Why be Jewish?
I'm just out of college and struggling to forge my identity. I have strong Jewish feelings, but am meeting some really nice non-Jewish women and am having trouble articulating why Judaism is so central to my identity.
Can you tell me why I should hang in there with the Jewish people?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Let’s start with the classic “bad” reasons: Your grandma will be upset. Guilt is not a sufficient motivator, and certainly 3,300 years of Jewish history has been driven by much more powerful forces.
Imagine someone buying a microwave for the first time, and not thinking they need to read the instructions. They put some food covered in tin foil in the microwave, and it starts to spark dangerously. It may even ruin the microwave.
So too with life. Life is quite complex – how to pick the right spouse, how to attain true happiness, how to get in touch with your spiritual side, etc. Just as any complex piece of equipment comes with instructions, so too God gave the world a set of "instructions for living" – the Torah.
Everyone is looking for immortality. Some people build tall buildings and attach their name; others create great works of art that will hang in a museum. Historians have not the vaguest ideas how to explain Jewish survival, especially during the last 2,000 years of exile. And it is not "Jewish identity" or "Jewish cultural products" which survive: Jews have been involved in assimilationist movements throughout history and those movements have not survived.
Rather, what survives is a specific way of life. Jewish values, beliefs and traditions seem historically indestructible.
The strength of Judaism is that human needs and desires remain consistent throughout history.
Even though some things may seem outdated (e.g. "Reuven's ox gores Shimon's ox..."), these are paradigms that apply to a wide range of situations, for example auto accidents. Judaism provides specific guidelines and methodology for deriving new laws from existing principles. There is nothing that Torah does not address – artificial insemination, space travel, etc.
By any measure the Jewish contribution to human life and thought is awesome. But with monotheism and morality, Judaism gives the foundation of a worldview and the essential agenda for the future. When it is appreciated that both these elements are of Jewish origin, world history takes on a different aspect: The world steadily becomes more and more Jewish!
Beyond this is the quality of life in traditional Jewish communities. Statistics show that these communities have great success in many important respects, including violent crime, drug addiction, divorce and family relations, literacy and general intellectual development. (Note that perfection is not claimed, only favorable distinction.)
One more point: Why is it that through the centuries, our ancestors have endured the torments of exile, torture and ovens – yet continued to remain loyal to the Jewish people?
Obviously Judaism must have provided them with some deep dividends. The values that the civilized world takes for granted – monotheism, love your neighbor, peace on earth, justice for all, universal education, all men are created equal, dignity of the individual, the preciousness of life – are all from the Torah. This is an enormous impact and we accomplished it under the most adverse conditions.
Finally, I suggest you start in earnest by attending a Discovery seminar. It provides an excellent overview of Jewish history, philosophy, and literature. The seminar is given in hundreds of cities throughout the world. For a current schedule, visit www.aish.com/dis/