What Should Being Jewish Mean Today?

Why we need to reclaim the real Judaism from the stagnant institutions that don’t reflect the authentically Jewish passion for practical, ethical action.

Nir Kafri

In an age when being Jewish is mostly seen as a burden and less as a privilege, we must finally articulate answers to the most difficult of questions: Why be Jewish?

Traditionally, we have been instructed about the intricacies of what it means to be Jewish and how to engage in Judaism, but so often we ignore the “why?” We are part of a generation that mostly sees Judaism as stagnate, dull, and unimaginative. Young Jews are seeking meaning in an often chaotic world, but instead of turning towards Judaism they have found different outlets for answers. Why? Because we have failed to communicate the essence of Judaism.

The often quoted Pew Research Center Survey asked: What does being Jewish in America mean today? Seventy-three percent of American Jews responded: Remembering the Holocaust. Sixty-nine percent answered: Leading an ethical life.

Nevertheless, according to a recent Jewish Funders Network Association poll, twenty-five percent of the 120,000 Holocaust survivors living in America live below the poverty line. How can this be? We have failed to connect people’s vision of Judaism with practical action. Tragically, our religious institutions have undermined both what people want and what Judaism demands.

As Orthodox rabbis to be, we identify ourselves as part of the problem. We want to reclaim Judaism's foundation of ethical monotheism. When Abraham saw the world on fire with hatred and violence, he extinguished it with love and kindness. This is the true mission of the Jewish people and a distinguishing mark of Jewish identity.

Our sages teach, “Anyone who has compassion towards one’s fellow is considered a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Maimonides states emphatically that the purpose of the Torah is to bring mercy, loving kindness and peace upon the world. And yet, we often define religious observance solely based on adherence to ritual law, such as keeping Shabbat or kashrut, and not on how often we visit the sick or open our homes to the needy.

We must not belittle or denominate these interpersonal commandments by labeling them as “chesed projects” or “liberal Judaism.” We must adhere to them with the same religious fervor as commandments between people and God. We must search the streets to help the needy the same way we search our food for a kosher certification. We must guard our tongue as we guard Shabbat. We must stop creating a superficial dichotomy between our ritual and ethical life. The prophets even put greater importance on the ethical, as Hosea proclaims, "For I desire loving kindness, not sacrifice, acknowledgement of God, rather than burnt offerings."

On Yom Kippur, when Jews from nearly every walk of life gather in synagogue, we read Isaiah’s charge: “Is this the fast I desire? A day for people to starve their bodies...No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the chains of wickedness, dissolve the groups that pervert justice, let the oppressed go free, and break off every yoke.” As future rabbis, we will define our observance of Yom Kippur not solely based on the number of synagogue attendees, but by the day after, when we volunteer in our community’s soup kitchens, deliver meals to the hungry and ensure that each sukkah we build is open for all.

Humankind’s first question in the Torah is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer we must offer, as Jews, is a resounding yes. Humankind’s responsibility towards the other is not merely an ethical imperative but a religious obligation. The Hasidic masters teach that every generation has its own unique mitzvah, a specific call to action. In the last ten years, we have witnessed an explosion of Jewish non-profits dedicated to social justice. Instead of viewing the Pew Survey’s statistics on diminishing Jewish involvement as a death sentence, we must capitalize on our generation’s thirst for ethics by providing practical opportunities for people to participate in an ongoing way. The synagogue must be transformed to meet our generational needs.

“Oy, s’iz shver tsu zayn a yid,” is the classic Yiddish refrain. It’s hard to be a Jew! So why be one? Because the world needs you. The Maharal of Prague stated: “If there is no kindness in the world, the world cannot stand.” You too are part of a revolution of kindness that started in the desert plains of Israel and still lives today, despite countless Pharaohs who have arisen in each generation.

Help us reimagine Judaism and make it the creative, inspiring and hopeful enterprise it was meant to be. What we are advocating for has been the charge of our patriarchs, prophets and sages since the dawn of Judaism. Our rabbinate will be rooted in love and openness but we cannot do it alone. It’s time to reclaim Judaism.

Jon Leener is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the rabbinic intern at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, MD. Follow him on Twitter: @jonleener

Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and serves as the rabbinic intern at Hunter College Hillel and at The Carlebach Shul in New York City.