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.