Seeds of Jewish Identity

| Sukkot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 10, 1998 / 5759 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

The house is back to normal. The flock of children and grandchildren which descended upon us for the start of the new year left after Yom Kippur. It was not the entire Schorsch family this time, but enough to thrill us and exhaust us. Missing were the Berkeley contingent with their brood of three children, just returned from two years in Israel. The twins from Chicago are now 2 1/2 and talking up a storm, while our granddaughter from Brooklyn has just passed the one-year mark and charms everyone with a smile and a giggle. Visits have a way of turning cousins into friends.

Holidays should bring families together. When our three children were young, we would head for Vineland, New Jersey to spend the yom tovim with my parents and my sister’s family. The meals after shul passed slowly in conversation as good as the food. Unobtrusively, Judaism framed and informed everything we did in those tranquil and intimate days. And the pattern, thankfully, continues to unite the generations.

The point of my nostalgia is that the seeds of Jewish identity are planted at home. A field left fallow will soon sprout weeds. The synagogue is hard put to transmit a Judaism whose practice is restricted solely to its physical premises. There are so many mitzvot to be done at home, especially during the festival of Sukkot. The inculcation of Judaism begins long before the start of formal schooling. At the core of the Shema, our daily affirmation of faith, lies an educational strategy that makes parents the primary Jewish teachers of their children: “You shall diligently teach them [these words which I command you] to your children. You shall speak of them at home and away, morning and night (Deuteronomy 6:7).” As adults we are to create a home environment that is filled by the sights and sounds of Judaism. We are to instruct by word and deed, ritual and artifact.

In their elaboration of Jewish law, the Rabbis concretized the responsibility of parents for the induction of their children into Judaism. It was the duty of the community to provide for formal education, because “the world is sustained only by the breath of children in school.” A young child learning is compared “to ink written on fresh paper.” With age our capacity to absorb and retain declines. An adult who studies is more like “ink written on blotted paper” (Pirkei Avot, 4:25). Hence schooling was to start early with a graded curriculum. At age five a youngster began the study of the Bible; at 10 the Mishna and at 15 the analytic derivation of the laws of the latter from the text of the former.

But parents were expected to impart morsels of Torah to their children long before the start of school. As soon as they became verbal, they were to be taught the following verse: “When Moses charged us with the Teaching (Torah), the heritage of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4).” The choice was evidently determined not only by the presence of the word “Torah,” but also by the idea, to be grasped later, that as Jews we are heirs to a sacred tradition of transcendent importance that needs to be reappropriated in every generation (B.T. Sukka 42a). Neither faith nor culture are transmitted through the genes.

Yet more important than the acquisition of knowledge at a tender age is the formation of habits. The Rabbis counseled parents to make of the house an arena of informal education. Though the observance of Judaism did not generally become obligatory for boys till age 13 and girls till 12, the basis for our contemporary bar- and bat-mitzva rite of passage, children were introduced to many mitzvot when far younger. Collectively, these disparate guidelines embody a sound educational philosophy predicated on a nuanced notion of childhood.

Thus a year or two before fasting on Yom Kippur becomes de rigueur, parents ought to prod their children to lengthen the time between meals on that day. The duty of self-denial is not to be imposed suddenly or harshly, but gradually and gently (Mishna, Yoma 8:4). Contrastingly, the Mishna does not require of a small boy to live in the sukka during Sukkot (women were exempted by the Rabbis) until he has gained a measure of independence from his mother, that is (unlike our grandchildren) he does not cry for her when he wakes up at night. Nor is he expected to fulfill the commandment of shaking the lulav (again women were exempt) until he is old enough to do it correctly (Mishna, Sukka 3:15), or to accompany his father to the Temple on any of the three pilgrimage festivals until he could walk by his side from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount (Mishna, Hagiga 1:1).

More broadly, a father, who bears responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his son (today we would say parents for their children), is advised to buy him a tallit when he knows how to wear it or a pair of tefillin when he is able to care for them (Tosefta, Hagiga 1:2). In short, the Rabbis posited a maturation curve demarcated by subjective entry points. By puberty, observance should have become second nature.

Obviously, such socialization only works when there is a family setting that pulsates with Jewish practice. Yet the home is precisely the weakest point in our current educational phalanx. To drop our children off at Hebrew school during the week or at synagogue on Shabbat, without any reinforcement at home, will not yield a robust Jewish identity. All too often the showiness of our bar- and bat-mitzva celebrations camouflages the abysmal paucity of Jewish content in our lives.

Isaac did the bidding of Abraham in the service of his demanding God only because “the two of them went together (Genesis 22:6,8).” The supreme importance of the home in raising our children Jewishly is what makes intensive, sustained adult education the most urgent need in the American Jewish community today.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Sukkot 5759 are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.