We American Jews have increasingly ethnicized our self-understanding. For us Jewish means family, holidays, cuisine, humor, maybe klezmer music, support of institutions like synagogues, JCC’s, Jewsh museums and federations, and may entail visits to Israel or Eastern Europe. Our Jewishness is a variation of our Americanness, our specific way of being Americans.
This is fine. Except that we Jews are more than an ethnicity; we are the descendants of a spiritually unsettled people, children of visionaries who believed in and who experienced a connection between heaven and earth, cruelty and tenderness. They believed and lived as if Jews were here not simply to maintain themselves but to be part of a collective force for healing, blessing and love in the world.
While this is still indeed the spiritual task of our people, we have, for understandable reasons, lost our living connection to it. We have had to build a Jewish state and organize the largest, freest Diaspora community our history has seen against the backdrop of its greatest trauma, the Holocaust. Defense and security have become our preoccupation, sometimes at the cost of spiritual fulfillment.
Is it not possible that your daughter-in-law hungers for the spiritual dimension of Jewish life and has turned to where she finds echoes of it? Ask, and her answer might not sound so alien to you.
There is today a spiritual awakening taking place in our people in the United States that entails an integration of meditation, chanting and yoga into synagogue liturgy and a recovery of kabbalistic practices and a kind of neo-Hassidic awareness of the importance of the teacher, the rebbe, the tzaddik — the guru, if you will.
I suggest that we do not need to be afraid of identity confusion. On the contrary, it is good to ask “Who am I?” and to wonder “Why am I here?” These questions unlock the spiritual imagination, open us to new possibilities. Answers are temporary while the questions are eternal. I think of Jews as yearning to live in the eternity of the question. But we can do that only if we understand that to be human is to be perplexed and that there are guides to living well with confusion and uncertainty.
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain Emeritus at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has four children and six grandchildren.