The Jewish Thing About Jewish Things
We Jews are not very adept at explaining why Judaism is so remarkable.
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When I was a child, my family would be sitting around the dinner table in our Reform Jewish home. Someone’s name would come up — usually, a famous someone — and my mom or dad would randomly add, “You know, they’re Jewish!” Then, I would say, sometimes to myself and other times out-loud, “Who cares?” or “So what?”
Looking back, my parents were simply proud to be Jewish; the idea of having something so tied to their identity — Judaism — in common with a famous person probably seemed remarkable to them. As I get older, I find myself playing the “You know, they’re Jewish!” card more and more, because I have come to grasp that Judaism is indeed super remarkable.
The problem is, we Jews are not very adept at explaining why Judaism is so remarkable. Jewish organizations never fail to tout Judaism’s greatness — sometimes to a fault — but few talk about why it is so great.
And hardly any of them impress upon us the symbiosis between Judaism and other strands of life, creating an intellectual hurdle for the everyday person — Jewish and non-Jewish — to understand how Judaism can add contemporary value to their career, their relationships, their hobbies, their soul, and so forth.
We’re kind of like the people who bake a delicious cake, and when someone asks for the recipe, they say: “Sorry, I wish I could tell you, but it’s a secret.”
Does anyone really like those people?
As it stands, Judaism is often relegated to nationhood in Israel, and to religion in the rest of the world. Please don’t get me wrong: There is much to be appreciated about Judaism’s religious and Zionist facets. But what is one to think and feel about Judaism if they are not particularly religious and/or Zionist? Or if they are merely apathetic to Judaism as a religion and/or as a nation?
If you are not religious, and think Judaism is just a religion, it is natural to write it off as “not for me.” If you do not live in Israel, or if you do not have a real relationship with this land or country, it is normal that you would not really care what happens in the Jewish state. And it is sensical that you might have an adverse reaction to peculiar activities which transpire here.
What’s more, us Jews seem to be obsessed with facts and numbers. We love to note that the Jewish People has survived for some 4,000 years, or that Israelis invented, say, the cherry tomato. Whether these facts are interesting or impressive is not all that relevant; what matters is how they contribute, in a meaningful way, to people’s lives in 2024 and beyond.
Within the context of a world which offers virtually unlimited, on-demand value at our fingertips, Judaism seems to be exponentially invaluable, irrelevant, or unimpressive to a growing number of people — both Jews and non-Jews alike. I used to be one of these people; growing up in Los Angeles, and studying journalism at San Diego State University, I saw much more value in sports, my budding career, women, and partying than I did in Judaism. Anything Jewish always felt like something I had to do, not ever something I desired to do.
Nowadays, a decade after earning my bachelor’s degree, I am on a personal journey to learn more about Judaism, and about what it means to be and do Jewish (more on the “do” part later in this essay). The more I learn, the more I want to discover more. There is so much day-to-day value in thinking and living Jewishly.
And, yet, a good portion of you reading this will presume I became a religious Jew. Quite the opposite. I am as secular as I have ever been. I do not attend a synagogue or pray or keep Kosher or observe Shabbat. I am simply using different aspects of Judaism to improve myself, my habits, my career, my relationships, and so forth.
The more I learn about Judaism, the more I understand that Jewish complexity runs so historically, geographically, and materially deep. Whereas many people try to simplify Judaism — some call it a religion; others a culture and lifestyle; still others a nationality and ethnicity — Judaism is none of them and all of them at the same time!
Judaism, for instance, is the reason we have a weekend — you know, the end of a week, to encourage rest and relaxation, a clear separation between the week that was and the one ahead. In Judaism, we call it Shabbat, lighting the Havdalah candle (which in Hebrew literally means “differentiation” or “separation”) on Saturday evenings at sundown to mark the Sabbath’s end and usher in the new week.
Having a fixed day of rest was most likely first practiced in Judaism, dating back to the sixth century BC, according to Eviatar Zerubavel in his book, “The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week.” In 1908, the first five-day workweek in the United States was instituted by a New England cotton mill, so that Jewish workers did not need to work on the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.1
“Shabbat is a gift for all living creatures, humans and animals, Jews and non-Jews,” wrote author Zack Bodner. “In a world that doesn’t stop moving, it is permission to stop. In this moment when we are charging ahead, Shabbat is our license to catch our breath.”2
Judaism also contributed to schools and scholarships as we know them. Elementary school learning was regarded as compulsory by Simeon ben Shetah as early as 75 BCE and Joshua ben Gamla in 64 CE. The education of older boys and men in a beit midrash (study hall) goes back to the Second Temple period.
And the Talmud stresses importance of education, stating that children should begin school at age six. Rabbis added that they should not be beaten with a stick or cane, that older students should help younger ones, and that children should not be kept from their lessons by other duties.
Furthermore, Judaism honors wisdom, which is why Jewish sages used to ask: Why was the Torah presented to Jews in a desert? Because deserts are empty, a metaphor that we can only accept wisdom when we create space for it.
Judaism also promotes friendship, love, healthy relationships, shared humanity, and collaboration. According to one famous story in the Talmud, a potential Jewish convert approached Rabbi Hillel, saying: “I’ll convert to Judaism if you can share the entire Torah standing on one foot.” Without missing a beat, Hillel replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go learn them.”3
In another Talmudic tale, Honi the Circle Maker saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him how long it takes to bear fruit. “70 years,” the man replied, to which Honi wondered aloud, “Are you certain that you will live another 70 years?” The man pondered Honi’s question, and then said, “I found carob trees in this world planted for me by my ancestors, so I am planting these for my descendants.”4
Finally, Judaism demands we live a purposeful life. “Jewish consciousness says that, before doing anything, stop to ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this?’” the late Rabbi Noah Weinberg said.
The problem with Judaism, then, is that a significant, growing group of people simply do not know how Judaism and the Jewish People have influenced and continue to impact each other, humanity, and the greater world. They say, “give credit where credit is due,” but if we do not know what is to credit, how can we possibly give it?
Once upon a time, Judaism was relatively straightforward. Reform, Conservative, even Orthodox Judaism were nowhere to be found, believe it or not. “They did not exist,” said the great Jewish educator Avraham Infeld, “because we did not define ourselves as a religion.”5
Today, for a variety of sociological, geographical, economical, historical, political, and religious reasons, Judaism has become a smorgasbord. Present-day Jewish children, for instance, learn one thing in the State of Israel, another in the Land of Israel, and still another in the Diaspora. Conversely, the Jews of a thousand years ago, give or take, started studying the written Torah at age five, the oral Torah at 10, the mitzvot at 13, and the Talmud at 15.
Today’s Jews are standing on increasingly uncommon ground, so much so that many of us are beginning to vehemently disagree about what the heck Judaism is, why it matters, what it stands for, to which areas we should allocate more resources, who is and is not a Jew, and how vastly we should expand our so-called tent. Micah Goodman, author of “The Wondering Jew,” uttered the inconvenient truth:
“All Jews are welcome, but their preferred form of Judaism might not be.”
If you, like me, wonder why basic Jewish unity does not seem to exist these days — both among Jews, and between Jews and the greater non-Jewish world — I do not think it is because some Jews are so fiercely God-loving and -fearing, while others live without an inkling of HaShem.
Or because some Jews devoutly observe Jewish holidays and perform Jewish rituals, while others are “just Jewish.” Or because some Jews cannot imagine a world without Israel, while others do not understand and care about the need for a Jewish state. Or because some Jewish parents send their Jewish children to Jewish schools, while others opt for secular education.
Basic Jewish unity does not seem to exist these days because so many of us Jews have stopped being God’s partners in creation, the original point of Jewish purpose on Earth. (Whether or not you subscribe to the God part is a different conversation for a different time.)
Rather, so many of us have become God’s partners in prosecution, arm-chair judges who are so quick to condemn others’ Judaism, as if our version is somehow superior. We criticize based on face value and vanity, at the expense of channeling genuine curiosity to seek nuance, context, background, and depth. We have become so seduced by our own mildly informed opinions and intoxicating echo chambers that we become blinded to and uninterested in truth, or at least the pursuit of it.
I say there is a different way, a promising path to Jewish unity (not to be confused with Jewish homogeneity). We ought to celebrate our similarities, and appreciate our differences.
“Only when we understand Judaism in the context of Peoplehood can we begin to understand what it means to be Jewish,” wrote Avraham Infeld. “And only when we see ourselves as part of a People will Judaism unite — instead of divide — us.”
The legendary Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am also believed in this approach, despite his robust secular position that Jewish religion is the offspring of Jewish culture, and not the other way around.
He tried to cultivate sympathy and understanding toward Jewish religion among secularists, just as he saw fit to demand that “enlightened” observant Jews accept secularists and cooperate with them for the sake of common ends.
“There is in the spirit of our people,” wrote Ha’am, “something special, even if we do not know what it is, that makes it swerve from the smooth path of other nations.”
“Waiting for the Weekend.” The Atlantic.
Bodner, Zack. “Why Do Jewish?” Gefen.
Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
Talmud, Taanit 23a.
“Who is a Jew? Peoplehood Versus Religion.” eJewish Philanthropy.