4 December 2009
17 Kislev 5770
Yesterday in my sicha (morning discussion group), we watched and discussed a short film called “The Tribe.” It is an eclectic and engaging commentary on Jewish cultural identity and raises fascinating questions about, in the words of the movie, “what it means to be a member of a tribe in the 21st century.” The movie paints a picture of today’s “younger generation” of Jews as “redefining and reclaiming their relationship with tradition…they want fewer sermons and more conversations.”
After the movie, I asked students what resonated with them or challenged them. One student identified with the movie’s suggestion that this generation feels ambivalence about aspects of Jewish identity or peoplehood that were clearer for previous generations (such as their relationship with the State of Israel), and that, while they may continue to express support or affiliation on the outside, “internally, they may be unsure how they feel.”
To paraphrase the student’s sentiments: “I do feel like I am questioning so many things. I continue to practice Judaism the way my family does but have so many questions and feel conflicted. But I wonder and worry whether, perhaps, we should just continue to believe and to practice because it is what Jews have always done, and it is important for Jewish continuity. Maybe all this questioning is not good for the Jewish people.” We did not have time to pursue this in sicha and, in light of the movie, it would have been particularly ironic for me to respond to her authentic struggle with a sermon (or a weekly email). Yet, I cannot resist linking her comment to the famous scene in this week’s parsha (Vayhishlach), in which Yaakov wrestles with the “ish” (usually referred to as the angel) and is, ultimately, given the new name of Yisrael (Israel), for he has “struggled with beings divine and human and triumphed.” (Genesis 22:29)
The movie itself refers to our people’s name, Yisrael, and implicitly responds to my student’s concern. “What all Jews have in common,” it claims, “is persistence; thousands of years of withstanding pressure and surviving against the odds.” This claim is supported by a difficulty in the text itself. There is no evidence that Yaakov “triumphed” over the angel – rather, the image is of an all-night stand-off, a dead heat. Why is this a “triumph?” I picture the last scene of “Rocky,” in which the dramatic, redemptive moment comes not through winning the fight but through “going the distance.” For the first time in his life, Yaakov went the distance, and as “The Tribe” suggests, this is the quality that has come to name and define our people.
“Questioning everything,” as my concerned student bravely described, is both developmentally appropriate for adolescents and quintessentially Jewish. For too many people, there is one model of being or “doing” Jewish, and the question is simply whether or not to engage. I, too, worry about the impact of this question on the future of our people. For me, however, the power of our Jewish high school experience and the beauty of pluralism is that they reframe the question not as whether to engage but as how to engage. They provide a context and framework for students to ask their questions and explore their Jewish identities from the inside. Rather than an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it approach to transmitting Jewish identity, there is space inside the tribe for questioning, deconstructing, pushing back, even trying alternative paths. In fact, these struggles and this journey are defining features of our tribe, our people.
Especially for teenagers, this message of what it means to be “Yisrael” can be a chiddush, a paradigm shift. Yet, this is how we will empower and inspire a new generation of Jews to find their individual voices and actualize themselves, while also connecting to our Jewish past and breathing new life into our Jewish future.
Rabbi Marc Baker