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What does it mean to be Jewish in 2013?

by Beit T'shuvah

December 31, 2012 | 2:20 pm

By Yeshaia Blakeney

On Passover we are asked "to see ourselves as if we had made the Exodus from Egypt." I must admit this is quite a challenge for me. As we leave Genesis and enter into Exodus, I started to think about this idea. I guess in some sort of metaphorical way, I can draw loose parallels between my own difficulties and being an Israelite slave 3000 years ago. But even that I feel little attachment too.

The narrative of Exodus has defined for many generations the story of humanitie’s struggle and inspired countless battles for freedom. As I thought about this "seeing ourselves as if we had made the Exodus from Egypt,” one of the thoughts that came to me as a parallel was, do We even see ourselves as if we ourselves are Jewish? What does it mean to be Jewish now? I mean is my Jewish identity something I put on like a talis or kipa, as an afterthought before entering the sanctuary. Or more importantly, is it something I take off as soon as I'm in my car headed home from services. I've come to realize being Jewish is problematic for me. Where is my Jewish identity? Is it above, below, or underneath my humanity? Does it trump my biracial ethnicity? Do I have a Jewish soul? Should I even be concerned about that, or should I be grateful at the possibility of having a soul at all? When these days, science is leading us closer and closer to a material reductionist view of existence where my experience is a product of my brain, choices are an illusion and the universe is as random and terrifying as the nightly news. How many of us would die for our Judaism today?

I once asked my rabbi if he would, and he said he hoped so. What is so important about being Jewish that people die for it? Or want to, in the rabbi’s case. What does it mean to be Jewish now? On many of these points, Jewish philosophers have no ready-made answers. Maybe the answer is in the passage itself; perhaps it begins with seeing ourselves as if we ourselves had made the Exodus from Egypt, something so hard for me to do. I think we have a tendency to think history does not apply to us, that it doesn't apply to our modern technological society. We have a tendency to think that this is the beginning of some strange new time where classic morality and divine order don't apply. However I doubt we are the first generation to feel such a way.

Granted it is an exciting and rapidly moving period of human history; but it is human history nonetheless. Our challenge is to look through the lens of history to see ourselves in the context of a larger story, not out of fear for persecution but out of love for the author of history. Our challenge in being Jewish now is a beautiful struggle, a struggle for transcendence. To use our reason, to live in this time, but not worship our reason and to live there also in the desert and worship G-d, keep faith. It means to not take the story of Noah literally but not to write it off as myth or fable either. It means to be human, to be Jewish against all odds and probabilities, against reasonableness itself, like a flash volition of the will, a surprise, a moment of creation everlasting. It means it's problematic; it's worshiping the author, as the story is still unraveling and appreciating all from the tragedy to the triumphant.

Being Jewish now requires, as much or more than it ever did. It requires that "we see ourselves as if we ourselves made the Exodus from Egypt", even in the year 2013.

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