Why be Jewish?

Today marks a year since the devastating murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The day after the attack, after returning from a communal solidarity service, I wrote a post about feeling like our sanctuary had been shattered. Now, a year later, conversations about antisemitism have claimed a larger foothold in public discourse. There is much on which to reflect. (I highly recommend my colleague Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz’s powerful and challenging Yom Kippur sermon.)

One of the many voices to emerge in these months is Bari Weiss’s new book How to Fight Anti-Semitism. I have not yet personally read it, though I did hear her present its theses on a recent episode of Unorthodox. One point Weiss stresses is that we ought to lean into our Judaism in the face of antisemitism. Such a response is echoed in campaigns such as “Show Up for Shabbat,” which was organized in the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting and repeated on the anniversary this week.

Hard to argue with that, right? What’s so bad about people activating their Judaism instead of hiding it in fear?

Just after Yom Kippur, Rabbi Shaul Magid published an article in which he excoriates that seemingly laudable position. His perspective deserves a place in our discussions. Building on the writings of a few historians, he notes that narratives like Weiss’s, in which antisemitism is treated as an eternal phenomenon, define Judaism in a negative manner. By saying there is always antisemitism, whether overt or covert, the narrative effectively sanctifies antisemitism—which, by extension, makes victimhood a necessary attribute of the Jewish people.

Magid’s worry is that Judaism defined thus is flimsy. While it might move us toward showing up for Shabbat in the wake of an attack, thereby giving a temporary boost to Jewish solidarity and continuity, it ultimately lacks its own driving energy. Instead of a Judaism that relies on a narrative that sanctifies antisemitism, better would be one that relies on some other positive definition. It would be “showing up for Shabbat,” in whatever way, every week, not just in response to tragedy.

I find Magid’s argument compelling. I think we see it play out when younger people (myself included), who have not experienced much antisemitism in life, find many longstanding Jewish institutions lacking and seek a more “authentic” Jewish experience (whatever that means). We sense that there is a vacuum within a shell formed mostly by external pressures.

Without the specter of antisemitism, something else is needed to drive us: some other internal sense of purpose or mission or spiritual center. (Magid, rather blandly, calls it “interesting” Judaism.) So why rely on the specter to begin with? It is often convenient tactic for ignoring the unanswered questions that I think nag at the heart of contemporary liberal Judaism: what exactly are we doing together, and why are we doing it?

Then again, am I really going to argue with the premise that we should be proudly Jewish in the face of those who would erase us?

All of this is background to what I really intended to write about, which is the question: “Why be Jewish?”

I recently discovered and have been studying a book called One Hundred Suggestions for Seekers & Spiritual Activists by Rabbi Joshua Bolton. It is a collection of poems, lists, and reflections grappling with what it means to live Jewishly today. Every page offers food for thought and nourishment for the soul.

One list is called “One Hundred Prompts, Provocations, and Situations for Jewish Growth on Campus,” and entry #40 is the following:

Give students 30 minutes to answer the question “Why be Jewish?” Answers must be fewer than 50 words. Do the same exercise but require answers to be 20 words or less. Do one more time – 5 words. Then 1 word.

(page 60)

This strikes me as a valuable exercise. It is tantalizingly simple while gesturing at so much complexity. I wanted to try it for myself.

I don’t know if writing this reflection davka on the anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting is and example of me leaning into my Judaism as Weiss would have me do. Engaging my own Judaism in a public manner does feel important in this moment. But it is also my attempt to live the question Magid wants us to ask, an attempt to distill a spiritual center, an internal motivation, for being and doing Jewish. I’m probably writing from a mix of both postures.

Anyway, here are my answers…for today…

Why be Jewish?

…in 50 words:

To not need every answer but not be free of any question. To experiment and reflect. To develop a vocabulary for life. To hold suffering and joy. To be playful and imaginative. To feel the connection between people, place, and story. To wonder. To belong. To strive for holiness, always.

…in 20 words:

What is hateful to you don’t do to another. That is the entire Torah; the rest is explanation. Go learn.

(So says Hillel, Shabbat 31a. [Citation doesn’t count.])

…in 5 words:

How could I not be?

…in 1 word:

Song.


How would you answer in 50 words? 20 words? Five? A single word? I’d love if you’d share your answers in the comments below, and then share the question with someone else.

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