What's monotheism got to do with it?

I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last words of Daniel Pearl
Edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl
Jewish Lights Publishing, 260 pages, $24.99

Daniel Pearl’s bravery will be recounted for generations to come, for this Wall Street Journal reporter affirmed his heritage at just the moment when it would cost him his life. When his Muslim terrorist kidnappers asked Pearl if he was a Jew, he responded, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

In a moving preface to I Am Jewish, Pearl’s father adds an intriguing detail about what the reporter said next: “Back in the town of Bnei Brak, there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town.”

Judea Pearl believes his son’s words were meant to assure his family that he was not defeated, but also to confront his captors with a moral challenge. He interprets Daniel’s reference as saying to the captors, “Look, guys! I come from a place where a person is judged by the towns that he builds, by the trees that he plants, and by the wells that he digs. Not by the death and destruction that he brings to the world. So come to your senses.”

Daniel Pearl’s parents both describe their Judaism more as a matter of cultural inheritance than as one of active faith in the God of historic Judaism. That is a striking theme throughout the pages of I Am Jewish: a surprising number of contributors begin their essays by saying they are Jews because one of their parents was Jewish.

Some contributors show a troubling hostility toward the notion that Judaism should retain even a patina of its bold affirmation that there is but one God. “The religious revival in America has marginalized those for whom being Jewish is a matter of secular cultural traditions,” writes Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. “For us, community membership in the synagogue should create the ideal place for rational and severe skepticism, innovation, debate, and learning, not superstition or blind adherence to tradition and ritual.”

Similarly, Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism wants to discourage his fellow Jews from believing that prayer involves communicating with anyone more powerful than themselves. “The holidays and ceremonies of the Jewish people do not honor mysterious powers that never seem available to help us when we need them. They celebrate the power of brave people to confront a dangerous world and to live their lives with justice and dignity.”

Many contributors describe their Judaism in terms of whether to eat kosher, knowing great jokes, and — sometimes for reasons beyond their understanding — choosing to remain part of the cultural stream in which they were born. Some describe their Judaism flat out as an “accident” of their birth.

Nevertheless, some contributors deliver worthwhile reflections on theology and on worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, who teaches at Naropa University, tells a heartening and funny story of participating in a panel discussion when Daniel Rufeisen, a Jew who became a Carmelite monk, applied to become a citizen of Israel. The rabbi, who was teaching at the University of Manitoba at the time, was joined on the panel by a city council member who was born Jewish and had become a Communist.

The rabbi writes:

When my turn came to make a statement, I said that Rabbi Joseph Albo, a greater teacher and author of the Sefer ha-Ikkarim (Book of Core Principles), wrote that to be a Jew it is necessary for a person to adhere to three things: belief in one God, belief that God cares what people do, and belief that God rewards and punishes people as an expression of divine care.

The councilor, I said, does not believe in those three principles, while Daniel Rufeisen does believe in them. Thus, according to Rabbi Joseph Albo, Daniel Rufeisen is more deserving to be recognized as a Jew than the councilor.

Everyone in the audience became furious at the suggestion that their beloved representative might not count as a Jew while the traitorous convert should be counted. Finally someone said, “But the councilor’s children will marry Jewish children.” The only thing I could say at that point was to promise them that the celibate monk’s children would also not marry any gentiles.

Samuel Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, writes one of the strongest essays, exploring why Daniel Pearl loved to play bluegrass music “in the great spirit of Jewish universalism.” Freedman says that during his college years, one friend coined the word Jew-grass to describe the phenomenon of Jewish people embracing “the music of rural Appalachians, of evangelical Protestants of Scots-Irish stock.”

He writes of Pearl: “Every fact I subsequently absorbed about him — that he was married to a French Buddhist, that he wrote about Persian rugs and child beauty pageants, that he enjoyed having tea with a certain contact in Tehran — made sense in the context of Jew-grass.”

There are a few other pleasant surprises and gems of insight scattered among the nearly 150 essays:

• Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio describes sitting on filmed interviews with Jewish refugees from Poland to ensure that thousands of other refugees could reach Israel without interference.

• Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tells of how the historic dÃ(c)cor in her office reminds her of her duties: “The command from Deuteronomy appears in artworks, in Hebrew letters, on three walls and a table in my chambers. ‘Zedek, zedek, tirdof,’ ‘Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue,’ these artworks proclaim; they are ever-present reminders to me of what judges must do ‘that they may thrive.’”

• Judea Pearl pays tribute to Alana Frey, an eighth-grade student in New York who first thought of collecting these essays as a way of comforting Daniel Pearl’s infant son as he grew up.

• Radio talk-show host Dennis Prager repeats a theme he explored so memorably in his book Why the Jews: The Reason for Anti-Semitism. “For some inexplicable reason, God chose the Jews to be His emissaries to mankind, to spread ethical monotheism, to live exemplary lives of ethics and holiness. The Jews, whether consciously or not, have focused humanity’s attention onto good and evil, just as the Jews’ state does today in its battle against those who want to destroy it. The Jews have suffered for thousands of years for giving humanity a morality-giving and morality-judging God and Bible.”

Larry King contributes an essay that’s every bit as discursive and self-indulgent as his longtime column in USA Today, but he does include one great detail: “I once asked a noted author, the late Harry Golden, if he ever regretted being Jewish. And he said no because when he dies there are only four possible leaders in the afterlife. They would be Moses, Christ, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. And they were all Jewish so he figured he was on the right team from the start.”

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    For those who are interested, I also dealt with this book in a column last spring for Scripps Howard.


    Passover questions for 2004

    Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 03/31/2004

    The lobby contains what security experts call a “mantrap.”

    Guards monitor these bomb-proof doors, along with exterior video cameras and a device that sniffs the mail. Windows are laminated with plastic, so an explosion would not send glass shards slicing into offices. Massive concrete barriers could stop a truck.

    Welcome to the American Jewish Committee’s home in New York. This isn’t mere “ethnic panic.” No, “lethal anti-Semitism” is on the rise, even in places long thought to be safe, noted Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor at Commentary magazine.

    This will not be an ordinary Passover.

    “More synagogues have been destroyed in France in the past five years by acts of desecration ? than were destroyed in the entire period of the Nazi occupation,” he said, speaking at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Also, “we have the chief rabbi of France issuing a warning to French Jews not to wear garb that identifies them as Jews — no skullcaps, stars of David and so forth.”

    These are not ordinary times for families to share the rituals that incarnate Jewish identity. Passover begins Monday at sundown and, once again, the Seder meals that are the heart of the weeklong season will blend lessons from the past with today’s trials.

    As always, children will ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They will ask symbolic questions about why they are eating matzoh, dipping bitter herbs and reclining at the table. They will learn about escaping from slavery in Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people.

    It is a time for questions and, this year, friends and family of the late journalist Daniel Pearl (www.danielpearl.org) believe these rites should include one more. It would be addressed to “each person at the Seder and it could be worded like this: On this night, at this time in our history, what does it mean to you to say, ‘I am Jewish,’ ” said Stuart Matlins, who organized a tribute book with precisely that title.

    Just before he was beheaded by Islamic radicals in Pakistan, the Wall Street Journal reporter looked into the video camera and made a simple, shattering, statement: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

    It didn’t matter that Pearl was not a Jewish believer in the traditional sense of the word. It didn’t matter that he played bluegrass fiddle, married a French Buddhist and thrived in a variety of ethnic cultures. What mattered was his identity — to his killers.

    “It didn’t matter that Pearl didn’t really choose to die for his faith,” said Matlins. “He was murdered because of who he was. He was murdered for his Jewish identity, whether he had ever really chosen it or not. ? But there are many different kinds of Jews. Every individual is different. That is what this project is about.”

    Thus, “I Am Jewish” features dozens of short personal testimonies collected into chapters on identity, heritage, ethnicity, justice and “covenant, chosenness and faith.”

    Writers range from scholars to artists, from Orthodox rabbis to the gurus of popular spirituality. Famous faces — Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, TV-talk czar Larry King, Sen. Joe Lieberman — share space with parents and children, including Alana Frey of Rockville Centre, N.Y. As a Bat Mitzvah project, she collected Jewish testimonies as a gift for Pearl’s infant son. The project soon gained the support of Judea and Ruth Pearl, the journalist’s parents.

    The resulting book glories in its lack of consensus, especially on matters of faith. Radio talk show host Dennis Prager bluntly proclaims: “After Auschwitz, there are only religious (i.e. God-based) reasons to be a Jew.” Judea Pearl is equally blunt: “Religion? ? I am a secular Jew. I find it hard to believe that an entity up there takes record of my thoughts and deeds.”

    This clash is at the heart of modern Jewish life, said Matlins.

    “There is no question that for the overwhelming majority of Jews in America — especially liberal and secular Jews — they cannot answer these questions except in terms of their individual identities and experiences. ? What does it mean to be a Jew? They will answer for themselves. But it is a question they must answer.”