By Seth Chalmer
It’s not uncommon, in Jewish communal circles, to hear it claimed that the central question for our profession today is, “Why be Jewish?”
In an age of free choice and self-constructed identities, this argument goes, the Jewish community can no longer count on individuals to affiliate themselves and participate, so individuals must be given compelling reasons for Jewish engagement.
I want to suggest that this is wrong. Giving any answer to the question “Why be Jewish?” is a bad tactic in service of a worse idea.
A Bad Tactic: Consumerism and Insecurity
“Why be Jewish?” starts from an implicit assumption that the default is not being Jewish. Instead of challenging modernity’s oppressive individualism and consumerism, the question honors and reinforces them, putting Judaism in the role of supplicant or salesman. It perversely paraphrases and reverses JFK: ask not what you can do for being Jewish; ask what being Jewish can do for you. This commodifying approach transforms our sacred, familial relationship with Judaism into something transactional.
Now, even if you buy into that consumerist mindset, you should want a good sales pitch. But giving “reasons” for being Jewish is a bad one. Seeming desperate doesn’t sell. Think about dating: confidence and integrity are attractive, not insecurity. Nothing says insecurity – and creepiness – like telling someone who doesn’t seem interested in you a list of reasons they should find you attractive.
More importantly, though, we shouldn’t buy into the consumerist mindset – even if many Jews do so by saying that Judaism isn’t an attractive option among the many they face. Jewish institutions don’t need to give “answers” that accept the premise. They should cultivate the integrity of Jewish life on its own terms, and warmly invite every Jew into experiences of it.
We shouldn’t present these experiences as competing with other religions or cultures. We shouldn’t try to pretend we have a superior product within a neutral marketplace – a claim as false, as arrogant, and as unnecessary as a claim that your own parents and siblings deserve you home for Thanksgiving not because they are your family, but because they make the best pie.
Chabad demonstrates this. Their question is not, “Can I convince you that you’re Jewish?” but “Are you Jewish?” And if the answer is yes, their invitation is not to hear arguments about the premise you’ve already assented (that you’re Jewish) – it’s to put on tefillin or take home candles for this Shabbos.
The confidence Chabad exudes in every Jew’s inalienable belonging is worth a billion arguments about Why to Belong – arguments which only reify the narrative (and self-fulfilling prophecy) that Jewish belonging is an open question. Speaking internally and externally, Jewish communal leaders should take as given that Jewish life is relevant to all Jews. Once we’re saying anything to argue that point, we’re already losing.
A Worse Idea: Reductionism
But offering answers to “Why be Jewish?” isn’t just a bad means to achieve the end of making Jews understand the meaning and purpose of being Jewish; rather, the idea that Judaism even has, or should have, a canonical meaning or purpose – some external thing that Judaism is for – is a lousy idea.
I want to stress that I don’t mean Judaism lacks meanings and purposes. It has many of them, and without them Jewish life would be different and worse. But we must remember two things: (1) we don’t have only one purpose; and (2) Judaism is more than just a tool for achieving them.
Here we must distinguish covenants from missions. The Jewish people has a covenant, linking each of us to God and one another in a web of mutual love and responsibility. A covenant differs critically from a mission: a mission is a task, primarily about getting something done; a covenant is a relationship, primarily about the bond between its parties. The point of a mission is to be completed, i.e., to end; the point of a covenant is to endure.
As parts of our covenant, Jews have multiple and important missions: to heal the world materially, socioeconomically, ecologically, spiritually; to refine the world intellectually; Jewish life contains worship, philosophy, law, politics, languages, ritual, arts, culture, Zionism, mysticism, food, family, and much more.
Dare we subjugate all these things to any one of them? Do we want to reduce Judaism to one official meaning? Only if we want to transform it from a living civilization into something dry and petty – a marketing seminar, self-help group, or political rally.
The wise and witty Leibel Fine z”l said that we can’t let our rallying cry to young Jews be, “Come survive with us!” He was right that “survival” is insufficient if it means only surviving, with no substance to the surviving Jewishness (“groupness without content”, as Rokhl Kafrissen has written). But Fein’s claim was that what Judaism needed beyond survival was a defining purpose. He wanted the rallying cry to be, “Come mend the world with us.”
Many Jews of many ideologies agree that Judaism has or needs a mission statement, from those who, like Fein, want that mission to be tikkun olam to Orthodox Jews focused on halakha above all to Zionists focused on strengthening the Jewish state. Some within these groups also sharply criticize the other groups, not for reductionism, but for reducing Judaism down to what they see as the wrong essence.
But no one’s reductionism is acceptable. Jewish life is sprawling, messy, nuanced, contradictory, enthralling, enraging, alive, and ours. It is an organic whole.
The Art of Self-Justifying: People and Cultures as Ends
Kant teaches that each person is an end unto herself. That means people aren’t just tools for achieving something, even if and when they do achieve things. People do different amounts of good (and evil), but their intrinsic worth is equal, and exists not because they are for something, but because they are someone.
I say the same is true for human cultures, including Jewish culture; cultures can do good, but their worth doesn’t derive from that. Jewish life is an end unto itself.
Therefore, we should treat Jewish life as a form of art: not as something to justify, but as something simply to do and experience.
Art is its own justification. It often has other reasons, but it doesn’t always need other reasons. And even when art works do have morals and purposes, when they’re good, they remain much more than mere means to those ends. “Romeo and Juliet” teaches us to love instead of hating, but the play is infinitely richer than a PowerPoint slide stating that lesson. In the gap between the play and the slide lives much of what makes life worth living.
So what if we just did Jewish instead of worrying about why? What if we fortified the infrastructure we need for robust Jewish life, not for some utilitarian purpose but simply because we’re Jews and that’s a big part of the art we’re making of our lives? What if we passionately pursued the many missions which are part of Jewish life – religious, moral, political, ecological, artistic, intellectual, mystical, familial, and more – but without worrying about completing the impossible task of cooking up one master slogan to define them all?
In sermons every Rosh Hashanah, rabbis discuss many beautiful and inspiring meanings of the shofar. Somehow, no one ever suggests replacing the actual blasts with those sermons alone. Our hearts know the shofar isn’t reducible to the concepts it contains. The sound itself, as we experience it in our bodies, has the integrity of tangible reality. The same is true for the light of Shabbos candles, the sound of Jewish languages, the tight embrace tefillin, the crescendo of a nign, the solidarity of prayer and protest together, the bitter sting of maror, the kinetic ecstasy of a dance, the flash of shared insight in study, the shade and colors of the sukkah.
Why be Jewish? Actually living Jewish life, in all its broad vitality, is the only possible, let alone acceptable, answer.
Seth Chalmer is Director of Communications for Jewish Funders Network.