Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Fourth Generation

The chief rabbi of England, Rabbi Sir Johnathan Sacks, sent out an email last night that dovetails nicely with my article on the "Pottery Barn Jew." Being that some have questioned the validity of my point, I am posting his piece here.

For several generations, indeed for more than a century, Jewish education was not at the forefront of our concerns…. Nevertheless, nothing devastating happened as a result. Jews continued to identify as Jews. They joined Synagogues. They married other Jews. They had Jewish children and raised them as Jews. Jewish life continued on the basis of habit, memory and tradition regardless of the fact that little was being done to renew it by Jewish study. If it could continue in this way for a century, why not longer, and indefinitely? We have only belatedly discovered that this is an illusion. What has changed? Why is this generation different from all other generations? The answer lies in what I call the fourth-generation phenomenon.

My grandparents were not born in this country. Many, even most, of the Jews in Britain had grandparents who came here in the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914. We are Anglo-Jews of the third generation.

It is an almost universal law that inherited wealth lasts three generations, not more. The same applies to inherited Judaism. Ours is the last generation that can remember booba and zeida from the heim with their fluent Yiddish and undiminished Yiddishkeit. Ours is the last generation for whom Jewish identity can be sustained by memory alone.

The Rebbe of Ger once pointed out that the 'four sons' of the Haggadah represent four generations. The wise son is the immigrant generation who still lives the traditions of the 'home'. The rebellious son is the second generation, forsaking Judaism for social integration. The 'simple' son is the third generation, confused by the mixed messages of religious grandparents and irreligious parents. But the child who cannot even ask the question is the fourth generation. For the child of the fourth generation no longer has memories of Jewish life in its full intensity.

Our children are children of the fourth generation. Already, it is clear that what we took for granted, they do not. They do not take it for granted that they will belong to an orthodox synagogue or indeed any synagogue. They do not take it for granted that they will marry, or that they will marry another Jew, or stay married. They do not take it for granted that they will have Jewish children or that it is important to do so. Nothing can be taken for granted in the fourth generation, least of all in a secular, open society in which even a common moral code is lacking.

The 'fourth-generation phenomenon' explains what is otherwise inexplicable, namely that the crisis of Jewish continuity has occurred in a single generation. The intermarriage rate among young Jews in the United States has risen from six per cent in 1960 to 57% in 1985. The rise in mixed marriage, non-marriage and divorce, and the corresponding fall in religious observance and Jewish affiliation, have occurred suddenly and with astonishing speed. There is no obvious explanation. There have been no dramatic shifts in the diaspora in respect of tolerance on the one hand, anti-Semitism on the other. The environment in which Jews live has not significantly changed. Why then have Jews changed? The answer is that the Jews who have chosen not to remain Jews are the great-grandchildren of those who arrived in Britain and America to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 1880's. They are the Jews of the fourth generation.

(From 'Will we have Jewish Grandchildren?' Published by Vallentine Mitchell 1994 – Pages 60-61)


  1. Both yours and Rabbi Sacks's essays reiterate why it is that we bless our children so that they should be like Manasseh and Ephraim. They were the sons who resisted the allures of assimilation, and remained true to their faith despite living in exile.

    There is another way of defining assimilation, however, that is more positive. It refers to the ability to absorb the best of the chochma of the nations and incorporate it into Yisrael (for example, Rambam's use of elements of Aristotelian philosophy in his Guide to the Perplexed). The goal is to absorb what is true and useful from the nations without losing one's identity in the process: "If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If someone tells you there is Torah among the nations, don't believe it."

  2. Well said, Barry. I was actually going to post something similar about why we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Mensahe, but I think you got it just right.

  3. Barry-
    Thanks for connecting it to our parsha!
    On a lighter note, I had a new idea about the blessing to "be like Ephraim and Menashe." The only thing the Torah tells us about them is that Yaakov said to Yosef, "Li Hem" - they are mine like my own Reuven and Shimon. Your other children will be yours, but these two are mine. Blessing our children to be like Ephraim & Menashe means that they should give their grandparents so much nachas, they'll want to adopt them!