Several preoccupations of traditional Judaism — continuity, authenticity, scholarship, survival — are bundled into the notion of l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation). It is a phrase uttered on a daily basis in communal worship; it has become an embodied ritual at b’nei mitzvah ceremonies when a Torah is passed through the generations to the newest member of the adult community; and it is the idea that underpins fear of interfaith marriages. Surely Judaism’s inherent beauty is enough to keep the flames alive without needing to rely on strict lineage. So why does Judaism continue to hammer on this idea of l’dor v’dor?
The Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 29b) offers a brilliant and illuminating midrash that further complicates this question. Moses ascends to heaven and finds God attaching crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moses asks: “Who is delaying your hand?” He is asking: “Why are you taking precious time to add silly flourishes and unnecessary ornamentation?” God responds, “These crowns are for the person who will find meaning that everyone else misses.” Moses says, “Well, I’d like to meet that guy.” Suddenly, Moses has that opportunity when he is transported to Rabbi Akiva’s house of study. Initially, sitting at the end of the eighth row, Moses listens but doesn’t understand R. Akiva’s teaching. Soon, he hears Akiva’s students asking Akiva about the origins and sources of the lesson, and Akiva replies, “This is the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.”
Between Moses’ death in 1250 b.c.e. and the rise of Akiva’s school in 100 c.e., the Torah and Judaism transform and evolve. Akiva’s Torah had become unrecognizable to Moses. But eventually, Moses sees what he had originally missed, and takes comfort knowing that Akiva’s Torah is both rooted in and departing from his legacy.
Akiva was the perfect candidate to hold this role in the tradition. Midrashic accounts suggest that he came from a family with neither wealth nor distinguished lineage, and some stories hint that his parents may have been converts and descendants of General Sisera, the Canaanite general who was fatally stabbed by Yael. (Judges 4–5) The details of Akiva’s life are the stuff of legend, interpreted and reinterpreted, sometimes unrecognizable to historians of later generations. Although the genetic connection between the two men is suspect, the midrashic tradition ties their legacies by reinventing the mercenary and violent General Sisera as the progenitor of refined and wise Torah scholars. Each generation inched around a 180-degree arc until the mercenary becomes a sage. And Akiva and Sisera share lives that were accomplished, powerful, and ultimately tragic.
Parents may consciously try to transmit their values, habits, and beliefs to their children; certainly, they will transmit genetic talents, vulnerabilities, and tendencies. Despite the best efforts of parents, children may depart from the path foreseen for them. Similarly, no matter how much we look, sound, or digest like our parents, we may live lives utterly foreign to them. This isn’t a problem if there is trust that each life, regardless of the one out of which it emerged, is uniquely positioned to reveal a facet of the Divine. L’dor v’dor is merely a delivery system, not a duplication service. And no matter how you arrive in the community, Judaism sees you as a child of Abraham and Sarah; l’dor v’dor isn’t necessarily linear. All of us are given genetic traits that are influenced by our environment; each of us becomes a link in the chain between wisdom and biology.
L’dor v’dor as a spiritual practice is about manifesting trust, love, and hope for generations we will never meet. Moses got a look into the future that we will not.
Perhaps our DNA contains crowns that God wrote into our bodies, and, like the Torah, it may take several generations for one to arrive who will express the meaning of those flourishes and adornments. Maybe l’dor v’dor is more a wild, unknowable adventure than an assurance of a predictable Jewish future. L’dor v’dor ensures a nuanced and layered unfolding of our legacy. A pathway is built generation by generation, with destinations and stops along the way transforming our ideas, insights, and forms into unrecognizable futures.
Jhos Singer is the Maggid for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and Chochmat HaLev, a Center for Jewish Spirituality in Berkeley, Calif. His teaching can be found in the anthologies Balancing on the Mechitza and Torah Queeries, and at elitalks.org.