Why be Jewish?

It seems the recent Pew poll is all the Jewish community can talk about, and most of the conversation is a doom-and-gloom perseverance on the possible extinction of Judaism.  I’ve heard much moaning, a fair measure of denial and a handful of creative “solutions.” But in his recent editorial (Gravity, October 11-17, 2014), Rob Eshman posed a salient question no one else seems to be asking: So what?  Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish?  What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing?

My gut reaction to this question was completely personal. I don’t want the Jewish people to die out because, well, I’m Jewish. Because I like Jewish things and I know all the songs.  Because Judaism makes me feel good and all my memories are wrapped up in my Aunt Trudy’s sweet kugel, the smell of my Bubbe’s house on Shabbat, the poetry of Rachel and Yehuda Amichai, the stunning silence of the Negev, the vision of my three preschool-aged daughters covering their eyes behind the glow of alabaster candles.  These, though, are the comforts of tribalism. Emotionally compelling, sure, but not an answer to Eshman’s essential question. 

One week after the release of the Pew poll, Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus—a Kibbutz-born Israeli-American, a South African native who served in the IDF and splits his time between Palo Alto and Israel and an Austrian born to a secular Jewish family that escaped the Nazis, respectively—won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. They’re in good company: 193 of the 855 Nobel winners since the prize’s inception have been Jewish.  That is 22% of total Nobel recipients, although Jews make up only about .2% of the world’s population. It’s a staggering set of statistics, embedded in which is one answer to “So what?” 

The world is founded on three things, Pirke Avot tells us. Al ha-Torah, al ha-avodah v’al g’milut chasadim: on study, on work and on acts of loving-kindness. The values and responsibilities taught in even the most loosely observant Jewish homes, the critical thinking skills developed by Jewish text study and the empathy for those on the fringes of society (engendered by our own storied history) create a rich incubator for aspiration, ingenuity and work ethic. The disproportionate number of Jewish scientists, humanitarians, writers, artists and medical world-changers is no coincidence.  

Why? Because Judaism is a practice rooted in, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, the ethics of responsibility.  Judaism teaches that moral responsibility between human beings exists. Throughout our four-thousand year history, Jews have been an intellectual and spiritual force, preserving our culture and teachings while helping to shape the civilizations in which we live. Beginning in the Talmudic age, our rabbis were the early and relentless champions of universal primary education. The word tzedakah appears 157 times in the Tanach, our most ancient text and a foundational piece of literature in the Western world. Education and tzedekah are obligations, not laudable suggestions. Our history and the history of the world attest to the value of this premise.

The 21st century is defined by challenges so vast and interconnected that they seem beyond resolution: poverty and illiteracy, famine and disease, nuclear warfare and genocide, global warming and drought, bigotry and fanaticism.  It would be easy to throw our hands up in helplessness or point our fingers at political impotence, but our tradition directs us instead to take personal responsibility, to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world), and tzedakah (justice), even if we cannot complete the work we start. Responsibility is the greatest inoculation against the sense of powerlessness and futility in the face of great challenge. 

There is work to do in the world.  It needs to be made better for human beings now and for generations to come. Is Judaism the only path? Of course not. In addition to vast challenges the world is also full of righteous people, valuable cultures, intellectual vibrancy and vital diversity. I am not suggesting that we are alone in our desire and capacity to light the future.  I am suggesting that across time and place the Jewish people have made significant and unique contributions to bettering the world.

The great Jewish thinker Rav Soloveitchik wrote that our “task in the world, according the Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny, a passive existence into an active existence, an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”

That’s why Judaism is worth continuing. That’s why I work in Jewish education. That’s why I’m ready to join with other Jewish leaders and buckle down to do the hard work of helping ensure Jewish continuity without losing sight of the other important work that needs doing in this world.

It is no more or less than our tradition and our future demand.

Sarah Shulkind, Ed.D., Head of School, Sinai Akiba Academy