Defining the Question
Why be Jewish? It seems to be a simple, straightforward question, often employed to begin a presentation on the accolades and benefits in choosing to be a Jew. The problem is, in the vast majority of cases, this question, understood in this manner, is actually inappropriate and problematic. While there are, indeed, some ‘Jews by choice’ -- that is, people who have chosen to become Jews (i.e. gerim [generally translated as converts]) – the status of being a Jew, in the vast majority of cases, is imposed on a person at birth. The natural child of a female Jew is, pursuant to Halacha [Jewish Law], by definition, a Jew. You cannot, thus, really ask such a person ‘why be Jewish’ – that is, why he/she should choose to be a Jew – because, by definition, he/she simply is. The question, however, is still being constantly posed and in a vast array of circumstances. To make some sense of this, we must in turn ask: what exactly is one really asking with this question?
Of course, we could try to say that when such a question is posed, it is really solely intended for the convert – the Jew by choice – specifically asking these individuals why they chose to become Jews. The circumstances in which we see this question raised, though, obviously point to a much broader context; we find it directed at all Jews. The reality is that this question is not really about our simple identity as a Jew but about the expression of our identity as a Jew, our Jewishness. There has always been an associated distinctive system (or systems) of thought and behaviour which we may term Jewishness that was connected to the natural identity, from birth, of a Jew. What this question is thus really asking is why one chooses to integrate this Jewishness into one’s life. Just being a Jew does not necessarily mean that one will reflect Jewishness in one’s life. Active Jewishness has to be chosen; thus, the question: why be Jewish?
It was actually this Jewishness which motivated the ‘Jew by choice’ to become a Jew. It was the desire to connect to Jewishness that led this person to adopt the very identity of being a Jew. In first wishing to incorporate Jewishness in his/her life, this person then chose to become a Jew. Concerning one born a Jew, what we are now actually identifying is that this process is precisely the opposite. Being born a Jew does not necessarily result in a person adopting Jewishness. There is the status identity of being a Jew and then there is Jewishness. With the question ‘why be Jewish’, we are thus not actually investigating why one is a Jew but, rather, we are beginning a discussion of Jewishness. You may be a Jew but now why be Jewish – why choose to integrate Jewishness into your life?
On a certain level, this distinction between the identity of a Jew and the concept of Jewishness is already acknowledged within the general Jewish community. For example, it was basically accepted that Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, was clearly, by the standards of Halacha, a Jew. but that his lifestyle in no way reflected Jewishness. His lack of Jewishness, however, did not make him no longer a Jew. Pursuant to Halacha, in fact, it would be wrong to say he was no longer a Jew. It would be more correct to state, rather, that he was a Jew who lived a life that did not reflect Jewishness. The problem in our world today, though, is that this distinction is no longer so clear. The definition of Jew and Jewishness is, in a certain way, becoming more and more integrated. In one way, this leads to some declaring that if one’s being does not reflect Jewishness (as they define it), that person is not a Jew. In the extreme opposite manner, though, others seem to maintain that once you call yourself a Jew, you are almost inherently defined as reflecting Jewishness. The resultant effect is, actually, extreme confusion about identity and Jewishness.
The recent case of the Messianic Rabbi
who spoke at a rally in Michigan that followed the recent, tragic shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, may serve as an illustration of this problem. It was argued that he was clearly not a representative of the Jewish People (let alone a leader) as he, simply, was not a Jew. This was then met with the response that this argument was incorrect for he clearly was, from birth. The more correct argument, of course, was that, just like Cardinal Lustiger, his lifestyle in no way reflects Jewishness and it is for that reason that he could not be presented as a representative of the Jewish People. The only thing is that, unlike the Cardinal, this individual was contending that he was reflecting Jewishness, at least as he defines it. Murmurings then began to arise which reflected the challenge of a more problematic broader issue. So what’s the problem? That’s the way he defines his Jewishness. Isn’t the nature of one’s Jewishness essentially personal and how one defines it for oneself?
If it is not, how, then, do we define it?
This issue actually goes beyond this Messianic Rabbi and extends, for example, to the existence of variant organizations today which define themselves as Jewish – even in their name – although they only draw the ire of the general Jewish community. And if Jewishness is solely a personal decision, why can’t they indeed describe themselves as such? Of course, the reality is that Jewishness, actually, reflects a group definition; it defines a certain association with others. As such, it cannot be totally personal – it, by definition, describes a certain connection others. But then, what really is the nature of this connection to others?
In a certain way, people want the definition of Jewishness to be essentially personal for it thereby allows for broader flexibility in how one may define it for oneself. The nature of the group definition, though, has, thereby,suffered. We may, in fact, have wanted to focus on the more objective definition of a Jew – by birth – because it allowed for the possibility of broader personal definitions of Jewishness. It may thus be, though, that those who founded the above noted organizations, which call themselves Jewish although at odds with the general Jewish community, felt that they could do so because they were born Jews. As noted above, however, the question of ‘who is a Jew’ and the definition of Jewishness are not one and the same. Furthermore, as Jewishness reflects the nature of a group with whom I wish to be involved, there are simply problems when we believe this definition to solely be personal. Yet, how do we actually arrive at an honest group definition that is not simply an attempt to impose one’s personal definition on everyone? What are the yardsticks to be applied in such a process?
Why be Jewish? First, we have to arrive at some understanding of what Jewishness is. My hope is to continue this study and investigation next time. In the meantime, please comment; I look forward to your thoughts on the matter.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is a periodic blogger for Jewish Values Online. You can find his other blog entries in the index of blogs. Rabbi Beiler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selectin the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted..
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My brother recently married a non-Jewish woman. I went to the wedding, not because I wanted to, but because my mother insisted I go. My husband and I sat in a corner with our kosher store-bought sandwiches (no kosher food in sight) and made a presence. It was a very uncomfortable evening, and has led to even more questions for me. I love my brother very much and want to be part of his life, but I truly do not want to be around his non-Jewish wife. We do not live in the same city, so it's not like we run into each other frequently, but I am not sure what I am supposed to do for the occasions that we do meet. I would consider myself modern Orthodox and my brother has gone beyond non-observant; he now considers himself an atheist. What is the Jewish view on these situations? Does one just try to be polite to the non-Jewish spouse to maintain a relationship with the Jewish family member? My husband and I hope to have a family soon. How do you handle exposing your children to something you are teaching them is wrong? I know the fact that I do not want to be at a table (or in the same room) as his wife hurts my mother tremendously (she does not like what my brother has done either, but fears losing him). Is my difficulty with my brother and his wife a lack of respect for my mother as her children cannot spend quality time together? I know there are several questions listed here. I thank you in advance for your assistance with this.
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