Why Be Jewish? A response to Jay Michaelson

Over at the Forward, Jay Michaelson has a piece titled “Answer This Question: Why Be Jewish?” In it, he notes that whatever each of us finds in Judaism, the next generation of Jews is unlikely to be swayed into holding to liberal Judaism (really, any form of Judaism) unless we can provide a persuasive, resonant answer to that question. Michaelson puts forth the tautology, that people are interested in what they are interested in, and notes that the book I am Jewish, which was published in the wake of Daniel Pearl’s murder, provided many answers to that question from various prominent Jews.

Michaelson’s challenge somewhat misses the point, I think. He’s basically correct that a single answer–because halakhah is divine, or you like deli food and Yiddish lilt–will not be persuasive.

But we don’t have to provide a single answer to that question.

Let’s be clear about what the Pew Survey tells us: Jews are largely intermarrying, but remain proud of their Jewish identities, and many of the children of intermarried families are also identifying as Jewish and are proud of their Jewish identities. If we see value in our own Jewish identities, and in the rewards that can come for others in understanding and embracing their own Jewish identities, then we should be enabling and encouraging efforts that open the doors as broadly as possible, provide as many challenging resources as possible, and seek genuinely to welcome, involve, and engage as many as possible–not for their dues or their pocketbooks, but for themselves.

There is an oft-quoted passage about the Torah from Pirke Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Just as apt is the statement Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15 (one of the collections of midrash on the biblical book of Numbers) that the Torah has seventy faces.

With somewhere around 3,000 years of history (depending on how you draw historical lines, this number could go up or down), Judaism has vast resources–material, cultural, literary, religious, philosophical, musical, moral–that can speak to vast numbers of Jews and to their own senses of their place in the world and in Jewish history. Opening the door to those resources is a crucial job for future Jewish leaders.

It is exactly that premise–that there are vast resources in Judaism that can appeal to modern ethical sensibilities, and nearly infinite ways to build a Jewish identity–that motivates the identification of many Jews with the humanistic Jewish movement. As humanistic Jews, we see universal values reflected in the full course of Jewish history and the full breadth of Jewish culture, while at the same time recognizing that not all sources are compatible with modern life and morality. All those sources are Jewish sources, but we recognize that their human origin gives us the ability and authority to determine our own Jewish paths.

It is not, then, the inherent value of Judaism and Jewish life that needs to be sold to Jews; it is instead the need to frame answers that are meaningful to the questions–explicit and implicit–posed by each person who asks, “Why be Jewish?” We have the resources to answer the questions; we need the skills to listen, understand, and frame the answers that best persuade the questioner.

Those answers may not come in words; they may come as an invitation to a Shabbat dinner, a Torah study, or a social event. The answers have to come in all modalities.

If we want others to engage in a vibrant Jewish life, we need to make our own Jewish lives vibrant, as well, while treating questioners like who they are: intelligent, engaged persons who are actively seeking spiritual homes and engagement. Humanistic Judaism provides the broadest resources for constructing that kind of life.