. And this reality is at the heart of the crisis that confronts the lives of many Jewish children as they grow.

An Introduction to Jewish Theology: Biblical and Rabbinic Concepts on God, the Torah, Life After Death, and More

In one of our class sessions, Dr. Sherwin stressed Abraham Joshua Heschel’s contention that faith is memory and how foundational this idea is to Judaism and to Jewish living. On the importance of memory, Heschel notes:

“When we want to understand ourselves, to find out what is most precious in our lives, we search our memory…That only is valuable in our experience which s worth remembering. Remembrance is the touchstone of all actions. Memory is a source of faith. To have faith is to remember. Jewish faith is a recollection of that which happened to Israel in the past…Recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past.”[2]

The observance of Jewish holidays and the observance of various Jewish practices articulate in ritual, various theological ideas reflective of a collective Jewish memory. The sacred texts of Israel establish the religious imperative of remembering for the entire Jewish community. The Biblical concern with memory is tied to the notion of a holy people. The Biblical tradition regarding Passover for example is quite clear. The meaning of Passover is connected to the Exodus from Egypt which is fundamental to Jewish faith as the Ten Commandments read: “I am the L-rd your G-d who (because I) brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Israel believes because its faith in G-d reflects its memory of this historic event.

That being said Sherwin followed this statement by mentioning Rabbi David Wolpe in a less than glowing manner. The basis of the critique was founded on a statement that Wolpe had apparently made. In effect “the Exodus never occurred.” The subject of archeology and textual criticism is of great interest to me. I am certainly not of the mindset that requires the sacred Scripture of Judaism to be a book on history or science. But the significance and devastating nature of Wolpe’s statement was realized the next day.

In a different class, a fellow student mentioned that she was a teacher and she communicated that her students frequently asked her about the stories they reviewed in the Torah and she specifically mentioned the Exodus. In response to a question a student asked, she stated that the “Exodus never happened.” I stood by silent and the gravity of this statement hit me.

The previous day, Dr. Sherwin had stated in effect that the Exodus from Egypt was a “historic” event even if all the details were not historical. Whatever the case, something happened there, which led the Ten Commandments to begin with the statement: “I am the L-rd your G-d because I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

The Impact of a Weak Foundation

The impact of telling a Jewish child that a foundational event of the Jewish people never occurred is a, if not the reason why Jews are losing their sense of connection to Judaism. I consider myself to be a mature individual who continually reviews and struggles to know G-d in history, in science, in religious texts, and experiences that I find myself in. But there is always a foundational belief that the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob acted in history, in whatever form that might entail, on behalf of the children of Israel.

To undermine this idea, this commitment, or to borrow from the Rambam, this principle can lead to nothing other than Jews who will question the value, purpose, and meaning of a Jewish life based on nothing more than fairy tales. This is not to undermine the benefit if not the necessity of engaging historical and textual criticism. It is rather, to borrow from the Union of Traditional Judaism’s motto, an attempt to merge “genuine faith, with intellectual honesty.” Children however do not know of historiography. Almost anticipating this problem, the Torah states:

“Take heed to yourself diligently, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest they depart your heart all the days of your life, make them known to your children and your children’s children.”[3]

The Torah does not simply command parents and elders to transmit their memory but commands children or youth of future generations to inquire as well.

“Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you.”[4]

Children know, I believe, what their parents and teachers impart to them. While the Haggadah describes the child that does not know how to ask and the evil child who desires no part in the Exodus, today we face parents and teachers who instead are undermining the vital questions children need answers to. For my nephews and niece, the Orthodox instruction they receive is one that might be criticized for various reasons. The one element I rest assured on however, is that whatever path their lives make take them on, they will have a spiritual Jewish foundation on which to believe, to doubt, to struggle, and to build on.

Any teacher or any philosophy, regardless of the Jewish movement it may reflect, that espouses something less than this, should not be surprised when they read these demographic studies and the real consequences they generate resulting in a disconnect of Jewish life. As Sherwin notes, the Hebrew word for memory is zakhar. Most importantly Sherwin states:

“But memory does not merely signify mental recall, but includes a call to action. Not affirmation of dogmas but evocation of deeds is the meaning of this term. Liturgy and ritual serves as vehicles to prevent memory from deteriorating into an abstract reminiscence…As Abraham Heschel put it, ‘An esthetic experience leaves behind the memory of a perception and enjoyment; a prophetic experience leaves behind the memory of commitment.’”[5]

If memory is undermined then what hope can there be for an individual to allow liturgy and ritual to translate into a “memory of commitment” as they grow? As Sherwin notes, rejection of the memories bequeathed to us is a form of “spiritual self-disinheritance.”[6]

I do not teach children but there must be recognition that the theological truths of Judaism must be communicated even to children as the Torah states to teach them diligently.

[1] Egon Mayer, Barry Kosmin, and Ariela Keysar, American Jewish Identity Survey ( New York: GCCUNY, 2001).

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1951), pp. 162-163.

[3] Deuteronomy 4:9

[4] Deuteronomy 32:7

[5] (Reader, 20).

[6] (Reader, 21).

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Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics.