Good morning. Shana Tova. I hope you slept well. This is my second letter to you. Last night I spoke to you about education, and what the love of learning and the reverence for learning has meant to the Jewish people. This morning I want to speak to you about identity.
All four of my High Holy Day sermons this year, you will recall, are in the form of letters to you, my children. My three children… and to all our young people, “my children” in the collective sense.
I don’t mind if the adults listen in as well.
Let me begin with a story I recently came across, from your world, the high-tech realm of computers. Here’s a provocative question: Could you be fooled by a computer pretending to be human?
One of the key pioneers of the computer, British mathematician Alan Turing, posed that question in 1950. He proposed an experiment: If expert judges, in typed conversations with a person and a computer program, couldn’t tell them apart, then we would have to consider the machine as capable of “thinking.” We would have to say that the computer has a mind. Turing predicted that programs capable of fooling judges at least 30% of the time would exist by the year 2000.
In 2008 at a competition called the Loebner Prize the top chat-box (as a human-mimicking program is called) fooled 3 out of 12 expert judges. That’s 25%... but eerily close to Turing’s prediction. One day, in your lifetime, you may not be able know if you are typing, or even talking, to a human or a chat-box.
The lines of our human identity are becoming blurred. Today I want to talk to you about the lines of your Jewish identity, and whether they too are becoming blurred.
Let’s start with the question of how one becomes a Jew in the first place? A simple question… or maybe not so simple. There are two ways: You can be born a Jew, or convert to Judaism. That alone reveals a rather unique situation. Is one born a Christian or born a Muslim? Not really. If your parents are Christian or Muslim, you are presumed to have that identity, but you assume it only after agreeing to the faith propositions of those religions. The act of birth alone does not bestow your identity; a declaration of faith does.
For those born of Jewish parents, no declaration of faith, and no pledge of allegiance, is required. In this regard, Judaism is like a nationality or ethnic group. You are a member by simply being born into it. In halakhic Judaism, which follows traditional Jewish law, you simply need to be born to a Jewish mother. In Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism, a Jewish mother or father. Either way, nothing else is required.
If you are not born Jewish, you can convert to Judaism. In this sense, Judaism is not an ethnicity, but a religion. Besides circumcision and ritual immersion in a mikvah, converts are asked to study Judaism, appear before a rabbinic beit din, tribunal, and make a declaration of faith. Interestingly, if you were converted as a child and were too young to make that declaration, you have the right to repudiate that conversion once you reach age 13. Today we call converts “Jews by choice.” Individuals not born Jewish have to do something to be Jewish; they have to actively choose it.
My message to you is this: Today, we are all Jews by choice. The reality is that we have to choose to be Jewish, or it will slip away. We have to affirm our identity, or it will morph into something else. We live in a society that is 98.5 % not Jewish. We live in a society that is largely secular, except when it is Christian.
You were born Jewish. A hundred generations of your ancestors were too. Many of them suffered for being Jewish. Yet many of them fought to remain Jewish. Thankfully that hostility is largely gone. Thankfully you have probably never experienced serious anti-Semitism. Nobody tells you what faith to belong to. Nobody legislates your religious identity. There is no penalty for being an atheist, an agnostic, a mild believer, or a fervent believer.
And there is no internal penalty either. Should you decide to be a non-practicing Jew, or a marginally affiliated Jew, you may encounter some disappointment from your parents, but no punishment. If you marry a non-Jewish partner you will not be disowned like Tevyeh’s daughter in Fiddler on the Roof. If you actually embrace another faith, convert to another religion, the consternation will be greater, but you are unlikely to be excommunicated or ostracized.
People say that America is a religious country, at least compared to Europe. Yet religion is considered a matter of personal choice in America. We have enshrined the separation of church and state. Your practice of religious liberty is constitutionally guaranteed, and so is your non-practice of religion. So in a way you’ve got a free pass. You are Jewish by virtue of your birth. You don’t have to do anything to be considered Jewish. Nobody will restrict you in your pursuit of a Jewish identity; nobody will hassle you if you leave it.
A major sociological study was released this year by the highly regarded Pew Research Center. The headline it garnered was “The Rise of the “‘Nones’.” The “nones” being referred to are certainly not n-u-n-s, but n-o-n-e-s, religiously unaffiliated Americans, American’s who listed their religious denomination as “none.” An unprecedented 20% of Americans, that is 1 out of every 5, do not identify with any religion. In your age category, adults under 30, the figure is 32%, one out of every three. So if you want to disappear religiously in this country it’s easy to do so. There’s a big pool of like-minded people to jump into; a pool of fifty million or so.
So my question is: What are you going to do with that free pass? Are you going to opt in or opt out? If the tide is pulling you away from the shore, are you going to slowly drift away? Or are you going to swim against the tide and reach dry land?
Sometimes we hardly feel the current carrying us further and further away. Before we know it we are far out. The only way back is to swim. But we have to want to swim, rather than float. We have to choose it.
This question takes on added urgency because there are so many changes going on in your world. You generally leave home at 18. You complete a first degree at 22. Establishing yourself in your profession, and possibility pursuing an advanced degree is taking longer and longer. You do not necessarily feel the need to marry in your twenties any more. Doing so in your early thirties is not uncommon. Waiting a few more years after that to begin a family is normative. By the time those children are old enough to raise the question of religious education, more than twenty years have passed since you were likely involved in a synagogue. That’s a long time to drift. Can you still see the shore?
Don’t lose sight of it. Don’t drift so far away that you can’t find your way back.
I say that because you are the guardians of a beautiful heritage. A sacred trust that has indeed been a light to the nations. This heritage is yours: a hundred generations behind you, a hundred in front of you.
Nearly a century ago a young Jewish man in Paris named Edmond Fleg grew very estranged from his heritage. He almost left it completely before something pulled him back. He wrote a little book, an extended essay really, called Why I am a Jew. The concluding lines are as poetic a description of the spiritual legacy of Judaism as you will find. He wrote:
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because every time that despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not complete; we are completing it.
To be a Jew by choice today is to cast your lot with the Jewish people, and their noble mission.
The first Jew by choice made that very declaration. You read her story at your confirmation. Ruth the Moabite said, “your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
To say that you are Jewish means taking an active and proud part in the destiny of your people and making the practice of Judaism central to your lives every day, week, month, year.
It means that the decisions you make as an individual are made as part of a community as well.
It means taking to heart the words right behind me, da lifnei mi atah omed—“know before whom you stand.”
It means understanding, as Elie Wiesel once put it, “that as a Jew my life begins before I was born and continues after I die.”
To be a Jew by choice means to see the world through Jewish eyes, to celebrate birth in a Jewish way, to sanctify time in a Jewish way, to mourn in a Jewish way.
I cannot help be reminded that when you were young we once found a rare and beautiful songbird in our front yard. It was an indigo bunting. But it was dead. When we went to bury it, you, Talia, insisted that we say kaddish for the bird. That is seeing the world though Jewish eyes. That is having a Jewish soul…
Well, my time is short, and in this brief letter I can only leave you with a concluding thought, a challenge: to live up to your namesake. As a people we get our name from the book of Genesis, Chapter 32. Before his fateful encounter with his long estranged brother, Jacob wrestles with an angel… or is it his conscience? The angel says to him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel [Yis-ra-el, which means the one who wrestles with God], for you have wrestled with God and men and prevailed.”
Dear children: Do not let go of your heritage until it blesses you. Do not give up until you have wrestled and struggled and prevailed. You have the power to break that hundred-generation chain of tradition in one. You likewise have the power to extend it to your children and your children’s children.
Back to the chat-box: If you were part of that experiment, if the judges were having that conversation with you and with the machine, what would be the result?
I have no doubt that the experts would know right away that you are the human beings, because you are beautiful, passionate, caring young people. We are proud of who you are. As your parents we love you unconditionally. (That’s unconditionally, not uncritically!) No machine could ever mimic you… I think.
But would the judges be able to tell that you are Jewish? And how would you match up against a Jewish chat-box? Would they glimpse your Jewish soul?
Enough said. Shana tova.