David BenGurion, one of the founding fathers of M’dinat Yisrael, had a joking but useful answer to the question: Who is a Jew? He said: “A Jew is a person who keeps asking, Who is a Jew?!” He dealt with a lot of Jews, all sorts of us: frum and frumer, secular and more secular, refugees and colonists, left and right wingers, kibbutsniks and scientists, writers, sportsfans, military, unskilled workers, all and more gathered and living in the new state. BenGurion had in mind also the rest of us dispersed all over the world. What do we really have in common? Well, among other things, we like to think about ourselves and who and what we are. And we certainly ask questions.
In America we generally see ourselves as Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, but these three words begin with capital letters, that is they are names of organizations first, and descriptions of movements, of streams (זרמים) second. We all understand the popular definitions of the three, “doing a lot,” “doing little,” and “somewhere in between.” But all three are alike in being responses to modernity, to liberation, to freedom to chose. Each has its history and ideology, its set of defining actions. Reform started in 1818, among the Jews of Germany who hated to see so many of our people leaving Judaism because they thought conversion to Christianity was the ticket to the new world of education, culture, participation in the economic and political scene. So the reformers said that Jews could be like the rest of the population in most ways while still holding to the monotheism of Abraham and the ideals of the prophets. They prayed in everyday speech and gave up distinctive clothing and dietary restrictions and anything else that they saw as antithetical to western civilization. Orthodoxy began in the 1820's in Hungary as a reaction to Reform, saying, O no! There is only one right way to be a Jew, and that is Halachah, the commanded law, authoritatively interpreted by right thinking rabbis. Conservatism began in the US, in the 1890's, among some modernists who thought the Reform movement had gone too far, what with eating shrimp and treif, in not following the rules for Shabbat and holidays. Conservatives opted for Halachah as interpreted by liberal rabbis who took into account historical development and the demands of society.
When we ask what kind of Jews we want to be we find a lot of choices. The lines demarcating the classic three denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, have by now become so diffuse that a new term has become relevant: “pluralism.” Why should an individual limit himself or herself to this or that one of the three. Why not pick and choose from the broad menu of Torah? And, while we’re at it, let’s think of Torah as the cumulative intellectual product of several millennia of Jews asking our questions about ourselves and the world. From Bible and Talmud to contemporary writings, and including what you and I might add to the ongoing mix.
Our passionate black hatted, long sleeved, brothers and sisters, despise and reject pluralism. They call themselves Chareidim, “tremblers,” meaning they tremble over mistaking the will of God. (Ez 9:4, Is 66:2) They take orthodoxy literally. As in the Greek: orthos “straight, upright, correct,” combined with dox “belief, opinion.” They think of themselves as giving up choice in favor of obedience, submission to God’s will which they see in the laws of Torah. They are modern when it comes to technology but anti modern when it comes to attitude and thought. OK by me but not for me. We are all Israel, together, by destiny, but I belong with the modernists among us.
If being a Jew is a matter of choice, we must bear in mind that today you can easily choose not to be a Jew at all.. Call it “assimilating out,” that is becoming so American that you leave Jewish identity behind. When everything is optional the term “born a Jew” hasn’t much meaning. In other times and places being born a Jew involved restrictions. Antisemites defined us. Some thinkers went so far as to say that we remain Jews in response to antisemitism. – we rise to the challenge and make the best of a difficult situation. Zis schver zu sein a Yid. But in today’s America there must be a reason for you or me to go on being Jews, to seek out and be with other Jews, to raise our children as Jews. No law says we have to be different. We choose to be different in select ways from, say, the Christians, the Moslems, the Hindus. Some of us might choose to be Chareidim. It’s a free country.
So, what’s the reason? Why be Jews? I argue that, as with any other option, we choose based on qualities that please us. It is good to be a Jew and that’s why we want to remain what we are: Israel. This choice does not depend on claiming to be better than others, truer, more Godly, more advanced, more ethical, more aesthetic. But we have come to like, for example, our way of celebrating marriage and we prefer our funeral practices. We have effective practices by which we focus on values and deeds – as we are doing on these Days of Awe. We respond to evil by taking action. Our theology is subtle, poetic, and rational. I find Judaism meets human needs as well as any other religion. In addition there is Torah study – the early rabbis declared it to be as important as all the other mitsvot combined – and I like that. I especially like the minimal demand on credulity and maximal demand on the intellect, on thinking.
Many of us liberal Jews have ambivalent feelings that Orthodoxy really is the sole authentic Judaism. Some of us admire such faith and pious ways and we wonder if our thinking and practice are inadequate. Some of us yearn for certainty. We would like to believe that God revealed Torah to Moses on Sinai, as we chant in our prayers. The old teaching charms us: God selected us from among the families of the earth and gave us Torah so that we might please God. Identifying as God’s special people makes poetic sense and satisfies our longing for authority. But when we think of chosenness as historic event, as if it were fact, we restrain our critical thinking. We end up simplistic, self centered and out of touch with other peoples and other ways of thinking. If we want peace between civilizations rather than clash, we must note that Christians and Moslems also read their scriptures as God’s word. Both of them relate to Judaism in triumphal supersession, that is each holds itself to be the ultimate development of our people’s religion. They tell us our religion is superseded by theirs because theirs is based on updated revelations from God. They say we should accept their better religion and convert. Jews, of course, deny being out of date. We do not claim that our religion is better than theirs, but we are satisfied that ours is as good as any. And we choose to remain Jews, thank you very much.
I once got into an dispute with a Yiddish actor who was playing Tevya in “Fidler on the Roof.” He told me he was non religious because he had never been exposed to the “tradition” as referred to in the famous song he knew so well. In the Broadway version of Shalom Aleychem, the reason we Jews do whatever we do is tradition! I argued , on the contrary, that we keep Shabbat because it is good, healthy for mind and body, filled with pleasant activities and associations. Shabbat is fun and that’s a value. He said, no, he had never heard of such a thing as doing a Jewish act for its inherent benefit or value. Shabbat was a tradition. He even brought up the Hebrew word masoret. Yes, I argued, we have all sorts of traditions, of m’sorot, but that’s not the rabbinic justification for doing. There is always a rationale for a deed. We call it, following Maimonides, ta’amei mitsvot, the “taste” or the “point” of the mitsvah. Think challah, for example. You could I suppose, eat it everyday – it’s tasty. But we don’t. We reserve this fanciest of breads for Shabbat and holidays, because we want to heighten our aesthetic experience both of the day and of the food. Eating it everyday would make challah ordinary. Shabbat is special (קדש) and challah is a classic special shabbesdig treat. My wife bakes world class challah and it helps make Shabbat every week of the year.
We are in the midst of a prayer marathon to save our souls and improve the world. Repeatedly, we confess long lists of sins, some of which we may not even be guilty of. Sure the Ashamnu’s and the Al Chet’s are traditional, but the reason we recite them is they are guides to self criticism. They focus us on what we really are guilty of and what we should do by way of t’shuvah, repentance. That’s good, and when I say “good” I mean good for us as individuals, as families, and good for the wider community and ultimately, good for the world. It’s good to do Yom Kippur. Even fasting, unless you are pregnant, nursing, or ill is good.
Rabbi Akiba, philosopher, among our Talmudic forbears, once commented:
ואהבת לרעך כמוך – זה כלל גדול בתורה“‘Love your neighbor as yourself” – this is the greatest Torah rule.’” (Sifri, K’doshim 4:12) Hillel, a couple of centuries before him, is said to have taught that the whole of Torah can be summed up in the words:
דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד “What is hateful to you, do it not to your neighbor.” (TB Shabbat 31a). Our system of moral values begins in our story of creation בצלם ` להים
(Gen 1:26). No words could be clearer than these in stating the value of human life. Do we have a fine, humane way of looking at relationships, politics, world events? This quality is what we choose in being Jews. We have a religion that invites critical thinking.
What kind of Jew do you want to be? Picture Torah as a treasure chest, packed with mitsvot, ancient and contemporary, all yours, the inherited accumulation of millennia of people determined to get the most from life. Open the lid and have a look, study the possibilities. Take your pick. Experiment. You may find your family enriched by, say the Jewish way of eating. Beyond nutrition, how and what we eat binds us to one another spiritually. We end up with all kinds and degrees of kashrut, from the most restrictive classic form to organic or vegetarian considerations. And here is the payoff in doing a mitsvah – keeping kosher or any other: wanting to be this or that kind of Jew fades into the background as an issue. What happens is that the mitsvah has its effect on your life, your family and friends, your community, and, eventually, the world. The mitsvah adds goodness.

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