Why “Why”? A Good Question!

By Zohar Raviv

In a recent piece titled “Just Jew It: Against Giving Reasons for Living a Jewish Life,” author Seth Chalmer argues against the integration of the question “Why be Jewish” into our communal discourse and educational spheres. I join in applauding Chalmer’s sophisticated and eloquent treatment of this vital issue, as it truly commands serious communal discourse. I also found Chalmer‘s analysis of the issue compelling throughout, and would have even agreed with his professed conclusions should his initial premise be the pervasive interpretation of the question at hand. It is not.

Chalmer’s premise is intrinsically misleading for he interprets the question “Why be Jewish” as an apologetic (in his words “desperate”) attempt to justify engagement with Judaism, thus leading to a reductionism which dilutes the very essence of Jewish life, turns Judaism into a buy-or-leave commodity and betrays our longstanding and multifaceted story as a people. While I concur that for too long Jewish education has been suffering from perpetual reductionism in the very definition of Judaism, let alone its content and pedagogy, I disagree with Chalmer’s founding premise and subsequent conclusions. As I will try to demonstrate further below, Chalmer promotes a bold ideological statement about a self-perpetuated sense of Jewish worth, yet seems to remain quite detached from our present and future generational spheres – a reality that might prove his conviction as inspiring as it is irrelevant. Chalmer’s axiomatic launchpad, namely a deeply-felt sense of Jewish worth and integrity, is in fact the desired outcome of the entire process encapsulated within the “Why be Jewish” question. In short, it is our utmost obligation to offer brave and intelligent platforms to unpack the “why” question in order to achieve Chalmer’s goal and render the very question redundant.

According to Chalmer, “‘Why be Jewish?’ starts from an implicit assumption that the default is not being Jewish.” Not at all. “Why be Jewish” starts from an explicit premise that has been avoided by our educational philosophy and pedagogic vocabularies and therefore gone unnoticed by multiple Jewish generations: that Judaism is rooted in inward meaning-making and not simply in outward practice; that “doing Jewish” aims to manifest a profound sense of “being Jewish,” and that both realms call for educational accountability and deserve our honest, rigorous, responsible and systematic attention; that being part of “Am Yisreal” (the people who wrestle [even] with Divinity) means to commit oneself to deeper existential, spiritual, cognitive and intellectual questions – individually, communally and as world citizens. “Why be Jewish” has therefore nothing to do with reductionism, but quite the contrary: it does not aim to apologetically “[give] individuals compelling reasons for Jewish engagement,” as the author suggests, but to unpack the profound meaning that has always nurtured the very foundations and fabric of our Jewish civilization. Not only is the question “why” not reductionist, it in fact aims to confront a longstanding and persistent reductionism whose output has been a Jewish edifice which may be rendered “too much porch (how to do Jewish = participation and practice) and not enough house (why be Jewish = concepts, values, fields of interest, meaning and relevance).”

Chalmer’s second premise, that “[Jewish institutions] should cultivate the integrity of Jewish life on its own terms, and warmly invite every Jew into experiences of it,” also does very little to advance our discussion. More so, it arguably exercises a willed naiveté vis-à-vis the reality in which we live. First, what is the hiddush (novelty) in introducing terms such as “[Jewish] integrity” and “warmly invite [Jews to experience]”? Have these not been the credo of every Jewish institution since time immemorial? Jewish institutions have used every measure in their organizational arsenal to sustain their Jewish mission and warmly invite community members to experience their offerings – an ongoing effort which has proven time and again hardly effective from a strategic standpoint. Second, while I understand Chalmer’s desire to sustain “Jewish life on its own terms” – a call to reinforce the value of Jewish life as a self-evident property, rather than one in need of sale pitches and pathetic justifications – I confess that his approach here reminds me of Beit Shamai: a powerful ideological statement, delivered with genuine passion, commitment to Jewish vitality and true conviction – but with little regard to the place, needs and aspirations of our contemporary audience. While Chalmer sees the intrinsic value of Jewish life as an axiomatic given, it remains non-existent and uncharted a territory for an overwhelming proportion of our people. Indeed, a grand Jewish educational legacy calls upon us to understand that any axiomatic assertion that is divorced from people’s actual positions and lives might constitute a blind spot which seriously hinders the educator’s ability to realize one’s objectives in manners that are both effective and relevant. While many a time our desire to remain effective and relevant has yielded reductionism in our educational input, the latter is definitely not a necessary outcome of the former. Our Jewish sources not only speak of the intrinsic value of Torah Study (used here as euphemism for Jewish education, identity formation and communal commitment), but remind us that a person will not engage in it save from a place of personal inner desire (Bab. Avoda Zara 19a). Unless one wishes to employ one’s resonating voice to an ultimately empty chamber, one needs to courageously examine the landscape of contemporary Jewish life and address long-lasting neglected issues such as the fundamental question “Why be Jewish”: not apologetically, but with bold and refreshing intentionality; not as yet another step in the reduction of Jewish life, but as a necessary step in reintroducing the meaning and relevance of Jewish life among scores who never had a chance to see it as such to begin with; not as a sales pitch to a cohort of selfish and shallow individuals who care not about “Judaism in its own right,” but for a cohort of Jews who are intelligent, alert and care deeply about a host of issues, yet never been given a genuine path to experience the inherent contribution of living Jewishly to their interests, passions and convictions. It is not about justifying Judaism, but about rediscovering its eternally relevant depth and breadth “in each generation anew.”

As Chalmer himself states, “Jewish life contains worship, philosophy, law, politics, languages, ritual, arts, culture, Zionism, mysticism, food, family, and much more.” A much more succinct version would be “Jewish life contains … life.” While I wholly agree with that statement, I remain acutely cognizant of the fact that for many among our people this grand canopy of Jewish relevance is utterly nonexistent – precisely since the “why” question has never been on the table as a cohesive philosophy and pedagogic approach. Arguing that the “Why be Jewish” question promotes Jewish reductionism is arguably to overlook the necessity of this question specifically due to a longstanding reductionism in our Jewish institutional and educational spheres. In other words, whereas the potential vitality of Jewish life has not changed (it is still about life in its entirety), its actual worth has been dramatically reduced for scores among our people. This fact calls for serious changes in our discourse, educational vocabularies, communal mandate and pedagogic priorities as we wish to mitigate the gap between the potential reality and existing perception of Jewish life.

Sometimes, I fear, we do not allow members of our own Jewish community the credit they deserve. Just as the question “Why…” is essential for any form of human inquiry, the question “Why be Jewish” is essential for addressing the basic Jewish need to wrestle, disagree and rediscover the yoke of meaning within Jewish life itself. Judaism is not afraid of difference in opinions – it is indifference that it fears the most! A platform that simply asserts Judaism “in its own terms” (whatever that enigmatic phrase means in concrete terms!) and does not allow an honest inquiry into the very foundations of Judaism will not yield a mass of yea-sayers who follow the “warm invitation to experience it,” but an equally felt sense of mass indifference.

Zohar Raviv serves as the International Vice President of Educational Strategy for Birthright Israel