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Why Be Jewish?

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.

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Marian Neudel

posted August 14, 2007 at 7:33 pm

“Absent from the conversations were anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust, the holy trinity of American Jewish identity for the past 60 years”
And, apparently, nothing about kashrut or intermarriage either. Wow!

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posted August 14, 2007 at 8:13 pm

Nothing against being Jewish….nothing against any religion really…but:
“3) Belief and Truth–Judaism offers people correct beliefs about a higher power and the answers”
*sigh*…..what makes the beliefs of Judaism “correct beliefs about a higher power” and other religions’ beliefs “incorrect”? Aren’t we all “the ‘products’ of higher power” (*if* you even believe in a “higher power”)? And why should Judaism offer beliefs that are “more correct” than Christianity or Islam??? They all three spring from the same source don’t they?

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posted August 14, 2007 at 10:00 pm

My purpose in wanting live Jewishly would be to:
A) Connect with the history of my ancestors; a thousands-year old culture is still around for a reason;
B) To feel closer to God;
C) Hopefully to become a better person, which seems to be a big if not full-time job. Boy, is that tiring.
Judaism appears to provide guidance and to offer answers about How To Live, which are missing in what I consider to be an essentially idol-worshipping culture (from sports figures to celebrities to fashion to consumerism, gotta have a career, gotta impress the neighbors, run run run, etc.) American mainstream culture doesn’t offer much in the way of spiritual sustenance. People seem to think they can solve their problems by acquiring things, seeking higher social status through their associations and/or possessions and/or careers – such that other human beings become disposable and interchangeable. Mainstream secular culture encourages treating people like objects, and as a result, there is a lot of alienation, loneliness, cynicism, depression, isolation. Where do we find meaning, purpose, or direction in life? I’ve tried in many ways, but have not met with much luck. It’s a kind of emptiness that makes life not particularly worth living. Why bother? What’s it all for? Does it matter? Can we experience ourselves as part of the continuity of humanity and not just as individuals who live for a short time and vanish into nothingness? While I know there is a power greater than myself, greater than our planet and all the life it has ever held, I still do not have the remotest clue as to why I am here on this Earth. So far, my study of Judaism is helping me address some of those questions. (That being said, I don’t see it as my role to tell others what to believe or how to find their own answers.)

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laura t mushkat

posted August 15, 2007 at 11:40 am

It may seem simplistic but I believe most people are born into a family and usually stay close to the family belief structure.
If there is a religon and they are schooled in that religon and believe in that religon you can go round and round as to why they practice it but that is really why. How they practice it could be a change from their family but that would be it.
I was born a Jew, feel comfortable being a Jew and see no need to look elsewhere, so I stay a Jew.
Think that is it in a nutshell for people of all faiths who do not have an interest in converting to something else.

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posted August 15, 2007 at 9:34 pm

Finally, another article that is going to allow us to bring up G_d again. The correct beliefs about the “higher power”. El Elyon (G_d the Highest) G-d IS the highest power, who is not to be confused with “a higher power” And the 10 commandments spell out how to live quite plainly. We were made to worship Him. But again Yeah! conversation is about G-d and not politics. Yeah G-d!

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laura t mushkat

posted August 16, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Well Julie I can not tell if you are being sarcastic or what.
This is Beliefnet and about beliefs and ya gotta figure there is going to be lots of talk about Supreme Beings, what people call them and how they believe it them.
Thus the articles!

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posted August 16, 2007 at 6:32 pm

Although there is more than 1 way to G-d Judaism is the true religion.

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Ray Rambo

posted August 30, 2007 at 3:05 pm

Religion is a man made thing. It’s man “reaching up” to God. But it doesn’t work! We cannot make a Supreme Being beckon to our call. But many thousands of years ago, God reached out to man – a man named Abram. And through that man, because of his faith and trust in God, God promised to bless many nations and peoples. The Nation of Israel is God’s chosen people. What is so sad is many Jewish people don’t even know it! Because they have been so dispersed, many Jews don’t understand that God loves us and desires to have a personal relationship with us. This is what gives meaning to life. It’s not about wealth, possessions, or even power. There is a hole in each of us that only God can fill. He knows how to fill it because He put it there. And only by fellowshipping with Him can we come to know that true fullness of life which He desires for each of us.

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