Sarna's Haiku for Young Jews


Letters to a Young Jew
By Jonathan D. Sarna
208 pages. Basic Books. $23.

Religious Jews tend to emphasize tradition. Some secular Jews point out that tradition is itself a product of change and innovation. But the two viewpoints both attempt to answer the same question, a riddle as old as the Talmud: What does it mean to lead a meaningful Jewish life?

One could do worse than to ask Jonathan D. Sarna, the elite scholar of American Judaism, for his opinion. In his newest book, Dr. Sarna has a simple message—it can be shrunken to a haiku, almost—for younger Jews: Be engaged. Don't be ignorant. Keep an open mind. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

And so, on to the commentary. As Dr. Sarna suggests in A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew (Basic Books), the follow-up to his acclaimed American Judaism (which won the National Jewish Book Award), the first pillar of Jewish life may be knowledge. And indeed, after several chapters, you’ll know a little about a lot, including the who’s, what’s, when’s, why’s, and ways of living Jewishly.

“But being a knowledgeable Jew is not enough,” Dr. Sarna writes. “I hope that you will also think about becoming a practicing Jew.” He’s speaking now of tradition—the mitzvot—and also “customs,” of which there are “thousands.” Does he mean that dabbling is OK? Are the mitzvot optional? And can knowledge—for its own sake—be enough?

Part of the fun is that Dr. Sarna remains studiously neutral, refusing to parse his own answers. Unless the issue is Israel (for which he is a vocal champion) or intermarriage (about which he’s a bit of a Cassandra), he tends to vote present on the topical, hot-button issues that rile the denominations.

All of which suggests a liberal, open-minded attitude—“come as you are,” with perhaps a gentle nudge toward tradition. “Your job,” Dr. Sarna writes, “building upon those who have come before you, is to study, think, and develop your own approach…. In doing so, you will define what kind of Jew you are, how you relate to other Jews, and how you relate to the world at large.”

If that sounds like a heady assignment, consider the context: today, “There are almost as many Judaisms as there are Jews,” Dr. Sarna writes. Meaning: we’re living in a post-denominational moment, when institutional Judaism is losing its hold on younger Jews.

Dr. Sarna can be wry and charming, even while unpacking the darker lessons of Jewish history. (“If they give you three months to leave,” he once said in a lecture—“take the hint.”) He clearly enjoys moonlighting as something besides a styptic scholar. His book is pitched to a broad audience, but it very much reflects its author’s own heady concerns about the future of Jewish life. When he asks, “Given the reality of choice, how should you decide what kind of Jew to become?”—he fears that the answer will be, “No kind of Jew.”

Regard this warm, erudite book as part introduction, part advertisement. At the end of 13 terse (for teenage attention spans) chapters, it will leave the impression that the epistolary device is supposed to foster—that you’re actually eavesdropping on the author’s personal missives. The key word in that sentence is “personal.”

“Consider your heritage a precious resource and explore its personal dimensions,” Dr. Sarna writes. “Let our rich and beautiful traditions inform your life choices, guiding you in all that you do as you shape your own life and strive to improve the lives of those around you.”