Interesting Times: Why be Jewish?

Many Jews know the answer better than they let on.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Though Pessah, the celebration of the liberation from Egypt, generally gets top billing in the Jewish consciousness, it is arguably but a prelude to Shavuot, the moment when the Jewish people receives the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the first instance, the Jews take their first act of solidarity as a people by leaving Egypt en masse. In the second, they choose Judaism itself by taking on a full covenantal relationship with God. Though to some it may be mysterious, it seems natural to me that on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, the quintessential story of the conscious choice of Judaism, in which Ruth says to her mother-in-law: "Whither you go, I will go... your people shall be my people." Ruth is doing what the Jewish people as a whole did at Sinai: signing up with God, Torah and peoplehood. Today we find the story of Ruth moving, but more iconic than real. Though Jews, to be polite, don't say so out loud, many wonder why a non-Jew would want to become Jewish. And judging by the fact that so many Jews make life choices they know will greatly reduce the chance of their grandchildren being Jewish, they are effectively not choosing Judaism themselves. In this environment, much of the effort to foster identity through education and other programs avoids the question Jews are asking themselves: Why be Jewish? For many people, none of our denominations are in a position to provide the answer. Modern Orthodoxy "works" in the sense that it successfully raises the priority of Judaism so as to greatly reduce the incidence of intermarriage, provide for the education of the next generation and inculcate the value of building large Jewish families. But most Jews find Orthodoxy too rote, too ritual-oriented, and too inconsistent with their modern ethos of personal autonomy. THE NON-ORTHODOX movements have the opposite problem: they are tailored to the modern a la carte approach to religion, and have not found a way to give Judaism the critical mass necessary to take precedence over, and compete with secular modernity. In effect, the modern Jew is saying: "It is not enough for me that my ancestors said at Sinai "na'ase venishma" (we will do, and we will listen/obey) in response to the giving of the Torah; I need to be convinced to give this same answer for each commandment, and every day." This may seem like an impossible hurdle, but I believe it is not. Judaism can meet the test of modern rationality and autonomy without becoming unsustainable. This can happen if a critical mass of practice, including community-sustaining rituals like kashrut and Shabbat, are cobbled together in a framework built to serve the modern need to personally, not only collectively and historically, build covenantal bonds. For many Jews in the meantime, however, there is a shorter answer to the question "Why be Jewish?" It is to ask another question, as Jews often do: "What it is that attracts you to Judaism?" It has always struck me as strange that Jews who can't understand why anyone else would want to be Jewish would never think of choosing another religion. Why are Jews so convinced they are different from other people? And if they are, what makes them different? Either Jews are a separate race - an offensive notion - or what is good for Jews is also in principle good for millions of other people. It cannot be that the only reason so many Jews value their Judaism and would never abandon it is that it happens to be the tradition they were born into. What happened to that vaunted need for personal autonomy? Is laziness the only thing that keeps Jews Jewish? I THINK IT is deeper than that. Many seemingly disconnected Jews could, if they took a moment, put their finger on a number of reasons why they are glad they are Jewish, beyond the attachment one has for a comfortable old armchair, for example, or the street of one's childhood. For some it might be the Jewish reverence for education. The talmudic method that is sometimes dismissed as legalistic also demonstrates the honored place of rationality in interpreting the law. For others it is the emphasis on family, community and peoplehood - widening circles of connectedness that, even if they are not well-maintained, still represent a cherished ideal. Many, having enough trouble believing in one God, find a complete inability to relate to Christianity's emphasis on faith and its additional layers of theology. In short, Jews may know the answer to "Why be Jewish?" better than they let on. By the same token, they know why many people might even consider converting to Judaism - if Jews were to revert to the sort of pride and interest we used to have in absorbing others, and the warmth we still feel for the story of Ruth. Most importantly, many Jews know why they wish their children and grandchildren to also be Jews, even if they think they do not know how to make that happen. They wish it so not just out of clannishness, but because it would be best for those children. It ought to follow that, just as we would do anything for our children - we think about their college education and even retirement - giving them the tools to raise their chances of staying Jewish should rate higher in our scale of priorities.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11