Answer This Question: Why Be Jewish?

Figuring Out What To Do About Pew Means Going To the Source of Identity


By Jay Michaelson

Published November 11, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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For example, what function does it serve to sit in a building for three hours on Saturday morning? How is life enriched by reading Jewish books or newspapers? Why do you do it?

The runaway success of the book “I Am Jewish,” published in 2005 and featuring dozens of Jewish notables writing short essays about what their Jewishness means to them, is, I think, attributable to this very basic set of questions. “I Am Jewish” answers them, in multiple ways. Reading it, and similar volumes, you can get why someone would care about the Jewish thing, and why they want to preserve it. Then you can explore which, if any, rationales resonate with you.

Obviously, some will fit, and others will not. If someone is Jewish because she believes that God will punish her if she violates Jewish law, that rationale will not resonate with someone who doesn’t believe that God exists. If someone is Jewish because he simply loves the flavors of corned beef and the cadences of Yiddish, that rationale will not resonate with someone raised in a 21st century family (or Sephardic family) where those old forms have no meaning whatsoever.

But taking the value of Judaism for granted is not going to work, particularly because many of the iterations of that value just don’t matter to a whole lot of people. They don’t want a particularist identity in a multicultural age. They don’t agree that there’s merit in ghettoization, endogamy, or us versus them thinking. They may be inspired by Jewish history, but not enough to change their lives. And they certainly don’t want a religion that sets down rules.

For better or for worse, those are the clean slates from which we must begin. Square one. Why do you do what you do? What product or service — to use the language of the marketplace — does Judaism deliver for you? And how might Jewish institutions focus on it in a way that makes it appealing to the unconverted, trimming away the extraneous parts, while not diluting the authenticity of the core?

One of my mentors, a spiritual teacher named Harry Faddis, once told me that “people are interested in what they’re interested in.” A simple tautology, but better than all the Pew-haha. Lots of Jews are not interested in the things affiliated Jews are interested in. If we have a desire to preserve or grow liberal Judaism, we might start by asking why that desire exists, rather than wringing our hands that not enough people share it yet.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.


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