What I Want for My Grandchildren
I received an interesting questionnaire while I was away in India. I’m sharing my responses with you here as an invitation for you to share your own with us as well. The questionnaire was meant for Jews, so adapt the as necessary.
What do you want your grandchildren to know about their being Jewish?
First, they should know they belong to a 4,000-year-old civilization that has shaped the Western world through such amazing people as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Freud, Marx, and Einstein. They should also know that in addition these men there were at least as many women whose names are lost in the amnesia that was (is) patriarchy.
Second, they should know that Judaism (along with all other religious civilizations) is the creation of human beings seeking answers to the perennial questions of human existence: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should I live? and Why? And because this is so, it is prone to both error and prejudice, and capable of self–correction. As heirs to this civilization it is their right and obligation to live what is true, continually correct what is false, and move the entire enterprise ever truth–ward.
Third, while all religions are of human origin, each has something of value to offer to both its followers and the rest of humanity. In the case of Judaism what we bring to the world is a passion for justice (linked inexorably to compassion), an almost preternatural love of learning, and a refusal to abandon the task of godliness (cultivating compassion and justice personally and globally) even in the face of godlessness. That is to say no matter how cruel life gets, Jews never despair of hope or abandon the work of redemption.
What do you want to pass on to your grandchildren from Judaism?
What I want my grandchildren to inherit is the Jewish capacity to express hope and faith through argument and doubt. I want them to question not as a tactic for dismantling authority and excusing self–indulgence, but as a strategy for personal and planetary liberation from the limitations of biases passing themselves off as truths.
What I want my grandchildren to inherit is the rabbinic pedagogy of elu v’elu ("Elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayyim" — These opinions and those opinions, although contradictory, are both the words of the living God). This is the capacity to hold conflicting and even contradictory ideas at the same time, and to use the cognitive dissonance that arises from this to further their creativity in service to justice and compassion.
Since this pedagogy is not learned in the abstract, but is absorbed into the psyche through the traditional study of Jewish tests, a third thing I want my grandchildren to inherit is a love for the Jewish literary corpus from Torah to Talmud to Zohar to Tanya to Dylan to Cohen to whomever is the Leonard Cohen of their the time.
How important is it that your grandchildren believe in the Jewish God and Torah?
I’m not interested in belief, but in wisdom: what we can discern when we humans investigate our world (inner and outer) through reason, imagination, art, science, spirituality, etc. I’m not interested in a Jewish God, but in God as God actually is. And believing in Torah means nothing, while living the principles of Torah matters greatly, but even then there are problems.
So let me say this: I want my grandchildren to know that the universe is a manifestation of a singular reality I call God and others call Brahman, Tao or Spirit. I want them to know that a deep understanding of God leads to an ethic rooted in compassion and justice for all the living. I want them to know that at its best Judaism articulates this understanding of God and godliness, and that Torah, at her best, translates this understanding into a way of life. I also want them to know that Judaism and Torah are often not at their best, and that part of what it is being a Jew is to make Judaism and Torah better.
How important is it to you that your grandchildren are Jewish?
It isn’t important to me that they are Jewish, I hope it will important to them that they are Jewish. I hope that they will come to see themselves as part of an ancient and on–going civilization devoted to teshuvah and tikkun, to returning (teshuvah) to their true nature as beings capable of discerning wisdom, and repairing (tikkun) an ever–breaking world with that wisdom.
What mitzvot would you want your grandchildren to observe?
Mitzvot are the means by which we Jews engage in teshuvah and tikkun. To practice teshuvah we need time for quiet introspection and study, so Shabbat would be an essential mitzvah I hope my grandchildren would keep. To practice Tikkun I would want my grandchildren, each in her own way, to shape their lives around kashrut (ethical consumption), bal tashchit (protecting natural resources), gemilut chesed (engaging in acts of kindness), tzedakah (generosity), and limmud (study of Torah and other essential Jewish texts).
How important is it to you that your grandchildren are Zionists?
Zionism is a commitment to Jewish liberation with a free and democratic State of Israel at its center. I also believe that a Zionist should be committed to the liberation of all peoples, and when the freedom of one conflicts with the freedom of another, to be no less committed to justice for both. In this sense I very much care that my grandchildren are Zionists.
Last question: Why does it matter that your grandchildren are Jewish?
It doesn’t. What matters is that their grandchildren are Jewish. The Jewish passion is for a world perfected in justice and compassion, and this is a utopian goal toward which one must always strive even while knowing full well that it can never be achieved.
Jews, at our best, are catalysts for human freedom. Judaism at its best is a way of life that makes that freedom possible. This is why the world needs Jews and Judaism. This is why it is important to me that my great, great grandchildren are Jews.