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What Does It Mean To Be Jewish Today?

Posted by Yussel's Place Judaica on

What does it mean to be Jewish in today's world? Three prominent Jewish professionals provide their insights. What do you think?  

Blu Greenberg
To be a Jew is to live a joyous, vulnerable, purposeful existence, mindful of the noble legacy we carry and the incredible ethics Judaism contributed to the world. It is to take enormous pride in the Jewish state and in Jewish contributions all around the world. It is to feel responsible for all Jews, no matter where they are and to care for the downtrodden, the outsider and the stranger in our midst. It is exhilaration in the cup half full—the many ways Judaism has integrated the new feminist values. It is to be grateful for the core value of family that tradition contributes to my life. It is sitting in shul, people-watching and loving my community more than conversing with God, yet deeply sensing the two go hand in hand. It is to believe in God at some moments but not others—accepting this as all-of-a-piece in an ongoing faith. It is to be forever scarred by the Holocaust, yet because of it more intensely bound up with our partners in the covenant. It is to worry about and marvel at Israel in its ethical, restrained use of power despite continuous war and threats to its existence. I have faith in the promise of an eternal people, yet I know it demands of us a continuous struggle to stay alive. What a great gift to be chosen to walk through history as a Jew, a direct descendant of those who stood at Sinai and accepted the mission that is not yet finished! I know what it took my ancestors to get me here as a Jew, and I intend to make the same effort for my line, improving the world, I hope, in the process. 

Blu Greenberg is the founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and author of On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.


Jerome Groopman
Being Jewish is a dynamic struggle with identity. It’s Jacob with the angel, or whoever it is who comes in the middle of the night to wrestle with him. That’s what Jews do: We wrestle with God, we wrestle with others, and, most fundamentally, we wrestle with ourselves. One of the wonderful legacies of Jewish thought is challenging authority and doubting. As a scientist, I believe that real scientific progress comes from being an iconoclast, smashing idols in the tradition of Abraham so that you challenge traditional wisdom. You don’t accept things at face value, and you demand a great deal of yourself with regard to the validity of your knowledge. The excitement and the energy of science comes from disputes, and the Talmud is nothing but great authorities arguing with themselves. As a physician who takes care of patients, I look to the wonderful prayer (refuat hanefesh u’refuat haguf) for the healing of spirit and body. Judaism long ago appreciated these two dimensions in the experience of illness. As a real-world, pragmatic people, we are determined to do everything possible to improve the physical condition of the person but understand that there is an emotional, psychological and spiritual dimension that also needs to be addressed. What we call “healing” requires both. As a writer, I remember that we are people of books who understand that words have power. There are rabbinic injunctions against using words incorrectly and false testimony. What I extrapolate from our tradition is that the words I offer in public to describe science and medicine have to be carefully chosen and, as best as possible, filled with truth. 

Jerome Groopman is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Roya Hakakian
I was a lot less open to the idea of being a Jew as a teenager in Iran because the context in which I could exercise my Judaism was not a democratic one. When I emigrated to the United States in 1985, however, I had options. Living in a democracy means that Judaism is not a monochromatic exercise, it is a multi-colored fact, a brilliant spectrum of many possibilities in which the range is so vast that all of us can find a shade that becomes us and allows us to continue to identify as Jewish. I love that our task for the Day of Atonement is to collectively read a single book in a day. One community, one book project. This is what we do as Jews: We read. Our connection with the higher authority is through a very rigorous exercise of reading. Human religious proxies are dangerous because it is easier to manipulate people this way. If there is to be a proxy, let it be a book. As Jews, we can help bring all other faith communities, including Muslim ones, in contact with the texts that they worship. Enhancing literacy among all populations is the way to engender the greatest Jewish value there is. 

Roya Hakakian is author of Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.

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