Recently, Adam Bronfman and I co-hosted “Why be Jewish?” a gathering of leading Jewish rabbis, writers and thinkers sponsored by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The gathering was driven by the need for the Jewish community to take a step back from all the outreach projects they are embarking on and to honestly ask, “Why would one want to identify as a Jew?” What is it about Judaism that makes us so desperately want to make more Jews Jewish? The gathering is part of The Bronfman Vision Forum, a program launched by the foundation with the hope of bringing Jewish ideas to the forefront of Jewish identity discussions. Along those lines the most interesting aspects of the gathering were both what was focused on and what was not.
As Sue Fishkoff of the JTA noted: “Absent from the conversations were anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust, the holy trinity of American Jewish identity for the past 60 years.” As I said in other posts, it’s not that that peoplehood or survival-based answers are unimportant, its just that they don’t really address the question and in some sense are only an answer for those who are already believers.
That said, a great deal was addressed. Summarizing the many ideas and opinions suggested at the gathering I would say the following four answers stood out:
1) Its Emphasis on Works–Its Ethical Mission, its halakhic ideals and the rewards of communal engagement and activity
2) Spiritual Meaning–Judaism Provides us an enriching tradition that can provide meaning in our lives
3) Belief and Truth–Judaism offers people correct beliefs about a higher power and the answers
4) Responds to Human Needs–It responds to the core needs of what it means to be human
While the question is always stronger than the answers, I think these answers provide us with a good starting point.