A scholar says Jews should worry about the vitality of their own faith before worrying about the next generation.
Referring to future generations, Rabbi David Hartman, who gave the closing address yesterday to the 60th General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations at the Baltimore Convention Center, said, "you can't control their future. You're not going to control the people they're going to meet. Instead of worrying about their continuity, worry about your joy in Judaism."
Hartman is the founder of an institute in Jerusalem dedicated to drawing upon the heritage of Judaism in the confrontation between Jewish identity and modern society.
He addressed fears that intermarriage and assimilation will dilute Jewish faith and culture in the United States. Earlier in the convention, which opened last Thursday, researchers said 52 percent of American Jews who were married between 1985 and 1990 had married non-Jews. They compared the trend to the Holocaust in terms of its power to destroy Jewish identity.
Hartman suggested that Jews ground themselves in their history to help strengthen Judaism.
He said no such exhortation was necessary in his father's day, when aJew's faith and identity were inherited and not questioned. But Hartman, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1930s and '40s, and his peers could have recast themselves.
"My Jewishness was a challenge and a choice," he said.
To make that choice appealing to their children, Hartman urged his audience to "worry about the quality and content of your life as Jews."
He recalled how his father's faith appealed to him as a "song" that rooted him in a heritage beyond his identity as a poor PTC peddler in Brooklyn. "What I saw was this image of a man who could transcend his poverty because he had his own song to live by," Hartman said.
Without a grounding in the past, Jews are less able to interpret their history for the purpose of forging a Jewish identity for the present, he said. They become susceptible either to a narrow and limiting interpretation of the faith, or they lose faith and identity altogether. The result, he said, is "either a loyalty without the future or the future without loyalty."
It is a sign of vitality, he said, that Jews are "a 3,000-year-old people with a teen-age identity crisis."
Barbara Himmelrich, a volunteer with the Associated in Baltimore and a conference organizer, said that Hartman made her ponder "what I haven't read, what I don't know, what I haven't practiced." She vowed to delve into her heritage, starting with a renowned Jewish philosopher of the 12th century.
"I hope I'll go home and look at Maimonides," she said.