Thursday, May 08, 2008

Why Be Jewish?

Some Jewish outreach professionals believe that the best way to convince apathetic Jews to become more involved in their religion is by proving, or attempting to prove, that traditional Judaism is the absolute truth. There are various approaches that are taken, none of which I find particularly convincing (which I will hopefully discuss in an upcoming post).

Another approach to raising interest in Judaism is the following argument by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion, pp. 39-41, 47):

[T]he Baal Shem Tov--founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century--said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters. I am moved by that image, and it invites a question--the question: Will we, in our lifetime, be letters in the scroll of the Jewish people?

Click here to read moreAt some stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options, and no generation in history has had a wider choice. We can live for work or success or fame or power. We can have a whole series of lifestyles and relationships. We can explore any of a myriad of faiths, mysticisms, or therapies. There is only one constraint--namely, that however much of anything else we have, we have only one life, and it is short. How we live and what we live for are the most fateful decisions we ever make.

We can see life as a succession of moments spent, like coins, in return for pleasures of various kinds. Or we can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined to others they make a word, words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.

That metaphor is for me the key to understanding our ancestors' decision to remain Jewish even in times of great trial and tribulation. I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their ancestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with God and thus undertaking a very special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past and continued by every successive generation. At the heart of the covenant is the idea of emunah, which means faithfulness or loyalty. And Jews felt a loyalty to generations past and generations yet unborn to continue the narrative. A Torah scroll that has a missing letter is rendered invalid, defective. I think that most Jews did not want theirs to be that missing letter...

I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more powerful one.
The Chief Rabbi makes two points. The first is that each Jew has a responsibility to his ancestors to continue their heritage. Failing to do so is a serious neglect of duty. I know some people who find this powerful but I don't think that this is enough to motivate me to keep all of the laws of the Torah.

His second point is, to me, extremely powerful. Each Jew has an opportunity to be a part of something bigger, to transcend his own personal abilities and join a group spanning the world and the centuries, to not only follow in their footsteps but to add to their accomplishments -- to add a unique letter to their Torah scroll. Perhaps you can do that with other religions but as someone born Jewish, you have a unique opportunity to join the famous Jewish story and add your own chapter to it. If you have to ask why, then this argument is not for you. However, I believe that in this modern world that is full of alienation, this is a powerful and attractive argument.

Yes, it is an emotional (rather than intellectual) argument. It is particularly effective in that sense. Of course, to most (I hope) people, Judaism still needs to be intellectually justifiable and satisfying. I believe it is. Certainly coming from R. Sacks, a man of great intellect, the argument has significant force. It also has the advantage of avoiding what I believe are the irresolvable arguments over proof and disproof.

Will it convince people to be Orthodox and not heterodox or just moderately affiliated? Perhaps but not necessarily. It will pique their interest and then it is the job of the Orthodox community to demonstrate the beauty of Orthodox life and the continuity it represents with the past and the future.

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