Jewish Beginnings, Middles, and Endings

October 28, 2014

A friend of mine has asked me to officiate at a Memorial Service for her mother who was more a Humanist than in any sense formally Jewish. But the mother left directions that when she died she wanted a Memorial Service involving her children and their families, and she wanted a rabbi to preside. I was impressed to see these hand-written directions. It takes a certain bravery to write out directions about what others are to do when you die, and a certain loyalty to insist that such proceedings should have a Jewish heksher (certification).

I asked about the mother’s Hebrew name, and I got it. A good, solid, generation ago kind of Jewish name, mixing Yiddish names with Hebrew. A breath of another time and place—an old world kind of name.

This got me thinking about how it is that so many Jews have a religious Jewish beginning, and a religious Jewish ending, but no religious Jewish middle. They are born as Jews, and they die as Jews, and they will tell anyone who will or even who won’t listen that this is how it is with them. But how many of them choose not to live as Jews? Why is that, and why do I care?

Let's look at what I will term “The Missing Jewish Middle.” (And yes, I know that your Aunt Bea wishes your Uncle Howie could have a missing Jewish middle, but that’s another thing). What are some of the causes for the Missing Jewish Middle? Why do some Jews decide not to live in connection to religious Jewish life, or to say it another way, why do some Jews drift toward or choose another way?

In no particular order . . .

When they themselves came from religious families:

  • Their mothers, fathers, families were observant but they did not display a warm, evocative, rich and rewarding Jewish life. Living Jewishly was something they did because that’s what Jews do, and God help the son or daughter who didn’t go along with it, but the way of life was more about restrictions and avoiding certain foods and behaviors and certain people rather than it’s being anything magnetically meaningful and joyful.
  • While they sent their kids to Jewish schools and for religious training, the members of the older generation did not model living Jewishly nor did it seem to be a source of growth and joy for them. They wanted their children to stay in Jewish life as a sort of safety zone, but they failed to make it attractive and were not personally invested in it. They sought to motivate their children by guilt and fear about becoming assimilated or breaking Grandma’s heart, and intimidation: but they displayed nothing really warm, inviting, and growth-producing about Jewish religious life.
  • When, as children or teens, they asked “But why do I have to do this questions,” the responses they go were more oughts than why’s. Saying “because that’s what Jews do,” or, “because Grandma lives with us,” doesn’t have much shelf life in a world filled the enticements of sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll.
  • They got seduced by other options which promised them greater freedom, better answers, and more enjoyment than the religious way of life they had come to see as little more than a bundle of archaic restrictions.
  • They met the boy or girl of their dreams, who wasn’t a Member of the Tribe.
  • Their family members didn’t seem to display a personal relationship with Something or Someone Transcendent, while other people they knew or met made more compelling claims and seemed to have a spiritual spark they themselves and their family members were lacking.
  • They experienced some sort of abuse or culpable indifference from people with the reputation of being “religious.”

When they themselves came from non-religious or even anti-religious families:

  • Their families somewhere along the line bought into the false dichotomy between religion and science, and religion lost. This is the view that relegates religion to primitive pre-intellectual stages of human development. No person with a mind could ever embrace such anti-intellectual fantasies, or so we’ve been told.
  • Their families abandoned faith in God due to some trauma, such as the Shoah, either a trauma in their own family, in the families of people they know, or just in theory: “I could never believe in a God who would allow . . . .”
  • Nobody they knew seemed to really know God in Jewish life, and perhaps those who claimed to have that knowledge lacked credibility.
  • Their families through intermarriage or other cultural assimilation abandoned explicit Jewish religion and/or identification so as not to create problems.
  • Their families found another spiritual path, whether Western or Eastern or other, reducing any connection to Judaism to purely rhetorical if that.
  • For a variety of reasons, religion in general or Judaism in particular became too difficult or too inconvenient or not as attractive as other options.
  • Their families of origin themselves departed from allegiance to the Jewish way of life generations ago.

Or perhaps, whatever their family background:

  • They've accepted a redefinition of Jewish life as Liberal politics, or simply Zionism, or loving Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand, and pastrami sandwiches. They no longer have a religious definition of Jewish life and identity.
  • They started out in Jewish life or even in a non-religious or anti-religious Jewish family, and then embraced a religious path which viewed Jewish religious life as passé, as something of a launch pad for something "better" or "greater."  So for these people, to go back to Jewish life would be retrogressive . . . or so they've been told and so they believe.
  • They found the values and beliefs they were obliged to sign on for repugnant, and their own values and beliefs disrespected.
  • They got hussled into another viewpoint, or hassled out of their commitment to Jewish life, or both.
  • They never met any person or group of people positively magnetic in commitment to Jewish life, evidence of knowing God, and manner of relating to others and the environment.

So the end result is, many Jews have lost or abandoned contact with Jewish religious life and identity. So many had a Jewish beginning, and even plan for a Jewish ending, but no Jewish middle.

How, if at all, should we help such people pursue a religious Jewish middle? And why would such persons care about a Jewish middle or ending at all? Why should they return? And why should a Messianic Jew like me care?

Come back later this week and we’ll pick up on these questions and see where they might lead us.



3 comments on “Jewish Beginnings, Middles, and Endings”

  1. As one of those Jewish kids that was named a name that is half Yiddish and has Hebrew I appreciated your comment. When I am called to the Torah in the messianic congregation I often get a second glance and a stutter in the pronunciation of my Hebrew name because it includes a Yiddish part thanks for the journey back in time which explains why I am named as I am.

  2. So now I get to ponder the questions, come up with answers, and then see how closely they match yours. Thanks!

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