It seems as though every Monday and Thursday someone is writing an article or a book in an attempt to answer the question, “Why be Jewish?”
This speaks to the pressure to assimilate, on the one hand, and the desire to preserve Judaism and the Jewish people, on the other. So it is that some feel the need to justify their own and others’ Jewish identities.
One of the most effective answers to this question is found in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, which begins with the injunction: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)
However, first the term “holy” must be unpacked. What exactly does it mean?
One level of meaning when translating the root Kuf, Dalet, Shin, is separate. Just as each individual is separate from every other individual, so, too, can peoples be separate from other peoples. This can be accomplished with physical boundaries, designed to keep others out. Boundaries, both individual and national, maintain integrity and identity. However, this type of boundary does not justify a particular identity.
Individuals and peoples can maintain a separation through rituals, religious and otherwise. Fireworks on July 4, turkey dinners on Thanksgiving, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem are rituals that bind citizens of the United States together and separate them from other nationalities. Shabbat observance, holy days, dietary laws and liturgy are rituals that bind Jews together and separate us from others.
These actions, in and of themselves, however, do not justify either an American identity, in the former case, or a Jewish identity, in the latter.
While Kedoshim certainly lists a few ritual means by which the Israelites are to demonstrate their holiness, many of the other means involve relationships with others. Refraining from gleaning one’s fields or picking one’s vines without leaving something for the poor, stealing, cheating, lying, oppressing others, withholding wages from employees, cursing the deaf, placing a stumbling block before the blind are a few of the means by which the Torah indicates that we can demonstrate holiness. We can distinguish ourselves, set ourselves apart through our actions. Treating everyone with whom we come into contact as someone within whom is implanted a spark of the Divine leads to holiness.
Why be Jewish? Because it is a means by which we Jews can become holy; live holy, meaningful lives; and emulate the Divine.
It is not through boundaries that we answer the question; it is not solely through rituals, either. We become a holy people — holy individuals — when we act not only according to the law but also in an ethical, moral manner.
Ideally, the inspiration for this comes from our rituals, from our Torah, from our traditions and from our prayers. Prayer, especially, though not exclusively, challenges us to become that for which we pray: stewards of Creation, loving students and teachers of Torah, redeemers of the oppressed, the enslaved and the downtrodden. Kashrut, with its concern for the manner in which animals are treated, elevates not only the consumption of animals for food but the treatment of all creatures, including our fellow human beings.
Why be Jewish? In order to elevate every element of life to a higher plane, to live an ethical, moral life and to care for others in a manner by which we would want to be cared.
Rabbi Josef A. Davidson, affiliated with Congregation B’nai Amoona, is retired and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.