Three is the critical number. On that, both sides agree. Three generations, that is: the third generation is a turning point.
But “turning point” to what? There, the two sides differ. For talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, three successive generations of Torah scholars guarantee that “Torah will never depart from their offspring” (BM 85a). Sociologist Marcus Lee Hanson, however, warns that after three generations, family traditions die.
Who is right?
Our own experience favors Hansen. His study of ethnic communities showed that immigrants love tradition. Their children reject their parents’ nostalgia. The grandchildren try to recover what their parents rejected. But the game ends there, because the fourth generation just doesn’t care.
American Jews today are living this fourth-generation nightmare, watching our young people identify as Jewish but remain “neutral to negative” about Jewish causes, Jewish charity, Jewish learning, and a Jewish future.
But maybe Rabbi Yohanan is on to something. He is discussing Torah, not ethnicity, and our commentators cite him in connection with our sedra’s Passover commandment to tell our children the story of leaving Egypt.
Whether we have a future depends on what we take that story to be. Will it be historical memories of anti-Semitism, or even a Jewish state like all other states — however much that moved so many of the older generations to tears of joy? Or will it be something eternal and profound: a call to believe in the Jewish mission of the centuries, of which both Israel and we may be a part?
Believing, alas, is what American Jews do most poorly. I mean no blind acceptance of the Exodus account in all its detail; it is a story more than it is history. What matters is the meaning we find in it. Telling it at our seders should evoke gratitude and wonder at the sheer thought of being part of something transcendent: a divine plan — being covenanted into history to accomplish great expectations.
Most seders nowadays have traded in gratitude and wonder for fun family get-togethers. They may flirt with seriousness when we enlarge the tale to include the Shoa and Israel, but, like it or not, these provide no transcendent meaning for the fourth generation, the one Hansen says “just won’t care.” Yes, trips to Israel are important, and, yes, we should never forget the Six Million, but neither is enough to sear the fourth generation’s souls the way it does their elders’.
But what if we treated the seder as earnestly as we do Yom Kippur? Not with confessions of sin but professions of belief: the insistence that the grand design of history took a turn for the better when an ancient people said, “Enough of slavery! We are on our way to Sinai, to a life of promise, and to God.”
What if we were not to squander the seder by replacing faith with fun. Children should leave the seder table entranced, not entertained, by elders who believe they are still charged with a God-given task. Hearing their parents assert their faith in that age-old Jewish calling might really make this night “different from all other nights.”
We are long on historical memory, short on faith that it means anything — a recipe for disaster. Just ask Hansen.