American vs. Jewish Values

American-Jewish may sound natural, but the hyphen hides deep contradictions.

Midrash refers to the Jewish tradition of text interpretation. The author of the following opinion piece applies the term midrash to describe the way that American Jews have reinterpreted some traditions to fit the American worldview. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma magazine.

"Contemporary Jews don’t like to be told what to do," wrote Rabbi Melanie Aron after taking a pulpit in California, where she was told that "mandatory" was a word akin to waving red before a bull. Why? Because American Jews, like their countrymen, place a high value on freedom and autonomy.

But Jewish life is based on values like authority, community, and eternity. As a result, American Jews sometimes find their Jewish values at odds with the values of the American society in which they live.

Americans pride themselves on being independent thinkers who recoil at being told what to do or what to believe. How do we reconcile this with Judaism’s central principle of mitzvah–our obligation to live life in service to God according to a defined set of practices?


The Hebrew word mitzvah means "command." There is an identical word in Yiddish (mitzveh) that means "good deed." Most people use these words interchangeably, but they are polar opposites. A good deed is done for another person out of kindness. A commandment is done to serve God out of obligation. The difference is that as Jews, we are obligated even when we’re not feeling kindly or we think we’ve done enough.

From a Jewish perspective, people who take the commandments upon themselves do not sacrifice their personal autonomy. According to the Sayings of the Fathers (6:2), "The only free person is one who is concerned with Torah." True autonomy comes when people can live free of the limitations of human nature by attaching themselves to a "Higher Authority." The Hebrew definition of mitzvah reflects this religious understanding, while the Yiddish one reflects a more secular view. Apparently, this debate has been going on long enough to enter the language.


The discrepancies between our American and Jewish values create a dilemma around which we have tiptoed. One of Judaism’s greatest strengths has been its ability to adapt to its surroundings. In this spirit, we have created an "American Midrash" learning to live with certain contradictions.

An example of American Midrash is our interpretation of Hanukkah and Passover as freedom holidays–reflecting American ideals. The Hanukkah story is actually about the internal Jewish struggle between assimilationists (Hellenists) and zealots (the Maccabees) who wanted to preserve Judaism from the influences of Greek society. But it fits better into our American context to see it as a battle for freedom of religion.

Similarly, the point of the Passover story is not the physical freedom from slavery celebrated at the Red Sea and seder tables in America, but rather the events at Mount Sinai where the Israelites, freed from their Egyptian masters, were able to obey a new and more demanding master–God.

An awareness of this contradiction is beginning to bubble to the surface. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called for a Reform movement "grounded in autonomy and pluralism and also willing to talk of obligations." He called for observance that is "regular and consistent," and asserted that "our actions need not always begin with our own impulses."

We live in a society where fulfilling our personal needs and desires is seen as our birthright. But as the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote in his essay "Commandments," "Every action through which one satisfies his own needs, whether physical or spiritual, is a service to himself and not service to God."

More Contradictions

Another contradiction: Except in times of extreme crisis, it is unusual for the American "we" to supersede the self. In Judaism, even our prayers are written in the plural. Herbert Bronstein, writing in Tikkun magazine, says, "Since God’s covenant is with the community of Israel, a communal consciousness… transcends the individual self."

Finally, American society is goal-oriented in nature, while Judaism is not. One can never do mitzvot well enough to stop doing them or reach the pinnacle of holiness and rest. Think of Neilah, the concluding Yom Kippur prayer service– the shofar sounds, all is forgiven, and yet, the very next words speak of atoning for sin. As Jews, we understand observance as our way of tapping into eternity–being part of something more enduring than ourselves.

After 350 years, we continue to struggle with what it means to be Jewish in America.

While we cannot fully resolve the contradictions between our American and Jewish values, we might try acknowledging that the hyphen in American-Jewish is not always an uncomplicated path between our two realities.

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