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.