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Why Be Jewish?

Why Be Jewish?

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Question:

I am teaching a high school class about threats to Judaism in the modern world. What do you see as the biggest threat to Jewish survival--assimilation or anti-Semitism?

Answer:

The biggest threat to Jewish survival is confused Jewish identity. Sadly, today in many Jewish schools and families, Jewish identity is built through teaching Holocaust awareness and a fear of marrying out. The Jewish community's preoccupation with assimilation and anti-Semitism is not the solution, it is the problem.

A pessimistic and negative presentation of being Jewish turns off young Jews more than anything else. When we obsess about anti-Semitism we paint ourselves as perpetual victims. When we over-emphasize the threat of assimilation, it makes us feel like an endangered species. The Jews are alongside the hump-back whale and the giant panda in the list of helpless and pitiful communities disappearing from the planet. Is it so surprising that young Jews are opting out of Judaism? Who wants to be a victim?

We have to stop defining ourselves by the way others perceive us. Assimilation is when non-Jews love us so much they want to marry us. Anti-Semitism is when non-Jews hate us so much they want to kill us. They both just happen to us; but what do we think of ourselves?

We need a clear and positive reason to stay Jewish. Failing that, why should Judaism survive? Is there a good argument for not assimilating into the welcoming societies surrounding us? Is there a compelling reason to stay proudly Jewish in the face of anti-Semitism?

I think there is.

Judaism is the most powerful idea that the world has ever seen. Jews should survive because we have a message that the world needs to hear.

The Jewish way of life is a revolutionary force that can transform ordinary lives into lives of meaning. A family that keeps Shabbat is always reminded of what is really important--that there is more to life than accumulating wealth. The kosher laws teach us that we are not mere animals that must feed our every urge and desire, and that eating itself can be holy. A mezuzah on the door tells the world that this home is built for a higher purpose.

Judaism teaches lessons that the world urgently needs to learn--that every individual person is created in the image of G-d, and is therefore unique and valuable; that morality is not relative but absolute; that humans are partners with G-d in creation, with a mission to create heaven on earth.

These bold Jewish ideas are more relevant now than ever. But bold Jewish ideas need bold Jewish people to perpetuate them. The world can only be elevated if individuals first elevate themselves. We can only make the world into a divine home if we start with our own home. This is Judaism's formula to change the world for better. This is why we must stay Jewish.

The biggest threat to Judaism is not external pressure but rather internal confusion. When we lose sight of our mission, we lose the strength and stamina to survive. The Jewish feeling we need to develop in ourselves and our children is not fear of anti-Semitism, or guilt about assimilation. It is a humble pride in the greatness of the Jewish mission and confident resolve to fulfill it. When we are clear about our identity, no threat in the world can shake us.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
Illustration by Chassidic artist Michoel Muchnik; click here to view or purchase Mr. Muchnik's art.
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Discussion (102)
July 15, 2014
Dear Anonymous,

On a theoretical level, one can assimilate and not be Christian, it wouldn't make much sense assimilate into Christianity or any other religion unless is out of absolute conviction... Furthermore, spreading good is not the main mission of Christianity, their theology moves around a person.
Couldn't it be that the problem of Judeophobia is of those who hate and not ours? The way I see it, if someone wants to hate me because of who I am, it also tires me and scares me sometimes, but I'd never consider giving up the essence of my being to the unjustified and unjustifiable hatred of some fools (to avoid using other words). If you give up who you are, what is left of you? Do you really think you would you be less tired or less scared?

I hope you have a supporting community. You may want to share your feelings and fears with them, there's no need to go through it alone....
Livni
Paris, France
July 15, 2014
You say to keep going because of our mission, but why not assimilate when there is so much anti-semitism and the Christians have that same mission. I don't believe in Jesus but I believe in helping people and spreading good. Why can't I assimilate and do good without continuously feeling hunted? It always feels so surreal that everywhere I turn on the Internet people want to kill me and hate, and I'm tired and scared.
Anonymous
May 19, 2014
Don't use the word convert
it isn't that we have a problem with the word, it's that the rest of the world, including aspects of the religious and secular world, have made it a problem for us!
JDV
May 19, 2014
I couldn't agree more with Rabbi Moss' perspective... I have tried to share a similar point of view and people tend to look at me as a radical.
Some people are complaining here about how "converts" are treated. How about not using at all the word "convert"? No one is a convert, people undergo conversion or not, and at the end they become Jews (or whatever people become).
Livni
Netanya, Israel
January 28, 2014
From a goy
Here is how I feel. I don't want you to be me. I want you to be you, a true Jew. I don't want to marry you. I just want to be your family and your kindred spirit. I will protect you and honor you for who you are meant to be.
Sarah Lin
Oakland, CA
July 24, 2013
Jew/Gentile - differencies?
I have come across the use of 'Jew' in regard to social subject matters that made me realise i really have no acceptable understanding of what the word means. I have previously had a very narrow, naive yet innocent concept based on studies of different religions and what bible-study came with my christian upbringing, in an otherwise quite secular society (Sweden).
It has abstractly dawn upon me that in the many ways the word (Jew) is used, it seem to carry a much deeper and complex definition than what would encompass someone merely defining s/he a loose classification of religious affinity (to what I am used to). Instead it seems to be able to be quite fluid in its meaning depending on what aspects a person whish to refer to. This makes it even harder to grasp and give it a cryptic and even mysterious property I rarely see in relation to attributing identity.
If anyone have some good source where I can find a somewhat deeper understanding of it's meaning to fill my logic gap, I'd appreciate it very much.

Thank you for you patience!
Daniel
Sweden
May 22, 2013
Converts
Check out Numbers 9:14, you should treat a convert and a native born citizen the same
Gabriel
FL
March 26, 2013
Many genuine converts to Judaism are not treated properly. check out "Funny, you don't look jewish.' How can anyone justify this behavior?
JDV
November 28, 2012
The cost of participating fully in our faith. Perhaps, we as a community need to evaluate what we truly value as a people concerned with the future of our coming generations. When saying or thinking, " from strength to strength, from generation to generation ", let us come to mean the passing of culture and values and beleifs: and not, the passing of ritual endowments, bloated salaries and ill conceived facility expansions. Please, let us return to the humility of practice Hashem wants for us and needs to see in his people each and every day in all that we do and in all that we demonstrate to our children and to the world around us.
Yisroel Nissin
Rockland County, N.Y.
October 16, 2012
I agree Judaism starts at home
I grew up in an assimilated family. All I knew was the stories of my Aunty escaping from Germany. So I put the pieces together and have found I am Jewish.
I have no Jewish education or community. I just know I am Jewish from deep within. But I feel very alienated from the community not having been raised Jewish. I want to find my way home one day. It is painful how much I don't know about my faith.
Keren
Auckland
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