Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Something is Very Much Wrong

An article in the Wall Street Journal about how students who participate in Birthright trips are far less likely to intermarry included a quote from Michael Steinhardt, a primary supporter of the program.
Mr. Steinhardt, 68 years old, says the study results were encouraging, but he is concerned that education in Jewish upbringing is falling short if one trip can make such a difference in marriage behavior. "Something is very much wrong" in upbringing, he says. Mr. Steinhardt, who describes himself as an atheist, has said he supports Taglit because he wants to pass along Judaism's humanistic values.
I really don't get Michael Steinhardt. On one hand, he criticizes parents for not imparting Jewish values in their children during their upbringing. On the other hand, he calls himself an atheist and only really values the parts of Judaism that are "humanistic."
It would be easy to criticize Steinhardt for the hypocrisy of leading a culturally Jewish life himself but criticizing parents for the way that they raise their children. But I can't. I feel sad for him. Really, I do. He must feel so conflicted.
Someone with only "cultural" connections to the Jewish people doesn't invest tens of millions of dollars in sending Jewish kids to Israel. He doesn't form a foundation funding numerous initiatives critical to enhancing Jewish life - many of them involved in different forms of Jewish religious life. He doesn't invest a huge part of his time and energy to rejuvenating the Jewish people. It just doesn't add up. There's got to be more there.
In this case, in a truly positive way, Steinhardt's actions speak much louder than his words.

Update: (October 30): I recently saw this article on the JTA blog from Mr. Steinhardt about his personal beliefs:
For years Steinhardt has touted himself as an atheist, making his disbelief in God very much a part of his public persona and his identity as a Jewish philanthropist (another phrase he hates)
Yet in talking about how to boost Jewish education, he suggested that Jewish parents join their children in struggling honestly with the notion of God. That, he said, is the Jewish tradition, citing the open squabbles that Abraham, Moses and Job all had with God.
“A God with whom we struggle is a God I could accept and still look myself in the mirror the next morning. And I suspect it is also a God that the next generation of Jews can live with as well,” Steinhardt said. “Our kids will respect us if they feel we are talking to them about a kind of Deity that we, ourselves, struggle to comprehend. It will convince them that we, their parents, are for real; that we aren’t trying to push some pious sounding, but insincere, horse manure on them. In the end, we can only gain by speaking honestly about this. I think it will not lead our kids away from faith. It might even lead them towards it.”
I guess I can say I was ahead of the curve on this one. Oh yes, my favorite Steinhardt quote from the piece:
When asked by an audience member what advice he would give to new graduates of Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries, he replied, “Go to Wall Street."
Ouch.