Three Strikes and You’re Out — Or Maybe Not!

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Three is the critical number. On that, both sides agree. Three generations, that is: the third generation is a turning point.

But “turning point” to what? There, the two sides differ. For Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, three successive generations of Torah scholars guarantees that “Torah will never depart from their offspring” (BM 85a). Sociologist Marcus Lee Hanson, however, warns that after three generations, family traditions die. For Rabbi Yochanan, a third generation ensures continuity. For Professor Hanson, it spells continuity’s demise.

Who is right?

Our own experience favors Hansen. His study of ethnic communities showed that immigrants (the first generation) love tradition. Their children reject their parents’ nostalgia. The grandchildren try to recover what their parents rejected. But the game ends there, at the third generation, because the fourth generation just doesn’t care.

American Jews today are living this fourth-generation nightmare, watching our young people identify as Jewish but remain “neutral to negative” about Jewish causes, Jewish charity, Jewish learning, and a Jewish future.

But maybe Rabbi Yochanan is on to something. He is discussing Torah, not ethnicity, and our commentators cite him in connection with the commandment in this week’s Torah reading (Bo) to tell our children the story of leaving Egypt.

Whether we have a future depends on what we take that story to be. Will it be historical memories of anti-Semitism, or even a Jewish state like all other states but speaking Hebrew on the streets – however much that moved so many of the older generations to tears of joy? Or will it be something eternal and profound: a call to believe in the Jewish mission of the centuries, of which both Israel and we may be a part?

Believing, alas, is what American Jews do most poorly. By believing, I mean no blind acceptance of the Exodus account in all its detail. It is a story more than it is history. What matters is the meaning we find in it. Telling it at our seders should evoke gratitude and wonder at the sheer thought of being part of something transcendent: a divine plan, no less — being covenanted into history to accomplish great expectations.

Most seders nowadays have traded in gratitude and wonder for fun family get-togethers, updated, perhaps, with activities and toy frogs to amuse the children. They may briefly flirt with seriousness when we enlarge the tale to include the Shoah and Israel, but, like it or not, these provide no transcendent meaning for the fourth generation, the one who Hansen says “just won’t care.” Yes, trips to Israel are important, and yes also, we should never forget the murdered 6,000,000, but neither is enough to sear the fourth generation’s soul the way it does their elders’.

By contrast, what would happen if we treated the seder as earnestly as we do Yom Kippur? Not for confessions of sin but for professions of belief: the insistence that the grand design of history took a turn for the better when an ancient people said, “Enough of slavery! We are on our way to Sinai, to a life of promise, and to God.”

The Haggadah’s famous “Four-Sons midrash” says that our story varies with the wisdom, wickedness, or foolishness of the child who asks. Our issue, however, is less the children asking than the parents answering. We are not wicked, but judging by how we squander the seder by replacing faith with fun, we are not all that wise either. Children should leave the seder table entranced, not entertained, by elders who believe they are still charged with a God-given task. Hearing their parents assert their faith in that age-old Jewish calling might really make this night “different from all other nights.”

Remember the child who doesn’t even know how to ask? We are the adults who don’t know how to answer. We are long on historical memory; short on faith that it means anything. And that is the recipe for disaster. Just ask Hansen.

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3 responses to “Three Strikes and You’re Out — Or Maybe Not!

  1. Every year I study at least 1 month before the Seder so that I can infuse our Seder with a call to believe. But I feel I always fall short. I have a 30 year old son and my Seders are all patient but bored adults. Can you recommend good sources for me to turn to? Thank you!

  2. Wanted to disagree w/Hansen, but honestly could not. HOW do we know whether Hansen is wrong? By observing our children and grandchildren?
    In that case, this third generation Bubbie’s experience shows Hansen’s theory to be incorrect. So far.

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