Why Be Jewish?

Why Be Jewish? August 19, 2014

Dear Rabbi, What response might I give to Bar or Bat Mitzvah aged children who ask why they should bother being Jewish at all?

The first thing is to answer this question for yourself. Why are you Jewish? The answer may be as uninspiring as “my mother is Jewish” or as supernatural as “God chose me to be a Jew, and chose the Jews to bring His Torah into the world.” Whatever your answer is, this is the answer you ought to share.

Of course, your answer may be meaningless to those with whom you share it, at which point you have two choices: You can endlessly argue your point in hopes of winning the children over or at least wearing them down; or you can help them find their own reason to be Jewish knowing full well that they may not find one, and may in fact choose not to be Jewish at all. I think the second choice is the wiser.

If a b’nai mitzvah student asked why I am Jewish I would answer this way:

For me Judaism is a this–worldly means to a this–worldly end. The end is a world in which weaponry is transformed into livingry, and war and training for war are abolished; where all people live freely, safely, securely, and well (Micah 4:3–4), and engage with one another and with all life justly, compassionately, and humbly (Micah 6:8).

The Jewish means to this end is a radical devotion to argument, doubt, and inquiry, both reasoned and creative, that frees us from the conditioning of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and parental bias (Genesis 12:1), and frees us for our true purpose to be caretakers of life (Genesis 2:5), and blessings to all the families of the earth: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human (Genesis 12:3).

I choose to be a Jew because I feel called to this end, and find Judaism to be a powerful means toward it fulfilling.
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Of course I haven’t had this kind of conversation since leaving congregational life 14 years ago, so I don’t know if it would hold up today. But it is the best I’ve got, and it still works for me.

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