January 2, 2003
Why Be Jewish?
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story, "A Clouded View of U.S. Jews" (Oct. 9, 2002), which related the results of conflicting polls taken to determine Jewish population numbers in America. One study claimed numbers dipped slightly to 5.2 million, while a second poll claimed the Jewish population increased to 6.7 million.
Reactions to the Times' numbers were as diverse as the respondents. Some called for an increase in Jewish education and outreach, while others proposed we should increase our numbers by abandoning the traditional reticence to proselytizing and put more resources into embracing potential Jews. I couldn't disagree more.
At a time when more than half of Jews marry non-Jews and assimilation rates continue to skyrocket, I believe that the focus of Jewish outreach programs should be to our very own people. Rather than focus on how many we are, we should concentrate on who we are, what we represent and making the smallness of our numbers pale in comparison to the might of our actions.
Our sages tell us that before the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world. Each nation asked God what was in it. Once they heard about all they would be asked to give up, they said "no." Whether it was the prohibition against murder, adultery or stealing, each nation found a reason to refuse God's gift.
Finally, God turned to the smallest nation on earth and asked if they wanted the Torah. Without even asking God what was in it, the Jews said "yes," and a covenant was formed. And in the centuries since, the Jews -- more than any other people on earth -- have been mercilessly persecuted and hated beyond contempt. Why are we so hated?
Perhaps an even more important question: In this day and age, why care? As more and more Jews live assimilated lives, marry non-Jews and raise their children with little understanding of what it means to be Jewish, one could ask, why even be Jewish?
As terrorism threatens to engulf the globe, as rampant drug use by the younger generation threatens the quality of our futures, and as greed replaces compassion, I say that today more than ever, the world needs the Jews.
The Talmud asks why God chose Mount Sinai of all places on which to give the Torah. In Hebrew, the word for hate is "sin'a." When God gave the Jews the Torah at Sinai, hatred came down to the Jews. The world hates us because we received the Torah, the very thing they rejected.
Since then, the reasons for Jew hatred have been many and varied. We keep ourselves separate, and we're hated for being different. Assimilation is no guarantee either.
Assimilation in Germany led Jews to consider themselves Germans first, Jews second. They dressed like their neighbors, ate like them, worshipped on the same day, even married them. Instead of stemming the anti-Semitic flow, this only served to change its course. History clearly proves that whatever the Jews happened to be doing, became the reason for anti-Semitism.
What then is the real reason we are hated? To understand the fundamental motivation is to understand what it means to be Jewish. So it is to our greatest enemy that we turn to discover the true reason we are reviled and, therefore, who we truly are.
Hitler hated us because of the "curse of conscience" imposed upon western man by the Jews. The central balance of human existence is good vs. evil, as we see so clearly in the world today. The function of the Jews is to represent good. What the Jewish people do for good or evil determines the amount of good or evil in the world.
If Jews do that which is called good (e.g., following the Torah), we increase our relationship with God and thereby bring His presence more into the world. When God's presence is more readily felt, the acceptance of evil decreases. People become more careful of their actions and do less to harm others.
To the extent that we reject Torah, however, and become more like the nations of the world, we move away from God and allow more evil into the world. This is what Hitler understood. Those opposed to good are opposed to the Jewish people. And so he set out to destroy the messengers of good in the world -- the Jews.
What we need to realize is that there is no point in abdicating to our enemies the determination of why they really don't like us. We would be much better off if we determined who we are and what we can accomplish in the world, and not twist ourselves into pretzles trying to become something we wereÂ never meant to be.
By understanding the role of the Jew in the world, we can have a proper sense of self. One's sense of self is rooted, among other things, in one's heritage and one's history. When you erase your heritage, you rob yourself and your children of self-knowledge. The beliefs of your ancestors are part of you. They shaped you. To not know what shaped you is to not know your true self.
This is definitely a case where quality is much more important than quantity.