Children never cease to amaze me …This past Sunday, Prof. James Cohen invited me to speak to his Sunday school class to examine whether having a religious identity is more important than having a Jewish ethnic identity. Personally, I believe that being a healthy Jew involves a mixture of both the religious and the cultural. Of course such discussions often lead to broader issues pertaining to the age-old question: What does it mean to be a Jew today?
In the interest of brevity, like many other ethnic groups, being Jewish certainly has a rich ethnic dimension that can be seen in terms of its food, art, theater, humor, music–in short all the things that define a Jewish culture. But is Jewish culture enough to preserve Jewish identity?
The answer is, “No, it is not.” Without Jewish values, even the cultural aspects of Jewish life will eventually cease and disappear. On the other hand, culture, when combined with Jewish ethical and spiritual values forms a winning formula for Jewish survival.
In the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter which kind of Jewish denominational group a Jew religiously identifies with–from the Orthodox to the Humanistic. What really matters is how a Jew seriously takes his or her religion. It is far more important to take our Judaism seriously than anything else. I asked the youngsters, “Tell me, in what way do you take your Judaism seriously?” Several said, “I go to Hebrew School every week,” while others said, “I go to synagogue every Shabbat . . .” “Well,” I said, “studying is really important as are synagogue attendance and holiday observances. However, there is yet another way taking our Judaism seriously, can you think of a different way we can take our faith seriously?”
The youngsters weren’t exactly sure how to answer that question, but one student intuited the correct answer. A young 12 year old girl replied, “I take my Judaism seriously in how I treat others around me . . .” This was precisely the answer I wished to impress upon the young people.
I added, “Many people claim to be ‘religious’ but will lie and cheat for profit in their businesses. Just look at the Postville Kashrut scandal for an example. But the real test of your faith occurs when you are at school and witness how a bunch of class bullies are picking on someone weaker, or someone different. Are you prepared to defend someone who is being singled out for ridicule–even if it means they will turn and pick on you? When you see a poor man asking for a donation, are you prepared to give him a little gift, just to ease his suffering? These are the areas that God summons us to take our Judaism very seriously.”
As parents, we often relegate the task of teaching our children to our rabbis and teachers at the religious school. As parents, what are we doing to deepen our own children’s spiritual identity? In addition, if we fail to live by these age-old and traditional ethical and spiritual values, why should our children observe them either? Children have a way of discerning our hypocrisy and our shallowness. Sometimes we are too authoritarian and self-righteous with our Judaism; sometimes we fail to teach our faith through random acts of love. We need to stimulate a curiosity for Torah learning and encourage them to ask the great questions that have puzzled our people since the time of Abraham. What is Judaism without a love of learning? What is Judaism without sensitivity, love, tolerance, and acts of loving kindness?
Unless we, as parents, don’t start treating our faith real seriously—by attending services on a regular basis, observing the Jewish holidays, studying Torah on a daily basis, and living a life of good Jewish moral values—our children will most likely grow up and become cynical of Judaism and religion altogether, if we abdicate our parental responsibilities as spiritual mentors. Don’t expect the rabbi and the religious school teachers to do your task for you.
And now you know, the rest of the story . . .