Why Are You Jewish?
Judaism gives you the freedom to find your own path. Judaism has no defined set of beliefs you must follow. You’re free to believe or not believe, and how much to believe. Judaism doesn’t just permit you to think for yourself. It encourages you to do so.
Here’s an exercise. You are standing in front of a Bet Din, a religious court. In this exercise, you are converting to Judaism and your appearance before the Bet Din is a partial requirement of your becoming Jewish. You’re nervous. You want to succeed. Suddenly one of the Rabbis asks you, “Why do you want to become Jewish?” It’s an important question because it requires you to get to the heart of your spiritual journey and your religious identity.
So what is your answer to this question? There are, to be sure, an endless series of possible responses. Here are some potential starting points.
Judaism allows you to be both an individual and part of a community simultaneously. Without belonging to a community of people who share your faith, you would be alone, spiritually adrift in a very large cosmos. That’s an argument for belonging to a religious group. But you’re wary of belonging. You don’t want the group to rob you of your individual self. You need both to be yourself and to be part of a group.
Judaism gives you the freedom to find your own path. Judaism has no defined set of beliefs you must follow. You’re free to believe or not believe, and how much to believe. You can believe in God only 80% of the time if you want. In the Bible when Jacob became Israel, he did so when he wrestled with an angel. Being a part of the Jewish people doesn’t require you to believe in God in a specifically-defined way. It requires you to wrestle with God. Doubt isn’t opposed to faith. It’s a crucial part of it. Judaism doesn’t just permit you to think for yourself. It encourages you to do so.
Judaism so believes in freedom, for you as an individual and as part of a community, that there is an entire holiday devoted to it. Passover is about a flight away from tyranny toward independence and freedom. It’s on such a very journey of liberation that the Jewish people encounter God.
But beyond providing you individual freedom to assemble your beliefs, the Jewish people offers a loving, supportive community. Reality is always different from the ideal, but that ideal is important. Ideally, then, in Judaism no one in the community is left to suffer. No one is alone. When a loved one dies, the community comes to you. When you are hungry, the community feeds you. When you are ill, the mitzvah of bikur cholim means people will visit you. And this is done without humiliation. In Judaism, anonymous giving is the highest form of charity. No one is there to mock you for your troubles.