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Why Be Jewish?

Rabbi Max Chaiken

Given Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779 * Sunday, September 9, 2018

 “Why be Jewish?” Three words and a question mark startle and surprise me. My classmate had just asked our entire community of rabbinic students and faculty this shocking question. At first, I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. “Why be Jewish? Aren’t we in rabbinical school? What kind of question is that?” I had never been asked so directly why I was Jewish. And to be fair, it may seem like a bizarre question to many of you too. But this year, it is the question that the shofar calls us allto answer with vigor, creativity, and imagination.
Some of you might argue that you didn’t choose to be Jewish. “I was born Jewish. There was no choice involved.” You respond that you’re Jewish because your parents were Jewish, and your grandparents before them. Being Jewish is just a part of you—the religious and cultural heritage that you never chose, much like you never chose your eye color, or your place of birth. 
If you became Jewish through conversion, of course, you might have a different answer. After all, converting to Judaism typically requires a lengthy process of learning and self-discovery, before you ever set foot in the immersive waters of the mikveh. You observed holidays and tried out new rituals. You spoke with many people, possibly including bewildered family members, and definitely including long-winded rabbis. And after all that, you still decided to commit yourself to Judaism; to cast your lot with the Jewish people. So I imagine you could articulate why.
And regardless of whether you have Jewish ancestry, you might respond to the question  “Why be Jewish?” by sharing that you want to ensure the survival of Jews and Judaism. You root for us Jews as an underdog of history, the perpetual survivors of persecution! That response is what Emil Fackenheim calls the 614th commandment: not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory,[1] and it may resonate with many of you.
But my friends, as true as any of these answers may be, our sacred tradition will not survive in the 21st century if we cannot clearly articulate why it should. Whatever Jewish journey has led you to this room tonight, make no mistake about it: we are all Jews-by-choice. Think about it: instead of tonight being any ordinary Sunday night, you chose to bring in the Jewish New Year. You chose to reconnect with community, and with the Spirit of the Universe. But I’m guessing that many of you didn’t stop to ask yourselves: “Why be Jewish?” 
My classmate suggested that answering this question requires us to state the “value-proposition” for being Jewish.The business world uses “value-propositions” to describe the valuethat customers get when from purchasing a good or service. Applied to Judaism, it refers to the value that being Jewish and doing Jewish can bring to our lives. And while I don’t usually like to think of Judaism as something to be consumed, or transacted in, the fact of the matter is that our communities and institutions have a lot of competition in American society today. So we must be able to advocate for and demonstrate the meaning and value that Judaism brings to us, and to the world. 
Don’t worry. In a few moments, I am going to share with you three of my answers to the question, because the stakes are too high to obfuscate, or engage in that classic rabbinic pastime of answering a question with another question. But before I do, I want to recognize that some of you still may not quite agree that you have a choice.
“Jews haven’t always had a choice about being Jewish,” you think, “we’ve always been a persecuted minority, kicked out of nearly every country we’ve ever lived in. Who would choose such a thing?” Sadly, you can read our history this way. We need look no further than the horrors of the 20th century! The Nazis did not care how one defined herself. Anybody with a Jewish grandparent was a Jew, whether they practiced Judaism or not! Our people were the targets of hatred and violence merely because of their heritage. And I acknowledge that today in the United States, this argument may even deserve new scrutiny, as we have seen a resurgence in anti-Semitism casting a long, dark shadow on our ability to “choose” our Jewishness. 
But there’s another way to read our history, too. Because being Jewish—doing Judaism, and using it to bring meaning to our lives—has always required a choice. In the times of the Maccabees, many Israelites took Greek names and customs as their own, effectively converting out. In the middle ages, and later during the Spanish Inquisition, many chose conversion out of Judaism, rather than risking their lives to maintain their Jewish practices. So those who maintained their customs most certainly chose Judaism.
Our sacred texts also insist on our need to choose, even when it comes to choosing Torah—our very covenant with God! You see, the logic goes that if we hadn’t chosen the covenant, we would have no incentive to keep it! Why stay in a relationship that you didn’t want in the first place?! One Talmudic tale suggests the Israelites were coerced, b. Shabbat 88a, but the rabbis’ response reveals just how highly they valued our freedom to choose.
Newly freed from Egypt, we wandered through the desert to our first stop: Sinai. But the revelation at Sinai describes a terrifying scene! Our leader has to ascend the mountain, which itself was surround by lightning and thunder, clouds and even the sound of the shofar. And the text also states, Ex 19:17, that when Moses led us from the camp towards God’s presence at the mountain, we stood “b’tahtit hahar” – literally underneath the mountain. With all of these frightening images, one rabbi taught that this phrase, “underneath the mountain” meant that God held the Mount Sinai itself literally held over our heads, coercing us to accept the covenant, or accept the grave. Sounds like an offer we couldn’t refuse!
But even the appearance of coercion leads the very same narrative to continue, that in the time of Esther, the Jews willingly and freely accepted the covenant once again. We once again chose to be Jewish.
And today in the United States of America we have more choice than ever in history! We live in a time and place of unprecedented fluidity and flexibility in religious identity. Five years ago, when the Pew Research Center published its landmark survey of Jewish American identity, it found that among American Jews born after 1980, some 30% of them identified as “Jews-of-no-religion.”[2] And the very same study reminds us that “this shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation.” These Jews-of-no-religion might identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” or they might embrace merely their cultural Jewish heritage, which leads them to crave Matzah Ball soup on Passover, and Chinese food on Christmas.  But effectively, they are not choosing Judaism.
So for us Jews-by-choice—who believe that Judaism should not only survive, but can thrive in the 21st century, we must return to the question, however uncomfortable it may be: Why be Jewish? What IS the “value proposition” for Judaism in the contemporary world? Only by answering this question for ourselves will we be able to advocate for the survival of Judaism, or any given Jewish institution—including our very own Congregation Kol Ami. 
So without further delay, here are three of my personal teshuvot, or responses, to the question.
First, “Judaism helps me create holiness in time.” 
From the very first chapter of Torah, our sacred text gives meaning and order to time. Our creation myth describes an order of “days,” really epochs, of creation, which lead to God blessing time itself, and resting—the first Shabbat. In turn, our practice of Shabbat, and our cycle of holidays reflect this process. Our holy times and seasons offer us the chance to appreciate the spark of divinity in our creating, our making, and our doing, and they remind us to pause and focus our time also on being. 
Compare this with American culture today. We work and work and work, rarely resting. We take fewer vacation days than most other developed nations of the world.[3] We are continuously pushed to produce deliverables and quantify every minute we’ve put into the job. We are so busy with doing and making and producing that we all-too-often forget to focus on being. So Judaism offers a powerful antidote: make time holy. Recognize its finite nature, and refuse to take it for granted. Our time on this earth is limited, but do not despair. We can celebrate and choose life by marking holiness in the passage of our precious time on this planet. 
In his classic work The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it this way: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique… and endlessly precious.” We don’t need to feel lonely or rudderless as we navigate the waves of life in search of purpose and direction. Our sacred times and seasons offer us a compass, helping us actively create meaning as we sail the ocean of our lives. 
So “why be Jewish?”  Because Judaism helps me create holiness in time. 
The second value-proposition I offer for being Jewish is that “Judaism insists that we question and interpret.” Our struggles and questioning of God are even built into one of our names, Yisrael. In a moment of solitude and fear, Jacob found himself alone, wrestling with a strange figure, who blesses him with the name Yisrael, because he has “struggled with God and with people.”
But questioning God is just the beginning. We’re the people of the Talmud—a text that’s more interested in good questions than good answers. Our tradition has long wondered about the gaps in our holy texts, and those musings led to interpretations and the development of new texts and traditions. Our most cherished historical figures—from Maimonides to Einstein—propelled questions and critical thinking as ways to improve ourselves and the world around us.
But the culture we live in prides itself on knowledge; on always being “right.” We are often afraid to ask questions if we think we ought to know the answer already. We seclude ourselves in ideological silos--bubbles that reinforce our pre-existingbiases and ideas. It has become rare to interact with, let alone have a meaningful conversation, with people that think differently than we do. But our sacred tradition calls to question what we know; to challenge our assumptions and sharpen our minds to help improve the world around us.
So,  “Why be Jewish?” Because Judaism insists that I question and interpret. 
My third answer may be the most fundamental of all. “Judaism requires strong relationships.” Our tradition cannot be practiced alone. Of course, we value each and every human being, each one created in the Divine image, each one infinitely precious, each one an entire world. Yet Judaism insists that when we build relationships with one another, we bring with us the Divine presence itself. We become something greater.
But sadly, this value is also lacking in American society today. Everything caters to the individual, everything becomes a customizable commodity, delivered at the precise time and in the precise quantity you need. Pretty convenient, but also pretty isolating. Social media is perhaps the biggest culprit. The culture of social media teaches us to express ourselves, to brand ourselves, to hope we go viral. It does not teach us to listen to others; to look into the face of the person next to you, to hear their story, and to love your neighbor.
So for a third time,  “Why be Jewish?” “Because Judaism requires strong relationships.” In a society where we are often tempted to go it alone, Judaism reminds us to double down on relationships and community. 
Those are three of my value-propositions for Judaism, boiled down to a sweet, simple syrup. 
1. Judaism helps me create holiness in time. 
2. Judaism insists that I question and interpret.
3. Judaism requires strong relationships. 
Our tradition offers a unique approach to each of these, and throughout the generations our ancestors propelled Judaism to survive not just for survival’s sake, but because they knew that our sacred tradition contained such powerful ideas.
This year, I imagine a world where we take these values, along with our own answer, and recommit to choosing Judaism. I imagine a community built from these foundations, in which all of us are able to answer “Why be Jewish?” with confidence, and pride. 
These very values have already guided me in my work with The Open Yad Project. As many of you know, one of my roles as your Assistant Rabbi has been helping to launch The Open Yad Project—our program for building community amongst folks in our 20s, 30s and 40s here in West Hollywood, Hollywood and the East Side. 
From the beginning of my rabbinic internship two years ago, when Rabbi Eger first charged me with focusing on young adult engagement, we knew that creating strong relationships had to come first. We knew that in order to build something meaningful and sustainable, it had to start with the most basic building block of community: friendship. That process takes time. It takes attention to the rhythms of our own lives, and concern for the various seasons in the lives of others. 
What’s more, over the past several months, as we’ve organized and officially launched our efforts as The Open Yad Project, we’ve used these the values of marking holiness in time and the importance of questioning to guide the development of our programs. 
In August, for instance, we hosted our first Havdalah event in what we hope will become a monthly spiritual experience. The only purpose of Havdalah is to mark the passage from one moment to the next. Havdalah literally means separation in Hebrew because separates between two moments in time. It’s a ritual to mark the passage from a Shabbat of rest, or of being, to a week of doing and making. So in choosing to use Havdalah as our signature ritual program, we are trying to role model the uniquely powerful way that Judaism marks holiness in time. 
Similarly with the importance of questioning, we are planning to launch a series of pop-up learning events. While these programs will aim to extend an open hand, literally an open “yad” to new prospective participants, the concept grows naturally from our Jewish cycle of questioning and interpreting. 
The further I go along this path of building community, and developing The Open Yad Project, the more grateful I am that I have stopped to ask myself “Why be Jewish?” Because when we ask ourselves that question, we give ourselves permission to imagine new answers, and to imagine ourselves and our world transformed by the beauty and wisdom of our sacred tradition. As we usher in this New Year, I pray that you too will ask yourself “Why be Jewish?” I hope that you will explore your own answers to this vital question, and that your presence here tonight will be the first choice in recommitting to choose Judaism, and use our sacred tradition to bring meaning to your life.
Yes, I hope that Judaism, and the Jewish people, survive, and I believe that we work towards that vision when we remind ourselves and our loved ones whywe oughtto survive. As we bring in the new year 5779, let us recommit to passing our tradition l’dor vador, from one generation to the next, and let us do that by responding with certainty, love, patience, and imagination when we are asked, “Why be Jewish?”
Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784