Making Torah Relevant to Millennials: Rabbis and 21st-Century Communications

Posted on May 09, 2012

It’s always a pleasure for me—the JTS chancellor who is not a rabbi—to spend time with members of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), kindred spirits to me on the path of Torah. A lot of good people doing dedicated, imaginative, and often successful work. Lively conversation partners. Spirited daveners. My pleasure at their company was enhanced at this year’s RA convention in Atlanta—from which I make this post—by the rollout of a new continuing education seminar, “Making Torah Relevant to “NextGen”: You’re the App for That!,” offered jointly by the RA and The Jewish Theological Seminary, coordinated on our behalf by Rabbi Hayim Herring, with Jane Shapiro as lead educator. The subject is one that is uppermost on the minds of many rabbis, whether they serve in congregations, schools, camps, organizations, campus Hillels, or military chaplaincy. I too think about it a lot:

How can we most effectively reach the generation of Millennials, 20- and 30-something participants in the ever-lengthening phase of life known as “emerging adulthood?” How can we provide them with compelling experiences of Jewish community and Jewish tradition? In particular, how can we do so using new media that did not exist only a few years ago?

It has to change matters that tweets and retweets, images and blogs, emerged in real time yesterday from the first meeting of our seminar at the RA convention—stimulants to a dialogue that proceeded even as I was giving my opening address. Many are wont to say that the technology is merely a tool, a vehicle for accomplishing goals that must be established independently in order for the media to be effective. I wonder, the more I come face-to-face with the possibilities and (to my mind) limitations of the new media, whether there may be something in the tools themselves, and in the fit between the technology and the particular characteristics of emerging adulthood, that should impact goals and not merely the means by which we pursue them. This question too is on the agenda this week of the convention. A new stage of adulthood has been born at the same time as a new stage in the way human beings receive information and communicate it. Teaching and living Torah will change as well.

For example, it seems that “emerging adults,” even more than the “sovereign selves” of the baby boomer generation about whom Steven Cohen and I wrote in The Jew Within, “have not yet entered [and do not want to enter] the enduring responsibilities that are normative in adulthood,” but rather “explore a variety of possible life directions in love, work and worldviews.” (Here, we cite an expert in the field, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who himself is cited in a fine piece by Scott Aaron and Josh Feigelson called, “Experiential Education and Jewish Emerging Adults.”) Exploration wins out over arrival. “Enduring responsibilities” or commitments are difficult to undertake when one is physically moving from place to place every year or two; has not settled into a career (or long-term area of work); puts off marriage or long-term romantic partnerships; is still sorting through friendships from high school, college, and beyond to find which will be long-lasting; and—last but hardly least—has not yet met one’s kids, the most enduring responsibility (and love) of all.

The new media serve and reinforce these tendencies. They favor networks over communities, connection rather than relationship, bits of information rather than depth—all of them possible vehicles of something greater, if the self who stands at the center of this flow of images and lines-between-the-dots wishes to take that extra step. I found, teaching college and graduate school students, that the desire for relationship was matched only by fear of choosing badly, getting stuck and foreclosing chances of better relationships; the hunger for meaning was matched only by the anxiety at being snookered, i.e., sold a bill of goods that turns out to be shallow; the pleasure at being part of a group, or even a substantive community, was mitigated by apprehension that any bonds established would fast become fetters that close off other possibilities.

And we Jews speak the language of commandment, community, People, tribe, forever, Right, Truth, and God. The language is profoundly and simultaneously appealing, challenging, and disturbing to many emerging adults, as it is to their baby boomer parents and grandparents. How does one reach out across that divide or work around the barriers that remain, using new as well as traditional media? How does one apply the latest technology, as well as the old-fashioned, tried and true experience of human beings sitting in a room together, sharing a meal, studying a text, and giving of themselves face to face?

What one does not do with the new generation and the new technology, it seems clear, is talk at people, pronounce decrees, claim mastery of information and therefore of truth. This wastes the technology, which is wonderfully interactive and always open-ended, and closes off discussion that needs opening with emerging adults. Jewish teachers such as Buber and Rosenzweig recognized a century ago that our job as teachers is to modeland to witness. We teachers are on life’s path—maybe older than our students, maybe not—and we have much to learn as well as to teach. None of us has arrived at the goal, even if some of us are prepared to say, with due humility, that Torah is life itself for us. We will stake our limited time on earth on the wisdom of this way and feel privileged to open it to others.

What is more, since our job is to bring Torah to the tasks of living in the world and making it better, we have to welcome every opportunity of bringing the realities and possibilities of that world to Torah. Any point we make, or that any text makes, or that any historical case study makes, can be amplified or questioned, driven home or rendered more far-reaching, by our ability—and the ability of everyone in every “classroom” or remote learning site—to summon up additional context and put it before the group instantaneously. I used to draw on TV shows, movies, and incidents in Shakespeare’s plays when teaching undergraduates. It sometimes turned out that my students had not read Macbeth, nor heard of the Crusades, nor could manage to make it to the library to screen the video that I had placed on reserve. Ancient history, this. Now a film clip comes to mind, and it is there in front of us; a fact is in question, and the evidence is on our screens; if no film is suitable for the counter-factual reality we want to imagine, we make the film, splice the images together, etc.

Teaching is different. Life is different. Torah is different. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and not a little terrifying to stand where we stand in 2012, realize how much has changed in the last decade, and strain to imagine how much more will change by 2022. I am betting, given three thousand years of Jewish creativity until now, that our imagination will be equal to the task and that our fidelity to Torah will take us in directions that are not yet conceivable.