Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of “l’dor v’dor, what we pass from generation to generation.” The notion of transmission is complex and these essays both shed light on and further complicate the idea of transmitting values from one generation to the next generations. Inheritance, legacy, transmitting values are all ideas that can be charged with deep emotion, pain, and also—of course—love and generosity. As we learn more about the workings of the brain, we are learning that trauma passes down from generation to generation in ways similar to the color of our hair and eyes and our temperaments. And as parents, we dream of instilling in our children the values that shaped us, and we also know that our children will explore and discover and hold onto and refine values as they understand their own lives. Even Torah and the wisdom of our ancestors—what we’ve inherited—is approached and interpreted with the artful eye of discovery. This is what it means to create a legacy for the next generation and beyond.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Rabbi Hannah Dresner introduces readers to the concept of legacy. Rather than focus on what we inherit from our parents and grandparents, and pass on to our children, Hannah chooses to write about the way Torah — and Judaism — passes from one generation to the next. She writes, “God is aroused and enlivened by our expression of [Torah], not when we feed God’s words right back in blind obedience or when we dutifully repeat the words of our ancestors, but when we express our involvement in relationship with God by speaking our own versions of Torah: Torah that we understand, live, and transmit.” She goes on to wonder if her grandparents, who were Orthodox, would recognize her Torah. “What would they think of the painted eggs on my Seder table? Or my embrace of non-Jews coming forward for group aliyot in the spiritual community I lead? What would they think of my feminine rabbinate, altogether? So much appears different, but the thread that connects it all is that my children seek their Jewish authenticity with the same seriousness as their ancestors.” How does your practice of Judaism bear resemblance to your parents and grandparents, and where does it diverge? What are the threads that you can follow back into previous generations? We hear so much today about “authenticity”: What is the connection between living authentic Jewish lives and inheriting a religious belief system of norms and practices?
- Mona Fishbane writes about family relationships, neuroscience, and inherited trauma. She explores how intergenerational cycles of hurt and disappointment are perpetuated, and how we can “grow up” our relationships to move beyond those painful cycles. She writes that”while we are molded by genetics and early family experience, we are capable of growing beyond old constraints — thanks to neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change), which extends throughout life. We can make conscious choices to break the chain of hurt and trauma. By repositioning ourselves vis-à-vis our past, we can author our present and shape the future.” This essential work is not only important for ourselves, that we live healthier and more fulfilling emotional lives, but also that we”stand between the generation before us and the generation that follows; how we stand determines what we will transmit to our children.” If trauma is handed down from generation to generation, how does that affect the nature vs nurture debate? Are social ills, such as racism or bigotry, passed from generation to generation? How does that change the national conversation about racism? How do the effects of Jewish historical traumas — the Holocaust and others — play out in subsequent generations?
Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
- Magid Jhos Singer writes about “dor l’dor as a spiritual practice …about manifesting trust, love, and hope for generations we will never meet.” Jhos tries to upend the Jewish community’s obsession with “continuity,” writing that “dor l’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, dor l’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.” What does the notion of dor l’dor — from generation to generation — imply for Jews by choice? For Jews who have been adopted? For Jews who are estranged from their families? For Jews who have opted to diverge from living the life that their parents had set out for them? Where and with whom do you enter this conversation about legacy and the push back against “destiny”?
Rabbi Elana Zaiman writes about how to share our stories and values with our children through letters. She shares her own experience of receiving a letter from her father — at age fourteen — who wrote “from his heart, putting himself on the page in a more vulnerable way than he had ever spoken to us in person.” Some letters, or “ethical wills,” can be weighty and imposing — especially if the child receives the letter after the death of a parent. Elana asks us to consider how to “share our wisdom, experience, and love so that we do not make our loved ones uncomfortable.” What would you like to share with your children or grandchildren? What heart wisdom would you want to share with dear friends? Should these letters we write to share ourselves and our wisdom with the people we love be shared while we are still alive, or should they wait and be shared upon death? What might complicate your decision to share your stories and wisdom now?
In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators explicate a line from the Mishnah about creation: “Furthermore, [Adam was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, that one might not say to another, ‘my father was greater than yours.’” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson writes that this text “reminds us that our generations stretch all the way back to the first human, Adam. And it teaches us that my ancestor was no better than your ancestor. A basic commonality underlies all humanity and demands equal rights in a way that is fundamentally at odds with racism, classism, and xenophobia.” Leah Vincent left her ultra-Orthodox family to find new guides to explore her life. She writes about developing a personal mythology and imaginative narrative that is “strong enough to shape a life.” Koach Baruch Frazier agrees with Lev that we are “descendants of one common ancestor, Adam — the first human. And… our common ancestral rootedness demands equality.” If we are descended from the same “Adam,” as the Mishnah asserts, what are the implications for our intersecting lives with other Americans? What is its impact on the notion of Jewish peoplehood? What are some other teachings — such as the sensibility that we are all created in the image of God, _b’tzelem Elohim — that play into and also complicate the notion of shared ancestry?