“Why am I Jewish?” – This might seem like a strange question to ask, but it is one that is worth considering.
On one level I am Jewish because my parents are Jewish, and they raised me according to the religion and traditions which they practiced. This may provide a basic Jewish legal answer, but at the same time I believe that in our modern world we are all Jews by choice. Modernity removed the restrictions of the ghetto, and so we all have to make a choice to be, or to remain, Jewish. So I might amend the earlier question to ask: “Why do I choose to be Jewish?”
For me this question does not lend itself to a simple answer, because there are many reasons why I choose to be Jewish. On one level I choose to be Jewish because it is the religion of my family stretching back for countless generations. On another level I choose to be Jewish because it provides me with a framework for viewing the world in which I live and experiencing the Divine within that world. Alternatively I might say that I choose to be Jewish because I enjoy the rituals and traditions which make up Jewish practice.
But ultimately I choose to be Jewish, because I want to be an heir to the promise which Abraham and Sarah received, accepting the call to bring blessing to the world. At the very beginning when God called to Abraham, there was no statement about the worship of One God, the need for prayer or sacrifices, or a requirement of rituals and practices. At the very beginning Abraham and Sarah were called upon to undertake a journey, and they were told ‘you shall be a blessing … and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Bereishit 12:2-3). I choose to be Jewish because I want to find a way to bring blessing into the world.
Now this might seem like a rather lofty aspiration, and in some ways it is. But at the same time being a blessing simply requires us to do some good, so that the world is a better place for us having lived on it.
Judaism allows me to see the glory and majesty of the world, but at the same time it forces me to recognize that the world is not yet perfect. We witness violence, oppression, prejudice, injustice, and suffering (to name a few). Our obligation as Jews is to bear witness to the imperfection, and then to do something about it.
Throughout the Torah we are given commandments which end with the words ‘because you were slaves in Egypt’. While we may have no firsthand experience of suffering, as a people we have been the victims of violence, persecution, and injustice. Every year at our Passover Seder, we say that ‘we were slaves in Egypt’, we claim this memory so that it will lead us to action in the world for those who are currently suffering.
In the Talmud a debate is recorded between Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva. The question came up of whether study or action is greater. Rabbi Tarfon spoke up first and said ‘Action is greater’; in contrast Rabbi Akiva claimed ‘Study is greater’. The elders who were with them then intervened and settled the dispute saying: ‘Study is greater because it leads to action’.
In Judaism we sometimes study Torah lishma – which essentially means we study Torah simply for the sake of studying Torah. But more often we study Torah laasot – so that we will do, so that we will be active, so that we will seek to make a difference in the world.
As a community, it was clear that social action had to be one of our core values. We recognize that there is injustice and suffering in the world, and so we engage in acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that will lead to greater justice, righteousness and human dignity. We do this communally and we do this individually.
Collectively we are the heirs to Abraham and Sarah, and as such we are obligated to find ways to bring blessing into the world. Each one of us will have a different way of being that blessing, but in an imperfect world it is a call which none of us can ignore, and which all of us should hear.
Ultimately I choose to be Jewish because it requires me to be active in making this world a better place, because it allows me to be in partnership with God in the ongoing work of creation, and because it necessitates that I find my way, as an heir of Abraham and Sarah, to be a blessing.
Together, as a community, when we join together in acts of tikkun olam we can exponentially increase our blessing in the world.