After a decade of working with younger generations of leaders and participants in Jewish life, I’ve learned more from them than they have from me. Millennials, folks born between 1980 – 2000, are often stereotyped as being lazy, disrespectful, and self-centered. They now make up the majority of the American workforce. Daily, the first wave of millennials are now turning 40 years old – making them the new middle-aged and rising center of culture. At first blush it might seem that the stereotypes are true (participation trophies, anyone?), but what I have found is that what millennials want is what we all want – a life of significance. The difference I’ve seen is that millennials and those that think like them have internalized some of the best lessons their elders have taught them, like trying to prioritize amazing experiences, not settling for second best, and trying to change the world. (If you’re a millennial reading this, you know exactly what I mean 😉 )
Much of the feelings of the younger generation are backed up by data. In 2017, there was a study of college students in Psychological Science, using a complex survey called the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI), which forces respondents to choose between two statements, one of which is considered the “narcissistic” option. Of all the pairs, one is very significant. When asked to choose, “I just want to be reasonably happy” vs. “I want to amount to something in the eyes of the world” younger generations chose the latter over the former in significant numbers. To some, that signals a sense of rising narcissism, but to others, they see a rise in the sense of personal responsibility. It’s not enough to live a life of reasonable happiness; what I have found from younger people is that they want to live a life of significance.
The center of the problem I find is that when younger generations pursue the things they’ve been taught, friction arises between them and the organizations or companies that they inhabit. What’s true for companies is certainly true for religious life. Often, we decry the lack of millennial engagement in Jewish life, pointing to lower rates of affiliation, lack of general interest, and decreased philanthropic giving as symptoms of millennial self-absorption. But when I speak to younger Jews, I see a different dynamic at play. They often tell me they feel judged for their religious choices or lack of religious literacy. They also feel that institutions that require affiliation at the outset of a relationship feel alien and sterile to their life experience. Even more deeply, they feel that religious institutions that expect much from them but deliver little to their own life dreams are just not worth it. Being judged for what they are or what they know or don’t know feels too essentialist, and they’ll simply walk away to take another road to significant living.
In other words, millennials and religious organizations are having two different conversations.
Perhaps instead of looking forward, we should look backward. In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah, there is deep wisdom in dealing with the vulnerabilities of life. Leviticus was a revolution in the history of religion. It was the first book to give God a home among the people. Rather than being outside the world as God was in Genesis, or on top of a mountain in Exodus, God enters the mishkan, the Tabernacle, in Leviticus. The first thing God does in Leviticus is to call out to Moses from inside the tent and bring him into a sacred relationship. (Leviticus 1:1)
God in Leviticus begins the book in intimacy. Rather than making demands from the mountain, this picture of God waits for us to act (and mess up), and then gives us a path back to goodness. Over and over again, the rules for the rites of sacrifice are given as a solution to our broken and sometimes sinful lives. The God of Leviticus waits for us, patiently, sometimes our entire lifetimes, as the rabbis point out, (Sanhedrin 38b) for us to come home.
What Leviticus knows is that life itself is a series of eruptions, as in this week’s Torah portion, with the leper. (Leviticus 13:2) Or the blessing of childbirth, also found in the reading this week, is perhaps the greatest eruption of life into life. (Leviticus 12:2) When life happens, God dispatches the priest to sit with the sick. God dispatches caregivers to the new mothers and orchestrates rituals to bring them back into the community.
The ethic of Leviticus also acknowledges that sin, too, is an inevitable eruption. It would be wonderful if we would never anger each other, or take our own interest into account overly much, but that’s not the world we live in. There is no such thing as a sinner in Judaism, only people who sin. We are not defined by our worst actions, but by our best reactions. Leviticus knows that life is messy. Everyone is a gift to the world, and every time in Leviticus an event occurs in someone’s life, whether it be joyous, shameful, or sinful, that might take someone out of the world, God calls us back into relationship by asking us to come home. God is not a judge in Leviticus; that is up to the courts of Exodus and Deuteronomy to decide. Rather, God is a partner that wants each of us to live a life on fire, a life of significance, and a life of holiness. (Leviticus 19:2)
The lesson we must learn is what God already knew about the purpose of holy places. We must not judge the messiness, but create opportunities to open doors to the Divine and give as many people a path back to goodness, to well being, and to a life of holiness. Relearning this lesson can restart the long overdue conversation between the institutions that proffer religion and the people who practice it.The younger generation, far from being self-absorbed or narcissistic, wants what we all want – to spend our limited time on earth feeling that we have made a difference. If we take a page out of God’s book, then we bring everyone back home.