Transmitting Unbelief to the Next Jewish Generation

A recent Pew study shows that approximately 77% of Jews who were born
Jewish remain in the Jewish faith as adults.  While this might be encouraging
news at face value, there are other issues to cause concern. One of course is the
high rate of intermarriage. Another is 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.
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.

Transmitting Unbelief

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.

In a class at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, Dr. Byron
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
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

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

By a member of Chavurah Zohar Yisrael

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. 162-1
3 Deuteronomy 4:9
4 Deuteronomy 32:7
5 (Reader, 20).3
Now that I have children, I am more convinced that the theological truths of
Judaism must be communicated and taught to them diligently as the Torah
states. If not, we should not be surprised when Jews leave the faith.
6 (Reader, 21).