The Astrophysics of Faith
In our solar system we find Earth, in all its marvel, not at the center of its own orbit. No matter how vast and self-sufficient Earth may be, it can only function with something else, the Sun, at the epicenter of its spin. It is an interesting image to conjure, the Earth existing on its own. Without the sun there would be no day and night, no bright beams to make the flowers blossom and no warmth from above to kiss your skin on a hot summer day…
After spending four weeks last summer as an advisor on TJJ, I returned home with a pain inside me. There was this little piece of me that was unsettled as my summer had come to a close — I felt as though I had unfinished business with my teens. Going into the summer I felt well prepared for the task that lay ahead of me. Growing up, I had many unaffiliated or less religious friends, and the daunting task of making myself relevant and even interesting to secular high school kids was far less intimidating to me than some of my friends. Yet, as the summer progressed, I felt bombarded by issues that were too large for me to handle. Each time I taught a chaburah — learning group — or spoke with a teen, I felt as though I had pulled back a layer of a very bitter onion, slowly exposing thoughts I never knew existed.
From the outside, the teens seemed extremely invested in their Jewish future. Most were convinced that they would marry Jewish and that their grandchildren would never celebrate Christmas, yet having a Hanukkah bush was on the table and dating a few non-Jews here and there was no cause for concern. I was dumbfounded by their inability to see the correlation between their present decisions and the lasting impact those decisions might have on their future and that of their progeny.
In my home, my parents made it abundantly clear that dating non-Jews would create a habit that inevitably could lead to intermarriage, and that Christian traditions, no matter how secularized they had been, were not allowed in our home. These rules created a sense of adherence to Jewish tradition that is unparalleled by many of the families my teens came from, but why was this so? My family was not religious my whole life. I did not spend each day striving to keep the most halakhot I possibly could, yet the significance of immersion in Jewish tradition was always prevalent in my life.
What I came to realize the more I spoke to my NCSYers was that what they were fighting so hard to hold onto in this modern world were their traditions. Against all modern thought, which demands complete immersion in secular culture and the erosion of “separatist” traditions, these kids see the beauty and value in remaining true to Jewish tradition. Yet there is still a disconnect. If those 37 teens were a sample of secular, American Jewry, where is the 79 percent intermarriage rate coming from? It couldn’t be the 90 percent of these teens who said they would absolutely marry Jewish!
Unfortunately, it can. Generation Z Jews that are growing up in the 21st century believe in Jewish culture. They love eating matzoh ball soup on Passover and dipping their apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah. They value going to synagogue on the high holidays and they love wearing a star of david necklace around their necks. What these kids lack is not pride. They lack the sun to their Earth. They lack something that they find so significant; something that their entire world is forced to revolve around in order to function properly. They lack G-d.
When asked to rate their values as a Jewish person, my teens rated “being moral” and “Jewish pride” at the very top of the list, while “learning Torah” and “keeping kosher” were deemed insignificant. Without G-d at the epicenter of every decision you make as a Jewish person, without the Torah guiding your life and halakhah dictating permissible and improper actions, the Jewish religion is one of superficiality. Of course, it is nice to spend holidays with family and go to Jewish summer camp, but what are you doing it for if not for G-d?
When speaking to my group about their values list, I posed the question to them: “If Jewish pride is at the top of your list, but keeping kosher, praying and learning Torah are at the bottom, what are you so proud of?” The thought never occurred to them that they had to dig deeper into their cultural Judaism if they wanted to find meaning in the “motions.”
Somewhere along the way, secular Jewry has lost sight of the very being that our religion should revolve around. I am not referring to various denominations’ core beliefs, but rather the practical reality that many Jewish people are only marginally involved in their religion. Faith is placed in the institutions and individuals that allow religious practices. Rabbis, Jewish organizations and synagogues are a focal point in “being Jewish” or “being involved,” yet they come at the expense of the true focal point. G-d, who is and should always remain at the very center of our orbit, can rarely be discussed or contemplated despite one’s involvement in their synagogue or leadership position in Jewish life. The Earth without a sun would cease to exist in mere moments, and Judaism without G-d is unfortunately headed in that direction. If our Judaism amounts to nothing more than a cultural phenomenon, then why not intermarry or grow the tradition to include other religions as well? Why not add and change the Torah to fit how the world is today?
This summer I learned a tremendous amount about almost forty new teens — what foods they like, what shows entertain them, how they practice their Judaism — but I learned the most about my own faith. I would encourage anyone planning on spending this coming summer on any program with Jewish teens, religious or not, to give yourself the space and time to consider these things before you are thrown into the whirlwind of these programs. Summer is a time away from the strict confines of Jewish education and parental views, and it may be the first time any of these teens have to opportunity to discuss these larger religious issues. It's a dangerous game to play, putting your beliefs out in the open to be shot down by religiously cynical and relatively agnostic teens, but it's a powerful exercise in faith. Day in and day out I asked myself why I did it at all, and on the days when I couldn’t come up with the answer, at least I knew where to forward the questions to.
Photo Caption: NCSY summer programs send teens to Israel to explore their religious identity.
Photo Credit: Pixabay