Why Be Jewish?

The following is an excerpt from the book Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century

by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror

A growing number of non-orthodox Israelis and Diaspora Jews have difficulty answering this question. This is the question of questions.  Unless we provide a social and cultural framework in which the majority of non-orthodox Jews can provide themselves with a satisfactory answer, the issue of any Jewish future will be moot. The Jews are perhaps the only people whose adherents would even ask such a question. This in itself is one of the characteristics of Jewish uniqueness.

However, the dilemma of identity is not unique to the Jews. The challenge facing all cultures in the 21st century is how to assimilate into the modern world without being assimilated into it. Identity has become more a matter of individual choice than of historical inheritance. Individuals today pick and choose from various culture sources that are valuable for them.

Cultural traditions are no longer “sold” as being inherently valuable. Value is argued in terms of what is beneficial for you as an individual. Spend a day or two watching the numerous televangelists and you will be struck that much of their preaching deals with how belief in Jesus helps overcome personal problems. Sermons often resemble self-improvement seminars clothed in theological garb. This is unlike earlier fire-and-brimstone, fear-of-hell sermons. In the present era cultural traditions that provide spiritual benefit for groups of individuals over periods of time will survive.

The Advent of Multifaceted Identity

It is no longer the customs and prohibitions of the traditional inherited community that decides identity, but rather the modern individual. Identity can be multifaceted. The Jewish tradition is flexible, based as it is on personal behavior rather than doctrinal belief. It is capable of accommodating numerous cultural accretions, as long as these do not contain beliefs, practices, or dogmas that contradict Jewish tradition but only add another dimension to the Jewish individual’s spiritual life.

Judaism can afford to be tolerant of the phenomenon. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery it is also a test of a culture’s vigor. A vigorous culture possessed of self-esteem and self-confidence will take freely from other cultures without fear of “cultural pollution” and by doing this, will add to its own vigor. A closed, fearful ghettoized culture will result in the cultural equivalent of genetic inbreeding and create cultural dullards.

This tolerance cannot stretch to include the Jews for Jesus as we shall see in the next chapter. Nor are Jewish communities ever likely to accommodate the Jews for Jesusphenomenon, the manipulative appeal to Jewish open-mindedness notwithstanding. A comparable ideological conflict would exist with Islam. The fact that Mohammed is beyond criticism and that even implied criticism might earn one a death sentence is contrary to Judaism, a religion and culture which depicts its great biblical heroes in all their human frailties. The perception of Jesus and Mohammed as being above criticism is foreign to the Jewish mentality.

  • The Bible depicts Abraham misrepresenting the status of Sarah to gain advantage in a real estate deal.
  • Jacob cheats Esau out of his inheritance by lying to his father, Isaac.
  • Jacob’s sons sell their brother Joseph into slavery out of sibling jealousy.
  • Moses is depicted in the sources and in popular Jewish culture as having a severe speech defect (generating many Jewish jokes about how this caused grave misunderstandings between Moses and God.)
  • David sends his best friend off to die in battle so that he can sleep with his wife.
  • Solomon had a thousand wives and concubines.

Jewish heroes are not wispy, ethereal, “spiritual” beings; they are flesh-and-blood human beings with openly documented flaws. This distinguishes Judaism from other traditions that portray their heroes as being above all human frailty.

Human-Centered Identity

Judaism encourages active criticism, not passive acceptance because it has always stressed the centrality of human behavior. The Talmud says that man must be a partner with God in the (ongoing) act of creation. This is what obligates the humanistic Jewish concept ofTikkun Olam (repairing/improving the world). The primacy of individual moral autonomy appears throughout the Jewish tradition:

  • Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • He interrupts a “conversation” with God to offer hospitality to three strangers.
  • The Jews say, “Derech eretz kodem leTorah”:  “Proper behavior takes precedence over the Torah.” In other words, your responsibility toward your fellow human beings takes precedence over your obedience to God. This is the true significance of the “Sacrifice of Isaac” story—not Abraham’s obedience to God but the end of human sacrifice as a means to placating God, thereby affirming the centrality of human life.
  • There is a Talmudic story about sages who reject the very voice of God as having weight in an argument. The rejection highlights the principle of human moral and intellectual autonomy. The story demonstrates the principle of majority rule, minority rights and human intellectual autonomy and sovereignty, even in regards to God.
  • On Yom Kippur, you request forgiveness for transgressions against God. A sin against another human being cannot be forgiven by God, but only by that person.

Identity as an Evolutionary Process

Identity is evolutionary. To be English today is different from being English in the time of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I, or Alfred the Great. Similarly, being Jewish today is different from being Jewish a hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, or two thousand years ago.

Identity as an evolutionary process is especially applicable to the Jews. A normative, restricted definition of what it means to be Jewish is impossible. The Jews are an ideologically and culturally pluralistic people. Ideologically, Jewish identity can include ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanist Judaism. Jewish identity also includes secular atheists and agnostics such as some of the greatest Jews of the 20th century: Einstein, Freud, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, and others. Jewish identity includes German, Yemenite, Russian, Iraqi, Moroccan and American Jews. The only universal norms of Jewish identity are the prohibition against idolatry and the requirement of unqualified individual responsibility.

The test is empirical. If a form of Judaism endures, it is because it has contributed something of value to a critical mass of individuals. It is the spiritual equivalent of the survival of the fittest. What survives does so because it answers a need and gives value to real human beings. Culture is not preserved, it is created, and it evolves as a consequence of its dynamic interaction with other cultures and other cultural environments. What does not interact does not evolve; what does not evolve dies.

The way you behave (Derech Eretz) is central to Jewish tradition, not your ideological belief system. The hijacking of Jewish tradition by a politicized religious establishment presenting itself as “authentic” Judaism has alienated many Israelis and Diaspora Jews from Jewish tradition itself.

Jewish Citizenship

In the past, a common belief system, common ethnic characteristics, or combination of both determined identity. In the future, however, Jewish identity will probably be pluralistic, based upon common norms of communal behavior and communal obligation—what I would call Jewish citizenship.

Concepts of citizenship stress behavior, not belief. They are, therefore, secular. In the 21st century, Jewish identity will most probably be formulated within a secular pluralistic framework. Components of Jewish identity will be religious and secular, but while religious identities have been able to flourish within secular frameworks, secular identities have not usually been able to exist within strict religious frameworks….