A week ago last Sunday, there was an op-ed piece in the Sunday Week in Review section of the New York Times titled “A Search for Identity Leads to Religion.” In it the author, Elizabeth Weil, speaks about her daughter’s desire to become a Bat Mitzvah. The author did not live an engaged Jewish life. Her husband was not Jewish. But, for some reason, their daughter wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah. The article is about the processes this mother goes through trying to understand her daughter’s new-found interest, and how this particular family would accommodate this wish. Synagogue affiliation and the whole notion of belonging was not in their paradigm. They are reflective of characteristics described as qualities of the millennial generation. This family undoubtedly lived quality lives, did interesting things, took great vacations, and had a “heady” intellectual life. But religious affiliation?…Not.
I thought about this article in relation to a central dimension of this week’s Torah reading. Lech Lecha begins with a “call” from God to Avram to leave his native land and his father’s house to the land that he would be shown. It’s the beginning of a relationship between Avram, who would become Abraham and God. And what we see about this relationship is that it implies a personal connection to God, a sense of calling, and it inspires the formation of a people in a land. And so what we see is that from the very beginning of our people, our essence is contained in both an individual’s response, and a commitment to something larger – not only God, but a community and a place.
We live in a time and a culture where individualism and personal decision making is declared as a central value. And we live in a society that, thankfully, protects this as a basic freedom. The young girl in the article is depicted as one who will find her own way. But it seems to me that this is contrary to that which is essential in the Torah tradition. Here a person’s individual desires are to be considered in relation to a larger culture and its values. Here there is a group that is committed to the continuity of the meaning found in our texts, in our history and in our unique practices. And so, yes, we can pick and choose what we do. We can accept or reject belonging to a synagogue. But we should be honest about the meaning of that. And that is, without it, we weaken the vehicle that has served as the source of transmission of our values. And without it, we overestimate our own power and ultimately choose the self.
“A Search for Identity Leads to Religion” is an interesting title. The young girl is interested in who she is. But religion, at its core, even the Latin meaning of the word, is about connection. And that is found through our communities and our relationships and yes, our attachment to God.
At B’nai Torah, I find one of the most beautiful yet subtle expressions is found when a congregation of people, smile, sing and feel the joy of a Bat Mitzvah they never met, yet they know is a part of them…
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l