What moves people to consider committing themselves to a serious,
active, traditional Jewish life?
I am not a sociologist, and I have not
done a formal survey, but twenty-five years of personal experience
has led me to recognize two very common motivations.
One is the
desire to investigate roots. I was born a Jew--what does that
mean? What is a Jewish identity? This desire is often coupled with
a painful realization of ignorance, and a suspicion that previous
sources of information have not been wholly accurate.
is a quest for a certain kind of personal growth--to incorporate
ideals, meaning and integration into one's life. The goal is to
contribute to a universal value based upon objective truth, rather
than merely chase personal pleasures.
These motivations vary in
strength and style from person to person. Nevertheless, some
shared elements can be described, together with the kinds of
responses which will help satisfy the inquirer's need.
1. Roots. Consider Joseph*, who graduated Yale Law School but
had a minimal Jewish education leading to his Bar Mitzvah.
him to yeshivah study in Jerusalem was the puzzle of martyrdom.
He was aware that throughout the millennia, millions of Jews have
died rather than give up Judaism. According to his Jewish
education, Judaism consisted of outmoded superstitions and
antiquated, irrelevant customs. Why would anyone die for that? (Of
course, he could simply have dismissed them all as misguided.
Instead he realized that he must be missing Judaism's essential
Or consider Uri.* Raised on a secular kibbutz in Israel, Uri had
no knowledge of, or interest, in Jewish tradition. He qualified as a
lifeguard and took a job at another secular kibbutz. When
he arrived to take up residence, he was given a tour of the premises.
He saw the dining hall, the pool, the cow shed, the chicken coop,
etc. Finally he was introduced to a pig which the kibbutz had
named Abraham. "A pig -- Abraham?!" he exclaimed. That
shocked him. But then he reflected: ''Why am I shocked? What do
I believe in? What is Abraham to me?" Nevertheless, he could not
make peace with such contempt for the first Jew.
Both Joseph and Uri eventually arrived at yeshiva to
explore their roots in depth. What kinds of response are useful for
someone engaged in such an exploration? Although there may be
many others, I find three to be especially important.
A. Jewish history. The unique experience of the Jewish people
over 3500 years needs to be portrayed with its essential themes
identified. Historians have not the vaguest ideas how to explain
Jewish survival, especially during the last 2000 years of exile. And
it is not "Jewish identity" or "Jewish cultural products" which
survive: Jews have been involved in assimilationist movements
throughout our history and those movements have not survived.
No--what survives is a specific way of life. Certain values,
beliefs, behaviors, literary sources and character types seem
historically indestructible. The uniqueness of the Jewish world-
view in the ancient world--one God embodying absolute power,
ideally ethical and demanding human moral striving; human
brotherhood leading to world peace and cooperation--is also
without explanation. Examining these and other historical topics is
a crucial step to a Jewish identity.
B. Contributions to world civilization. By any measure the
Jewish contribution to human life and thought is awesome. But
with monotheism and morality, Judaism gives the foundation of a
world-view 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!
C. Quality of life in traditional Jewish communities. Statistics
show that these communities are favorably distinguished from
their surroundings 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.) These differences represent
traditional Judaism in practice. The record indicates possession of
practical wisdom which again has no historical explanation.
These three responses go a long way towards instilling pride
in one's Jewish identity, and a desire to develop that identity
2. Personal growth. Here are two conversations from my
personal experience. The first took place at a Jewish fair in
Baltimore. The person to whom I was speaking--call him Fred--
exuded a magnificent contentment, self-confidence, self-satisfaction.
I wondered that a person could be so happy with his status
D.G.: ''Have you no goals for personal growth, no ideals of
self-improvement to which you aspire?"
D.G.: "But surely you are not perfect!"
Fred: "Oh, of course not!"
D.G.: "But look -- if you had a problem with your
business, you would study it, hire experts, etc., and work to
solve it. The same with your health. Why don t you want
to improve yourself as a person?"
Fred: "You're right, Rabbi--in business or health I would
try to improve the situation. But when it comes to myself
as a person, I accept myself as I am. I am happy, I sleep
well, I am content not to be better than I am."
At this point I was searching desperately for some way to
reach Fred and show him the shallowness of his outlook.
D.G.: "Fred, do you have children?"
Fred: "Yes, two sons aged fourteen and ten."
D.G.: "Imagine that your fourteen-year-old is caught
shoplifting by the police. When you confront him, he
admits it. Moreover, he tells you that he intends to
continue (more carefully, of course). 'But don't worry Dad,'
he adds, 'I am happy, I sleep well, I am content not to be
better than I am. What would you answer him?"
Suddenly Fred remembered a pressing appointment and
broke off the conversation.
The second case concerned a professor of engineering at a
West Coast university--let's call him Bob.
Bob: "Congratulate me--I just got a government grant!"
D.G.: "Congratulations! That's wonderful! Tell me, from
which agency did you get it?"
Bob: "It is an anti-pollution project."
D.G.: "Anti-pollution? I didn't know you were working on
anything like that."
Bob: "I'm not."
D.G.: "But then how did you get the grant?"
Bob: "Well, they need to build a certain machine. I told
them that in order to build the machine, they need to
rarefy a certain gas. To rarefy the gas they need a special
electric current, and I am building a component to produce
the current. They bought the story, so now I can complete
For once, I couldn't think of anything to say.
These conversations express an attitude of cynicism,
anti-idealism and lack of personal aspiration, which is very widespread.
Certain people find such an attitude appalling. "The unexamined
life is not worth living," said Socrates. And the purpose of
examination is not mere passive understanding; it is improvement.
A person's life is measured not only by what he has done, but also
by what he has become. I myself--my personality, my character,
my very identity--am one of my chief responsibilities, one of my
most central projects. And my actions must express and contribute
to my life's meaning and value.
For people with such goals and values, it is a delightful
discovery that traditional Judaism shares their concerns in full.
They find a philosophy and a variety of programs of
self-evaluation and growth. Even more important, they find people who
have incorporated these values into their lives. A crucial response to this
motivation is to introduce the inquirer to such people --
personally, if possible, or through biographies. It is also beneficial
to describe the consciousness achieved by people like themselves who
have decided to adopt a traditional Jewish life-style.
I met a woman in the second year of law school. Her
commitment to Judaism was only a few years old. When I asked
her what area of law she would specialize in, she told me:
"The truth is, I really like trial law. I debate well, the
psychology of the courtroom fascinates me, and I am by
nature a competitive person. But lately I have begun to
have doubts. Since I have become committed to traditional
Judaism I have been thinking about improving my character
traits. The competitiveness and aggressiveness of the
courtroom will not contribute to the person I want to
become. Until I make my decision I'm exploring tax law as
Another fellow, already ten years into his commitment
explained to me how his understanding of self-examination
"At first, when I heard about Yom Kippur, I was
excited. A whole day for honest self-evaluation and for
planning a better future! For a few years it was very
effective. Then I began to find that one day wasn't
enough. I found that the problems I was working on
required more time. About that time I realized that the
"Ten Days of Repentance" from Rosh Hashanah to Yom
Kippur should be just what their title says--the effort
should not be limited to one day, but spread over ten. That
was a big improvement and for a few more years I was
content. But then again it seemed that even ten days was
not enough to really get a handle on the steps I wanted to
take. And then it occurred to me that the tradition is to start
blowing the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul (thirty days before
the Ten Days of Repentance). That's when I should start my
efforts. Since then things have gone very well."
Stories such as these illustrate the personal depth, meaning
and idealism that traditional Judaism adds to one's life.
The prevalence of these two motivations for exploring
Judaism--the ethnic impulse and the desire for personal growth
-- is symptomatic of the failures of contemporary education,
Jewish and secular. A strong sense of Jewish identity is not
provided by non-traditional Jewish education. Rather, the emphasis
is on universal humanism, which downplays national and
cultural differences. In any case, it does nothing for the person who
wants to understand his uniqueness as a Jew. No wonder that this
type of Jewish education produces assimilation and intermarriage!
Furthermore, it creates false impressions about traditional Judaism
and Jews, implicitly and or explicitly.
Consider the question of a Jewish young man in Baltimore
who joined Hare Krishna. Observing my personal commitment
to Judaism, he asked: "Is there anyone else like you?"
This in Baltimore, home of a world-famous yeshivah
and a strong traditional community. Or consider the student in
Pittsburgh whose class was given an opportunity to question an
"Orthodox" woman. He asked about the "tassels" attached to
certain garments. She answered, "Those are called tzitzis. The
Torah says that every four-cornered garment should have them.
Nobody wears them anymore." When I was introduced to my
rabbi in 1962, the fellow who performed the introduction asked
me how many Chassidim I thought there were in the United States.
"You mean those people in the funny hats and the long black
coats? Maybe three." I answered. And I grew up in Westchester
County, a mere hour from Brooklyn. How often I meet the
expectation that traditional Jews must be uneducated,
unsophisticated bumpkins, somehow left over from the Middle Ages.
Yet among my religious friends I count members of all the professions
-- doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. -- including three with
Ph.D.'s from MIT. Misinformation such as this does nothing to
give a Jew a sense of his roots.
Equally severe, and far more pervasive, is the failure to
address the personal growth of the student. Educational institutions
rarely discuss personal goals, character development or
practical interpersonal relations. Part of the reluctance to do so
stems from the illusion that true democracy requires value-free
education. The result is that the values necessary for success in
school -- intelligence, competitiveness, scholarship, etc.-- are
rewarded and reinforced. Other values--cooperation, sympathy,
self-sacrifice, humility, etc.--are treated as optional or even
irrelevant by the school's silence. The effect is particularly tragic
on the interpersonal sphere. With 50% of marriages ending in
divorce, why are there no classes discussing communication,
shared responsibilities, money management and other marital
responsibilities? Surely knowing how to repair a damaged
friendship, or console someone in pain, is as important as
remembering the original thirteen states of America. Now for
people who are content with the usual round of work, television,
family and community, in that order, with the usual tensions and
disappointments, the lack of stimulus and tools for personal
growth merely reinforces the limits of their narrow, humdrum
lives. But for those who seek to develop noble character, sensitive
interpersonal relations, high ideals and a sense of life's significance,
personal growth demands attention.
When a Jew is moved by interest in his roots and personal
growth to explore Judaism with an open mind, we are challenged
to provide a sophisticated education and first-hand experience in a
sensitive environment. If we meet this challenge, the chances are
excellent that he will join the tens of thousands who have
committed themselves to their millennial Jewish heritage.
*Names and inessential details have been changed in order to insure anonymity.
Reprinted with permission from the The Informed Soul, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY 1990