Conference Asks: Why Be Jewish?

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Last night, I returned from a few days in Park City, Utah where I was attending a conference sponsored by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation entitled “Why Be Jewish?”

I didn’t have a chance to do any live blogging from the event, but I will try to post a summary and some thoughts about the event over the next couple of days.

First off, it should be noted that the conference invitees included an interesting mix of academics/intellectuals, communal professionals, and generally interesting/smart Jews, including: Daniel Boyarin, Leon Wieseltier, Anita Diamant, David Wolpe, Wendy Mogel, and David Ellenson to name a random few.

The group was also fairly diverse age-wise, and by this I mean to note that the younger generation was well-represented. Aside for myself, others in the under-40 camp included Shai Held from Hadar, Idit Klein from Keshet, and UC Berkeley professor and Mission Minyan founder David Henkin.

The conference started Sunday afternoon with Rabbi Eliyahu Stern framing the issue: Jewish continuity is the catch-phrase of choice in the Jewish community. An unfathomable amount of money has been invested in combating assimilation and trying to get Jews to marry Jews. But we rarely take a step back and ask: Why?

Why do we think it’s important for people to be Jewish?

To some — including many at the conference — this is a silly, if not offensive, question. Jonathan Sarna, for example, passionately suggested that the question is misguided because Jews never bothered with this question before. Dov Zakheim mentioned that for Orthodox Jews this question is irrelevant because Judaism is instinctive.

But I’d disagree with both of these positions. Here’s what I’d say are some different (but overlapping) classical approaches to the question “Why be Jewish?”:

1) Because God said so.

2) Because the Jewish people have a covenant with God.

3) To get to the World to Come.

4) To avoid hell.

All four of these reasons were communicated in my Modern Orthodox day school education.

To these four classical reasons, I would add the “traditional” modern reason:

5) To not give Hitler a posthumous victory.

The question that the conference meant to address, then, is: For the vast majority of American Jews, and particularly the “unaffiliated” — which the Jewish communal world is so intent on attracting — these will not be terribly compelling reasons. So the question remains: Why be Jewish?

Posted on August 2, 2007

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8 thoughts on “Conference Asks: Why Be Jewish?

  1. Lili Kalish Gersch

    Is the question really “Why be Jewish?” You are Jewish if you are born Jewish or if you convert in, it’s just that simple. On whatever level you connect or don’t connect, you are still Jewish.

    To me it seems more accurate to ask: “Why be a committed Jew” or “Why have Jewish children?”

  2. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Is it really just that simple? The introduction of Jewish patrilineality certainly complicated matters. But more than anything it highlighted a better question: Is Jewishness biological/ethnic/racial?

    If so, is there any essential value in perpetuating a biological community?

    In other words, there are at least two presumptions to the question “Why be Jewish?”: (1) Being biologically Jewish is value-neutral and also controversial (i.e. who gets to be considered a biological Jew?); (2) To a certain extent, in America today, Jewishness is chosen.

    That being said. The question wasn’t being posed to the conference attendees, necessarily. The underlying question is: Why do we want OTHER people to be Jewish? i.e. Why are we, as a community, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in this (e.g. Birthright)?

    I think there are good reasons to, but this is the question being posed.

  3. Meredith Kesner Lewis

    Another popular reason Daniel left out is “Because my parents are/raised me that way.” It may go to the deeper significance of being Jewish because it connects one to a tradition or honors family. But I think I lot of people are content to define their identity in terms of their parents’ decision, as if they were saying “I was born that way.”

  4. judah6

    First about the question itself- “why be jewish”

    Is the question the same as

    1,.”why be christian, buddist or muslim etc.”
    or
    2, “why be korean, japaness, indian etc “
    or
    3, “why be converted from that to this?”

    4, “why be conservative,democrat or leberal etc”

    It dependes how you understand to be a jewish and why?

    The first is depend on how you believe;it can be the highest stage of any faith when you find that the jewish religion to be the right one after you relaized it truely. But it could be also simply because you have herited it from your ancestor some times ago.

    The second one you can do nothing about it You are jewish by the race as koreans and other races but you probably are christian, pagan. muslim, buddist etc. The jewish people have that history for long, no one can deny that. As the korean to be christian or follow the judaism religion.

    The third you coud be converted like many of them from other reilgion to judaism because of many reason so they declare to jewish.

    The fourth is always known for political reason to be jewsih, it happened always not because the have faith in jewish God or the worship- these could be the powerful people in politics in israel or some where else

  5. judah6

    contiued from the above–

    So the coclusion is why be jewish should be known related with the question of why and for what reason. i think being a jew as a race and follow the true religion is much important than any of the above because it would difficult for the other races to claim as a jew just because they want it which would make it clearly an identity theft. No one can cheat G-d. Of cource it was written in the book any one who wants to be the worshiper of that religion has been welcomed because he is a universal G-d who sees every one equally. However, if you are a jew in race and if you follow other religion to break the law of God it would a disaster for every one, as recorded in the history. When israel rebels against G-d he caused cheos around the world because there is always connection with that country. If israel serves God then then there is peace. If israel likes to serve G-d and prevented by others that would be a calamity—–so be jewsh to serve G-d truthfuly rather than show up—who cares about the co——

  6. Rachel

    I hope the question doesn’t mean anyone is giving up on the idea of reaching out to the non-affiliated. I can’t tell anyone who was raised Jewish why to think the non-affiliated should become affiliated, I can only say that as someone who had a completely secular upbringing and up until about ten years ago didn’t know two things about what Jews believe or do….I hope affiliated Jews continue to reach out. I feel like I missed out on something incredibly amazing and life-enhancing, and that you are really lucky to have your traditions, despite infighting or differences of opinion about what Judaism is or how it should be practiced. What you have is a powerful ethical & spiritual tradition. I can’t really tell you why, but I am drawn to it – I was drawn to it before I knew what it was about, and feel closer to God as a result of what I have learned. Why I personally would choose to be Jewish: to be closer to God, to bring a spiritual awareness into my daily life, and hopefully to learn how to be a better person. [shrug]

  7. clara1

    I hope that being any religion is something that brings a person peace, happiness, help when things are bad, and mostly to just love G-d. I am Jewish because this is how Judaism makes me feel.

    Clara

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