You’ve heard the negatives –
you’ve lived them – well, some of them –
and complained about them – right? –
(but only every once in a while…)
Now we’re going to focus on the positives.
When we first started this project, several years ago – we asked our friends and associates,
“What would you say is so
great about being Jewish?”
And we received answers like these:
Bagels with cream cheese and lox,
Bar Mitzvah parties,
You can get it ‘for wholesale,’
Matzoh ball soup.
These are lovely, delightful, delicious “customs” if you will – (plus one super-talented, neurotic personality) – BUT – they are not what our ancestors were willing to lay down their lives for over the course of thousands of years in order to preserve Judaism for future generations. They actually have little to do with what being Jewish isreally about.
So we started compiling a list of more substantial reasons – and that has become:
18 FUNDAMENTAL AND PROFOUND REASONS WHY IT’S GREAT TO BE JEWISH.
1. YOU ARE PART OF AN EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE – a great people with a great history going back more than 3,500 years.
Judaism has given the world some of its finest, most basic concepts and institutions for civilization:
- The concept of One God for all the Universe;
- The Ten Commandments – the building blocks of civilization;
- A religion that integrates ETHICAL BEHAVIOR with everyday life AND religious practice;
- The judicial way of thinking with high regard for justice and laws that apply toeveryone, based on Torah and developed by our sages through the creation of the Talmud;
- The concept of a seven day week with the seventh day – the Sabbath – for rest.
Wherever Jews have gone in the world, they have brought with them lively religious, cultural and commercial life. The love that the Jewish people have for their religion, culture and beliefs has kept Judaism alive and vibrant for thousands of years despite persecution and oppression throughout our history.
Jews have consistently held that our religious beliefs and practices are so great – so special – so precious and unique – that they are worth dying for. And so we have – unfortunately – had to die over the millenia – simply because we were Jews.
But as a result Judaism LIVES ON! – because our ancestors so valued it that they were willing to give their lives – so that we can know it – practice it – and value it, too!
No other culture has survived for so long without a homeland as Jews have for almost two thousand years, until the homeland of eretz Y’Israel was regained in 1948.
The Jewish People has produced some of the greatest thinkers, scientists, doctors, philosophers, theologians, psychiatrists, merchants, entrepeneurs, inventors, jurists, therapists, writers, artists, actors, singers and song writers, filmmakers – and comedians – the world has known. We’re an extraordinary people that has consistently made an extraordinary contribution to the world – far out of proportion to our numbers – and we’re still doing it! – and we can be proud of that.
2. THE JEWISH VALUE SYSTEM. Intrinsic to Judaism is a value system that emphasizes honesty, justice and compassion above all else. When the great sage Hillel was asked over two thousand years ago to recite, while standing on one foot, what the essence of Judaism is, he replied, “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you.” And he added, “All the rest is commentary. Now go and study…” Christianity took this concept, changed the wording and called it The Golden Rule. But in essence, it’s Jewish in origin and practice. And it’s a magnificent cornerstone of civilization and compassionate behavior.
3. FREEDOM AND DIGNITY. Belief in individual freedom is woven into the fabric of Judaism. The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the central drama of our Torah that is retold each year at Passover, is the oldest continuous celebration of freedom in recorded history. Given this core value and an annual celebration held dear by most Jews, it’s no accident that Jews have been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom for others, wherever they are oppressed. It is part and parcel of who we are and what we believe.
4. MAKING LIFE MEANINGFUL. Being part of this great people, and practicing Judaism, can make life more meaningful for you and for those you love – on a very personal level. Through its beliefs, practices and traditions, Judaism addresses what it means to be a human being – the anguish of suffering, the mystery of love, the power of human connection, the importance of family, the meaning and purpose of our lives are all addressed through Jewish thought, prayer and rituals and the vast literature that has come down to us through the ages.
And Jewish answers to tough questions about life and death, good and evil and other major issues, are rarely simplistic and ready-made, but rather more shaded and complex, attempting to give us the tools to grapple with these profound questions within our own hearts and minds.
5. JEWISH FAMILY LIFE. Jewish rituals, festivals and observance help support and sustain a healthy, happy, balanced and stable family life within a strong and supportive community. Observing holidays, going to synagogue, practicing the rituals, studying Jewish ideas and texts, all help to connect family members to each other as well as to the community.
When family and friends come together at the end of the week – on Friday evening – to share a festive meal in celebration of Shabbat and peace and solid values, they are taking part in a beautiful ancient ritual that is one of the great delights of Judaism.
Home and family are central to Jewish rituals and festival observance – but single people are included, too. Every Jew counts!
6. GOOD DEEDS. Judaism connects belief with action. Maimonides – the great 12th century sage – suggested that we consider the world evenly balanced between good and evil. When we perform good deeds, we tip the balance of the world towards good – and if we do evil, it goes the other way. Thus our acts can tip the balance of the world – in favor of good or evil! It’s a great way to envision how powerful each of us is to affect the world and those around us.
We are taught as Jews that not only is it good to help the poor, but we’re actuallyrequired to help the poor on a regular basis. Traditional Jewish law says that we must give a portion of our income to charity, whether we feel like it or not. We’re not to wait ‘til we’re “in the mood” to be charitable. First we give, then, hopefully, we will come to feel empathy, if we didn’t already. But whether we feel empathy or not, we have performed the good deed.
There is no act in Judaism considered higher than giving “tzedaka” – charity. It’s one of many brilliant Jewish laws and values that help make the world a better place for all to live in.
7. LIFE ON EARTH. Because Judaism emphasizes life as it is lived on earth, rather than the afterlife, importance is placed on working to repair – even perfect – the world; to struggle against injustice, to make life better for all, especially the poor and oppressed. This concept is called Tikkun Olam. It means to repair the world.
It’s one reason why so many Jews are active in causes that support freedom, justice and well-being for all peoples. It is part of the fabric of being Jewish.
Also, because of the emphasis on deeds rather than belief, you can, technically speaking, be a practicing Jew and an atheist or agnostic at the same time – though as you learn more and more about Judaism, and increase your practice, you might be inclined, less and less, to maintain such a belief.
8. A GREAT THEOLOGY. Judaism is based on a great theological idea – that there is one God – infinite, all-knowing and eternal, unseeable and unknowable – there is none else. There are not different gods for every people, region or tribe – but only one God for all on earth – or anywhere else in the universe…
And, unlike many other religions, Judaism teaches that everyone who leads a good life – whether Jewish or not – is rewarded with a share in the world to come.
In addition, Jewish theology is complex and nuanced – not simplistic. Judaism is rare among world religions for its many-faceted theology. Though all Jewish theology is based on the immutable belief that there is only one God who is infinite, eternal and undefinable, there is a wide range of ways to envision God, perhaps especially because Judaism acknowledges that God is unseeable and unknowable. The sages of the Talmud, the Kabbalists and the 18th century Hassidic Rebbes were all extraordinarily creative and insightful in articulating ways of understanding God. And their thinking – as well as that of more modern thinkers – is available to all of us through the study of their words and thoughts.
9. CONNECTION TO THE ETERNAL FORCE. Judaism offers a way to connect with God through prayer – to pray for strength and guidance when dealing with difficulties, to be grateful for all that has been given to you, to recognize what is important and holy in life.
Did you know there’s a blessing to say when you hear thunder? – and another for when you see a rainbow? And yet another for when you get together with old friends? Isn’t that lovely? Such prayers help us to appreciate the beauty and miracle of life and in that way they elevate us – they help us to value – to savor – the goodness in life; they help us to feel good about being alive.
10. JEWISH COMMUNITY. Judaism is a COMMUNITY RELIGION. We pray as a community – the words to our prayers are in the PLURAL – we observe as a community, we’re set up to always FORM a COMMUNITY. Jewish customs and laws actually REQUIRE a COMMUNITY.
Even the very basic concept of prayer that requires a Minyan (a minimum of ten) to take place, requires COMMUNITY. It’s a wonderful concept – EVERYONE COUNTS! Of course everyone can pray individually any time – Everyone who seeks God has direct access to God. But we pray as a group in a specified way; the Prayer Service requires a Minyan of Ten – that is COMMUNITY. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why Judaism has survived for so long.
Not only the Minyan of ten required for prayer, but the laws of kashrut (kosher food), the celebrations of holidays, the keeping of Shabbat – it all works beautifully as a SYSTEM that requires a COMMUNITY to support it. Celebrating Shabbat at home alone is very pale compared to celebrating with other Jews, in the context of a Jewish community.
11. JEWISH HOLIDAYS are deeply meaningful. If you actually listen to the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – well, there’s nothing DEEPER than this stuff! It reminds you that your days are numbered! What are you doing with the precious “numbered” days of your life?! Are you engaged in MEANINGFUL activities?! Meaningful thoughts? Are your acts the acts of a GOOD, MORAL PERSON? Are you making a CONTRIBUTION to the world?
In addition, the traditions that go with these holidays – and all the others – are warm and memorable and almost always delicious!
Jewish Holidays – all of them – not just the Big Ones – deepen our connection to Judaism and Jewish values, to each other, to the Jewish community at large – and from generation to generation.
Most Jews know about Pesach – when we have the Passover Seder, read the Haggadah, eat matzoh and drink four cups of wine, etc. But what do you know of Succot? Succot is ALMOST as great as Pesach! In the beautiful days of autumn, when the air is crisp and the leaves are turning glorious colors, Jews scrunchtogether in a little shelter – a tent or hut, with an open roof, no less – (You must be able to see the stars through the roof – How’s that for a law?) – called a Succah – where you say prayers and drink wine and eat a delicious meal This is key! – you can’t just go for a quick prayer and a sip of wine – you must SIT AND ENJOY A MEAL – and tell stories and talk about philosophy and Torah and history and inevitably someone tells Jewish jokes and a few get tipsy and almost always you laugh a lot. As one young man (a baal tschuvah – a returnee to traditional Judaism) said: It’s like the best dinner party you ever went to. So true! Don’t miss the next Succot – it comes in the fall, four days after Yom Kippur.
12. SHABBAT. This is one of the great institutions in all the world. Of course Judaism gave the world this special Day of Rest that is observed – one way or another – throughout the civilized world. But that doesn’t begin to explain and describe what is so special – so unique – so wonderful about Shabbat.
Many people have the perception that observing Shabbat is a difficult, painful, MISERABLE exercise because of all the prohibitions. But Shabbat is not about those prohibitions at all – it’s about creating a very special time – a time for not only rest but Spiritual Elevation – Holiness – Connection with G-d and your fellow man (and woman, of course) and spiritual ideals – to come into your life. And it is, in fact, theprohibitions, as well as the customs and requirements, that set the stage for that special Aura to envelope the space around you.
We personally had nothing but a negative view of all of this “ridiculous business” UNTIL WE ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED SHABBAT WITH THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY. And then – over time – (it took a while) – we began to “get it.” We began to see that this day was truly special and the specialness was created by several factors.
Among them was that the community goes through major preparations – because of the prohibitions of things you cannot do on the Sabbath. So even the Preparation Time – with everyone rushing about to get ready before sundown on Friday – adds to creating something special about this day. There is something about a whole community preparing to BATTEN DOWN – close up – shut off the noise of the world and move into a special time when gathering with families and friends becomes paramount – when going to Synagogue and studying spiritual ideas is central – when meals are especially warm and joyous – when there are beautiful rituals to be performed and lovely songs to be sung and ancient melodies to be chanted – when rest is practically mandated. It’s totally unique – totally special. You FEEL DIFFERENT when you are observing Shabbat – you feel different AFTER you’ve observed Shabbat.
Shabbat is a very big subject – complex and hard to explain. Perhaps the best way to understand it is to EXPERIENCE a Shabbat – or part of a Shabbat – with those who are observant. If you approach it delicately and with respect you will get a taste of why and how it’s so special.
We say: Don’t turn your nose up at it – take a peek into that world and see why it is said that the Jewish people didn’t so much keep Shabbat over the centuries as SHABBAT KEPT THE JEWISH PEOPLE. We came to see how that is truly true.
13. JEWISH COMFORT. Life can be very hard – very harsh – very sad and tragic. There can be illness, terrible upheavals, the death of a loved one. Judaism offers comfort on a very profound level. There are prayers and rituals and systems for mourning, remembering and honoring – there are comforting customs – there’s the community to share your grief – to visit you in the hospital – there’s Rabbinic counselling – much of it on an extremely high AND deep level. When you are in need of comfort, its a wonderful thing to be able to turn to your Judaism and get that comfort.
14. THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING. Judaism is the original Positive Thinking religion. Every thought – every lesson – every ideal is positive – from love of God to insisting on standards of justice, from saying a blessing before we eat to refusing to rejoice at the death of our enemies – and including thanking God for the rainbow when we see it.
The Torah says: Choose Life! – so that you may LIVE LIFE! – that is, THRIVE and prosper! – under the laws given at Mount Sinai – in other words, in a CIVILIZED and SPIRITUAL CONTEXT. It’s all TOTALLY POSITIVE.
15. JEWISH STUDY – JEWISH BOOKS. Oi! Do we have a lot! You could study 24 hours a day and still barely make a dent in the material available. And that’s WONDERFUL! – because there really IS a great deal to study and discuss in this world – in subjects that Judaism touches upon – from, Why are we here? – What’s the point of it all? – to What does the Talmud actually SAY? – and including, Have you heard the one about the Jewish Grandmother who….?
We say: Take a class – Join a Book Discussion Group – get a degree! – meet people – make new friends – there’s just so much DOING in Jewish learning! It’s all over the place and it’s really interesting stuff. And it’s fun to study with Jews. Many of us are smart and very well educated – and funny! Join up today!
(Or – simply order a book from our Shop Kehillah! Boutique – there’s a million – at least – well, almost. You’ll be helping to support KEHILLAH…)
16. THE TORAH – This is the basic text of Judaism – How we came to be a people – the stories of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs – (You’ve heard of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?…) – their stories are amazing – and touching – they’re not simplistic goodie-goodie tales – but filled with complex elements and contradictions – and dark sides as well as the more upbeat side. There is the epic tale of Moses leading the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt into freedom – and receiving God’s law at Mount Sinai – and through it all are the laws. It is endlessly fascinating – and it’s meaty enough to be discussed each week in synagogues all around the world.
In additon, there’s the Talmud – this great, magnificent creation – over 2000 years old – that actually forms the basis for much modern-day legal thinking – including our American system of justice – not only in Judaism. It’s a brilliant document – and very colorful. When you study it, you get to know the great sages who hammered out Jewish law and practices that have shaped Judaism for 2000 years.
You can’t simply sit down and READ the Talmud – it’s too complex and different. You can only STUDY it – with a partner – or a group – under the guidance of someone who KNOWS how to study Talmud. It’s a very special document, written in a special way. And now it’s been translated into English in a very distinguished edition published by Art Scroll. See if there’s a Talmud class near you. It’s an unbelievable experience to study this master work – only 68 volumes long!….
In Judaism, you don’t “just read” anything – you STUDY it – you DISCUSS it – you DEBATE it – you ARGUE it – you MULL it over and RE-THINK it… And that is one of the beauties of Judaism – you’re always THINKING, MULLING, STUDYING, READING – it’s very deep and challenging and SMART! And that is something that many of us just ADORE.
17. HOLINESS. Judaism attempts to bring holiness down to everyday life – and to bring every day life up toward holiness. When you say a prayer before you eat, you are bringing holiness to the very mundane act of eating. When you make your home Kosher, you are bringing holiness into your home. When you say a prayer as you set out on a journey – you’re bringing holiness to something that still today has elements of fear and anxiety in it – more than ever, today! Traditional Judaism infuses everyday life with holiness. That’s not such a bad idea!
18. JEWS ARE WONDERFUL PEOPLE. We are very varied, of course – but there are so many kind, caring, compassionate, understanding, creative, smart, sharp-as-a-tack, funny, delightful, brilliant and generous Jews. It’s nice to be with Jews!
These are only a few of the myriad reasons why it’s great to be Jewish. There’s so much more waiting for you to discover. We urge you to attend Jewish activities, classes and synagogue and to read books and articles that further your education. The world of Jewish learning is absolutely huge and fascinating. You’ve made a start by reading this far. We hope you’ll take the next step – whatever step is right for you…
Read more at www.ikehillah.org