The question I’d like to ask today is a simple one: “Why Be Jewish?”
If I tried to give this sermon 50 years ago, people would look at me like I’m crazy because people understood that they were born into Judaism and did not have a choice about being Jewish. Traditionally, if you were the child of a Jewish mother, you were Jewish; end of story, no questions asked – specifically no questions about your religious beliefs. This was a change from the biblical system which provided that your Jewish status went through your father’s line; the best example of this is the children of Joseph, who go on to be full fledged tribes even though their mother is the unconverted daughter of an Egyptian priest. Reform Judaism recognizes the child of one Jewish parent as Jewish if the child in raised Jewishly. In a way, this makes Judaism more like a tribe or a nationality than a religion but, unlike a nationality, anyone can become Jewish by converting to Judaism as a result of one’s religious beliefs. Reform Judaism welcomes converts who are know as “Jews by Choice.”
I submit to you that today, we are all of us all Jews by Choice. We are completely free to be Jews or whatever we like or even nothing at all, irrespective of the circumstances of our birth. Many things reveal this; think of interfaith marriage: My father once told me that he could no more conceive of marrying a non-Jew than marrying a Martian.
In my generation, it was a shonda – a public “shame” to marry out of the faith, but many did. In my children’s generation, most say that they (and their parents) would prefer them to marry Jews, but there is very little discomfort and virtually no shame in marrying outside the “tribe.”
Other things also reveal that we are truly “Jews by Choice;” Synagogue affiliation rates are low, below 20%. And with regard to Jewish Practice – there is very little pressure on Jews in Camarillo to be kosher, Sabbath observant, tefillin-wearing, three times a day davening synagogue attendees. My students are making choices between Friday night at the football games as cheerleaders and attending synagogue without any shame or coercion from anyone. So each of us has a choice whether or not to be Jewish – that is whether or not being born Jewish will affect and inform our lives.
So why be Jewish? – Let me reflect on a few reasons:
The least important reason but a reason none the less is Emile Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment: “Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory.” How tragic would it be if Judaism faded away after the horrors of 2000 years of Antisemitism. If it turned out that we could survive the world’s hatred but could not endure its love. A hundred generations of Jews have handed the Torah down to us – many in incredibly trying, even life-threatening times. Can we hand the Torah to one generation more? But we must do more than offer negative reasons for being Jewish.
I believe it’s incredibly important to be religious, to live your life as though God is a significant factor – and, just as you cannot speak without a language, you can’t be religious without a religion. Here are the two reason that I have found so compelling:
(1) Without God, there is no objective good and evil. We may have our opinions about what is good and evil; for example the Nazis and Communist Soviets thought that mass murder was a proper tool in order to achieve social ends, but we would disagree. Without God, who is to say who is right? How can we “prove” that what the Nazis did was wrong without an appeal to a source of morality that is beyond human opinion?
(2) Without God, life is objectively meaningless. If we adopt a purely scientific view of the world, then we are a biological accident; a mass of self aware organic hydrocarbons. If we should live and prosper or suffer and die is irrelevant. In this view, the Holocaust is simply the slightly premature oxidation of a relatively minor amount of biomass. Can I prove this is true or false? No! I simple refuse to accept it!
So I believe people should have religion in their lives and they should try their “home” religion first before rejecting it. I confess that I’m afraid of a world that is only secular. Where the only question is will I get caught? not what is right? The images of looting in New Orleans (even by police officers in uniform!) remind us of this. Yes religious people have done terrible things in the name of religion but they don’t come close to what secular monsters have done. If you doubt this, ask yourself. “If I were walking down a dark, lonely street, and came across a group of young men walking towards me, would I feel better knowing that they had just come from Bible study? Even at Jerry Falwell’s church?” We all bemoan the decline of civility, of manners, of taste and more importantly of respect for parents, elders, law… I honestly believe that there is no better hope for society than religion. Like democracy, it may not be a perfect system, it just seems to work better than its absence.
Another reason to be Jewish is that Judaism is a wonderful path to spirituality. I trust religious spirituality and Jewish spirituality more than “pure” or “new age” spirituality.
With new age spirituality, you can commune with nature, be at peace, have a wonderful time. Both forms of spirituality can take you out of yourself, with music, with chanting, with meditation, with nature, with study. But Jewish spirituality requires you to do mitzvot, commandments that direct you to go into the world and make it a better place.
Another reason. Judaism is to be lived within a culturally, ethnically, spiritually exciting, healthy, and intellectually stimulating environment. Think of the holidays, foods, customs, language, food, literature, expressions, stories, food, celebrations, ritual, and – oh, did I mention food? When young couples tell me that they will expose their children to both religions and let them make up their own minds, I’m saddened for many reasons:
Because I know that what the children will be taught is merely a series of holidays, with none of the depth, richness, content and context behind the holidays.
This reminds me of the old story about a poor couple living in the shtetle, Molly and Sol. One day Sol says to Molly, “Molly, all my life I have watched those rich folks eating blintzes. Just once in my life before I die, I like to taste a blintz.” Molly rolls her eyes, “Nu, Sol, we can’t afford the cream to make blintzes!” “So do without the cream,” Sol responds. “And the eggs, you think we have eggs to make blintzes?” “Do without the eggs, my love!” “And cheese, do you think cheese grows on trees in the yard?” “So make it without the cheese! I must taste a blintz!” So, Molly does the best she can and that night serves her husband the “blintzes.” Sol carefully and thoughtfully tastes the blintz. “You know Molly,” he finally says, “For the life of me I don’t know what these rich folks see in blintzes!” I fear perhaps it will be the same way with our children. They will be exposed to a stream of holidays without the most important ingredients, without the rich depth of meaning and context behind them and be left only to wonder what people see in Judaism.
I am also saddened because I know this compromise really reflects the inability of the parents to address this issue. These same parents won’t let their children choose the kind of toothpaste they will use but they will let them choose their religion? I am also saddened because I know that this will lead to later strife as the kids use church and synagogue as an intergenerational weapon. But most of all because I know that these kids are going to be cheated out of the security of knowing who they are and where they fit into this world.
“Why be Jewish?” I choose to be Jewish because Judaism is intellectually stimulating and rational in addition to being spiritually rewarding. I am a physicist/scientist. I could not accept any religion that was not intellectually and scientifically rational.
Judaism is especially so because of its emphasis on what a person does as contrasted with what a person believes. And, I believe, all the commandments are there to support us in Job #1, to repair the world and make it a better place.
But, in the final analysis, I believe you should be Jewish, not because your parents want you to be Jewish, not because your spouse wants you to be Jewish, not because Hitler didn’t want you (or anyone else to be Jewish) and not even because your rabbi wants you to be Jewish. You should be Jewish because God wants you to be Jewish and because your soul is Jewish. There is, in the heart of your Jewish soul, a voice crying out to you to fulfill your mission as a Jew. That’s the reason you are here, spending a perfectly good Tuesday at the synagogue when you could be doing many other, more productive and more “fun” things. That’s the reason that you schlep your kids to Hebrew School for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah over streams of protests and not insignificant costs.
That’s the reason that your ears perk up when there is news of Israel on the TV or radio.
That’s the reason some of you have converted to Judaism – how eloquently you have told me of a deep inner feeling about your Judaism.
If you agree with me that it’s worthwhile to be Jewish, let me offer you a challenge:
As I suggested in last month’s Megillah, do one more thing Jewishly this coming year. It could be Jewish study (such as the classes your rabbi is teaching), dietary observance (start small, give up pepperoni this year), coming to more services, personal prayer, visiting Israel (we are planning a trip for next July), reading and studying on your own, and becoming more involved in Temple activities. JUST DO SOMETHING!
Dear God, thank you for all the blessings in our lives. Thank you for the placing us in a world where it is so easy to be Jewish, where the choice to be Jewish does not expose us to significant hatred or persecution. Thank you for placing libraries, the internet, teachers, rabbis and synagogues into our presence that making our journey so much more rewarding and easy. May you strengthen our resolve to deepen our Jewish experience so that we may better serve You as You inspire us and all peoples of faith to make this, Your world a better one.