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Virtual Talmud


Why Be Jewish? Here’s Why!

That there is a need to convene the sort of conference called “Why Be Jewish” that Rabbi Stern recently did points to precisely how poor a job the institutional Jewish world has done at providing meaningful answers to why we should care about being Jewish. Too often the answer is posed merely in terms of survival: We should be Jewish so we can raise children who will keep being Jewish. Or sometimes, if the answerer is feeling more expansive: We should be Jewish so Hitler doesn’t win.
These answers were surely convincing and sufficient a generation ago, but now they are not. The fact that they were repeatedly emphasized to the near-exclusion of any other contenders explains the sad current state of affairs where many American Jews can’t offer a compelling answer of their own. As a rabbi, I am confronted with these questions all the time from Jews whose own upbringing has let them down in this regard. Here are just a few answers:
For starters, there’s these sense of belonging and connectedness that comes with knowing you are part of something bigger than yourself: a family, a community, a people, a sacred story.
There’s the way Judaism elevates the every day instead of denigrating it, encouraging us to search for holiness within the framework of our lives.
There’s Judaism’s open embrace of tension and dialectics: of not being frightened of contradiction but instead of recognizing that the truth often lies in the tension between two poles.


There’s the ethos of service, first seen in the Torah’s demands that we care for our neighbors in need but dramatically expanded through a dazzling array of institutions designed to meet real needs and repair the world.
There’s the beauty of the holidays shared with community and family, using our past to help anchor us in the present.
There’s the rich legacy of art, literature, scholarship, and humor.
There’s the unflinching insistence that each and every person is created in the divine image and, as such, is deserving of uncompromised dignity.
There’s the embrace of a middle path that elevates moderation and disdains extremes.
There’s the belief that, despite whatever evidence to the contrary, the world can be a better place.
And then there are the latkes.
In short, Judaism offers a rich and endlessly deep legacy that enriches Jews who actively identify with Judaism and embrace its values and ideals, and also offers profound wisdom to the whole world.



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livingwithhope

posted August 16, 2007 at 1:30 pm


“why be Jewish” apart from being born Jewish, makes me a member of the biggest family in the world. Wherever I travel I can be sure – if there is a Jewish community – I will find a place to stay over Shabbat and maybe longer. I will be able to enter a synagogue and join in the service no matter which level of Judaism is practiced there – assuming I know my way through the prayer book. I agree there are some congregations around the world that are more welcoming than others, but a call to the local Rabbi usually suffices to find a place to stay. Being Jewish I follow a code of ethics taught to me by my parents – of blessed memory – and which I have imparted to my children. They have gone there separate ways in their practice of Judaism but have maintained the ethical side, for which I am grateful. Interacting with people of other religions often illicits the question as to why I have chosen to do something which may be outside their comfort zone and I always reply “that is what Judaism has taught me is the right thing to do.” I have learnt about other religions and KNOW why I am Jewish.



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Cheryl Young

posted August 16, 2007 at 2:21 pm


I am not Jewish so perhaps my comment is irrelevant. Certainly, I respect your wisdom as a rabbi. I wonder, however, if Abraham, the founder of Judaism, would agree with the modern perspective of the rationale for being Jewish? I think of Abraham as a person who endured ostracism from his community because of his radical monotheistic belief rather than a man who reveled in the culture of his time. He did not need to be a part of a community to reinforce his beliefs. I think of Abraham as a man who was willing to do whatever God required of him including the sacrifice of his own son. His devotion to God was absolute.
As an outsider, it seems to me that because Jewish individuals and the Jewish nation have endured suffering throughout history, they have spent more time in reliance on God and appreciation of everything. Is is really correct in the sight of God to disdain extremes?



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senlin

posted August 16, 2007 at 2:52 pm


Cheryl:
God DIDN’T require the sacrifice of his son, he tested Abraham but stopped him from actually doing the killing…
I think the rationale for being Jewish is bound up in the relationship between God and community. Even if Abraham struck out against the culture of his time, it was to create a different type of community and cultured, not to promote the paradigm of one man being radically against everyone else. Because Jews have endured suffering, etc., we have realized that we have to rely on each other, and we have learned (I hope) important lessons about the dangers of extremism in various forms.
Regardless of variations in beliefs, doctrinal arguing, etc., Jews are united by their belonging to “the ‘nation’ of Israel,” by their commitment to the overarching vision of covenantal, communal life.



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cuteblondeJAP

posted August 16, 2007 at 3:16 pm


Wow Cheryl I must say that living as a Jewish woman where most outsiders dont understand that being Jewish is a commitment not a requirement….
I believe that you should read more of the Torah or your Bible and see that what Abraham did was to trust and believe. G_d gave us “613 little rules” and when you make a commitment to live the way G_d asks you to live, it brings pleasure to you yourself and to G_d, but when you are required to follow directions the joy of the mitzvah is lost…
If this something that interests you think of your own relationship with G_d, are you one who is commited to going to worship him in a holy place? Or are you required to go? Where does the joy come when you are required?
Good luck in finding the mitzvah of being commited to God.



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Lisa

posted August 16, 2007 at 11:51 pm


Livingwithhope: What a beautiful post. I am not Jewish but would love it if I were. I cannot seem to find a Rabbi in Wisconsin that will take me seriously, as it is difficult to get ‘in’. I just feel it is the right thing for me to do; the right and best place to be in my life to convert to Judaism. Next month while my daughter is in a wedding in Milwaukee, that will free up some time for me to try a different synagogue and hopefully meet some more open Jews than I have met in Madison. Wish me luck, and it’s so refreshing to read how blessed you are to have been born and raised a Jew; all of the wonderful things that upbringing provides and the love of your community that you can so openly receive. I am glad that you recognize this and that you are thankful.



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Anonymous

posted August 17, 2007 at 6:34 am


With much respect I admit I get the impression that being Jewish is about God bestowing a sacred commitment to community and perpetuating it as opposed to being closer to God. In other words, it’s about survival of community and family-humans not God are the nmost important element. God’s name is not even mentioned in the article!



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Bob

posted August 17, 2007 at 11:27 am


I’m not Jewish, but shouldn’t the answer to the question be, “Because it’s true.” ? Regardless of which faith or tradition a person is part of, shouldn’t that be the reason at the heart of it all?



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Bob

posted August 17, 2007 at 12:40 pm


And in Cheryl’s defense, she didn’t say God actually required the sacrifice of Isaac, she just recounted how Abraham THOUGHT that God required it. And of course, as other people mentioned, one of the points of the whole episode was about trust in God.



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ZeddZull

posted August 17, 2007 at 3:04 pm


Bob – I understand your statement “…shouldn’t the answer to the question be, ‘Because it’s true.’?” to mean that a Jew believe that he or she has access to a singular truth; in other words, I am Jewish because I believe that Judaism is the one path to G-d. If you mean something more pluralistic, such as “I am Jewish because I believe that Judaism is one of the true paths to G-d,” then that belief doesn’t really answer the question, “Why be Jewish?” After all, if there are many true paths to G-d (or even more than one), then why pick the Jewish path rather than another path.
I think that Rabbi Waxman implicitly suggests that there is more than one true path and that choosing the Jewish path has to be for reasons other than simply that it is a true path to G-d. Jews pick that path because they want to perpetuate their tradition or because they want to be part of the tradition or because something about the Jewish path speaks to their personal sensibility. Jews need to demonstrate the richness and joy that comes with being a practicing, committed, involved Jew. We need to show that our communities are warm, celebratory and affirming places that nurture individual Jews and create the kind of extended family for which so many people yearn. This will not be the answer for everyone – but it is such a good answer that has remained too hidden too long.



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cuteblondeJAP

posted August 18, 2007 at 2:06 am


Dear Lisa~ I must say that you have made a wonderful decission to convert and I wish you all the best. You will find many joys and many heart aches in chosing to be a Jew. Do continue to strive for what you believe is true in your heart and I welcome you….



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Bob

posted August 18, 2007 at 9:56 am


Zedd,
As a Christian, I believe Christianity is the one true path to a full relationship with God. I would expect Jews to feel the same way about Judaism, Muslims to feel the same way about Islam, etc. etc.
I think you’re saying (and correct me if I’m wrong) that all faiths lead to God, so all are equal, and the only differences are cultural (for lack of a better term right now). But that’s just not true. Take the Big Three, for example: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. A relationship back to Abraham is about the only thing they all actually share when you really examine them.
But at least we have that in common. We have nothing in common with say, Buddhism; in fact, that religion teaches almost the exact opposite of the religions of the west. It preaches impersonality, detachment from material creation, and eventual dissolution into nothingness. To say that that faith leads to the same place as western religions is just plain false. And upon closer examination, we see that there are similar gaps between the Abrahamic faiths as well.
The religions of the world aren’t different paths leading up the same mountain as someone like Huston Smith might say, but rather they are different paths each leading up a DIFFERENT mountain.



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cuteblondeJAP

posted August 18, 2007 at 4:25 pm


Bob~ I like the commit about the paths leading up the mountains, yes they are differant. But please dont get me wrong when i say that islam is viewed by people of other religions (except for Jews) as the religion of peace.
I would like to offer some good reading for a Christian like yourself. The book called “Judgement Day” by Dave Hunt will give you some insight as just how loving they really are not.
Judaism and Christians are taught to love and not hate, to fix the world, not to tear it down. I am a humble Jewish woman with little insight that I normally dont share with anyone because I believe that G_d is how and where you hold him in your own life.
Being strong for what I fear, and knowing that G_d has my back is where I find comfort, as I am sure you feel the same about Jesus.



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livingwithhope

posted August 18, 2007 at 11:18 pm


In my first comment I did not mention love of G-d because that was implicit with my comments re the practice of Judaism. To me, in my personal practice, I feel I have a direct line to G-d. I can talk to Him. Tell him my troubles and my thoughts. I do not need an intermediary (Jesus or any Saint.) As to the 613 mitzvot. Most of these apply to men; some can only be performed in Israel and some only by members of the 2 known remaining tribes; many are actually negative mitzvot – so as long as one does NOT do these things one is observing these mitzvot – and only a few positive mitzvot apply strictly to women. Not even Jesus could observe all 613.



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Donny

posted August 19, 2007 at 1:08 pm


Abraham did not try to sacrifice Ishmael.
Tracing Islam and Christian cultures (through revealed scriptures) back to Abraham, and you see that only Christians share a past and a path with the descendants of the Jacob, “Israel.”



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laura t mushkat

posted August 19, 2007 at 3:46 pm


Excuse me Donny read the Bible-not the New Testament either. The Jews came before Christians and Jacob later known as Israel was a Jew so there is no way your path is the only one.
In fact your’s is not only not the only one it is not one at all. The Jewish path is obviously the only one. Later religon’s that use the Bible copied Jews.



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Stacy

posted August 20, 2007 at 9:49 am


IMHO and without all the sage wisdom; is it just enough to be raised as a Jew and believe in G-d?
I live in a very sparsely Jewish-populated area (and have for a long time). My personal belief is that as long as a person feels close to G-d…they are close to G-d. Community does help but Talmud teaches us that a temple is not just a building where one worships but a state of being.



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Al Eastman

posted August 20, 2007 at 1:50 pm


OY, WHY BE JEWISH??? What else would I be? ‘Nuff said!!!!



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Lady Anon

posted August 20, 2007 at 11:03 pm


In the present day Judaism still seems to me to be more about culture than anything else, and that’s a far cry from Abraham, as Cheryl notes.
Gailliag



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laura t mushkat

posted August 21, 2007 at 12:55 pm


Lady-
Many Jews see us as not just a religon but as a peoplehood
Peoplehood means a way of life which is culture. Various parts of our culture are important to various Jews.
It goes along with the Jewish religon and is very hard if not almost impossible to seperate and be understood by those who are not Jewish.
Laura



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Bob

posted August 22, 2007 at 8:42 am


Laura,
You’re right about it being hard to understand :-) Because to me, it always seems like there is more importance placed on the culture rather than on the faith. That’s strange to me, because as a Catholic I see things as being about the faith, not about the culture. In other words, there are a lot of differences culturally between an Irish-Catholic and an Italian-Catholic, but both are Catholic nonetheless, and the Church unites us beyond our respective cultures.
A person who was, for example, born and raised in say China — if they profess the faith and formally enter the Church, they are just as Catholic as a priest born and raised in Rome.
Now from what I gather, it is “in theory” the same with Judaism, but it doesn’t appear to be that way in practice. I’ve seen “cultural” Jews who haven’t been to temple in years and possess doubts about their faith, and seen them treated as “more Jewish” than someone who goes every week, adheres faithfully to all practices, but comes originally from outside the tradition.



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Cully

posted August 24, 2007 at 11:46 am


On 8/21, Laura wrote that “Many Jews see us as not just a religon but as a peoplehood. Peoplehood means a way of life which is culture. Various parts of our culture are important to various Jews. It goes along with the Jewish religon and is very hard if not almost impossible to seperate and be understood by those who are not Jewish.” – that would leave me out since I have no ethnic/genetic heritage to the Hebrews… unless of course one believes that G-d made Adam and Eve and that all humankind came from them.
I believe that Faith is about Man’s relationship with G-d, and Religion is about man’s interpretation of
G-d’s relationship to man. Religion demeans man, thus making man less than what G-d created, and Faith exalts G-d, thus giving man the opportunity to be everything G-d intended. My Faith tells me that G-d loves me – G-d loves all of us – warts and all. When G-d created what we call “the world” it took six of what we call “days” and at the end of each day God saw that what had been created was good. The last thing that G-d created was humankind (all of us, in G-d’s likeness, with free-will) and we were given the responsibility to take care of all that G-d had created (including each other). That responsibility is the greatest gift G-d could give us… G-d trusted (and continues to trust) us. The problem arose because – though created in G-d’s likeness – we are physical beings, and there are limitations inherent to our physicality. Limitations of hunger vs greed, need for rest vs laziness, self-confidence vs bragging and false pride etc.; and, these limitations resulted in disobedience, aggression, envy and war. These behaviors caused (and continue to cause) a lessening or limiting of the good that G-d had created… Yet, G-d still loves us and messengers were (are?) sent to remind us that we are loved, we are good, we are trusted, and that if we live up to the responsibility that G-d entrusted us with, we will be happier and more fulfilled than we can imagine. We, as we realize our relationship with G-d, become models of G-d’s light in the world. By living our Faith we bring and keep G-d’s light to and in the world and bring other’s to the light. My Faith does not accept that G-d has some ethnic alliance that precludes others from G-d’s goodness or somehow makes them less worthy or important. Was not Abraham chosen to bring the knowledge of G-d to the world? True, the world he lived in was tiny compared to what was truly out there, but it was not only populated by Hebrews.
Why be Jewish? Because the core beliefs of Judaism (the Jewish Faith) – G-d IS and there is only one G-d; the purpose for those created in G-d’s likeness is all important; Justice, morality, ethics, and compassion are key in everything; and learning is part of a productive life, a life that will fulfill G-d’s plan – speak to my core (my heart and mind). I am Jewish because of my Faith and by the Grace of G-d.



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E Welch

posted September 9, 2007 at 12:20 am


TO Cully I Say AMEN



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Cully

posted September 9, 2007 at 2:14 pm


Thank you and G-d bless.. it’s wonderful isn’t it to have a religion that teaches what sings to your heart and makes you smile.



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