The Key to Jewish Continuity

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Much investment has been made in Jewish culture as part of the effort of Jewish continuity. Without religious commitment, Jewish culture substitute for an identity connecting with the past. But can this heritage be passed on to the next generation, in large numbers, as a sustaining source of Jewish identity?

R. Jonathan Sacks (Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, pp. 64-65) does not think so because it is missing the key ingredient of identity — duty:

Much investment has been made in Jewish culture as part of the effort of Jewish continuity… I value Jewish culture, but not because it will guarantee that Jews will have Jewish grandchildren. It will not. At stake here is what philosophers call a category mistake. Culture is the expression of a group’s creativity, but it does not bind future generations, because it does not bind at all. As long as we are watching a play, or reading a book, or listening to music, we enter the imaginative world of the artist and are moved, inspired, transported. But once the play is over, the book is finished, the music has reached its closing chord, the work makes no further demands of us. Culture inspires, but it does not command. In [Prof. Ruth] Wisse’s words, it involves ‘no pledge of allegiance’.

I love Greek philosophy, the French impressionists, Italian design and the serene beauty of a Japanese garden, but that does not make me Greek, French, Italian or Japanese. You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish humour, klezmer music or chicken soup with noodles. Culture involves no act of commitment. That is why people have always been able to immerse themselves in the cultures of many lands, languages and creeds. Culture excludes nothing. One school of painting does not compete with another. Novels do not negate the short story, or symphonies the pop song. The existence of French does not refute the existence of Italian.

Identity is different. It involves duty, commitment, loyalty, fidelity. It comes wrapped up with a sense of obligation. Identity is the point at which ‘I am’ shades into ‘I must’ — because these are my people and this is my heritage. Identity involves responsibility. There were Jews, among them the writer Ahad Haam and the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who believed that religion could be translated into the language of culture, but it cannot. Something is lost in translation. To paraphrase Ruth Wisse: no continuity without command.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. There is only one way to guarantee Jewish continuity: Orthodox Judaism.

    If Reform, Conservative/JTS, Reconstructionism, BuJews, Jews for J_____, Michael Lerner, YCT, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and J Street would vanish completely, not only would their disappearance not harm Jewish continuity one drop, but the disappearance of those misguided movements would actually help Jewish continuity very much.

  2. The duty can be a commitment to Reform Judaism, or if defined as an element of Jewish identity, social activism or other forms of chesed.

  3. A bit strange to be quoting Ruth Wisse as the prooftext. As far as I am aware, she does not identify as Orthodox and her primary “duty” seems to be to conservative politics, rather than halachic Judaism.

  4. Further, Wisse is Professor of Yiddish Literature (and Professor of Comparative Literature) which puts her in the Jewish culture investment camp.

  5. shachar haamim

    Today there is only one way to guarantee Jewish continuity: living in Israel.

  6. Before suggesting that Wisse is not a proof, it might be wise to see what she has to say on the subject.

  7. Lawrence Kaplan

    IH: You are wrong about Prof. Wisse, whom I knew well for many years when she was teaching at McGill. She is most definitely not in the cultural investment camp, despite her great knowledge of and love for Yiddish literature.

  8. Gil, Prof. Kaplan — please point me to an example of her writing about “duty” that is congruent with CR Sacks’ point. I am no expert, but I have read sundry articles of hers and (the disappointing to me) Jews and Power. I have no stake here and am happy to be overturned.

    When I Google, I get the fanciful reinterpretation of Trumpeldor on pp. 121 of Jews and Power and in her “allegiance” is to Jewish Nationalism.

  9. Earlier in the chapter, R. Sacks quotes her June 1990 Commentary article “The Hebrew Imperative”

  10. There is IMO really only one predictor of Jewish continuinty, respect.

    If a person doesn’t respect Judaism they won’t continue it. It doesn’t matter if the respect is lost because of a lack of commitment to the mitzvot, or a perception that what they are told are the mitzvot aren’t real, or if they just don’t respect their parents and teachers.

    There is no one size fits all sollution to get people to respect something or someone, and attempts to fix Jewish continunity with just one sollution I think will ultimately fail.

  11. Thanks. It is a reprinted in a book by R. Mintz and mostly available in Google Books preview. As far as I can tell, this 23 year old article is primarily a joust in the “what is Jewish literature” academic wars that were popular at the time. But, I did enjoy her dig at the thirtysomething TV show (which brought back memories) and then a swipe at “Judaism in English” which is amusing given the dependence on Artscroll in Orthodoxy these days.

    As far as I can see, it does not make the point CR Sacks wishes it to make (particularly his final paragraph).

  12. “academic wars”, 1t 10:01am, should more to the point be “cultural wars”.

  13. Lawrence Kaplan

    IH: I tend to think that now you are right, She is in the Jewish nationalism camp. All I said beforehand was that, contra to your earlier claim, she is not in the cultural investment camp. Also from speaking to her I believe her view is that, while not Orthodox herself, Orthodoxy is the best, perhaps only, basis for a continued Jewish commitment.

  14. “…I believe her view is that, while not Orthodox herself, Orthodoxy is the best, perhaps only, basis for a continued Jewish commitment.”

    Lawrence – from the many years I read her column in the Canadian Jewish News (when I was a wee lad), I also remember getting that impression from her writings. While she is not personally observant, she wrote many times that Orthodoxy is a key to the Jewish future.

  15. I agree that “duty” seems to be the word that best describes the excerpt yet, R’ Sacks seems to prefer the term “identity.”

    Isn’t duty the traditional basis of Orthodoxy? Are you contrasting it with the “potato kugel” argument that is used by kiruv and other organizations today?

  16. With perfect timing, given the discussion of Prof wisse’s 1990 article earlier this morning:

    “My daughter chose a challenging way to push back against an American Jewish culture based only on translation from Hebrew sources: To speak to her son only in Hebrew.”

  17. I went to hear MK Ruth Calderon speak at JTS this evening. Unfortunately, an audience member felt ill and it was serious enough to stop the proceedings (refuah shlema) before the Q&A. Hopefully, someone will blog what was said more thoroughly; but, I did want to relay an interesting exchange appropriate to this thread.

    The question posed was how she (Calderon) views her work now, as opposed to the work she has previously done. Her succinct response was along the lines of “my work is Jewish identity. It hasn’t changed – that is what I was doing before and it what I do now [in the Knesset].” And paraphrasing further comments, the Jewish Renaissance happening among non-halachic Jews in Israel is part of our “growing up”. The earlier generation was adolescent, rebelling against all their prejudices about Galut and they threw out too much. Some of them are still around – and she poked gentle fun at the 80 year old men insisting on walking around in shorts and sandals – but, the renaissance is about recovering what was lost. It’s the language, structure and thinking of Torah she’be’al Peh that is being recovered – because that is our (Jewish) language. And without having the words, we cannot fully express ourselves as Jews.

    She spoke about her experience discussing a Mishna every day on Facebook, which apparently gets some 200 comments on most days across the spectrum of observance.

    She also posed the challenge to Jews in the Diaspora to learn Hebrew such that they can engage with the texts because they are at the core of Jewish identity.

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