Conference Asks: Why Be Jewish?

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?

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