• Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi

Va’etchanan – New Age

A study was recently undertaken by Christian groups in the United States to understand the religious attitudes and beliefs of religiously affiliated Christian youth in the United States. The results of the study were published in an article on The Christian Post. The study focused on US demographics, and it was limited to Christianity, but I believe the same results would appear if the study was conducted throughout Western civilization, and covered Judaism as well. Care was taken to ensure the subjects of the trial were representative of a wide sampling of the spectrum, so that the findings would provide broad indicators.

The study found that adolescents and teenagers were basically ignorant of the religious doctrines and beliefs their faith espoused. Either they didn’t know, or did know but had no reason to believe in, the teachings of their faith. The researchers found that most teens’ understanding of their faith was “vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion.” Further, it was found that youth are heavily influenced by the ideology of individualism, where the “right” thing to do, and the “right” thing to believe in was completely fluid, lacking conviction to a particular theology.

This creed of faith preaches a basically moral lifestyle, with its goal being to “live a good and happy life.” Subjects of the study professed their religious values as: being kind and pleasant people, being respectful and responsible, caring for their health and striving for success. In Jewish terms we could say that this new-age grasp of religion directs all of its efforts to bein adam lachaveiro – interpersonal matters and those relating to the self. There is no focus on bein adam lamakom – matters between people and God. Observance of the Sabbath had no place in this creed; prayer, developing oneself as a servant of God, having faith and trust in God – these were not present in the minds of most youth. Their own subjective happiness and well-being was core to their perception of religious importance.

The research team labelled this new-age grasp of religion “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” God is on call to deal with our problems, to help us with our needs, but God has no demands of us. In other words, God is here to serve us, we are not here to serve God. God is more tolerant today than ever. God keeps faith at a safe distance and only desires that we are good people and successful.

The researchers note that while this exposes a failing on part of our institutions to impart the true nature of our faith(s), it does not demonstrate a failing of our youth to pay attention and learn from us. To the contrary, teenagers have been paying very close attention to us. They very insightfully perceive the hollow talk of their parents, and they do as they do, rather than as they say. Teenagers see how little their parents actually believe, and they see their institutions molding themselves to the fashions of society to attract engagement. They see that we make concessions to convenience, compromising on tradition rather than be put out. They conclude, unsurprisingly, that our personal comfort and convenience take precedence.

I have to wonder, do we really subliminally promote this self-serving deism? Do we subconsciously give off vibes that teach this creed? I must concede that we are in fact guilty. When we think of our heroes, when we depict role models, who are these personalities we put on pedestals? Think of a Jew we look up to who lived in the last 150 years – who comes to mind? Einstein no doubt takes the lead. And surely we assuage any sense of religious guilt because he believed in God, did he not? What happened to the Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenky, the Ben Ish Chai? Why is it so difficult to find these personalities in our lexicon. These saintly people, through their teachings and nurturing of the Jewish people ensured that Torah survived and generations of Jews maintained and even reestablished their identities. But we dismiss them when we talk to our children of virtue. We look at successful business people for inspiration. We like to rub shoulders with people who hold high offices and positions. We don’t hold Moses up as a role model! Should we be surprised that our youth know nothing about Moses? Should the younger generation look at our past when all we show interest in is our future?

Another issue is glaring, and I think many of us are guilty of this although we are well-meaning. When we want to give the highest complement to another person, what do we say? We call him/her a mensch. There! A nice Jewish term. No doubt a “mensch” has all the qualities a person should have. A mensch is a kind, upstanding individual with compassion and integrity. A mensch displays the qualities of humanism. A mensch is precisely the embodiment of the new religious creed professed by today’s youth in Western society. Nothing less, nothing more.

Of course we want our children to be menschen, but that is just part of what our religion demands. We have created this problem. We bemoan the apathy of our youth but we have set the stage for this. We too, are victims of this growing movement which researchers describe as the “colonizers” of Christianity in the United States. Judaism is equally affected, perhaps more so. We’ve come to expect that our children will absorb what we did. We assume, with naivete, that our children will at a minimum identify as Jewish, know how to read Hebrew, light Shabbat candles, skip the shellfish course etc. These are just the periphery of cultural Judaism, but there is no basis for such practices to continue if we don’t actively demonstrate that these are important to us.

Moses, in one of his last actions before his passing, designated three cities east of the Jordan River to be cities of refuge, safe havens for people guilty of accidental manslaughter. “Then Moses set aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan, toward the rising sun…” (Deut. 4:41)

The opening word of the verse, then, implies a future tense. Rashi indicates that Moses professed his intention to designate these three cities as soon as he concluded his speech to the people. Rashi cites the Talmud, explaining that although these cities of refuge would not become effective until later, after Israel had conquered and settled the land, Moses nevertheless felt impelled to seize the opportunity to fulfill a Mitzvah. Moses had the vision to see the big picture. He understood that there are stages to every development. Although he would not live to see these cities becoming true places of refuge Moses was determined to set the process into motion. He had a Mitzvah to fulfill and he would not ignore it.

It took generations for the apathy we see today to become set, and it won’t turn itself around in a few years. It will take a couple of generations of hard work and commitment to reverse the trend and bring our tradition back to the foreground of our consciousness and our consciences. But we can take a step, we can begin putting the effort into motion. At the very least we can put into practice that which we profess to be a value, be it Jewish identity or some of the myriad Mitzvot which are part of our tradition. We need to now establish cities of refuge, so that accidental killers of tradition can rebuild the destruction wrought by neglect.

#Vaetchanan

©2020 by Wellington Jewish Community Centre.