Generational struggles with Judaism

Generational struggles with Judaism

Repeatedly, the Torah highlights “toldot,” “generations.” Only three weeks ago, our sedra went by that name, and now we see it again. The Joseph story begins by announcing, “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph was 17 years old.” The introduction of Joseph is apt, but why include Jacob’s toldot?

Ibn Ezra translates toldot as “events,” not “generations,” as if to say, “So far we have chronicled the events of Jacob’s life. Now we get the events that Joseph had to face.” The “generation” we are in, apparently, is not so much about our age, as it is about the events that make us who we are. 

But still, “These are the generations of Jacob” should have been placed two chapters back, where those generations are actually listed. The appearance of the sentence here remains a puzzle.

M’nachem Mendel of Rimenov explains it by reading Jacob-Joseph as a single hyphenated name. “We cannot be satisfied,” he says, “with what we have done in the past. We must ever strive for more.” Jacob, that is, must become Joseph. 

We can go even further. If we put a period after “Joseph,” the cryptic line can mean, “These are generations: Jacob-Joseph!” — as if two generations become linked as one: the generation of Jacob’s youth, now past; and the generation of his old age, the generation of Joseph, which Jacob chooses to join.

Whatever our age, we can elect to leave one generation and join another just by addressing the problems of today rather than those of yesterday. The alternative is to watch history happen from the sidelines while living less and less comfortably in the irrelevant past. We can live off our memories and remain just Jacob; or we can be part of the future as Jacob-Joseph. 

 Over the years, we have known many generational challenges, each one requiring the elders of the past to face a novel future. 

The first Jews to arrive here had to prove they belonged. Gov. Peter Stuyvesant tried to keep the first Sephardic settlers out of New York (New Amsterdam, then); during the civil war, General Grant tried to ban German-Jewish traders from the front, because he suspected their loyalty. 

We prevailed and became part of America, but had little time to enjoy the privilege, before Jews from Eastern Europe began flooding our cities, requiring Jews already here to see to their care. And those Jews had barely settled in when Hitler arrived with World War II and the Holocaust, bringing the altogether new challenge of guaranteeing Jewish survival after losing six million. We established a Jewish state; saw it through the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars; built up UJA; saved Soviet “refuseniks”; and invested in Jewish education, lest Jewish ignorance give Hitler a posthumous victory.

But that’s all history: all just Jacob. The next generation is asking a question that can sound like heresy to its elders. Why be Jewish altogether? Why does Judaism matter in the first place? That’s the voice of the new generation: the voice of Joseph. 

If you’re Jacob, you either hunker down in nostalgia for yesterday, while berating Joseph for not caring; or you join Joseph in search of an answer — you become Jacob-Joseph.

If you choose the latter, then you ask, with Joseph, “Why be Jewish?” Is Judaism merely “tribal” or can it speak to the human condition in general and the current moment in particular? Can it offer spiritual and moral sustenance in an era that seems increasingly to lack both?

Can Judaism provide hope for aging baby-boomers who struggle with mortality? Guidance for college graduates who lack direction? Passion for millennials who find established Jewish life sterile? A Jewish state that speaks meaningfully to a generation for whom Zionism is ancient history? 

Once just Jacob, meeting challenges of the past, we are charged now to be Jacob-Joseph, to join the new generation and remake Judaism all over again: as a compelling moral and spiritual legacy for our time. 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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