The question “Why Be Jewish?” is impossible to answer in a short blog post. Edgar Bronfman, of blessed memory, explored the idea in an entire book, providing him the opportunity to describe the lessons he gleaned from the last decades of his life when studying Judaism was a central passion.
Since I only have this small space, not a whole book, I’ve summarized my answer in nine words: I am Jewish for me, not for my kids. Though now of course I ought to explain what I mean.
At Kveller, a site about raising Jewish families, perhaps it’s unexpected to take the next generation out of the equation when answering the question, “Why be Jewish?” Continuity has been the banner of “Why be Jewish?” for too long among Jewish organizations and within families. But I don’t believe the goal of continuity is a compelling reason to be Jewish, do Jewish, or stay Jewish. How can we ask our children to continue what we adults might not yet have continued for ourselves?
Continuity is a guilt proposition. Continuity implies that I ought to be Jewish because those who came before me were Jewish. Perhaps honoring our ancestors, especially those who remained Jewish against significant odds, can serve as one of many reasons to make space for Judaism in our lives. But how can “continuity” function as a genuine source of inspiration in a single generation, let alone hundreds of generations? Continuity of what? What is so special about Judaism? If the adults in the house can’t answer that question, why should the kids feel compelled to continue the faith, tradition, and culture?
Why am I Jewish? Yes, I was born to Jewish parents, but I have no problem admitting that I am selfishly what I call “adult Jewish” for me, not for my kids. Likewise I hope if my kids choose to stay Jewish (not simply “be” Jewish adults but to “live” as Jews in whatever form that takes) that they will do so for all that Judaism offers to their lives, not for the sake of their parents and grandparents, and not only for the sake of their own children, which can too often leave Judaism stuck in the realm of cutesy holiday songs and crafts.
What does Judaism offer my life in the adult form that I find so compelling? In her book “Spiritual Boredom,” writer Dr. Erica Brown articulates what I feel Judaism adds to my life: “Judaism, at its best, creates islands of sanctity of time and space. It answers the question ‘What shall I do?’ through a system of commandments that demand introspection, social action, and divine service, all answering the real question, ‘Who am I?’”
That system Brown refers to, Judaism, is not something I do perfectly, not even close. (Every rabbi I’ve ever studied with acknowledges that each person has room to grow.) Like Bronfman in the last decades of his life, I am always learning about Judaism as an adult. While I struggle to implement its tenets, I take pleasure and satisfaction in absorbing as much wisdom as I can from teachers in my community, teachers in books, and even good thinkers around the internet where there is no shortage of great material about Judaism and adult-centered conversations about faith.
Do I agree with everything I read and hear? No. Do I implement everything I learn? No. But do I struggle with Judaism in a way I believe adds tremendously to my life? Yes! Struggling with Judaism means engaging in the world below the surface of everyday life. The struggle, the wresting with it all—that is the point.
The Judaism my kids see their parents engage in it at home is full of inquiry, tradition, and attempts at personal improvement. We don’t always reach our goals, but they see us trying. Perhaps when my kids are adults they will decide that their Jewish heritage is not the path for them, but I won’t regret imbuing my adult life with the richness of Judaism.