Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with a community member about what was happening in the Jewish world. We talked for a long time about various issues impacting our Jewish community and near the end of the discussion she asked me a very important question – Why be Jewish?
Once she left my office, I took some time looking at the books on the shelves in my office. In front of me, side by side, were two seminal books: Rabbi David Wolpe’s book, Why be Jewish from 1995, and Edgar Bronfman’s book with the same title from 2013.
In his concise and inspiring text, Rabbi Wolpe addresses those seeking to amplify the spiritual side of their lives and to know more about our religion. As written on the book cover, “Each of its three chapters offers a different but complementary answer to the book's central question, and these three answers - to grow in soul, to join a people, to seek God - together form the core of Jewish belief.”
Edgar Bronfman's book was completed several weeks before he passed away in late 2013. Bronfman’s book speaks to a generation of secular, disaffected, and unaffiliated Jews. His personal insights are focused on the meaning of a secular Judaism that is steeped in deep moral values, authentic Jewish texts, and a focus on "deed over creed" or dogma.
These books are wonderful reference points whether seeking a spiritual or religious answer to the question, as well as ways secular Judaism can inspire one’s Jewish self.
Inside my copy of Rabbi Wolpe’s book I forgot I had a printout of an article written by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in 2013. Rabbi Olitzky wrote that the Jewish educational question of the last generation was “How to be Jewish.”
However, the question of this generation is “Why be Jewish?” Moreover, “Why be Jewish in the context of this particular community, congregation or institution?”
Some leaders will argue that it is not their responsibility to answer that question. Not only do I disagree, I believe it is critical for the future of the American Jewish community to have an answer.
Here are Rabbi Olitzky’s “Ten Answers to the Question ‘Why Be Jewish?’”:
1. As a Jew, the collective story of the Jewish people becomes my personal story. My own life’s story contributes to the collective memory of the Jewish people. The Jewish historical narrative of the Jewish people evolves as the Jewish people march forward in history and will eventually bring us into the messianic period.
2. The doing of mitzvot brings me closer to the Divine. In the refracted Divine light, I am able to see myself more clearly.
3. The emphasis of deed over creed encourages the individual (irrespective of personal belief or doubts of faith) to help build a better world through acts of social justice (tikkun olam) and provides the individual with a variety of opportunities to do so. The doing of these good deeds, which emerge from a foundation of positive Jewish values, brings me closer to others and to humanity.
4. The affirmation of one God is the unity principle that is the foundation of Jewish faith. Judaism encourages questioning and debate. Faith comes through struggle. The result of this struggle helps to define Jewish theology.
5. The Jewish community provides support to the individual (and family) during life’s liminal moments, including those times in which we soar, as well as those that bring us into the deepest, darkest moments of our lives.
6. Judaism transforms daily routine (the long haul of life) into sacred moments and sacred opportunities, especially through the application of ritual, helping to moor us in what is sometimes an anchorless world.
7. Judaism emphasizes lifelong educational growth of all kinds. Jewish education helps us to morally navigate the world. (The Talmud requires parents to teach their children “how to swim.”) Judaism also provides a framework for teaching children their moral responsibility to the world.
8. Judaism has a variety of spiritual disciplines that elevate the soul, including daily prayer, the study of sacred texts, dietary standards, and Shabbat (the Sabbath).
9. The beauty of Judaism and the accomplishments of the Jewish people foster Jewish pride, as well as a connection to fellow Jews that transcends any geographic border or time and space.
10. Jews have a home in Israel. Its capital, Jerusalem, is the center of the Jewish spiritual world, where according to rabbinic teaching, is the place where heaven and earth touch.
So why be Jewish? There are so many compelling reasons to be Jewish, from the good works that Judaism inspires us to do, to the community that it creates. From the strength that a personal relationship with God can give you during times of difficulty and times of joy, to the wonderful memories and life fulfillment created by following in our traditions.
By answering this question I hope it helps you better see your place in and relationship to the Jewish world, and maybe inspire you to connect more, or connect again, to something that we as a people, religion, and community offer to enrich your life.
So, let me hear from you…Why Be Jewish?
Please reply to this email – I very much look forward to your thoughts.
And maybe this latest video from JOTV about our Jewish community will inspire you to think of ideas.
On a final note, the Jewish Federation, with support from NCSY and the OJCYF, is providing an important workshop titled, The Mainstreaming of Antisemitism in America: Effective Strategies for Responding. It is open to the entire community with a special focus on Jewish educators, parents and students grades 9-12. Find out what you can do individually and we as a community to fight this ugly scourge. Register here.