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.