Sarna's Haiku for Young Jews
By JESSE TISCH
A TIME TO EVERY PURPOSE
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
“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.”