The first generations of American Jews earned a reputation as progressive politically but morally disciplined. The current generation of young Jews, though, lacks those ethical foundations. We have raised a generation of super-consumers often contemptuous of Judaism — because it offers no alternative to suburban superficiality — and addicted to modern America’s vices.
A Hillel poll of entering college freshman last summer found the average Jewish student more liberal and libertarian than most — but also more libertine. Eighty-nine percent of Jews versus 52% of non-Jews supported abortion; 49% of Jews versus 32% of non-Jews backed marijuana legalization; 69% of Jews versus 38% of non-Jews approved of casual premarital sex, and, most disturbing, 73% of Jewish students identified financial success as their priority, rather than developing a meaningful philosophy of life.
The moral moonscape of the typical American Jewish bar-mitzvah scene, barren of good values, reflects our communal decadence. A generation of baby boomers that grew up mocking our parents’ “Goodbye Columbus” lavishness is outdoing them. The “bar” has become increasingly disconnected from the “mitzvah,” as slinky dancers deployed by the bar-mitzvah parents teach our children how to shake their booties.
How does 3,500 years of Judaism culminate in spending $50,000 to wrap your 13-year-old daughter in a too-revealing gown, to prey on your pre-pubescent son’s feelings of inadequacy, to have them jumping around to last summer’s hit: “It’s gettin’ hot in here… so take off all your clothes”? How have we allowed behavior questionable for a Sweet Sixteen to become standard for a 13-year-old’s birthday party?
Do we worry about repeatedly subjecting our children to these parent-produced — and thus parent-endorsed — excesses during a critical year in their moral and social development? And by what right do we mislead our children into thinking that there is anything Jewish in these pagan celebrations of mindless materialism? By politely participating in these affairs, without questioning them morally, we are all guilty, we are all enablers.
Of course, the bar-bat mitzvah scene is the priciest top of a moral garbage heap. The kiddy birthday party circuit is equally bad, with the profound act of procreation celebrated by piling up useless presents.
This generation of “secular” or “liberal” Jewish parents — my generation of parents — has embraced a devastating combination of consumerism and moral relativism. Teaching our children to shop around the clock, we have adopted a parenting philosophy that prizes popularity over principles, prefers befriending to character-building and mistakes liberalism for libertinism.
We reap the results of our moral laziness with a generation obsessed with feeling good rather than doing good, worshiping rappers instead of rabbis, more careerist than idealist, more selfish than altruistic, more at home in stores than in synagogues or soup kitchens. We may not see it in our own children, but we see it clearly in their friends.
That this occurs amid epidemic terrorism and antisemitism is particularly depressing; yet herein may lie the source of our moral reformation. We need to stop celebrating through consumerism. If we turned birthday parties and bar-bat mitzvah celebrations into opportunities for tzedakah, we could start addressing our moral crisis while helping others.
The standard post-bar-mitzvah question should be “To whom did you give?” not “What did you get?” No one should spend more on a party than they have contributed to charity in a given year. Similarly, in lieu of gifts for all birthday parties, we should give cards designating gifts to charities. We need not be fanatic — close family can give some special gifts while encouraging others to donate.
To the extent that this beneficent redirection would end that crass equation wherein gifts are proportionate to the party’s costs, perhaps donating would help scale back these extravaganzas because the family is not “making back the money.” Consider informal barbecues, picnics, pool parties and mystery bus rides as more age-appropriate activities; consider a group outing to a local soup kitchen or a hospital, or a family tour to Israel, as more befitting a Jewish rite of passage.
During the 1920s, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky called for Jews to embrace an ethic of noble self-discipline, or hadar, so that all Jews would be known as paragons of “human honesty, courtesy and esteem.” At the same time, the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement offered a new “Ten Commandments” to keep secular Jews “clean in word, thought and deed.” From the right and left, these Zionists understood the seductions of secularism, how the consuming “I” undermined the historic “we,” and the linkage between individual and national virtue.
We, their affluent, fortunate descendants, also need a new ethic that applies venerable Jewish values to modern moral challenges. As we learn to celebrate creatively and morally, so too shall we cerebrate creatively and morally, discovering how to live well, and do good. The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier called this generation “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” and we often seem like limousine liberals, posturing but rarely acting. For those who can afford it, it’s time to become affluent activists.
The second printing of Gil Troy’s latest book, “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” was recently released by the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre.
Gil Troy is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy