Why be Jewish?

Yom Kippur Drasha by Ittay Flescher

Over the past year there has been a great deal of debate about the future of the Jewish community in Australia in light of results of the
GEN08 survey. The survey was reported in a manner anticipating all sorts of doom and gloom by the AJN which led with the story by putting a tombstone on its front cover and writing an accompanying editorial expressing great distress for the future.

This was followed by a very well attended panel on the future of the Jewish community at Monash University entitled “The Jewish Community, what’s in it for me?” The discussion on the panel mainly focused on three issues. How should we deal with the rising costs of Jewish Education? How should we deal the rising house prices in Jewish areas such as Caulfield and St Kilda? How can we fundraise better as a community?

Whilst these questions are all important, I felt that all of them missed the point in some way. This was most reflected in the question at the end of the panel by Habonim bogeret Jessica Tavassoli who asked, “For the past hour, everyone has been talking about how to be Jewish, but no one has addressed the elephant in the room, which is the question of why be Jewish?”

What I’d like to do in this address is to try and formulate an answer to that question which lies at the heart of everything we do as a Jewish community.
I’d like to begin with four responses which I believe, from my 10 years’ experience teaching at a range of Jewish day Schools in Melbourne, are not compelling reasons to maintain a high level of Jewish engagement.

  • We must be Jewish because we are commanded to be. In an increasingly secular age, to do things because of authority, tradition or revelation are no longer compelling reasons for critical thinking youth.
  • Because we are a ‘chosen people’. In an increasingly egalitarian age where the desire of minorities is to integrate and assimilate as much as possible into the mainstream, the idea of being ‘chosen’, which could also mean being different, special or superior, is not that appealing.
  • To make my grandparents happy. Whilst we all love our grandparents, and it’s not just because of your undying love and chicken soup, acting out of our loyalty to you is unlikely to sustain serious commitment.
  • We must be Jewish because of Anti-Semitism. Too many people have suffered immeasurable trauma and even paid the ultimate price for the continuation of this faith, that it would be a disgrace for you to give it up today.  

Why are these answers insufficient?

Harold M. Schulweis, who is the Rabbi of Valley Beit Shalom in California, explains “For decades the justification for our fidelity to Judaism has leaned entirely on the Shoah. The Shoah has become our instant raison d'ètre, the short-cut answer to the penetrating questions of our children: "Why should I not marry out of the faith? Why should I join a synagogue? Why should I support Israel? Why should I be Jewish?" We have relied on a singular imperative: "Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” That answer will not work. To live in spite, to say "no" to Hitler is a far cry from living "yes" to Judaism. Judaism that is ‘in spite’, offers no serious sustaining rationale for our identity and continuity. It is a far call from offering a dominant narrative that affirms Jewish life.
Judaism, for many, has assumed the posture of anti-anti-Semitism. Anti-anti-Semitism can only produce a reactionary Judaism. The double negation of anti-anti-Semitism reduces the depth of Jewish culture to a shallow and weak defensive posture.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow once observed, "If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like nails." That is a pathological outlook. The whole world is not a bed of nails.

For too long, we have presented our children with either/or options.
What happens to our students when we say…
Either love of my people or love of humanity
Either glatt kosher or glatt treif
Either keep Jewish rituals or ethics
Either for Israel or against Israel
Either secular or religious
Either loyalty to my denomination or loyalty to Klal Yisrael

These dichotomized either/or formulations force false options on us. To succumb to the either/or mind-set is to see with a one-eyed vision.”

In a very moving letter written by American Oleh Haim Watzman to his 17 year daughter before she was to go on a trip to Poland with her Israeli high school, Watzman wrote,
“I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.”

Watzman argues that we must have new reasons for engaging with Judaism.  “Why not say “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?”

Why not: “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument and dialogue, because of the Talmud, Midrashim, and Thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?”

Why not: “I’m a Jew because my people preserved its language and culture through centuries of dispersion and re-established and recreated them in the modern State of Israel?”

In addition to Watzman’s reasons, I would like to add three more.

A. It gives meaning to my life

This was the answer that Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl came up with after several years in Theresienstadt and Dachau. He wrote that whilst “the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour, what matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment….When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is vital that Judaism be meaningful to young people, no matter how eccentric a way they wish to interpret their faith, tradition and culture.

Some examples are:

•Using a Biblical quote as a status update on facebook,
•Playing Yiddish or Hebrew music at your next Simcha
•The myths and stories you teach your children will be based on those of our ancestors
•Collective manner in which we mark lifecycle events

You may look at these examples above and say, some are more authentic to being Jewish, whilst others are more relevant. This ancient tension between authenticity and relevancy in Jewish practice is one that every Jewish denomination wrestles with. Those who are in the integrationist streams which advocate for feminism, egalitarianism and pluralism are said to place a greater emphasis on relevancy, whilst those who advocate for separate dress, language and lifestyle are said to emphasise authenticity. However this tension between authenticity and relevancy is, in my opinion, a false dilemma.   
I once invited members of the Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive communities in Melbourne to present to my class on why their stream of Judaism has the best answers to the important Jewish questions of our time. Even though each speaker presented on a different day, all ended their presentations with more or less the same statement: “If Rabbi Akiva were alive today, he would daven at
my shule.” All three emphasised how relevant their religious practices were to young 21st century Jews, but all three also needed to claim Rabbi Akiva as one of their own for the sake of proving their authenticity.

In our modern age, I believe that finding the balance between Authenticity and Relevancy is no longer a challenge that is limited to the denominations who have faith in God. To quote Jonathan Safran Foer, - “Just because you’re an atheist, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love for things to have reasons for why they are.”

B. It inspires me to be a better person

 everyone I know thinks of themselves as a good person most of the time.  These same people are also always looking for ways to be better. Better students, better employees, better environmentalists, better friends and better lovers. It would be wonderful if each person had one teaching, idea or historical lesson from Judaism that they could interpret it in a way that makes them a better person.
For some it may be someone like Abraham Joshua Heschel who
marched side by side with Martin Luther King Jnr in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery 1965. At the end of that march, he said, “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

I personally derive great inspiration to be a better person from Arnold Zable who is a master of the ancient Jewish art of listening to and sharing stories. The way he uses these stories to humanise and generate compassion for the most vulnerable people in our country serves as a strong example of how to use one’s Jewish experience for the betterment of our society.

C. It is a worthwhile endeavour

Everyone has something that they like to do to fill their spare time. It may be following the news or football obsessively, embracing all forms of art, surfing the net, or thinking about God. It is vital that Judaism enters this mix as a culture, ethnicity of religion that is desirous of endeavour.

A person who I felt has inspired a great deal of reflection on why one should be Jewish and Zionist more than any other this year is Daphnee Leef.

For those who don’t know, in June this year Daphane Leef received a notice to vacate the apartment that she had rented in Tel Aviv for the previous three years. After several weeks of searching to no avail for a new apartment within reach of her financial situation, Leef discovered that the rental prices in the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area had doubled in the previous five years.

As an act of protest Leef decided to pitch a tent at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on July 14th (see www.J14.org.il). Leef also opened a Facebook protest page and began inviting people to join the protest in the streets. Soon afterward the protests gained momentum as thousands joined the protests, pitching tents in the central streets of cities across Israel, sparking off the 2011 Israel housing protests.

These protests gradually grew larger until they peaked on the night of September 3rd where 460 000 Israelis marched under the heading “ העם דורש צדק חברתי The nation Demands Social Justice.” Just to put that in context, that is 7% of Israel’s population!  

An opinion poll released by Channel 10 television on August 9th showed that 88% of respondents said they supported the movement. In her speech that night, Daphne said the following words

“I’m 25 years old. What are my biggest memories of this country? The 2nd Lebanon War; the period of terrorism; friends who were killed then; the assassination of Rabin; Gilad Shalit. And that’s even without going into the fact that I’m a 3rd generation Holocaust survivor. This was my consciousness. Moments and memories laced with death, loss, pain, fear, and the feeling that everything is temporary. 

At the demonstration in Afula I saw a sign: “For 31 days I have been proud to be Israeli”. I stand before you and I am now proud to be an Israeli for 7 weeks. I feel we are together building here our self-worth as a society. To say “I deserve” means that someone else also deserves, that we deserve. This summer brought with it many good moments and memories – of hope, of change, fraternity, listening.

A discourse of life has been created. It’s the most important awakening there has been here. We are not here just to survive; we are here in order to live. We are not here just because we have nowhere else. We are here because we want to be here. We choose to be here, we choose to be in a good place, in a just society, we want to live in society as a society – not as a collection of lonely individuals who each sit in front of one box, the TV, and once every four years put a slip in another box – the polling box. 

We are here, not because we have no other land. We are here because this is the land we want. Without our even noticing, people have begun to return from abroad, suddenly there’s a feeling that something’s happening here that mustn’t be missed.”

For me, the most compelling line of that speech was where she said
“We are not here just to survive, we are here in order to live.” If I had to summarise it in one line, that is my message today to all those who worry about the future of the Jewish community. We do not exist in order to survive and multiply. We need to exist in order to live in a meaningful way.

That’s why we need to stop talking about Jewish continuity and start talking about Jewish engagement. Continually holding panel’s asking the question “what can we do to save our youth from assimilation” misses the point. What we need is to give people space to think and reflect in shule’s, schools, movements and homes about the question, “Is Judaism a worthwhile endeavour for me?” To quote Victor Frankl again, “He who knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear almost any “how”.

I conclude by wishing that you not just to be stamped and sealed in a book of life, but that your experience in shule today leaves you with a somewhat better understanding of why you have been blessed to be a part of this beautiful religion, and what you are going to do with this gift.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Posted on October 11, 2011 .