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Michael S. Friedman
Why Be Jewish?

Michael S. Friedman  |  September 17, 2010

Why are we here?  For many of us, the answer is simple: it’s Yom Kippur; where else would I be?  Perhaps we are here because our parents or grandparents brought us when we were small.  Perhaps we are here because we want to hear the familiar music and prayers, to affirm the values of our tradition, or be with those who are most important to us.  Perhaps we are here because the message of these holidays resonates with us: we know it’s time to consider our deeds and resolve to do better.

Some of us cannot quite identify why we come.  Yet our being here – and our presence in such great numbers – is a powerful affirmation of our Jewish identity.  Tonight, I want us to consider what the choice to live a Jewish life really means.  At its most basic root, the question I’m asking you and myself this Yom Kippur is, Why be Jewish?  Why stay Jewish?  Why live Jewishly?

Our ancestors probably had little choice in the matter.  Their identity was fixed, unchangeable.  Ghetto walls and social intolerance confined us.  But today we are blessed to live in a nation that exalts personal freedom.  And we also know that with freedom comes options.  Each of us is free to opt out of Jewish life.  So why should we bother to opt in?  Why do we actively choose Judaism, year after year?

I recall the father who asked me recently, “Rabbi, what should I tell my son when he asks, ‘Why do I have to go to Hebrew school?’”  I think of the daughter, still shocked of the news of her mother’s death, who asked, “Rabbi, why should I sit shiva?”  Each was asking, in their own way, Why should I be Jewish?  I fear that we lack concrete, compelling answers to that question.

Think about the following for a moment… if such a thing were possible, could you stop being Jewish?  If you did, what would be missing from your life?  Perhaps you’d miss the life-affirming ecstasy of dancing a whirling hora at a wedding or bar mitzvah.  Perhaps you’d miss the opportunity to tell our unique story of the exodus from Egypt while gathered with family around the Seder table.  Perhaps you’d miss our tradition’s relentless questions, or our people’s undying resolve to make the world a better place.  And perhaps you’d miss walking into our magnificent sanctuary at the end of a long week, hearing the transcendent music, and linking arms as we recognize joyous moments by singing Shehecheyanu together.

So one answer to the question is: We are here because we know that Judaism brings something essential to our lives – something that animates and drives and comforts us.  No matter the struggles or the successes, Judaism insists that at the end of the day what we do with our time on earth matters.  And it helps us determine how best to use that time.  Judaism constantly prods us, asking: What did you learn today?  How did you grow?  Whom did you help?  Moreover, Judaism insists that we are not the end-all, be-all of creation.  Judaism asserts that there is something larger than us in the universe, whether you call that justice, truth, wisdom, creation, or God.

At the end of the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man, a pimply, anxious 13 year-old is sent to the rabbi emeritus’ office to receive a blessing on the morning of his bar mitzvah.  He slowly makes his way into the rabbi’s inner sanctum and sits down opposite the sage.  The ancient rabbi wheezes and coughs from behind his desk and stares at the boy for what seems like an eternity.  Finally he chokes out lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, the same words with which the film began: “When the truth turns out to be lies, and all the hope within you dies - Then what?”  The rabbi is pointing to one of the essential truths of Judaism: where all the certainties leave off, that is where Judaism begins. 

Our name, Yisrael, literally means “one who wrestles with God.”  Each of us has not only the right, but the obligation, to eternally argue and grapple with ideas and questions.  As I study Torah, I am continually amazed at its ability to address our personal struggles and offer insight. 

Secular culture tells us that we have power over everything that we can quantify, control and manipulate.  Secular culture values wealth and influence, instant knowledge and instant gratification, and tells us that acquisition and accomplishment pave the path to happiness.

But our values are different, unique.  Judaism impels us to look at the world with a critical eye; it asks us to focus on what is eternally true, not ephemeral; it teaches that possessions and popularity are fleeting but that purpose is everything.  Moreover, Judaism teaches us that, no matter how certain things may seem, “We are not able to grasp the overwhelming complexity of God’s world.” (1)

Judaism can “shape your values and the quality of your life and the kind of person you want to be after much else has faded.” (2) I know from personal experience that Judaism can help guide a teen through the confusing years of adolescence.  Being part of Central’s youth program anchors and enhances busy lives, even when time is scarce, even when we have homework to do and extra-curriculars to get us into college.

The second answer to the question is: We are still here because in every generation there have been Jews who believed that our existence as a people and what we bring to the world matters.  Will our children or grandchildren be sitting where we are on this night 30 years from now?  None of us knows for sure.  But even if our children and grandchildren do not live Jewish lives, they’ll probably be nice people, and that may be enough.  But we must consider: What difference would Judaism make in their lives?  And what difference would it make if there were no Jews left on earth? 

By all odds, we should have disappeared long ago as many other peoples did: the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans.  It is utterly miraculous that the Jewish people still thrives!  Our existence magnifies the extraordinary possibilities of humanity even as we remember its unfathomable cruelty. In the words of Rabbi Jerry Davidson, “[We are] a people that have endured, [and], in spite of everything, have never failed to hope and to dream.”  (3)

We have survived pogrom and plague, missiles and murder, “remembering and advancing at one and the same time.” (4)

Tomorrow afternoon we will read one of the most inspiring passages in all of Torah.  Kedoshim tehiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem – You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy. 

“We are am kadosh, a holy people set apart by meaning and mission.” (5)

We are a people proud to be the outsider, taught to identify with the stranger, widow and orphan.  We are a people taught to follow the just, never the multitude.  We are a people taught by our Talmudic sages to value the question and the uncomfortable truth. (6)

Isaiah commanded: “You shall be a light to the nations.”  What would it mean for us to truly live by this commandment?  It would mean that we have a responsibility to do more with our lives than simply be happy, wealthy and fit.

Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best, “We are God’s stake in human history.”  (7) 

I don’t think that statement is hyperbole.  Tikkun olam, the Jewish duty to repair our broken world, arises from the observation that the world is fundamentally out of order; that everything is not okay.  Despite their pervasiveness, corruption, inequality and violence is each a divine injustice; a serious breach in the way God intended things.  Our mission is to repair or restore the world to the way God wants it to be. 

My friend Rabbi Jonah Pesner puts it this way: “Our purpose is nothing less than redemption of the world.”  That’s a big responsibility, but we’re up to the challenge.  Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that “[We] are not required to complete the work, but neither are [we] permitted to abstain from it.” (8)

For these reasons, each of us has said, in one way or another, “I want to be another link in a chain that stretches back a hundred generations.” 

So picture your life as a bridge; a bridge between the past and the future; a bridge over which the survival of our people will pass.  What anchors you on either shore? 

“We might say that our yiddishkeit, our Jewishness, is safe deep within our hearts.” (9)

It’s great that we feel Jewish in our kishkes.  But I don’t think feeling Jewish is enough.  Judaism is meant to be lived and expressed.  Therefore we must be able to articulate in concrete and compelling language why it is important to us.  Our children will decide – no, they are already deciding! – whether they care enough to build their own bridge. 

In the Passover Haggadah we read of four children; each asks a question.  And although each asks in his own way, each is making the same inquiry: “Why do we bother doing this?”  We’re instructed to answer this question ourselves by connecting feeling and identity to action and saying, “I do this because God took us out from Egypt.”

In other words we tell our children why this is important to us.  Today, this year, think about how you might explain to your children or grandchildren or to your friends why it matters to you to be the next link in the chain, why you came tonight and why you’ll come next Kol Nidrei too.

Perhaps what I’m asking of you seems difficult right now.  I mean, isn’t that why we send our kids to Hebrew school – so they can learn how to become Jewish?  If pressed to articulate what Judaism means to us, we often speak of family gatherings on holidays and of a general affinity for ethics.  Now, both of those are important, but if our Judaism is synonymous with western liberal humanism and family get-togethers then we might as well close up shop.

Leon Wieseltier, one of our foremost Jewish intellectuals, is adamant that being Jewish is something unique.  “To be a Jew is not to be an American or a Westerner or a New Yorker.  To be a Jew is to be a Jew.  It is its own category, its own autonomous way of moving through the world.”  (10)

I found that statement personally stirring.  Each of us should aim to articulate exactly why it matters that we move through the world in this singular, autonomous way.

The richness of Jewish life is rightfully ours.  Let us proudly name our values as Jewish.  Many of us live Jewishly without even recognizing it.  We give time, money and energy to philanthropies and charities of every stripe.  We are deeply engaged with Jewish institutions and civic organizations; we have taken on positions of leadership for the betterment of our community.  For many, the motivation comes from a sense of Jewish obligation.  So let us be proud to declare: I do this because I’m a Jew, and this is what Jews do.  If it matters to you that your children and grandchildren will want to live as Jews, then sit down with them.  Tell them why Judaism is important to you.

Almost every Shabbat morning on this bimah we pass the Torah scroll from grandparents to parents to a 13-year-old boy or girl.  Though the moment is inspiring, it is merely symbolic.  Handing a child a scroll does not do much.  If we want our children to be Jewish, then we must learn to pass that scroll every day.  The v’ahavta prayer makes it clear: we need to speak the vocabulary of Torah and Jewish values in our homes and when we go out, when we lie down and when we rise up.  Raising a Jewish child is not something that happens on a single morning; it is daily project. 

Therefore I am proposing tonight that we need to enter into a community conversation – whether we’re parents or not – in which we share with one another our reasons for being Jewish.  I believe there is great power in your answers!  Those answers will build our bridge. 

That’s why we have created a special section on our Web site.  At you can click on the prominent box that asks, Why Be Jewish?  And then you can share your own answer.  These responses will not sit idly in cyberspace; they will be posted around our synagogue, in our elevators and our hallways.  They will be used with the teens in our Confirmation class, with b’nei mitzvah families, with children in our Religious School and with students studying for conversion.  They will frame and guide this essential conversation.

In particular, I want to ask those of you who were not born Jewish to contribute.  You have decided to join us – either officially through conversion or unofficially by helping to create a Jewish family – and you have much to teach us.  What compelled you to do this?  Please tell us – anonymously, if you like.  Your answers will, I’m sure, educate and inspire us all.

Cantor Sacks and I had the pleasure of traveling to Amsterdam on a study trip with some of our Confirmation students earlier this year.  As we entered the Anne Frank Haus, we were confronted with an excerpt from Anne’s writings: “Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. We can never just be Dutch, or just English, or whatever; we will always be Jews as well.  And we’ll have to keep on being Jews, but then, we’ll want to be.” (11)

Each of us has kept being Jewish simply because we want to be.  This Yom Kippur, ask yourself why?  Why did you come here tonight?  What do you find in Jewish life that is so precious you can’t let it go?  And when you have your own answers, share them with people whose Jewishness matters to you.  Speak of them in your home and when you’re on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.  Let those answers guide our conversations and our learning in the New Year just begun.  And let us grow ever stronger.


1 Kaunfer, Elie.  Empowered Judaism.  Page 153

2 “Building a Bridge,” by Peter J. Rubinstein, Rosh HaShanah sermon 5758

3 Excerpted from Temple Beth-El of Great Neck Bulletin, by Jerry Davidson, September, 1988

4 Shimon Peres, quoted in I Am Jewish.  Page 49

5 “On Becoming a Rabbi,” by Jerry Davidson, May 1997

6 Adapted from “Toni,” by Tony Judt, New York Review of Books, May 13, 2010

7 Quoted in Time, March 14, 1969

8 Pirke Avot 2:15-16

9 Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, quoted in I Am Jewish, p. 17

10 Quoted in Pogrebin, Abigail.  Stars of David.  Page 159

11 Quote found on wall of Anne Frank Haus

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