In his 1898 Harper’s Magazine essay on Jews, Mark Twain contrasted the waxing and waning of the ancient civilizations with the staying power of the Jews. “The Jew,” he wrote, “saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, and no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
What would Mark Twain say today about the Jews? He was writing 40 years before WWII, when our demise was both predicted and sought, yet we have survived and thrived. Would Twain still comment on our immortality? Moreover, are non-observant American Jews going to be counted among those who contribute to Judaism’s immortality?
What does it take for Jews, or any people or civilization, to survive? It takes sustained devotion to the values, practices, customs and stories of the community. It takes a commitment to live within the norms, however the community defines them. It takes a willingness to take part in its rituals, customs and celebrations. And it takes education to transmit the knowledge, values and practices from one generation to the next. For Jews, the rituals and customs, the mitzvot, are an expression of our relationship with God and with our fellow Jews; they are an expression of who we are as a people. When these practices disappear, the people disappear.
As Americans, we also share a language and a national story embedded with American values; we also share customs and celebrations. Imagine America without the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. Who reading this blog does not plan to celebrate Thanksgiving?
But tomorrow is another story. Tomorrow night is both Shabbat and Halloween! Now what?
Educator Avraham Infeld has said that our Jewish rituals, customs and holidays are expressions of our Jewish identity. The celebration of Halloween may be embedded in the fabric of your family’s American traditions. So, at this time of year, when Halloween and Shabbat coincide, it is a good time to ask: what actions do we take with our children that will enliven Judaism and our connection to each other and to God? Does the action of trick-or-treating on Shabbat accomplish this goal?
By sending your children to a Jewish day school you are ensuring their Jewish education. But without bringing Judaism’s values, rituals and customs to life in your home, they may atrophy and disappear.
For those who celebrate Shabbat and also celebrate Halloween, maybe you will forgo Halloween this year, or perhaps go out early before candle lighting and still have Shabbat. But will you forgo Shabbat?
And for those who never or rarely celebrate Shabbat in the home (or any other Jewish observance or practice), here is a thought: Franz Rosenzweig, an influential German-Jewish existentialist thinker (1886-1929), nearly converted to Christianity before rediscovering his Judaism in a profound way. He committed himself to a Jewish journey where he envisioned taking on observances and practices slowly, but meaningfully. So when asked whether he wore tefillin, his answer was, “not yet.”
It is not what you haven’t done yet to bring life to Jewish living in your home – it is when!