Bridging Jewish Generations

This article was co-authored by Rabbi Ben Spratt.

The largest generation in American history is coming of age before our eyes. By 2010, the cohort of 13 - 34 year olds comprised 35 percent of our workforce, and that number continues to rise rapidly. Members of this generation, known as the Millennials, are rising to find their place in the landscape of American leadership.

Yet Millennial Jews are not joining synagogues at the same rate as their parents and certainly not at the same rate as their grandparents. They do not affiliate, even as studies show that they maintain a sense of Jewish identity. Many Jewish leaders are struggling to understand this new generation, which will have a profound impact on the future of Jewish life in America. Perhaps we need to look back before we look ahead.

As a 4,000 year-old tradition, we are not strangers to generational shifts. We have seen hundreds of them, and we have an endowment of wisdom from which to draw at moments such as this, when we feel off-balance -- one in which we are looking for a path forward that ensures not only survival but greater self-actualization.

One of the great parables of our sages relates through magical realism the pain and hope of a new generation coming into its own -- and in doing so profoundly changing the way our religion is practiced. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Menachot 29b, Moses asks God to transport him forward in time to meet the one who steadies God's proverbial hand. God assents to this request and brings Moses to the classroom of the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, who is running a renowned house of study. The Talmud relays the impression Moses has of being in Akiva's classroom (adapted from the Soncino translation):

Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [of chairs and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments, he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the[ir] master, 'What is the source of this [teaching]?' and the latter replied 'It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai.'

And Moses felt comforted.

Moses -- our teacher, our great prophet, the person who liberated the Israelites from Egypt and led them in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. That very same Moses finds himself thoroughly lost in a classroom focusing on the study of Torah, which he himself had conveyed on Mount Sinai to our ancestors. Moses, the brilliant leader of our people, does not understand how the Torah has been rewoven in the time of the rabbis. He does not recognize it at all and feels utterly lost.

Rabbi Akiva only puts Moses at ease by linking his learning to Moses as the source of rabbinic thought.

The point of the story is not just that Moses can't recognize the Torah, but that he is comforted by Akiva's revelation that so much that had gone on since Sinai -- and yet still is part of the same sacred textual tradition. It is a living, breathing tradition of Torah -- not simply a static document. Moses is calmed because the tradition he founded has continued to grow -- but has still kept its roots. That it is unrecognizable to its conveyer is testament to how truly alive is the Torah.

Akiva could not weave new strands of Torah without the cloth of the Torah itself, and Moses would not have had such a bright legacy without the innovative techniques of the rabbis and the great Rabbi Akiva. Generations apart, they are bound together in substance if not form; in message if not medium; in belief if not practice.

How many times do those younger or older than Millennials find themselves dazed or confused? How many times do we sit around our tables for holy days and special moments reaching for connection but not understanding what draws the other near? How often do we share the Torah of our lives in metaphors that fail to cohere with each other's worldviews? How frequently do we seek out meaning within our tradition -- and yet connect to different elements of it?

And yet, like Moses and Akiva, we cannot have a future without a past, and new generations cannot weave for themselves a future without the cloth of the present. Our destiny is shared even if our metaphors for that destiny are not.

Midrashic voices suggest that Jews of all generations were metaphorically at Mount Sinai and there to receive the Torah imparted by Moses. But some of us might have captured the moment on Instagram, others via text message, still more through typewritten letters or handwritten journals, and all the more of us with our mind's eye.

Some of us might have seen the Torah's wisdom conveyed directly out of a Torah scroll and others from an iPad; some in a yeshiva with big bound books and others using words alone, transmitted orally as in the days of old.

Our underlying goals are the same. We were all, proverbially, at Sinai and all seek to commemorate that moment in ways that will resonate in our lives and in our hearts. While the medium might raise anxiety, the message remains true. Our Torah is one, even if its generational expressions are myriad.

Many Jews fear that the next generation no longer seeks to return to Sinai -- that it has gone astray. We struggle with questions of "Is this really Jewish?" or "Is this really Torah?" And perhaps like our great leader long ago we echo Moses' confusion about the new sights and sounds of a new Jewish generation. But in our questions, our fist shaking, and our confusion do we create the space to listen to them paying honor and homage to the generations before them? When we hear a new rise of Klezmer and Mizrachi music, a reclaiming of Chasidic and Kabbalistic thought, and new beacons of Jewish social justice, do we celebrate the living Torah that inspires it all?

Both Moses and Akiva would surely look out at the landscape of Judaism today and be left dazed and confused. But with eyes and ears open, they would hear the voices of this new generation, studying their words with new perspective, and renewing an ancient legacy. For this too was given to Moses at Sinai.

We would like to dedicate this article to the Millennial leaders of Tribe, who have inspired us and shown us just how remarkable the next generation of Jewish leaders is likely to be.