After studying Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack’s series of letters, Letters to the Next Generation 2, seniors in Rabbi Shmuel Kurtz’s AJSP Jewish thought course composed their own letters on the topics Rabbi Sacks addressed in his essays. Together, the 18 senior girls created a meaningful anthology of letters to deepen their understanding and appreciation of their Jewish lives. Rabbi Kurtz then sent the letters to Rabbi Lord Sacks, who wrote the following to our students:
Few things have moved me as much as the beautiful, moving, sincere and profound reflections of your students, and if I played a small part in stimulating them through “Letters to the next generation 2,” then I have been rewarded many times over by reading the lovely responses of your students. They are very special people, and Ashrei ha-Am shekacha lo: Happy the people that has young people like these. Please send them my thanks and congratulations. I will cherish their words, and look forward to seeing them grow into role models for the next generation.
I bless you, too, for a work like this is a tribute to a very special teacher, and they are blessed by you as you are blessed by them.
May Hashem bless you all and may you continue to be a blessing to the Jewish people and the world,
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Letter 1: A belated reply
Growing up in the Jewish Day School system, there are things we know and things we hear often about what it means to be Jewish, how special it is, what our responsibilities are as Jews, and all the various halachot and opinions that accompany every aspect of our lives as Jews.
Through this ongoing process, we all face moments where we question our faith. Here are some things I know I have thought about, just off the top of my head:
- Would I choose to be Jewish if I didn’t grow up with a Jewish mindset ingrained into our lives, or would I even believe in G-d?
- What makes me so “great” that I’m one of the “chosen people?” I know a lot of non-Jews just as good or better than I am.
- There are so many contradictions in Judaism- How am I supposed to be a “light unto the nations” if Judaism is so isolated from the rest of the world?
And the list goes on.
Asking questions is what Judaism is all about. We’re encouraged to ask and wonder. The key is to make sure we aren’t discouraged if we don’t find the answer, or if the answer isn’t what we hoped it would be.
Letter 2: A historian’s honor
One of the most challenging and common questions asked by young Jewish people today, is why stay Jewish? I have an answer for you, but I would first like to tell you a remarkable story. This story is about one of most intelligent historians, A.L. Rowse. A.L. Rowse was on his death bed, and said he wished he would have been a member of the Jewish community. A brilliant historian who has no affiliation to
Judaism, wished for this, coming to the near end of his life. The real question we are all thinking now is why? Why out of everything to regret or wish for, would this be it? Perhaps it could have been because Jews have existed for so long, or that Jews were the first monotheists, or that the Jews set the standards of basic morals. Or, perhaps, given their longevity as a people, heaven or an after-life is truly destined for only Jews.
My answer to you is two-fold. Religious observance gives a person an identity and a sense of belonging to a group or community. Judaism is an active, participatory religion which adds meaning to everything one does. There is a Jewish community everywhere you go; because we care for one another. We are a family. We get together like no other religion. For example, this past year when the 3 boys were kidnapped, in Israel, the Jewish people united like no other religion. There were mass gatherings to pray and hope together. It didn’t matter where you are, Jews come together and stand together throughout the world. There is something special about being Jewish. Scripture states that the Jewish People will be light into all the other nations. Their value system and sense of morals sets an example for all other around the world. Perhaps, it is the combination of these factors that A.L. Rowse said on his deathbed that he wished he was Jewish.
Letter 3: Great expectations
Could you please explain this a little more fully? Being Jewish does not feel like an honor to me.
Sometimes, the people we least expect to say things just come out and say it. Like famous people who randomly pay compliments to the Jewish people.
I do not know why this surprises me so much, but it does. The Jews are an honorable people if you’re judging by the best ones instead of the worst. Also (as Rabbi Sacks explains) the religion itself holds high standards for morality, logic, and ethical behavior. But not every member of the Jewish nation upholds the values for which we are honored, and even less people who are not Jewish realize what about us is honorable.
The way I think of how the Jewish people are seen by the world is like the way I think of Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico. The cavern is beauty in disguise. From the outside, it seems like a bland rock with an obscure and gaping hole. It is ugly. Enter the cavern, and you’ve entered a dark, empty world. But come with a flashlight and look at the cave with light, and you’ve found a treasure. Inside the cavern are stalactites and stalagmites of rainbow color – but how would you know they were there if you never took a second look?
That’s how it is with Judaism, and some people manage to find the cavern when they have flashlights handy. Judaism is a religion that may seem restrictive and ridiculous on the surface, but in reality, Judaism is a beautiful, intricate, explorative religion. Many of its observers see this, but I am impressed by those who see its beauty without practicing it.
But then again, that’s only my perspective as a Modern Orthodox Jew. Maybe from the outside, people see the situation differently.
Letter 4: The pursuit of happiness
I read your earlier reply, but how would that actually make a difference to my life? Why should I live differently in the future because of the way Jews lived in the past?
You asked a great question: why live differently in the future because of the way the Jews lived in the past. The truth is, our past is meant to guide us and teach us lessons about how we can live our lives the best way possible. When we look back at the past of the Jewish people, it is filled with great examples provided for us by so many different people.
We may think we know what’s best for us, but sometimes were just wrong and make mistakes. Think about a young child who wants to eat dessert before dinner. His mother tells him no, but he does anyways. Within minutes, the child has already eaten half of the cookies in the jar and has a stomachache.
I understand that sometimes people want to go and experience the world for themselves without being told what to do, but almost all of the time those actions will have consequences.
Our past is there to help us in our everyday lives. In order to move forward in life, you need to know what has worked and what hasn’t in the past. It moves us away from our mistakes and leads us to a brighter future.
Letter 5: A life that matters
Can you give me an example of what you mean by making a blessing over life?
I do not know if you know of the story, Ruth, from the Sandy Hook Elementary Attack. This teacher named Victoria Soto, who was only 27 years old, was killed protecting her students. When Soto heard the gunshots from the shooter, Adam Lanza, she stuck all of her students in a closet, standing outside of it protecting them. When Lanza came into her classroom, she said they were not in the room, and was shot on the spot. When the shooting finally came to an end, she was found dead outside of a closet where all her students were hiding. Soto was declared a hero, protecting these children from being shot to death. I do not think this is how Soto planned to die, sacrificing her life for these children, but she died with an amazing legacy being remembered for this great sacrifice.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are being judged by G-d, on whether we will live or die, and what we will be remembered for. We want to be left with a great legacy, with people not forgetting who we are, or what we stand for. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was standing in the Arie Crown gymnasium mourning the loss of a little boy named Reuvan Kirshner, who died at such a young age from cancer, but Reuvan was and is still remembered for everything he did. That smile he gave to everyone who passed him or said hello to him, and the impact he left on everybody’s life.
It is those little things that we are truly remembered for, and we need to take our life and sanctify it, we need to use it as a vehicle for good. There is a term that everyone knows: it is “lifesaver”. Being a lifesaver is not just doing something big, rather it is about all the little things we do, like lending someone your notes that they missed to copy in order to study for a test. It is being a blessing for others, and being there when the person needs it most. If someone is having a terrible day, and they just need to vent, or need a hug, and you are sitting there, the person is suddenly overwhelmed that you are there at that point in time for them.
I want to end with a quote from Pirkei Avot 1:14: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Ruth and Michael, life is not only about ourselves, rather it is about others, helping everybody, and being there when people need it. Life is not only about blessing ourselves, but blessing others. Life is short, and we need to make the most of it. Just remember “What do I want to be remembered for?”
Letter 6: The moral voice
I can understand the difference Judaism makes at home, or in the synagogue, or among friends, but how will it make a difference to the way I pursue my career?
Judaism will a hundred percent make a difference in the way you pursue a career. In your Jewish education, you learn certain mitzvahs that encourage you to be motivated, and passionate. Jewish values are supposed to inspire you to shoot for the stars, for example – כמוך לרעך ואהבת teaches the Jewish people how to work well with others, no matter what the situation is. If you pursue a career that involves human relationships, whether you have Jewish or non-Jewish co-workers, Judaism teaches us to love them like you love yourself. Another example is through the book of Kohelet, which teaches us the importance of finding ones purpose in life. A specific career may be the answer to that question, and therefore many Jews often chose a career that will help others in this world.
Once you chose a career, your Judaism also affects how you act in your day-to-day life. The respectful manner in which you hold yourself, your modest dress code, and the way in which you speak, all come from your Jewish culture and will help you in your achievements within your career. The core ideals of Judaism, including fighting on when it seems like all is hopeless, pushing yourself to achieve your full potential, and holding yourself in a respectful manner, will make an immense difference in your career choice and the way you act within it.
Letter 7: The greatness of smallness
But why me? There are other Jews. They will keep the tradition going. Why me?
Each and every person makes a difference. This is especially true for a group as small as the Jews. The Jews are a people that are very few in number, but have made the largest impact on the world. Jews do not believe in trying to go out and convert others and therefore each member is of the utmost importance. In Judaism, we say that if one saves one life it is as if he saved an entire nation and so if one kills one person it as if he killed an entire nation. This shows how important every single Jewish life is. Every Jewish person needs to know how much they are valued and needed and how it is their responsibility to keep the tradition and to pass it on to the next generation. Being Jewish is an honor and a privilege and it needs to be viewed like that by every member in order to keep growing stronger.
Letter 8: Faith
I’ll grant you all the beautiful things you say about Judaism. But aren’t they all irrelevant? Judaism is a religion, and religion has been replaced by science. We don’t need to believe in G-d anymore. When faith made sense, Judaism made sense. But now, it doesn’t make sense at all.
Religion has been able to persevere throughout time. Science and overall knowledge within the word has been continually increasing, yet people still turn to faith and religion in times of need. Science and technology will be able to solve answers asked by society but not explain the true reasons behind all of life. In times of need, people will still turn to a higher power because it is hard to believe and accept that the world is in put hands. People cannot accept that humankind was just placed on a planet with the exactness and necessities to support humanity in its entirety. People realize that we cannot rely solely on ourselves and we need to believe in a something greater that will support us. In Judaism, we know that greater power is Hashem. We are lucky to have committed completely to someone dedicated in helping us throughout life. That allows our faith to be a static part of humanity forever and not lost overtime.
Letter 9: The dignity of purpose
What makes you convinced that those questions have an answer? Perhaps life has no meaning. That ‘s what the Greek philosopher Epicurus thought. It’s what Bertrand Russell thought. It’s what today’s atheists think. The universe just exists. We just exist. There is no reason. Why should we think otherwise?
If you would like to believe there is no meaning to life, then I cannot prove it otherwise. There is no way to prove it. Many people have that thought, as you have pointed out, and I pity them. I would hate to live in a world in which my action do not matter and people will just fade and the world will just become nothing at some point.
I just cannot believe that the world, which is so vast and complex and complicated, is just around by accident. Just look at the human brain: billions of cells have to know what to do, how to change in to the different parts when the body is in utero, how to accommodate if a part of the brain does not work for some reason. The brain is too complex for even a human to create, how could it have just randomly come together?
If you do believe there is a being that created the world, a “god”, then how can there be no purpose in this world. Why would a being create something for no reason, no purpose? If humans truly believed that there was no purpose to life, they would not care if millions of people died, like in the Holocaust, because there would be nothing in life that is inherently special or purposeful in human life.
It is possible to live life with is thought but it is a sad existence with nothing mattering and no reason to do anything.
Letter 10: A nation of iconoclasts
I was interested in what you wrote, but surely all monotheists believe what we believe. What makes Judaism different?
While it’s true that all monotheists believe in one God, the way they live their lives is a
result of this belief differs greatly from the Jewish lifestyle. Every monotheistic approach to life is different. I believe there are several key differences which sets Judaism apart from other monotheistic religions. For one, Judaism can nearly be considered unique in the sense that Judaism and its practitioners encourage the asking of questions. Contradictions in holy writings and Jewish thought are confronted, not swept under the rug. Jews ask difficult questions, and Judaism provides answers. Additionally, I believe that Judaism was one of the first religions to provide laws that beg the creation of a society. Judaism does not only provide a moral compass in the form of the Golden Rule, and others. Rather, Judaism also delineates laws needed to run a nation, with rules dictating conduct in matters ranging from shopping at the supermarket to paying bills to appearing in court. From the very beginning, Judaism was geared towards creating an empire that could be held up as model for others. Additionally, practitioners of other monotheistic religions have a tendency to pick and choose which laws to follow. While Jews are not completely innocent in this regard, as a whole Judaism insists on attention to detail. This allows for logic and analytical thought. Judaism has encouraged its practitioners to go against the grain and seek a higher standard of living in order to serve as role models. Finally, the Torah, which is considered a blueprint for life, is considered to be inherently moral by virtue of its divine origin. As a result, Judaism was among the first of monotheistic religions to suggest that complete adherence to God’s word could still allow for a full, well-rounded life, without the need to add or subtract anything. This concept, alien to many, is one of the most significant ways (among others) in which Jews have rejected typical thought, prompting Rabbi Sacks’ title for letter #10: A Nation of Iconoclasts.
Letter 11: Faith after the Holocaust
But how can you really believe after the Holocaust, when Jews cried out and Heaven was silent? When one and a half million innocent children were murdered, merely because their grandparents were Jews? How can anyone believe in G-d after that?
There is a famous quote, “To forgive is to forget.” While this may sound nice, this isn’t necessarily true. It is difficult to forget. It is difficult to let the deaths of six million plus of our fellow Jews slip off our backs. The pain of our brothers is hard to forget. The pain of our brothers should not be forgotten. Therefore, I am going to disagree with this popular adage. You can remember your pain and still forgive the person who wronged you.
But, in the terms of the Holocaust, I am going to take this train of thought one step further. To forgive is not to believe. We don’t have to forgive the deaths to believe in the goodness of the world. We don’t have to forgive to believe in God and the Torah.
We simply have to move on. We have to move on not for ourselves. We have to move on for our grandchildren. We have to move on for the six million.
If we still focus on the pain and allow that pain to hinder our happiness and our beliefs, then we are letting the Nazis win. We are letting them win by still giving them the power to pain us. To win as Jews would be to succeed where they wanted us to fail. They wanted our beliefs to whimper to a death. They wanted us to be hopeless and feel that we have no purpose. So, for those six million, we must believe.
Letter 12: Sacred discontent
Judaism is a sacred religion. It is peculiar to the outside spectator, but to the insiders, it makes a little bit more sense. Though Jews may not completely comprehend every single rhyme and reason behind a mitzvah, we realize that mitzvot help build the core values of our religion and lifestyle. We focus on the details because strive for excellence. Anything below perfection is unacceptable.
Jews have these principles because the Torah creates mitzvot that seem almost impossible to perform
If not for all these mitzvot, Judaism would not be complete. Without Shabbat, you would not be able to bond with family members “technology free.” Without kashrut, we would not learn to overcome desires. Without the laws of mikveh, we would not learn restraint.
Although Ruth you may respond to my following above claim that you can learn these values in a different route (without Judaism), I would say you are wrong.
As an artist, I understand how essential details are to a piece of artwork. Every detail in a piece of art matter. Perhaps if Monet had been missing one stroke of paint on his water lilies, maybe it would not have made the same profound effect it has for generations.
If we want to relate it on a more personal level, we can relate it back to our own selves -to the human body. God made human beings with extreme detail. If a single component in the body is missing, it shuts down. Likewise, when we are missing a detail, we may start slacking off and ultimately our values that once were cease to exist.
Letter 13: Prayer
Please explain prayer to me. To me it seems either wish-fulfilment or make-believe to think that because we say certain words, the world is going to change. Life isn’t like that, and we know it isn’t. So what is prayer if not belief in magic or mystery? Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s what I feel.
Before praying, one must acknowledge that G-d may not accept his or her prayer.
G-d has a plan for each and every person, and what one may want or desire may not actually be what is good for that person in the eyes of G-d. Praying is not about “changing the world”, it is about making a connection to G-d. Praying is a way of telling G-d that you know that He created you and that He is your ultimate source. By praying, you are telling G-d that you know in your heart that He knows what is best for you even if you may not think so at the moment and that you accept whatever He decides to grant you with. Prayer is the basic level of hitbatlut (lowering oneself to G-d). One who prays is demonstrating that he or she is nothing in comparison to G-d. The word bracha means source, not blessing. When one makes a bracha, he or she is recognizing that G-d is the key source of all blessings, and that He is the one who can bring the blessings down to you. Ruth, although you may not “change the world” by praying to G-d, you will enhance your own relationship with Him, and that can change the world to you.
Letter 14: On ritual
You have told us about Judaism’s great ideas. But how does that connect with the sheer detail of Judaism, the complex of laws about what we may eat and what not, what we are allowed to do on Shabbat and what is forbidden, the 613 commandments and all the rest. Isn’t Judaism in danger of losing the wood for the trees, the grand design in the multiplicity of rules and regulations?
The rituals in Judaism do not put Judaism in danger. One may think, that because there are too many laws, the overall purpose of Judaism is lost, however the opposite is what happens. Because of all of the laws and rules, Judaism becomes more than a belief system, it becomes a lifestyle. Our religion is the only one with a sense of community and our rituals are what bind us together. Judaism does not get lost in the rituals because every law teaches the Jews how to behave. For example, the Mitzvah of Tseduka makes people generous. Each Mitzvah brings people closer together and increases peoples’ morals.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks says that in order to become an expert in anything, one needs to have sufficient practice. One will not succeed if they do not practice. The same is true in religion. Rituals are like practice. All great achievements require ritual, just like all talents require practice. When people do the same act over and over it becomes second nature and instinctive. After preforming all of the rituals, Jews become better people because of the lessons that the Mitzvot teach.
Letter 15: Serving G-d is hard work
Are you serious? Can keeping Shabbat, or kashrut, or the laws of mikveh, really change our personality?
Rituals really can change our lives. They make us pay attention to detail and question things we do. The only way to serve G-d is to work hard. Any Jew can be as righteous as Moshe, if he or she works hard. Our rituals and studies can change our personalities because Judaism makes us think of other, love Torah study, and bring families closer. No matter what we do in life, hard work is involved; nothing comes to us on a silver platter. By working hard we realize that everyone in the world is doing the same thing as us and we become more sensitive and understanding of others and their situations. Don’t let the hard work discourage you! The hard work you put in will always pay off.
Letter 16: Antisemitism
Let me change the subject if I may. Why has anti-Semitism returned? Surely if there was one thing on which everyone agreed after the Holocaust, it was “never again.” But now it seems more live “Ever again.” This really troubles me.
What will I do with all these challenging questions?? You sure are a piece of work! But it is truly my honor to be your source to all these enticing thoughts and questions. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Anti-Semitism hasn’t returned…it isn’t something that just vanishes and reappears. When G-d took the Jews out of Egypt, all the other nations were in awe of the miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf, no one dared to challenge Bnei Yisrael’s might and power. G-d was clearly on their side. The Israelites were no longer the underdogs. Though one nation came along, named Amalek, and challenged Bnei Yisrael out of the blue. Amelek was filled with envy and could not fathom Bnei Yisrael’s greatness. Envy is one of the reasons why Hitler started the Nazi Party and soon after that led to the killings of millions of innocent Jews. Hilter was bothered by the fact that the Jews were different; there was some sort of aura surrounding them. They lived their lives peacefully, steering away from political nonsense and striving to achieve a higher level of spirituality. Hilter viewed it as his responsibility to disturb the peace, to knock down the Jews pure sand castle rising to the heavens. Anti-Semitism is a broad spectrum of levels of hate towards the Jewish people. One person may cause a scab and will not stop picking at it; a person may identify a flaw in the Jewish people and views it as their mission to keep criticizing and capitalizing that flaw. The words “Never again,” are based on the atrocities that occurred because of the holocaust, not anti-Semitism. We live in this world were the odds might seem against us, the Jewish people, but we cannot let these struggles hold us back from growing. We may never escape the monster called anti-Semitism but we can go out into the world preventing others who aren’t educated about the Jewish people before the fall into the trap of blind hate before it’s too late.
Letter 17: The assault on Israel
Do you see criticism of Israel, of the kind we are experiencing on campus today, as anti-Semitism?
While anti-Israel sentiment is often expressed in confluence with anti-Semitic views, or by anti-Semites, it is important to recognize the legitimate concerns voiced by some Israel critics.
Israel is a country on its own in many ways. Alone, it is a democracy in the Middle East. Alone, it is the holy land for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Alone, it won a war of independence against multiple powerful Arab states. And alone, it has been condemned by 45 United Nations resolutions. Yet Israel is highly reliant on its allies like America, and that is why we and students on college campuses nationwide pay such close attention to its actions.
But why not criticize Afghanistan, who received $3.34 billion of US economic aid and whose president broke his promise to appoint four women to his new cabinet? Why not criticize Egypt, who relied on $2.6 billion1 of US military aid and whose president has jailed dozens of journalists without trial? It is so easy to point to oppressive governments and blame the violent, un-Enlightened nature of others. But why not criticize the United States itself, a country whose intelligence agency broke the UN Convention Against Torture and whose surveillance programs invaded the privacy of millions?
As Richelieu said, “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter. The state has no immortality, its salvation is now or never.” A state acts to survive. It is unquestionably a struggle. Yet a state’s primary purpose is to serve its people, so all of humanity must be on guard, policing and questioning and criticizing their governments.
Criticism has its place in Israel; anti-Semitism does not. If advice to Israel is buried under lies and ad hominems, it is hard to find or follow. To survive the criticism of others, Israel must be its own best critic. To critique Israel legitimately and effectively, take heed of Channing Pollock’s advice: “A critic is a legless man who teaches other people to run.”
Letter 18: G-d of life, Book of life
We have more questions, but we’ve decided to save them for now and simply ask you, What is your message to us in the year to come?
My word of advice for the years to come is to live a life true to you. Do not try to be Steve Jobs or Golda Meir. Take aspects from the great and incorporate those great traits into what you are destined to be. Be what you are called on to be, not what you aren’t.
Selfishness will get you nowhere. Great men and women have suffered from being too selfish and wound up being lonely or having their character go to waste. Happiness is only achieved by what good we do for the world and others, the bonds we form, and the way we lift the lives of the people around us.
Within life, there will be obstacles: whether it is an anti-Semite on your college campus, keeping Shabbat while all your friends are on their phones, or to pick up a Siddur to daven Mincha. Judaism is not consistently inspiring. We wish it was, but it is not. The only way to conquer those battles and remain inspired by our great religion is to be involved, and make a difference.
Judaism is different than other religions. Judaism forces its followers to find God in life. God is life a member of your family. The bond is unbreakable. You might argue with God and “not see Him’ for quite sometime, but God is still a member of your family.
If you could take away one piece from my letter, it would be to celebrate life. Life is the equivalent to God. If you do not celebrate the wonderful life God has given you, it’s as if you are neglecting God.
I leave you off with a note that whatever you choose to do after this, Judaism is always the right choice. To live a Jewish life is like no other. It will help you grow as a person, have a balance, have more joy and wisdom, and obtain a deeper sense of purpose that no other religion can give to you.
Good luck in everything, and may your life become a blessed chapter in His book.