Ten Answers to the Question “Why Be Jewish?”

by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

As I spend a lot of time working with community institutions and their leadership, particularly synagogues, I often argue that the Jewish educational question of the last generation was “How to be Jewish.” If you look at the list of offerings from that period, you will see that question reflected both in program titles and course content.

However, the question of this generation is “Why be Jewish?” Moreover, “Why be Jewish in the context of this particular community, congregation or institution?” This is especially poignant for intermarried couples who need to ask the question: How will my child (or our family) directly benefit from participating in the Jewish community?

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; all that we do must explicitly answer that question.

So, here is my list of answers to the question of “Why be Jewish?” I invite you to add to it, so that we are all equipped to serve the individuals, couples and families who wish to enter the orbit of the Jewish community.

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.

A PDF version of this list can be downloaded by clicking the “print/pdf” button on the bottom right side of this post.

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), located in New York, NY. Look for his new book, Playlist Judaism, to be published by Alban Institute, which will include an explication of these ideas and others.

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Comments

  1. nechama tamler says:

    thank you for posting your 10 reasons to this important question. do you know this quote by Franz Rosenzweig: From Mendelsohn on, our entire people has subjected itself the torture of this embarrassing question: the Jewishness of every individual has squirmed on the needlepoint of a ‘why’.” A long time ago, my friend and teacher, Arnie Eisen, answered this question eloquently, as a professor of religion–and here I am paraphrasing–I am a Jew because it was given to me as a gift–it is my inheritance–and it is certainly no better or worse than other religions but it is mine, just like my name. Of course one can change one’s name (or one’s religion) but isn’t there something special about exploring what one has been given?

  2. Jordan Goodman says:

    Shalom Rabbi Kerry,
    You wrote:
    “…the question of this generation is ‘Why be Jewish?’ Moreover, ‘Why be Jewish in the context of this particular community, congregation or institution?’ ”

    Good to see the validation of this question as “the question of this generation.” Assuming that “being Jewish” is about intentionality and more than an accident of birth and that the answer to the question “what’s in it for me?” is the over-arching context, I’ll agree. I’d add the following questions as well, “Why do Jewish?” and “Why Judaism?” You continued later:

    “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; all that we do must explicitly answer that question.”

    Bravo and kudos for this courageous position. If answers are not forthcoming from professional Jews (clergy, educators, movements and federations and their staffs etc.), “me’ayin yavo ‘ezrateinu;” from whence will come our help? Certainly not from the mountains!! If answering these questions isn’t their job then what of any relevance to most Jews in North America is their job? Please help me understand what is meant by the term “American Jewish community?” in any meaningful sense of the words “Jewish” or “community?” Has this term become a synonym for the Jews of North America? You continued with your list of ten answers to the Question “Why Be Jewish?” You wrote:

    “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.”

    I doubt that most Jews really care about the collective story of the Jewish people nor do they believe in or care about the concept of that narrative as movement toward “the messianic period.” If anything that history demonstrates that being Jewish was/is hazardous to one’s health. You continued:

    “The doing of mitzvot brings me closer to the Divine. In the refracted Divine light, I am able to see myself more clearly.”

    You did use the word “me” above and my sense would be that most Jews would need a more prosaic, down to earth reason for “the doing of mitzvot.” You continued:

    “The emphasis of deed over creed….”

    In my observations of measurably successful churches this is a false dichotomy meant to represent a difference between Judaism and Christianity. You continued:

    “…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.”

    The opportunities to do acts of social justice (a universal value whether they’re called “tikkun ‘olam” or not) are available in many places if one chooses to look. Are “Jewish” organizations/institutions really necessary for this function? You continued:

    “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.”

    What about those Jews who are atheists? It may be the “foundation of Jewish faith,” and how is this important to most Jews in North America who are Jewish like the “Olive Garden” is Italian, or, closer to home, like a Reuben sandwich is Jewish?” Please check this out: http://bit.ly/cUXfv2 You continued:

    “The Jewish community provides support to the individual (and family) during life’s liminal moments…”

    Here I would agree as for most North American Jews, lifecycle events (births, b’nei/b’not mitzvah, weddings and funerals) are all that connects them to anything Jewish. But one doesn’t need synagogues nor a “community” (whatever that has come to mean), to provide this as these services (in the broad sense of the word beyond just worship services) are available a al carte. You continued:

    “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.”

    Here, I agree as well especially with regard to moral/ethical teaching.
    What’s missing is a relevant, practical, application oriented presentation of these teachings via a state of the art delivery system. You continued:

    “Judaism emphasizes lifelong educational growth of all kinds.”

    Dittos. See above. You continued:

    “Judaism has a variety of spiritual disciplines that elevate the soul…”

    First, you’ve got to interest the majority of the folks in even venturing back through the doors of non Orthodox Jewish institutions. This is the biggest challenge. You continued:

    “The beauty of Judaism and the accomplishments of the Jewish people foster Jewish pride,”

    Going forward in the context of this age of diversity in which we live, this kind of ethnocentrism doesn’t have the power to engage Jews (especially Gen X’ers and Millenials) that it once did. You continued:

    “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.”

    This may be so for the “already convinced” but I doubt that this is the feeling of most North American Jews except perhaps as a safe haven from anti Semitism.

    My answer to the questions, “Why be Jewish?, Why Do Jewish? and Why Judaism?” would be: Judaism and Jewish teaching do indeed speak to our lives relevantly and practically to this very day offering a singularly fulfilling, God and community honoring way of life (I’m not necessarily talking about ritual observance here).

    For this to be realized non Orthodox Judaism needs to be reimagined as relevant, practical, application oriented teaching that speaks to life as it is lived and experienced by 21rst century folks (Jews among them) in North America.

    It also has to be repackaged in a state of the art delivery system, using the Arts, Music, Drama, Media and Technology, all in the service of the rediscovered non Orthodox Judaism described above. This is an absolute necessity. Wise consumers, demand and expect no less.

    Thanks again Rabbi Kerry for starting this important conversation. The future of non Orthodox Judaism in North America is in the balance and depends on it if it is ever to regain value in the eyes of most North American Jews who have voted with their feet and discretionary $’s that the status quo is broken beyond repair.

    The answer is to be found in us picking up some of the broken shards of that which remains of the status quo and creating a “heart thumping and God and community honoring” new Mosaic (pun intended).

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan
    eashtov@aol.com

  3. David Hiltzig says:

    Tikkun Olam is not repairing the world through Social Justice. Another instance of Judaism being hijacked by the far extreme left.

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