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The Purpose-Driven Jew

There are many reasons to be Jewish: religious reasons, family reasons, emotional reasons, communal and historic reasons. Rabbi Stern’s summary of a conference he co-hosted for the Bronfman Foundation came up with four good answers to the question “Why Be Jewish?” The only problem with his answers is the avoidance of one critical three-letter word: God.
Ask two Jews a question, you get three opinions. That is also true about the question “Who is God?” You don’t have to believe in a God who is personally involved in people’s lives to be a good Jew. One doesn’t even have to believe in God to be, or want to be, Jewish. One of the great things about Judaism is our intellectual openness. However, belief in the God of Israel is one of the few central beliefs of Judaism. That is why Rabbi Stern’s choice of the Alcoholics Anonymous term Higher Power may be PC, and even appropriate in an interfaith or 12-Step setting, but it is too impersonal for my tastes when discussing why be Jewish.
According to our Holy Scripture, the Torah, Judaism began when God invited Abraham (and by extension Sarah) along on an incredible journey to introduce the world to ethical monotheism. The God of Abraham and Sarah is unique, not part of the world, but its Creator, who cares not just for Abraham and his kin but for all God’s creatures. This God is the Judge of the whole world who therefore demands that justice be done to all, even by God’s-self. This God has expectations of all God’s children, and especially of us, as the models for God’s light in the world.


According to Ron Wolfson, God has a “To Do List” for each of us. We are to imitate God in the world. God created, so we are to use our gift of creativity. God visited Abraham after his circumcision, therefore we are to visit the sick, and otherwise show care for others. God rested on the seventh day, so are we to rest and revitalize ourselves each week. As God forgives us, we are to forgive others. Why Be Jewish? Because God wants us to be. Because God needs us to be the best Jews we can be. Because God is counting on us to be God’s agents to help heal the world.
You don’t have to be Jewish to do good in the world or be God’s agent. The Torah is replete with examples of good non-Jewish men and women who move human history forward (Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, is just one example.) However, it’s a shame that so many Jews do not embrace their Jewish identity and with it their God-given purpose in life. Unprecedented societal freedom means that today we Jews are not only the Chosen People but a choosing people.
Why be Jewish? Because Judaism carries a message of faith, balance, caring, justice, compassion, intellectual curiosity and honesty, commitment, and a host of other values that make sense of and in this world. Being Jewish thus gives us the tools, the guidance, the community, and the direction to most fully actualize the special purpose for which God has created us. The choice, of whether or not to actively be Jewish, is up to us.

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posted August 15, 2007 at 3:20 pm

Purpose-driven faith must, for me, take a specific form. It’s not enough to have principles, although principles are the foundation of action. Concrete instructions, i.e. “give 10% of your income to charity,” are more useful. Of course anyone can do that, Jewish or not – but will they? Or more to the point, would I do it if I didn’t have a Cosmic To-Do List from God? Would I remember as often as I should?
If God is omnipotent, why does God need us? If creation were an ongoing process, I could understand God needing us the way an artist needs a painting to reflect her intentions. Making art is a process of engagement. It takes work, focus, and some notion of a goal.
Calling God a “Higher Power” just means acknowledging we are not in charge of everything, nor do we have to be. Someone knows better than we do what’s going on. To me the words “Higher Power” are useful shorthand for letting go. Unfortunately we’re stuck with the limitations of language (and thought) to describe Something so vast and incomprehensible it can’t be put into words.
Is God only outside of the universe? Some rabbis describe God as existing within and throughout as well as beyond, all-encompassing, eternal. I tend to conceptualize God as an ongoing process of creating as well as a Source of existence and a Being beyond existence that will outlive the universe. God came before and will still be around after it is all gone, if such a time comes. God is personal in the sense that I, as a person, need to dialogue with God or connect with God (a.k.a. “pray”.) It’s an important – vital – experience, but I also want to be able to do something constructive with that experience. Judaism provides a goal (healing the world) and a method of reaching it (mitzvot.) To me, that’s helpful.

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posted August 15, 2007 at 10:30 pm

You know, I have said this before but some of these blogs are wonderful and compell me to practice this in christianity and try to take this thoughts and live them out. :)

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posted August 16, 2007 at 11:10 am

Ultimately, the reason to be Jewish is religious at its very foundation. HaShem called us and gave us specific instructions as a people. Part of the reason for those instructions were for us to remember who we are as a people, and when we fail to obey, we fail to remember. If we fail to remember our identity will be swallowed up by history and go the way of Umbrian identity. Our physical children will live on, but not as Jews.

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laura t mushkat

posted August 16, 2007 at 12:26 pm

I am a Jew because I was born Jewish and am satisfied with my faith.

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posted August 17, 2007 at 8:10 am

“Judaism” started long after Abraham was gone. No offense being offered here. Let us not forget that God has no beginning and no end. Only we do.
“Judaism” is a guide book with rules and regulations and with that, the typical “interpretation” and understanding of each individual.
Isn’t being a Jew, the joining with, or being genetically connected to those enlightened at Sinai? I think that is the rational definition only if “Jew” means any Israelite and his generational offspring.
Those actually commisioned by God and that saw God bring the world His plan for eternity at Sinai saw the beginnings were 10/12 not Jews. Only two tribes were actual Judeans.
So “Jew” and the resulting “Judaism” is now a definition of all descendants of Jacob the son of Abraham called Israel BY God. The specialness of “Jews” started with Adam and realized in Abraham, defined by Moses and cemented by Joshua. All of these men were of course empowered by the only true God.
Jews (all Israeli’s) are “only” human beings, of course, but without doubt a unique and special branch of the race. It would be nice to see those literally born into the family of the witnesses at Sinai, to realize what they have been given and embrace it.
The gift to the world of “a Jew” (and a gift it is of the descendants of the descendants), is that the proof of God’s interaction with His special creation mankind, is as tenable as a rock being tossed in the air. There is a fact driven ever forward.
The Torah explains the rights of Jewish people to claim this special status. The Writings explain what the children of Israel did right and wrong with the gift. The Prophets keep all eyes on the correct path. (Though the whole story is a bit more complicated than an easy breakdown.)
May God bless His people.

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posted August 19, 2007 at 8:51 pm

The message for us is “what have I done for someone else today?”

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posted August 24, 2007 at 3:46 pm

I was not born a Jew, but I am for some reason drawn to the faith. My father and grandfather raised me with a strong commitment to GOD and his people. I seek to study further and start with the basics. Can anyone suggest which books I should study first?

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posted August 29, 2007 at 2:38 pm

Well, I seek to study and would very much like to begin with the basics as well. Is there some charge somewhere, I do not recall readily, where if we ask a person of God, ie., a jewish-hebrew being that they should remember the need to help us learn and do the will of God? Please help us to be obedient to God and practice with earnest that which is the Will of God.

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