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What Makes Someone Jewish? It's More Than a Matter of Birth, A Hebrew Prayer or a Bit of Lox

(August 2007)

My sabbatical refreshed my batteries in so many ways, energizing me to plunge into the coming year with many new ideas and questions as I continue to consider the complexity of Jewish life in America. The very freedom we enjoy, far surpassing the wildest expectations of any Jewish community in history, is in large measure the source of this complexity. It gives rise to a question that interests me, a question that on the surface anyhow, seems almost silly, but one whose answer on a deeper level is not so apparent: What is it that makes a person Jewish? A first answer for most of us, and one that is both unsatisfactory and insufficient--for me anyway--is the birth answer. For most Jews, Jewishness is an accident of birth, but on a subtler, more personal level, I am curious as to what it is that makes us Jewish.

There is no formulaic list of activities, behavior or customs--including keeping kosher, celebrating Shabbat, studying the Torah, speaking Hebrew, saying certain prayers or even eating blintzes--that makes us Jewish. Some of us do all of these things, others do none of them. Similarly, there is no belief or set of beliefs that we each hold. My own conviction is that Judaism is simultaneously a complicated and creative process. Part of what makes us Jewish lies in the shared history that defines us. The significance of a shared history becomes clear when someone converts to Judaism. Those who convert are not asked to testify to a catechism of beliefs, rather whether they willingly "become part of the Jewish people in all circumstances and conditions." In the moment of conversion, peoplehood--becoming part of a shared narrative--is the defining feature. This is true for us as Americans as well. Plymouth Rock, for example, is part of our shared story.

Another part of what makes us Jewish lies in the very conversation that the question engenders. In other words, asking "What makes someone Jewish?" is, in a sense, a defining feature of Judaism. We are a conversation, a creative process, an ongoing discovery, an interaction of each individual Jew with the community, the surrounding culture and the received tradition.

The question is one I plan to ask regularly in the coming year. There are other accompanying questions. What does my being Jewish mean to me? Where in my life does my Judaism manifest itself? These questions have informed my own thinking as I have worked with the staff, board and various committees to plan the coming Micah year.

I am applying this question to the religious education that we offer our children. I have spoken on this now in two sermons, the annual meeting and the meeting welcoming Rabbi Susan Warshaw as our education director. (All of these remarks are available on our Web site.) What should we be teaching our children? How should we be teaching them? The answers to these questions are not so obvious to me. In order to help answer them, we are forming a task force on education that will meet throughout the next year and help us take a fresh look at what we are offering our children and what we might be doing to help create strong Jewish identities in them.

We are also taking advantage of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel next year to examine our relationship to Israel in a number of ways. We will have guest speakers throughout the year as well as a variety of other activities to help us celebrate Israel, study its history and culture and consider its significance to our own identities as American Jews.

The first part of our celebration of Israel at 60 will be with this year's Elul Project. Beginning with the first day of Elul (Aug. 15), a month prior to Rosh Hashanah, we will post on the Web site daily readings from contemporary Israeli writers or poets, Zionist thinkers and traditional Jewish sources from antiquity or the Middle Ages.

Finally, I would like you to mark your calendars now for what should be an incredibly special evening for us. We are planning a new wrinkle for the coming year's book fair, Nov. 18, at Politics and Prose. One of the books we will be featuring is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. It is one of those "must reads." On Dec. 15, Hedges will discuss his book with us during a special havdalah program. You will not want to miss this event. The book will open your eyes to what is happening around us. We will be offering appropriate age-level programs for children at this event.

I have come back from my sabbatical with the overriding conviction that Judaism is of paramount importance and that the Jewish people have a role to play in history--right here, right now. Our challenge at Temple Micah is to become a place where we can all discover the deep meaning of our lives and, in doing so, help reinvigorate an American Judaism that lacks a coherent vision and sense of purpose. We can do that. We are a community of amazing people. This coming year, we will engage in an incredible conversation.

by Ed Grossman last modified 01-27-2012 12:03 PM

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