Posted by: Clare Goldwater, Vice President for Jewish Experience on 8/10/2007 2:53:00 PM
Is this a question that resonates with you? Is it relevant? Difficult to answer?
For me, the answer is “yes” to all of the above. And I spent a few days recently with an interesting group of Jews, thinking about this very question.
I was privileged to be invited to the “Why be Jewish?” conference which was hosted by Hillel International Board of Governors and Board of Directors member Adam Bronfman and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The stated reason for the conference was that the Foundation has invested millions of dollars in projects and organizations, including Hillel, that promote Jewish survival and continuity and they have decided that the question “how do we continue Jewish life?” is much less important that the question, “why should we continue Jewish life?”. So, in order to address that question they invited a group of Jewish intellectuals and a few representatives of organizations that the Foundation funds, such as myself.
The group included academics, intellectuals, writers and institutional leaders. They included President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Dr. David Ellenson, New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier, Rabbi Avi Weiss, writer Anita Diament, Rabbi David Wolpe, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Tova Hartman, Brandeis Prof. Jonathan Sarna, Boston Hebrew College Rabbinical School Dean Rabbi Arthur Green and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi. In addition, there were also others who are friends and allies of Hillel in various ways (Jewish Life Network Executive Director Rabbi David Gedzelman, Jewish Outreach Institute Executive Director Kerry Olitzky, Rabbi Shai Held, MyJewishLearning.com Editor in Chief David Septimus and a few academics who are familiar with Hillel on their campuses).
We spent the better part of three days studying Jewish texts that provided different models for answering the question, “Why Be Jewish?” Among others, there was the Talmudic model (Judaism offers a powerful mode of debate, dialogue and discussion about life’s questions), the Mystical model (Judaism offers a way to access the mystical and the transcendent meaning of life), and the Rational Maimonidean model (Judaism offers a rational model for finding truth). But there were probably as many answers as there were people in the room.
While I was involved in the text study and the stimulating philosophical discussions, I was trying to translate it into the realities of life in Hillel. Do we at Hillel have good answers to why a student should embrace his or her Jewish life and potential? I am convinced that the question “Why be Jewish?” is one of the most crucial that we face, and that if we don’t have an articulated and compelling answer, or set of answers, we really have no reason to exist. If we don’t believe deeply that there is a compelling answer to this question, then there is no reason to expect that a student will choose Jewish life over any of the many competing options in front of them.
So, I am left with a few things to ponder and consider. Firstly, “Why Be Jewish?” is a really crucial question and we should all have our own articulation of an answer that drives our work. We need to find ways within Hillel to debate, share and discuss our different answers. And to learn from the diversity among us, and the different ways we approach the question. I also wonder whether Hillel needs to have a single answer, or whether we celebrate the many different answers that we all have. How do we embrace our diversity and pluralism, while – perhaps -- developing some consensus? I was also reminded that there are some really interesting and innovative people out there in the Jewish community, with all kinds of approaches to this question, and we don’t know each other well enough. They don’t know us, and we don’t know them. We have to build greater partnerships and relationships, perhaps by focusing on this central question.
So this is where the conference left me: No answers, just more questions. Probably the way it should be!
Please share your thoughts with me on this topic. I would love to hear your comments, and your answers to the question itself. email@example.com
RE: Why Be Jewish?
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