Studies in Renewal (4) – Rethinking Priorities

September 1, 1993
MagenDavid continuity

This is the fourth of five pamphlets written by Rabbi Sacks in 1993. The series is entitled "Studies in Renewal".

Why has the crisis of continuity occurred, and why so suddenly? In this paper I give the answer. We have put continuity at the bottom of our communal priorities. As evidenced by the patterns of Anglo-Jewish philanthropy, the needs of future generations have been seriously neglected. This must change if there is to be an Anglo-Jewish future.

Rethinking Priorities
The crisis in continuity has been sudden, devastating and unexpected. Intermarriage rates in America have risen almost ten times in twenty-five years. All available evidence points to a similarly rapid erosion in Anglo-Jewry. The Jewish family, the crucible of Jewish continuity, is disintegrating before our eyes. And it has happened in the space of one generation. Why?

The answer is painful but we must face it. It has happened because we have let it happen, because for decades we have supported every Jewish cause except one: the Jewish future of our own children.

We have given too little attention and too few resources to creating new generations of committed Jews. We have allocated too slender a share of our funds to Jewish education. Only belatedly have we recognised the need for Jewish schools. We have failed to concentrate on recruiting and training rabbis, educators and youth leaders. To those we have found, we have given too little reward, recognition and prestige. Jewish youth groups have limped for lack of funds. University chaplaincy has struggled to survive. Education has been the lowest of our priorities. We have lacked a strategy for Jewish continuity.

This has not been because we are uncharitable as a community. To the contrary, we have given voluntarily to Jewish causes out of all proportion to our numbers. One of the most striking characteristics of the Children of Israel was that, whenever asked, they gave. In the wilderness, when asked to contribute to the Golden Calf they gave without demur. When asked to make a donation to the building of the Sanctuary they gave so lavishly that Moses had to ask them to stop "because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work." The Golden Calf was an idol. The Sanctuary was the home of the Divine Presence. There was nothing in common between them except this: that they came into being through giving. Whenever asked, we gave. We still do.

However, what has attracted our philanthropy for the past thirty years has been other places and other times. Our minds have been dominated by the Shoah and the State of Israel. We have monitored antisemitism and funded Holocaust studies. We have scanned the horizons of Central and Eastern Europe for danger signals of resurgent hatred. We have lived vicariously in Israel's pain and glory. We have helped her build universities and engage in urban renewal. We have watched the miraculous rescue of Ethiopian Jewry. We campaigned for and finally witnessed the liberation and exodus of the Jews of Russia. These were urgent, important, necessary projects. But what we neglected in the meanwhile was our own future: our children. The Holocaust, Israel, Ethiopia, Russia are sometime else or somewhere else. But to be able to remember the past we must have a future. To be of lasting help to someone else, we must first ensure our own survival.

Why then has the crisis of continuity happened? Because as a community, and without intending to, we have let it happen. The evidence is presented below. But first I want to consider two principles of Jewish law. They tell us much about how Jews lived and what they valued. They tell us more about how they succeeded in raising new generations of Jews. They tell us, in short, what our priorities should be as a community.

A Meeting
Twenty-five years ago I had an encounter that has stayed in my mind ever since. The year was 1968. I was then a philosophy student at Cambridge. It was not an environment conducive to religious belief. Agnosticism or atheism were the order of the day. But the Six Day War had awakened my interest in Jewish identity, and I decided to travel to America, the home of Jewry's leading philosophers and thinkers, to find out for myself whether a cogent case could be made for Jewish faith in the modern age. It was there that I met a famous Hasidic Rebbe and heard for the first time a great principle of Jewish law.

Ushered in to the Rebbe' s study, I bombarded him with a series of questions about Judaism. His answers were courteous, brief, to the point and unemotional. It was a stylised encounter, a debate rather than a meeting of minds. My questions were predictable, the Rebbe's answers conventional. Then suddenly the atmosphere changed. I suggested that the Rebbe's kind of faith was too parochial. It was concerned only with Judaism and Jews. Surely there was a world outside in which we, as Jews, had to be involved. There was global over­population. There was famine in Africa. There were political conflicts which had nothing to do with Jews, but in which we were nonetheless implicated as citizens of the world.

The Rebbe smiled, leaned forward and looked up for the first time. Staring straight into my eyes, he said: aniyei ircha kodmim. I was baffled. The words were Hebrew but I did not recognise them. I asked: What does the Rebbe mean? He replied: The Talmud teaches us that "the poor of your own town take precedence."

"You are right," he continued. "We have many duties. But there are priorities among them. According to Jewish law, our first priority is to ensure the well-being of those closest to us. We cannot save the world without first saving ourselves."

The Rebbe, I later discovered, was referring to the statement in the talmudic tractate of Baba Metzia which states that if there is a choice between assisting the members of your family and helping other members of your town, your family takes precedence. If the choice is between your town and another city, your town takes precedence. The principle is echoed in many other places in Jewish law.

The ultimate aim of charity, according to halachah, is neither to promote generosity on the part of the giver nor gratitude on the part of the recipient, important though these are. It is to create independence. So we find, according to Maimonides, that the highest form of tzedakah is "that of the person who assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment - in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people's aid." So an individual or a town may not impoverish themselves by giving their possessions away, for this solves one problem at the cost of creating another. An individual or a community must first ensure that they are self-sufficient. They are then in a position to help others, now and in the long run.

It is this idea that lies behind Hillel's famous aphorism: "If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" We believe in collective responsibility, in giving to others. Tzedakah is a cardinal Jewish virtue. But first we believe in personal responsibility, in creating our own viability and independence. And what applies to individuals applies to communities. Domestic causes take priority over others. Not exclusive priority, for we must help other communities in need. But priority nonetheless. For if we fail to secure our own viability as a Jewish community we will eventually be in no position to help others, and the roles will be reversed. Instead of giving assistance, we will need to receive it.

A Question of Precedence

That is the first axiom. The second was brought home to me in a most curious way. About a year ago I received an invitation to lunch with the Prime Minister at Chequers. At the same time I received an invitation to take part in the opening ceremony of a new Jewish school in London. Both events were on the same day, at roughly the same time. I could not attend both. Which took precedence?

The Jewish way of answering such a question is to consult our texts. In this case they were not hard to find. The first was a Mishnah:

Rabbi Hanina, the deputy High Priest, said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since were it not that people feared it, they would swallow one another alive.

Since the days of the prophet Jeremiah, we have "sought the welfare of the city" in which we live. We value the rule of law, the duties of citizenship, and maintaining good relationships with our neighbours and with the government. A visit to Chequers came under this heading, and was therefore a high priority. But the second text was decisive. It comes from Maimonides' law code, the Mishneh Torah:

If a town has made no provision for the Jewish education of its children, then its inhabitants are to be excommunicated until teachers have been appointed ... for the world only exists in virtue of the sound of children at their studies.

Nothing could more vividly illustrate Judaism's scale of priorities. Governments sustain society, but education sustains the world. The answer to my question was clear. I regretfully declined the Prime Minister's invitation and instead opened the school.

Consistently throughout our history, we have placed education at the very top of our priorities, not only in theory but in practice, and not only as individuals but as a community. In his Outline of History, H. G. Wells noted that "the Jewish religion, because it was a literature-­sustained religion, led to the first efforts to provide elementary education for all children in the community." Nearly two thousand years before Europe, Jews had created a system of universal, free, compulsory education. Tuition for teenagers was begun by Shimon ben Shetach in the first century B.C.E. By the first century C.E. Joshua ben Gamla had established a comprehensive network of primary schools throughout Judea. By the fourth century C.E. educational policy had become so thorough that Rava was able to introduce a rule limiting the maximum class size to 25 (or 40 if there was both a teacher and an assistant), the first such regulation in history. Higher and adult education - in the form of the yeshiva and bet Midrash - are even older Jewish traditions, and it would be difficult to find a counterpart, even today, to the Jewish ideal of life-long learning.

Sustaining such an infrastructure was costly, and as a matter of principle, the burden of funding was placed not only on parents but also on the community as a whole. In fifteenth century Spain, for example, the Jewish community established a series of ordinances to ensure that every child received a Jewish education.  The revenue was obtained from taxes on meat and wine, circumcisions, weddings and funerals. The Valladolid synod of 1432 ordered "that every community of fifteen householders [or more] shall be obliged to maintain a qualified elementary teacher to instruct their children in Scripture ... The parents shall be obliged to send their children to that teacher, and each shall pay him in accordance with their means. If this revenue should prove inadequate, the community shall be obliged to supplement it." Every community of forty or more households was instructed to provide advanced as well as elementary schooling. The Chief Rabbi of Castile was authorised to divert money from wealthier to impoverished communities to subsidise struggling schools.

Similar, if less detailed, provisions existed elsewhere in Europe. The fees of poorer children, and sometimes the salaries of teachers, were paid by the community. The funds were raised by taxes, or obligatory contributions on those called to the Torah, or by house to house collections. In twelfth century France, Rabbenu Tam ruled that when there was a shortage of funds for education, money designated for other purposes could be diverted to schools and teachers. The quality of education varied from country to country and from century to century, but there was one common factor. Until the modem era there was virtually no European Jewish community, however small, without a school and teachers. Benjamin of Tudela, travelling in Provence in 1165, could report that in Posquieres, a town of some forty Jews, there was a great yeshiva. Marseilles, whose Jewish population was 300, was "a city of geonim [outstanding scholars] and Sages."

So if the first axiom of community is that domestic causes take priority, the second is that among these causes, the needs of education take precedence. The logic of this second principle is the same as the first. Before anything else, a community must establish its viability, which means its continuity. It must secure the Jewish future of its children, which means their education. If this is in place, all else will follow. If it is lacking, all else will fail. These are the teachings of Jewish law on communal priorities.

Anglo-Jewish Giving

In the light of these axioms, what are we to make of the following figures, published by the Charities Aid Foundation in Charity Trends 1992? They represent the amounts given to major Jewish organisations in 1991.

Jewish Philanthropic Association24,662
Society of Friends of Jewish Refugees4,800
Friends of the Hebrew University2,232
Jerusalem Foundation1,172
British Technion Society1,096
Society of Friends of Feder- of Women Zionists1,048
CBF World Jewish Relief2,019
Jewish Care6,914
Nightingale House2,371
Ravenswood Foundation2,221
Norwood Child Care1,218
Jewish Educational Development Trust945
Friends of Zionist Federation Educational Trust740

These figures tell us a number of things about Anglo­Jewry. First, they indicate that we are an exceptionally generous community. The Jewish tradition of tzedakah is alive and well.

Second, they signal that Israel is at the heart of our Iives. This too is an age-old Jewish tradition. For centuries when we prayed, we prayed towards Jerusalem. When we celebrated, we paused to remember Zion. Today when we give, we give to Israel.

Third, the needs of welfare continue to move us to compassion. Gemillut hassadim [practical kindness], said the Sages, is one of the three pillars on which the world stands. Jewishly, it still is.

These are all things of which we should be proud. There are few if any religious or ethnic groups in the world who regularly show such generosity and collective practical concern.

But the figures tell us a fourth thing, namely that Jewish education, the core of continuity, is the lowest of all our priorities. Dramatically so. In a year in which nearly £40 million was raised for Israel and £13 million for welfare, the two major educational fund-raising bodies, J.E.D.T. and Z.F.E.T., managed to elicit less than £1.7 million between them. Judged by this measure we allocated to education one-eighth of what we gave to welfare and less than one-­twentieth of what we gave to Israel. Or, to put it differently, we gave more to one university in Israel than to all the Jewish schools in Britain. This is not traditional, nor is it a fact in which we can take pride.

That was in 1991. We do not yet have the figures for 1992, but in absolute terms they are bound to be worse. As the impact of the recession on Anglo-Jewry has deepened, one Jewish educational body after another has faced financial crisis. A secondary school in Ilford closed. A primary school in North West London warned parents that the same fate might be in store for it in a year's time. The Association of Jewish Sixth Formers came to the brink of closure. The two largest providers of Jewish Day Schools, the United Synagogue and the Z.F.E.T., found themselves in financial difficulties. The United Synagogue's Adult Education department was terminated. So was its provision of Jewish instruction at non-Jewish schools. The economic recession has had a devastating effect on all Jewish communal institutions, sustained as they are by voluntary contributions. But the first and worst casualty has been education.

Our patterns of giving reflect our scale of values. lt is clear that in Anglo-Jewry we have broken the two fundamental rules of Jewish giving. We have not heeded the principle of aniyei ircha kodmim, that domestic causes are prior. Nor have we followed the rule that, more than any other, has distinguished us from other peoples and faiths. We have not put education first.

Good News, Bad News

We should not exaggerate the bad news. Good things have happened in Anglo-Jewry in the past twenty years. In 1971, the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, launched the Jewish Educational Development Trust which raised the profile of Jewish education built two schools, and raised funds for a variety of educational projects, including some in the field of teacher­-training. More recently, the United Synagogue has significantly enlarged its educational remit, culminating in the recent opening of two new schools, the Hillel Primary School in Southgate (1992) and the King Solomon High School in Redbridge (1993). In the past ten years adult education has flourished, and there has recently been great interest in the concept of family education. Talented educators and energetic lay leadership have combined to bring about this multi-faceted renaissance, and the result is already tangible. Anglo-Jewry has become more lively and creative than many believed possible.

The bad news should not be exaggerated, but it should not be under-estimated either. We have raised capital sums to build schools, but not the funds to keep them going. We have concentrated on buildings rather than people (what Americans call the Jewish 'edifice complex'). We have focused, rightly, on building day schools while, wrongly, neglecting the many other aspects of a continuity-creating environment such as youth groups and informal, adult and family education. More of our children receive intensive Jewish day school education than a generation ago, but more are receiving little or no tuition. The J.E.D.T. Think Tank Report (Securing Our Future, 1992) showed that beyond the age of thirteen, only half our children have any further Jewish instruction. By the age of sixteen this has dropped to one in six, and by the age of seventeen, to one in ten. It is this group -the half whose Jewish education is slight and growing ever less -who are most liable to leave the community through intermarriage or disaffiliation. So the latest research indicates. What is more, the recession has put the future of a whole range of educational bodies at risk.

Anglo-Jewry lacks an overall strategy for education, for continuity and for communal priorities as a whole. As a result we, in common with America, have done what no Jewish community did between the destruction of the second Temple and the nineteenth century. We neglected our intellectual, spiritual and cultural life. We lost our finest heritage, the Jewish educational environment and the concept of a "learning society." Worst of all for a people that has always cared for its future, we put the Jewish needs of our children last.

It is not that we are ungenerous to Jewish causes. To the contrary, as the figures show, we give liberally to Israel, Jewish welfare and the many other aspects of community life. Nor is it that as parents we are ungenerous to our children. If anything we have been over-indulgent parents. Certainly when it comes to our children's secular education we have wanted the best and been prepared to pay for it. So we are willing to give to Jewish causes and we are willing to give to our children. What we seem unwilling to do is to give to a Jewish cause when the Jewish cause is our children.

The Message from Israel

This is worse than untraditional. It is little less than suicidal. Whatever our commitments are as Jews, they can only be sustained in the long run if there is going to be a next generation of Jews. If we care about Israel, what will this avail us or lsrael if our grandchildren no longer feel a kinship with the Jewish people and its homeland? If we care about welfare, what will this help those in need fifty years from now, if our grandchildren are no longer part of a community that recognises the need for collective responsibility and care?

Whatever we value, we wish to see continued by our children and theirs. If we care about anything beyond ourselves, we do not wish to see it come to an end with ourselves and our generation. Our present patterns of Jewish giving, if continued into the future, are destined to end in the collapse of Jewish life in the diaspora for all but a minority of the most intensely religious. For we will have given to Israel's present but not to our own community's future. We will have given to the old but not to the young. We will have given to Jewish defence against external enemies but not to Jewish defence against the most powerful enemy of all: internal Jewish ignorance and indifference.

Unprecedentedly this message is now coming not only from religious leaders but from secular figures as well, and not only in the diaspora but even in Israel itself. In the past, Israel has been candid in its request of the diaspora. It has called for support for Israel: political, financial and above all by way of aliyah. Never before have Israeli politicians called on Jewish communities abroad to start supporting themselves through Jewish education.

That, however, was the call of Eli Dayan in the Knesset on 22 December 1992. In an eloquent speech, he called on Israel to energise the diaspora to save itself from assimilation. He pleaded for a concerted Jewish effort to mobilise resources in a worldwide Jewish educational campaign.  President Chaim Herzog expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to me last October.  He wrote:

For many years I have insisted, at every conceivable opportunity, both privately and in public appearances, that Jewish education in the diaspora is paramount and must be accorded a very high priority in the activities of every Jewish community. This is not only in the interests of the communities abroad. It is also of vital interest to the State of Israel. Israel's centrality in the Jewish world assumes the existence of a strong and vibrant Jewish community abroad and Jewish education in the diaspora is, therefore, of the greatest possible importance.

The inescapable logic of their position is this. Israel will still need the support of the diaspora in the future. So it will need there to be a diaspora in the future. If Jews assimilate, Israel loses. It loses friends. It loses funds. It loses potential olim. Until recently the needs of Israel were immediate. There were wars to fight, Jewries to be rescued, immigrants to be absorbed. But with the rescue of Russian and Ethiopian Jewry and the beginnings of a peace process, Israel has had a chance to draw breath and think long-term. Its most farsighted politicians have now realised that the diaspora, in its dedication to Israel, has neglected itself and that this poses a threat to the Jewish future as a whole.

The problems of Jewish continuity have arisen because we have broken the two great rules of Jewish giving. We have given to Israel at the expense of our own viability. We have been generous to the old at the expense of the young. Israel and welfare need our undiminished support. But so and in equal measure does education. Had we acted on this earlier we would have saved ourselves and our children much grief. Why then did we not do so?

The Fourth Generation

The reason, I believe, is this. Throughout these pamphlets, I have argued that we are entering a new era in modern Jewish history, one that will require of us different strategies and priorities than in the past. Jewish education is not a new concept. It is our most ancient heritage. Why has it become suddenly urgent? Why is this generation different from all other generations? The answer is what I have called elsewhere the fourth generation phenomenon.

My grandparents were not born in this country. Many, even most of the Jews in Britain, had grandparents who came here in the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920. We are Anglo-Jews of the third generation.

It is an almost universal law that inherited wealth lasts three generations, not more. The same applies to inherited Judaism. Ours is the last generation that can still remember booba and zeida from the heim, with their fluent Yiddish and undiminished Yiddishkeit. Ours is the last generation for whom Jewish identity can be sustained by memory alone.

The Rebbe of Ger once pointed out that the 'four sons' of the Haggadah represent four generations. The wise son is the immigrant generation who still lives the traditions of the heim. The rebellious son is the second generation, forsaking Judaism for social integration. The 'simple' son is the third generation, confused by the mixed messages of religious grandparents and irreligious parents. But the child who cannot even ask the question is the fourth generation. For the child of the fourth generation no longer has memories of Jewish life in its full intensity.

Our children are children of the fourth generation. Already it is clear that what we took for granted, they do not. They do not take it for granted that they will belong to an Orthodox synagogue or indeed any synagogue.  The do not take it for granted that they will marry or marry another Jew or stay married.  They do not take it for granted that they will have Jewish children or that it is important to do so.  Nothing can be taken for granted in the fourth generation least of all in a secular, open society in which even a common moral code is lacking.

The “fourth generation hypothesis” explains what is otherwise inexplicable, namely that the crisis of Jewish Continuity has occurred in a single generation.  To repeat the statistic at the heart of our concern; the intermarriage rate in America has risen from 6% in 1960 to 57% in 1985.  The rise in mixed marriage, non-marriage and divorce, and the corresponding fall in religious observance and Jewish affiliation, have occurred suddenly and with astonishing speed. There is no obvious explanation. There have been no dramatic shifts in the diaspora in respect of tolerance on the one hand or antisemitism on the other. The environment in which Jews live has not changed. Why then have Jews changed? The answer is that the Jews who have chosen not to remain Jews are the great ­grandchildren of those who arrived in Britain and America to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 1880s. They are the Jews of the fourth generation.

It is this that constitutes the crux of my argument.  In the recent past we had other priorities.  First there was the task of integration.  Jews had arrived on these shores as immigrants, and they rightly set about showing that they belong.  Britain was kind to Jews, more so than almost any other European country.  We sought to repay that kindness, and we still do.  Since the days of Abraham we have believed that our task lies in being a blessing to others as well as to ourselves.  Accordingly, we have contributed more than our share to Britain’s economic, industrial, financial, academic, scientific, political and literary life.  Anglo Jewry has yielded Nobel Prize winners, masters of Oxbridge colleges, writers, doctors, senior judges and cabinet ministers out of all proportion to our numbers. That was the first task, and we succeeded.

Then came the trauma of the Holocaust, followed by Israel's wars and the risk to Jewries elsewhere, first in Arab lands, then in Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. The challenge was survival. It was met primarily by the State of Israel, Jewry's only homeland and its single point of entry in to sovereignty and collective self-defence. For several decades the diaspora rightly believed that its first priority was to provide the resources for Israel to mount its momentous series of rescues of threatened Jewish communities throughout the world, as well as to defend itself and grow into a mature, self-sustaining democracy. That was the second task, and Jewry succeeded.

As this paper has shown however, our priorities, as reflected in the patterns of Anglo-Jewish giving, remain locked into those earlier eras. They were right at the time, but they are wrong now. We have entered a third era in which the greatest problem facing the diaspora is not integration or physical survival but Jewish continuity. There is only one adequate response.

We must put education back at the top of our priorities. We have lived through two ages which, from the perspective of Jewish history, have been utterly untypical. There was the wave of antisemitism throughout Europe in the 1880s, the mass migration of Jews to the West, the Holocaust, the birth of the State of Israel, Israel's wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, and the great sequence of ingatherings culminating in Operation Moses and Operation Exodus. These were crises, emergencies, in which the normal priorities of Jewish life were temporarily suspended. But we must now recover them, because in the process we neglected the Jewish future of our children, and we are beginning to pay the price.

Our children will not stay Jewish because of integration. They are already integrated. Nor will they do so because of a vivid sense of the drama of physical survival. That is part of our memories, not theirs. They will stay Jewish for one reason only: that they are proud to be Jews because they have been educated in what it means to be a Jew.  We must create a community in which, in the words of Professor Isidore Twersky, every Jewish child or adult has the opportunity “to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith."

This will require a seismic shift in our thinking, and a major re­allocation of our communal resources. I am confident that we can do it, because we have done it before. More importantly, we can do it because what it needed is not a new mode of Jewish thinking, but a re-enthronement of priorities that guided every Jewish generation until the modern age. We were, and were known to be, the people that put education first. The time has come for us to be so again.