25 July 2007

Asking the Right Question

It's about time someone did!

I'm definitely in the camp that thinks "Why Be Jewish?" is a much more compelling and important question than "How Many Jews Will There Be In 30 Years?" or "Who is a Jew?" ...and so, apparently, is Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, given this New York Jewish Week article:

We Must Have Answers For ‘Why Be Jewish?’
Eliyahu Stern

Demographers are locked in a furious battle over whether American Jewry is at five million and dangerously dwindling or 6.7 million and growing strong. But either way one looks at the numbers, counting heads is a poor means of evaluating the strength of Jewish affiliation and identity. Both sides of the demographic debate are overlooking the biggest question facing Jewry today, which is not “How many Jews are there?” but rather, “Why would one want to be Jewish in the first place?”

The misplaced emphasis on demographics has led us down a path of making intermarriage the central issue in Jewish life. Though important, encouraging Jews to marry within the religion will only go so far. The Jewish community forgets that the people who brought us to the demographic quandary we are currently facing are the children of fully Jewish couples — fully Jewish ethnically, but barely Jewish spiritually or intellectually. An unengaged Jew married to an equally unengaged Jew does not translate into Jewish children; it translates into children who will probably not identify as Jewish.

If we want to answer this generation’s real questions, we must move beyond initiatives rooted in marriage questions alone. We must be ready to engage Judaism in its entirety, through its ideas, practices and texts.

Are we confident enough in our tradition to promote mitzvot such as prayer, Shabbat and kashrut in meaningful, unapologetic and original ways? Are we ready to invest in cultivating a religious leadership that could make Jewish ideas and wisdom touch peoples’ lives? Are we prepared to welcome those of different backgrounds and even different religions into our homes and institutions to experience the love, care and joy that a Jewish community provides?

Most importantly, we need to convey that Judaism adds a palpable higher value to our life experience. A strong and enduring Judaism must be able to provide answers, supply meaning and address issues that affect the way we live. A Judaism based merely on survival questions will produce at best short-term survival answers.

My own personal answer to “Why be Jewish?” is clear but complex: it involves the search for meaning, the love of study and the heightened sense of self-awareness, consciousness and choice that result from engaging the world of mitzvot. Such an emphasis does not exclude deep-felt feelings of peoplehood, nationality and community. In an era of choice, these latter feelings are still relevant, but they will most often emerge as the outcome of an engagement with Jewish convictions, practices and ideas, rather than vice versa. My answer to “Why be Jewish?” includes Israel as well, of course, but support for Israel will diminish if Israel cannot convince the Jewish people that it welcomes all types of Jews within its borders.

For centuries, questions such as “Why be Jewish?” trumped Jewish survival questions in communal conversation. We stand up at synagogue for the reading of the Ten Commandments, not for a head count of the 12 Tribes. From Maimonides to Mendelssohn, Judaism’s spiritual energy derived not from demographic polls but from the quality and depth of Jewish life and thought.

While modernity, the Holocaust, the American Jewish experience and threats to Israel’s existence have forced us to confront serious demographic concerns, oftentimes we use such issues as a veil to cover our ignorance of our own tradition. As the Hebraist Simon Rawidowicz described in his classic, “Israel: the Ever-Dying People,” it’s easier to kvetch about one’s grandchildren needing to be Jewish than to give them a reason why they should be.

It might be heretical to ask, “Why be Jewish?” The results are unpredictable: we run the risk of failing to provide a convincing answer, making matters worse. But it is a timely and genuinely Jewish question. If we do not pose it, we face the even greater difficulty of promoting a Judaism that we are not sure we believe in ourselves. n

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is director of “Why Be Jewish?” a conference convened by Adam Bronfman in Park City, Utah, July 29 -31 under the auspices of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

1 comment:

Darcy said...

The question of "Why be Jewish?" is, of course, intricately intertwined with the question of what sorts of Jews we want to have in the modern world. Too often, Jewish leaders play the numbers card and urge us to be Jewish so that the Jewish people will not die out. This, alas, promotes a racial/social rather than religious definition of who is Jewish. Bloodlines become more important than halacha, and some aspects of halacha (the rituals that set Jews apart) come to take precedence over others (the ethical commandments that are the bedrock of the Law). I think any argument for "Why be Jewish?" has to start with the premise of Judaism as a guide to living a life one can be proud of, not one's commitment to the numbers game.