A Letter to My Daughter
Though you cannot read yet, I thought I would take the time to write you a letter about a topic that is important to both your mother and me. Currently, you are only about six months old. But, I hope you will read this letter some time in the future, and that it will give you some insight into how your mother and I chose to raise you and what things we decided to emphasize in your upbringing.
I should first admit, though, that I am stealing the idea of writing you a letter from your mother. She started writing you letters from the time that we found out she was pregnant with you. Your mother wanted to start building a connection with you before you were born. I hope you treasure these letters, as they express her great excitement about bringing you into this world. This is my first letter. By this point, you have no doubt realized that your mother is the smarter and more creative of your two parents. She is usually a step, if not several steps, ahead of me. Fortunately, she also is remarkably patient.
The topic I want to discuss is your religious identity. As you know, you are a Jewish person. At least you were born this way. You had little choice in this matter. Your mom and I even gave you a Yiddish middle name, Bayla. However, the truth is that what you do with this information will be your choice throughout the majority of your life. I expect your mother and I will try to provide you with as many positive Jewish experiences as we can before you leave our home, but we cannot determine if you will practice any part of the Jewish religion or link your life with the Jewish people in any way once you have reached adulthood. In this age, we all are essentially Jews by choice. No one forces us to be Jewish. No one really makes us to do anything Jewish. You will be free to make your own religious choices, what you will believe and what you will observe.
I thought, then, I would try to explain why I have chosen to make Judaism part of my life in the way I have. I do not expect that your Judaism will be the same as my Judaism. Your connection to the faith will necessarily be your own, as you are your own person. Also, times change, and your Jewish life will reflect your time. However, what I can share is my own experience and my own reasons with the hope that they will be helpful to you in making your own decisions.
I want to be clear though that my attachment to Judaism is not based in some belief that Judaism is the only one true religion or is better than other religions. Personally, I am wary of anyone that thinks he or she knows the absolute truth, particularly about such topics as God’s existence or the reasons why we were put on Earth. I think a certain amount of doubt, especially about one’s own beliefs, is healthy. I know I am a rabbi, so people may think that I have solid opinions on who God is and what God wants. However, at heart, I am more interested in thinking about the questions than committing to particular answers.
Furthermore, my primary rationale for connecting to Judaism is not based in a concern that Judaism is going to disappear if we do not keep it going. The argument that we need to do Jewish things for the sake of preventing the tradition from dying out is not particularly convincing to most people anyway. They are not willing to put in the effort to do the more challenging parts of Jewish life just to keep something going that they are not sure has value in the first place. They need to have a deeper connection to the religion in order to make a commitment to it.
Essentially, I choose to incorporate Judaism into my life because I believe it makes my life richer and more meaningful. I think I particularly appreciate the way it makes parts of life special. We have special days and special religious objects. Even ordinary tasks, like deciding what to eat, are done in a particular way in an effort to raise them to a higher level. I like the way Judaism makes time itself holy by saying that certain days are different than the rest. Having a holy day each week, in addition to a whole range of holidays, ensures that every day is not the same as the last. Sometimes, particularly during this time of year, I get a little tired of all these special days and wish for a more normal schedule, but I would rather have too much of a good thing than not have it all. I also find that I treasure the special religious objects that I own. I love putting on my tallis and wearing my tefillen. You know how many books we have in our house, but the religious books are the ones that I value the most.
I also choose to make Judaism a priority because I enjoy the intellectual playfulness of the religion and the culture. Judaism presents a whole bunch of different ideas and concepts to examine. At the same time, it encourages us to ask questions and debate different viewpoints. I find something stimulating about the intellectual challenges that the tradition presents. Basically, I feel that the tradition provides us with an intellectual playground to test and grow our minds. I find that I am often happiest and most at peace when studying something, and our heritage gives us plenty to study.
In addition, I love the emphasis in Judaism on the process of always trying to be a better human being. The religion understands that we are deeply flawed creatures. We make mistakes and do wrong things all the time. However, we do not have to just feel like failures or wallow in our missteps. Rather, the tradition says that we can strive to change our ways and become better people. There is something so hopeful about this idea. Yom Kippur, as hard of a day it can be, is one of my favorite holidays because it focuses on the idea of teshuvah, returning. As a person who has often struggled with my own opinion of myself, I have found the concept that we always have the opportunity to turn our lives around and be better to be comforting. Who we are today is not who we need to be tomorrow.
I also think that my parents played an important role in my decision to connect with our Jewish heritage. I do not mean to say that I am Jewish for their sake. For example, I do not go to services because I am worried that they would disapprove if I did not go. I am good at feeling guilty, but I cannot blame your grandparents for this personality trait. Rather, I believe that my parents somehow communicated to my brother and me that Jewish observance was an expression of love. In general, they tended to talk about God in a forgiving, caring and loving way. They were not big on the idea of God being angry or punishing. At the same time, they used Jewish ritual to express their own love for their sons. For example, my father would put his tallis around me when the cantor was leading the Priestly Blessing. He used the public moment of the recitation of this blessing as an opportunity to also specifically bless his child. I used to feel a little embarrassed when he did this. I am sure that you will reach an age when you will find any display of affection from your parents mortifying. But, I realize now that actions like this conveyed to my brother and me the message that Jewish ritual was a way of showing deep love, love of God and love of others. In general, my parents fused religious time with family time. Holidays were not only about ritual, they were also about family. So there is a certain warmth I feel around religious observance. I hope that your mom and I will be able to provide the same type of link between love and religion for you. Unfortunately, religion is used for so many awful things in this world, for power, control, and hurting others. It is my wish that your mom and I will be able to show you that religion does not have to be connected to these things, but can be part of a loving, positive outlook on the world and the people who live in it.
I should also credit my parents for teaching my brother and I another lesson that I would like to pass down to you. They taught us to always be proud of being Jewish. Even though we grew up in an environment in which we were usually the minority, we were not encouraged to hide this part of our identity. Instead, we were taught to not be afraid of standing out and to celebrate being different. If certain people were not going to accept our difference, they were not worth our time and attention anyway. It is my hope that your mother and I will be successful in helping you to feel comfortable with all the ways that you may be different from the mainstream. We intend to love you as the unique individual you are.
The way Judaism creates community is another reason why I have chosen to engage in it. Basically, I like getting to know a variety of people, and I enjoy collaborating with others for the sake of a common cause. Granted, there are all sorts of communities that a person can join: sports teams, civic associations, professional groups, etc. I hope you take advantage of these opportunities too. At the same time, I find that the rituals and schedule of holy days which are part of Jewish practice are particularly useful for creating a close, tight-knit group of people that share their lives together and are willing to support each other. I have gotten to know many fascinating, kind people that I would not have met if I had not been part of religious communities. The supportive aspect of these communities has been important to me. I am often pleasantly surprised by how many people are willing to come out to help make a shivah minyan. The fact that the ritual of saying Mourner’s Kaddish requires ten people automatically helps create for the mourner a group of people that can at least share a portion of his or her pain. I have found that often the best in people comes out when they are committed to being part of a community, and watching these interactions between members can inspiring. I hope that, throughout your life, you will find communities which will support you, ground you, and treasure you as a member.
Sweetheart, let me bring this letter to a close. Likely, I have already gone on too long. By the time you read this letter, you probably will have figured out that I have a tendency to talk too much. You probably will have already developed a variety of strategies to amuse yourself when I drone on and on.
Sweet Chloe, your mother and I love you so much. We really believe that your birth was an incredible gift. And we are trying to raise you without messing up too much. Please be patient with us. Part of our goal is to instill in you a positive Jewish identity and a love for the tradition of our ancestors. Personally, a love of Judaism has been a big part of my life. This passion has affected important aspects of my professional and personal life. It partially came from my parents, but I also had to find my own connections to the tradition. I have written this letter in order to give you some insight into why Judaism has meant so much to me. It may also help explain why we have encouraged you to do such things I imagine we will push in the future, like your attending religious school and Jewish camp.
In the end, I simply have the desire to share with you, my daughter, the parts of life that I have found most gratifying and meaningful. I want to introduce you to what I most value. At the same time, please know that I know you will make your own choices of what to embrace and what to let go. I look forward to seeing how you grow and develop into the person you will be.
I love you.