Ask your father: Where to go for information about Judaism

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32.1-52)

At the beginning of the Torah portion Ha’azinu, we read the often quoted words: “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders (“or grandfathers”) and they will inform you (Deuteronomy 32.7).

An Hasidic interpretation (Itturei Torah ad.loc.) states: “if you should ask someone in your father’s generation for information about Torah or Yiddishkeit {Judaic knowledge, values or observances}, he might not know enough to answer and you will have to resort to someone in your grandfather’s generation, because the older generation are closer to Jewish tradition.

To be sure, when Jewish knowledge and observance were in decline, this may well have been the case. Between the first immigrants from eastern Europe to America and successive generations to America there was, as we could say, a “Jewish culture gap.”

Many immigrants to America were eager to assimilate to western, American, culture, they may have been embarrassed by the Yiddish accents and “old fashioned” behavior of parents or grandparents. Just as many in those generations were eager to escape the poverty and pogroms of Russia and at the same time to escape what they considered the restrictive demands of Jewish traditional observance. Many were willing to give up the observance of the Sabbath in order to establish themselves materially and gain the funds required to bring other family over from the “old country” to America.

America was looked upon by some in Europe as barbaric and materialistic, even “heathen” a Trefa Medina where one could lose one’s Jewish identity entirely as compared to life in Europe with its solid age-old institutions. But many others looked forward to the “goldene medina” where it was said the streets themselves were paved in gold.

Legend has it, and it may have been literally true of some that Jews on ships coming over from Europe threw their tallesim (prayer shawls) and Tefellin (phylacteries) overboard; a metaphor for casting off eastern Europe tradition.

But the situation has so reversed itself now that it is not a question of “asking the older generations” for information about Judaism, rather you have to ask your son or daughter or your grandchildren, they may know more about Judaism than those of preceding Jewish generations.

There are reasons for this. For example, generations of rabbis and Jewish teachers have labored selflessly under adverse conditions to teach Jewish children in Hebrew school, children who would rather have been playing out on the street. Second, Jewish summer camps flourished in which, as a matter of course there are classes in Judaism, and Torah study, Hebrew language, and Shabbat is joyously observed.

In addition to successful synagogue Hebrew schools there is the phenomon of the Jewish Community Day Schools in which Jewish subjects are part of the regular curriculum along with the courses in history and science leading to entrance in fine institutions of higher education in which again there are classes and even department of Jewish studies taught by highly educated instructors.

In addition there is the phenomon of Jewish publishing. Every day one can find a profusion of Jewish magazines, essays, magazines, publications of all kinds devoted to studies on particular subjects or areas of Judaism. There are associations of Jewish studies for those academicians who devote their lives to teaching Judaism as well as associations in particular fields of Jewish studies.

And at the same time who has not heard elderly Jews raised in Classical Reform complaining about the ever increasing amount of Hebrew in their Reform synagogue services or in their Reform prayer books or holiday observances practiced in their own Reform congregation which they have never heard about during their lives; such as the chanting of the Haftara, from a parchment scroll, studies of stories in Genesis were once considered by the so-called sophisticated “old wives tales “(bubba mainzes) now are understood as replete with metaphor, myth and symbol now and studied for interpretations of the human condition and intimations of problems of human existence.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: we can be happy that the demise of Jewish tradition has been greatly exaggerated.

Just as in our time, we have to ask our grandchildren about the latest communication technology, such as I-Phones, it is now a case of asking your child or your grandchildren when it comes to greater knowledge and observance of Judaism.

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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