By Samuel J. Abrams
April 15 marked the beginning of Passover. The centerpiece of this festival is the seder: a festive meal designed to tell a narrative of God helping remove an oppressed people from the hand of the oppressors and making them a vibrant nation. The seder meal often takes hours, involves special food and wine, and includes various songs and traditions.
These practices are done with the explicit intention of teaching Jewish children, as well as both the Jewish and secular communities, about the story of the Exodus, the core Jewish values of peace, liberation, self-determination and the Jewish imperative to work to make the world a better place for all. The seder and the holiday of Passover itself are about sharing stories with family and community.
And while Jews have long passed values and traditions down through stories in countless books like the Talmud, the familial and communal storytelling of the seder is sadly no longer a norm today.
Jews in America are undeniably a people of the book in terms of their strong and continued focus on higher education, but the same cannot be said in terms of their reading of religious texts or sharing religious stories with family. Education has been a top priority in the Jewish community for centuries. In contemporary Jewish life, American Jews overwhelmingly report, in numbers notably higher than other faiths and cultures, that it is generally expected that one will attend an institution of higher education.
However, Jews are far less likely to report engaging with religious and philosophical texts or sharing religious stories with family. Data from the Survey Center on American Life’s new American National Family Life Survey reveals that a little more than a quarter (28%) of all Americans say they shared religious stories with their families at least a few times a month while growing up. But just 12% of Jews say they read scripture with their families this regularly while growing up, compared to 41% of Protestants.
With barely one in 10 Jews reporting that they regularly read scripture or religious stories with their families, this is hardly strong evidence that religious books and stories are central to their lives whatsoever. Instead, the Pew Research Center has found that Seders and food are much more central to Jewish life today.
In fact, when members of the Jewish community were presented with a list of various Jewish practices and activities in a large national survey, sizable majorities of Jews note that they have held or attended seder in the last year (62%) or cooked traditional Jewish foods (72%). But rates for other traditional activities, like attending religious services on at least a monthly basis (20%) or observing dietary laws at home (17%), are much lower.
Jewish religious services are, incidentally, where books like the Torah are publicly read, scrutinized, analyzed and interpreted, and few Jews in America regularly engage in those domains as well.
These data should be troubling for leaders and thinkers both within the Jewish community and outside the Jewish world. Reading and engaging with texts and stories is far more than just a religious act; it is an act of communal identification and means by which to promote continuity of values and traditions. As sociologist Samuel Heilman observed in “The People of the Book,” families and individuals study and learn stories to become part of the Jewish people itself. In turn, these actions provide a “sentimental education” in which Jews gain a deep understanding of the values of their tradition.
The Passover seder — during which communities sit around the table, explicitly ask four questions, and try to make sense of history and philosophy with a special book, the Haggadah — epitomizes how values are transmitted and better understood when they are shared aloud with family and community.
By asking questions such as “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and “On all other nights, we eat chametz (leavened foods) and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?” participants in the seder have the chance to speak to others and struggle to answer questions about life and history. They also study, debate and ponder religious texts aloud, which in turn teach lessons and contextualize the present from lessons in the past.
Sadly, at present, books and texts are not regularly read in family settings nor are they central in the lives of most Jews. The benefits of these practices to Jewish continuity are significant but will be lost if only small numbers of Jews are actually trying to share religious stories in family settings.
The efforts of the Grinspoon Foundation and its PJ Library, which sends more than 220,000 books that transmit varied cultural values and religious ideas to families raising Jewish children each month, could not come at a more important time, but it may not be enough, especially when older Jews have simply stopped the critical process of storytelling and debating in recent times. So, this Passover, perhaps we should ponder why we do not read and discuss scripture, historic texts and religious stories on a more regular basis.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This op-ed was first published by the Jewish Journal.