“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.
I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?
Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?
There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.
For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”
Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?
Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:
Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”
Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”
I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic. We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”
I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.
Like it or not, intermarriage is a fact in Jewish life.
And for the most part the Jewish community has learned to live with it. Sure, different movements deal with it differently. Sure, some congregations are more adept and accommodating. But from Renewal to Orthodox we no longer assume that a Jew by birth will marry another Jew by birth.
But as demographics shift in the United States, the nature of intermarriage is changing too. And the Jewish community will need to adapt if it hopes to continue to create spaces for these new Jewish families.
In particular, my concern is with multiracial and multicultural families. There is nothing new about Jews from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There were Jews in Ethiopia centuries before there were Jews in Poland and Jews in India before there were Jews in Spain. Jewish institutional life in the United States, however, has largely been built on the presumption that Jews are white. And our welcome to interfaith couples has similarly assumed that intermarriages between one white Jew and one white non-Jew.
But interracial marriages are at an all time high in the Unites States, a trend that is expected to continue as the population becomes increasingly more diverse. And Jewish households are clearly part of this trend.
We will need to change our language and approach in order to live up to the welcoming image we have of ourselves. Having become accustomed to Jews who have blond hair and blue eyes or wear “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts, we need to be open to those with dreadlocks or who celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Because these new members of our extended community come from many different backgrounds, we cannot make assumptions about how they understand religion, community, or family. We will have to personalize our approach. We need to meet others who see Jews not just as a religious minority but as part of the white establishment. We need to broaden our own learning, so that we understand and appreciate the cultural challenges and gifts that they bring.
In the last year I’ve attended several b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that exemplify the power of embracing multiracial, multicultural Jewish families. At one service, the boy chanted from the Torah while wearing a Korean hanbok. Blessings were said in English and Korean as well as the traditional Hebrew. At another the bar mitzvah spoke of being half Japanese, half Australian and fully Jewish in a synagogue decorated with origami chains for the occasion. At another, the bat mitzvah took the occasion to also take on a traditional Japanese name sharing her multiple new identities with the congregation. In each case conversations had to be had about how to bring together multiple elements of identity into what is so clearly a Jewish setting. In each case, thought and respect were evident throughout.
These are the success stories, families who feel fully welcome, fully empowered. They are passing on Jewish traditions even as they expand them. They shine of an example of that to which we can all aspire.
Yesterday was a big day for our family. My daughter graduated from college. She was the fourth of our five children (in our blended family) to graduate with academic honors. The youngest, now a college junior, is headed there. It was a day for all the pride that parents feel at college graduation. I couldn’t wipe the memory of her pre-school graduation out of my mind as I watched this poised, beautiful young woman in cap and gown take her place in front of the audience as she was recognized for her accomplishments. She told of her areas of academic interest in her double major of Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies and was applauded for it. Her yellow cord hanging down the front of her academic gown announced her achievement for high grades. Her Phi Betta Kappa pin completed the outfit. Her modest smile was the same as the one she wore on the day of her pre-school graduation, and I teared up.
I’m not telling you this to brag. My daughter’s achievements were well earned; she worked very hard for four years. In fact, she worked hard for the 12 years before that too. She had earned this moment of pride. It belongs to her.
Her favorite professor told me softly how wonderful my daughter is. “She is really talented. She is such a great thinker, with wonderful questions, and she writes so well! I’m watching her.” I asked her if she had discussed future pursuits with my daughter, and she enthusiastically reveled in being an advisor to my daughter. She hastened to add that she would stay in touch and continue to be there for her.
We – parents and professors — had all done our best to give my daughter (and all of our kids) the tools to succeed as learners. She grew up in a home that valued education, one filled with books, journals and discussions. She was encouraged and supported, including our commitment to pay for her undergraduate education, as we did for each of our children. I realize that we were blessed with the ability to do this, even though it was not easy (this is a story for another day.) I was determined that my children should not have to struggle to be educated as I had when my parents didn’t provide for my education. We encouraged our kids to study subjects that interested them – to engage with the world through the ideas, questions and knowledge that would fill them with possibilities and prepare them to chart their future.
Our family’s Jewish values had taught us the value of learning. The primary tool for Jewish engagement is the discursive nature of Talmud study. Our sages of the early generation of the Talmud spoke repeatedly of the importance of learning; for example, exhorting us to, “Acquire for yourself a teacher.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6)
There is a lot of talk these days about a perceived failure of a liberal arts education to prepare young adults for careers in the real world. Many twenty-somethings are un- and underemployed. It is a frightening problem for a parent of three young adult children who relish their learning in the humanities. But yesterday I remembered why I encouraged my kids to pursue their interests. As my daughter’s professor reminded me, the ability to ask good questions, the interest to pursue knowledge and the skills to organize and integrate thoughts and write well are significant life skills for success in any pursuit.
Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times documented, in sad detail, the sharp decline in public funding for college education and the enormous burden of student debt that has become a national crisis. The problems are vast and deep: the cost of college education is rising faster than is sustainable; it is becoming unaffordable for most Americans. Americans families will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the investment – sadly, many who are burdened by sizable student loans are already proof of this. Without a doubt, our country needs structural change. We must recover our foundations as a nation that offers opportunity for all.
I celebrate the blessing that education offered my children and me. Congratulations to the class of 2012 – our future leaders, teachers, and great minds. There is no telling what you will accomplish. Don’t let our nation off the hook – it is our responsibility to preserve what we taught you – that education shapes our future, together.