What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world today?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
What I’ve always admired about Judaism is its worldliness, its earthliness, its impatience with metaphysical questions about God’s existence and the afterlife, which has always struck me as a realistic assessment of the limits of human understanding. Judaism focuses on the here and now with a zestiness that infuses all different aspects of life, whether intellectual, cultural or spiritual. It’s a life-celebrating attitude, and I love that. There’s also a certain greediness, which I also love, a greediness for life itself. It seems significant that Judaism never went in for monasticism. Moral growth has to be strived for within the mess of human life itself, because the mess itself is valuable; the mess is life, and life is good.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.
Being Jewish has always been a big part of my life because I was one of the limited number of Jewish people in my community. I got a good Jewish education growing up in Wichita, Kansas, a small Midwestern town, where you were expected to conduct the entire bar mitzvah service. As a result, I came away with a strong sense of identity, which I’ve carried with me as I’ve worked in various fields, including the movie industry, where there are many Jews, and agriculture, where there are very few. Bill Clinton always used to think it was somewhat humorous that he appointed me as the first Jewish secretary of agriculture. Once, when a change of rules for meat and poultry inspection was under consideration, a group of rabbis came to see me, worried that I was going to make kosher slaughtering illegal. I looked at them and said, “Do you think the first Jewish secretary of agriculture would outlaw kosher slaughtering?” My Jewish upbringing has been valuable for dealing with both Jews and non-Jews. The dignified treatment of fellow human beings and other principles laid out in the Torah and the Talmud have created a value system that teaches us how to live our lives and is one we can impart to the rest of world.
Dan Glickman is president of Refugees International.
I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in a white ethnic neighborhood where a couple of kids could still grab you on a street corner and say, “What are you, kid?” Answering “Jewish” got you a bloody nose, but Jewish was who we were. I still had a close relationship to Yiddish-speaking Eastern European grandparents and to that world of native Yiddishkeit. There was no question about whether you should “keep being Jewish,” which meant both religion and ethnicity. I am aware that now we have to ask the question, “Why be Jewish?” People who are fifth-generation American Jews have no connection to Eastern Europe, no memory of Yiddish accents. It’s a very different time, a great change in my lifetime. What the Jews have to offer the world today, however, is our ancient truth, to which we were covenanted so long ago. All of existence is one and holy; every human being is the image of God. As what happened in Rwanda, Bosnia and many other places shows, it is a lesson that the world has not learned. We Jews, as survivors of the Holocaust, should never again let that happen to other human beings. As bearers of the memories of slavery, of liberation and the covenant, we still need to bear witness and help make the world hear.
Arthur Green is a rabbi and author of Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition.