Why Be Jewish?
In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the theme of “Why Be Jewish?” (another way of expressing the concept of Jewish identity, a theme Rabbi Sacks explores in depth in the book Radical Then, Radical Now, and the celebrated whiteboard animation Why I am a Jew?, which is based on an excerpt from the book) in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).
“The deepest question any of us can ask is: Who am I? To answer it we have to go deeper than, Where do I live? or What do I do? The most fateful moment in my life came when I asked myself that question and knew the answer had to be: I am a Jew. This is why.” In this whiteboard animation, (based on text from the last chapter of his book Radial Then, Radical Now) Rabbi Sacks explains why he is proud to be a Jew and what it is about Judaism that makes it so unique. This passionate appeal calls on Jews around the world, from across the political and religious spectrum, to connect to their people, heritage and faith.
Full Video Transcript
At various times in history, including now, people have thought that there was a conflict The deepest question any of us can ask is: Who am I? To answer it we have to go deeper than, Where do I live? or What do I do? The most fateful moment in my life came when I asked myself that question and knew the answer had to be: I am a Jew. This is why.
I am a Jew not because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. I admire other traditions and their contributions to the world. Nor am I a Jew because of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. What happens to me does not define who I am: ours is a people of faith, not fate. Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, creative, generous or successful. It’s not Jews who are different, but Judaism. It’s not so much what we are but what we are called on to be.
I am a Jew because, being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to its unfinished story. I am a stage on its journey, a connecting link between the generations. The dreams and hopes of my ancestors live on in me, and I am the guardian of their trust, now and for the future.
I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality is not a ceaseless war of the elements, to be worshipped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased. The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilisation of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God.
I am a Jew because I am the moral heir of those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and pledged themselves to live by these truths for all time. I am the descendant of countless generations of ancestors who, though sorely tested and bitterly tried, remained faithful to that covenant when they might so easily have defected.
I am a Jew because of Shabbat, the world’s greatest religious institution, a time in which there is no manipulation of nature or our fellow human beings, in which we come together in freedom and equality to create, every week, an anticipation of the messianic age.
I am a Jew because our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a mitzvah, because a Jew could do no less.
I am a Jew because I cherish the Torah, knowing that God is to be found not just in natural forces but in moral meanings, in words, texts, teachings and commands, and because Jews, though they lacked all else, never ceased to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth.
I am a Jew because of our people’s passionate faith in freedom, holding that each of us is a moral agent, and that in this lies our unique dignity as human beings; and because Judaism never left its ideals at the level of lofty aspirations, but instead translated them into deeds which we call mitzvot, and a way, which we call the halachah, and thus brought heaven down to earth.
I am proud, simply, to be a Jew.
I am proud to be part of a people who, though scarred and traumatised, never lost their humour or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption; who saw human history as a journey, and never stopped traveling and searching.
I am proud to be part of an age in which my people, ravaged by the worst crime ever to be committed against a people, responded by reviving a land, recovering their sovereignty rescuing threatened Jews throughout the world, rebuilding Jerusalem, and proving themselves to be as courageous in the pursuit of peace as in defending themselves in war.
I am proud that our ancestors refused to be satisfied with premature consolations, and in answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” always answered, “Not yet.”
I am proud to belong to the people Israel, whose name means “one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails.” For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved God with an everlasting love, we have never stopped wrestling with Him nor He with us.
I admire other civilisations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world, Aval zeh shelanu, “but this is ours.” This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.
This, then, is our story, our gift to the next generation. I received it from my parents and they from theirs across great expanses of space and time. There is nothing quite like it. It changed and still challenges the moral imagination of humankind.
I want to say to Jews around the world: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to future generations. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll.
Let their eternity live on in you.
- Where can we learn the answers to the question ‘Who am I?’?
- Do you think there is something unique about Jews that makes them different?
- What are Jews “called on to be”?
- What responsibility do you feel to past and future generations?
- Why do you think Rabbi Sacks singles out Shabbat here rather than other mitzvot?
- Which Jewish values are you most proud of?
- Is Jewish history a source of pride and inspiration for you or of embarrassment and a challenge to your faith?
- Are you proud to be a Jew? Why?
- Do you plan to pass Jewish traditions on to your children and the next generation? Why?
- How do you answer the question ‘Why am I a Jew?’
- Devarim 29:9-14
- Rashi on Devarim 29:14
- Akeidat Yitzchak (Rabbi Isaac Arama) on Parshat Nitzavim (and On the legality of committing unborn generations to a code of conduct adopted by their ancestors).
- Talmud Bavli, Yoma 73b
- Talmud Bavli, Nedarim, 8a
- Talmud Bavli, Shavuot 21b
- Why is it important to include future generations in the biblical covenant between the Israelites and God?
- What philosophical (and possibly legal) problem does that create?
- Do you feel obligated by the biblical covenant made thousands of years ago? Why?
Avraham begins the journey… and education of future generations will continue it
- Bereishit 18:18-19
- Shemot 12:26-27
- Shemot 13:8
- Shemot 13:14
- Haggadah Shel Pesach: The Four Children
- According to Bereishit 18:18-19, why was Avraham chosen to be the progenitor of the Jewish people?
- When the Israelites were about to leave Egypt, what messages would have been important for Moshe to have given them?
- What was the main focus of his message? Does this surprise you?
- Why do you think the education of the next generation was the most pressing issue for Moshe at this time?
- Did the Jewish people take his request seriously? How did they fulfil it/how do we fulfil it today?
- Esther 3:8
- Ruth 1:16-17
- Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 47a
- Vayikra Rabbah, 4:6
A man in a boat began to bore a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. ‘What concern is it of yours?’ he responded. ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown.’Mechilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to Exodus 19:6
‘A [holy] nation’—this teaches that they [the Jewish people] are like one body with one soul [the Midrash identifies goi, a nation, with the word geviyah, a body], and thus it says, ‘Who is like your people Israel, a nation one on earth.’ When one sins, all are punished … When one is injured, all feel the pain.Sifra Bechukotai 2:7
‘They shall stumble over one another’—one because of another. This teaches that all Israel are sureties for one another.
- What makes the Jewish people a people?
- What is the difference between a people and a religion?
- How do you know the Jewish people are not just a group that practices a common religion?
- When you meet Jews from other countries in the world do you feel a sense of brotherhood with them?
To be a Jew is…
Uniquely, Jews are born into a faith. It chooses us before we choose it. Physically we come naked into the world, but spiritually we come with a gift: the story of our past, of our parents and theirs, through almost forty centuries from the day Avraham and Sarah first heard the call of God and began their journey to a land, a promise, a destiny and a vocation. That story is ours.
It is a strange and moving story. It tells of how a family, then a collection of tribes, then a nation, were summoned to be God’s ambassadors on earth. They were charged with building a society unlike any other, based not on wealth and power but on justice and compassion, the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of human life – a society that would honour the world as God’s work and the human person as God’s image.
That was and is a demanding task, yet Judaism remains a realistic religion. It assumed from the outset that transforming the world would take many generations – hence the importance of handing on our ideals to the next generation. It takes many gifts, many different kinds of talent – hence the importance of Jews as a people. None of us has all the gifts, but each of us has some. We all count; we each have a unique contribution to make. We come before God as a people, each giving something, and each lifted by the contributions of others.
And yes, at times we fail or fall short – hence the importance of teshuvah, repentance, apology, forgiveness, re-dedication. Judaism is bigger than any of us, yet it is made by all of us. And though Jews were and are a tiny people, today a mere fifth of a per cent of the population of the world, we have made a contribution to civilisation out of all proportion to our numbers.
To be a Jew is to continue the journey our ancestors began, to build a world that honours the image of God in every human being and to be part of a people summoned by God to be His ambassadors down here on earth.Ten Paths to God, Unit 1: Identity: On Being a Jew
This was perhaps the greatest contribution of Judaism—via the Judaic roots of Christianity—to the West. The idea that time is an arena of change, and that freedom and creativity are God’s gift to humanity, resulted in astonishing advances in science and our understanding of the world, technology and our ability to control the human environment, economics and our ability to lift people out of poverty and starvation, medicine and our ability to cure disease. It led to the abolition of slavery, the growth of a more egalitarian society, the enhanced position of women, and the emergence of democracy and liberalism…
To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope. Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism, the religion of the free God, is a religion of freedom. Jewish faith is written in the future tense. It is belief in a future that is not yet but could be, if we heed God’s call, obey his will and act together as a covenantal community. The name of the Jewish future is hope.
Somehow, in a way I find mysterious and moving, the Jewish people wrote a story of hope that has the power to inspire all who dare to believe that injustice and brutality are not the final word about the human condition, that faith can be more powerful than empires, that love given is not given in vain, that ideals are not illusions to give us comfort but candles to light our way along a winding road in the dark night without giving way to fear or losing a sense of direction.Future Tense, pp. 249-250
- What does it mean to be ‘God’s ambassadors on earth’?
- What is the Jewish national mission?
- What messages and ideas are at the heart of this mission?
Receiving the Story of our Past and Handing it on
Through the Haggadah more than a hundred generations of Jews have handed on their story to their children. The word haggadah means ‘to relate, to tell, to expound’. But it comes from a Hebrew root that also means ‘to bind, to join, to connect’. By reciting the Haggadah, Jews give their children a sense of connectedness to Jews throughout the world and to the Jewish people through time. It joins them to a past and future, a history and destiny, and makes them characters in its drama. Every other people known to mankind have been united because they lived in the same place, spoke the same language, were part of the same culture. Jews alone, dispersed across continents, speaking different languages and participating in different cultures, have been bound together by a narrative, the Pesach narrative, which they told in the same way on the same night. More than the Haggadah was the story of a people, Jews were the people of a story.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, p. 2
The secret of Jewish continuity is that no people has ever devoted more of its energies to continuity. The focal point of Jewish life is the transmission of a heritage across the generations. Time and again in the Torah we are drawn to dramas of the next generation. Judaism’s focus is its children. Avraham’s first words to God are ‘What can you give me, if I am without children?’ Rachel says: ‘Give me children, for without them it is as if I am dead.’ To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of generations. It is to be a child and then a parent, to receive and to hand on. Moses ‘received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on…’ and so must we. Judaism is a religion of continuity.Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, p. 34
The fact that any of us is born a Jew is no mere fact. It happened because more than a hundred generations of our ancestors decided to be Jews and hand on that identity to their children, thus writing the most remarkable story of continuity ever known. Nor was this mere happenstance. It flowed from their most basic conviction, that Jews had entered into a covenant with God that would take them on a journey whose destination lay in the distant future but whose outcome was of immense consequence for mankind. What that journey was would be the subject of the next part of my search, but one thing was clear from the outset. It would not be completed instantly. Unlike almost every other vision of the ideal society, Jews knew that theirs was the work of many generations and that therefore they must hand on their ideals to their children so that they too would be part of the journey, letters in the scroll. To be a Jew, now as in the days of Moses, is to hear the call of those who came before us and know that we are the guardians of their story…
I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come thus far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more powerful one.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 45-46
This, then, is our story, our gift to the next generation. I received it from my parents and they from theirs across great expanses of space and time. There is nothing quite like it. It changed and today it still challenges the moral imagination of mankind. I want to say to my children: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to your children. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their eternity live on in you.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 220
- What is the Jewish story?
- How do we hand it on to the next generation?
- How has this achieved Jewish continuity generation after generation?
- What do you understand by the metaphor of every Jew being a ‘letter in a scroll’?
- What does it mean to you to be a ‘letter in the scroll’? How will this impact your life?
The Beginning of the Jewish Journey
Long ago, one man and one woman heard a call telling them to leave their land, their birthplace and their father’s house and begin a journey. There was nothing conspicuous about them, nothing to suggest that the path on which they were about to embark would eventually change the history of humankind. The man was not a military hero or a miracle worker. He was not a revolutionary or a guru with thousands of followers. He had absolutely nothing in common with the heroes of epic or myth. Yet there can be no doubt that he was the most influential human being who ever lived. Today, 2.2 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews – more than half the 6 billion people alive today – claim descent, biological or spiritual, from him. His name was Avraham; the name of the woman, his wife, was Sarah.
What was special, new about Avraham was not so much the God he worshipped. According to the Hebrew bible, Avraham was not the first monotheist. Adam was. What Avraham initiated was the idea of faith as a journey undertaken by a people in search of the Promised Land.Future Tense, p. 23
The Jewish Journey: A Destiny and a Vocation
That is the meaning of ‘a holy nation’. The holy, in the Bible, simply means God’s domain – those points in time and space at which his presence is peculiarly visible. That is what Yeshayahu means when he says of Israel: ‘You are My witness – declares the Lord – that I am God’ (Yeshayahu 43:10) . . . There is no assertion in the Bible that the Israelites are inherently better or more moral than others. Their vocation represents not a privilege but a responsibility. It confers no material advantages, only the religious life itself…
Israel’s role is to be an example: no more, no less. That is how Rambam’s son Avraham interprets, in his father’s name, the phrase ‘a kingdom of priests’:
“The priest of any congregation is its leader, its most honored individual and the congregation’s role-model through whom they learn to follow in the right path. [In calling on Israel to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ it was as if God said to them], ‘Become leaders of the world through keeping my Torah, so that your relationship to [humanity] becomes that of a priest to his congregation, so that the world follows in your path, imitates your deeds and walks in your ways.”To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 65–67
God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one truth, one faith, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. That is the non-Platonic miracle of creation. What is real, remarkable and the proper object of our wonder is not the quintessential leaf but the 250,000 different kinds there actually are; not the idea of a bird but the 9,000 species that exist today; not the metalanguage that embraces all others, but the 6,000 languages still spoken throughout the world… Judaism is about the miracle of unity that creates diversity.The Dignity of Difference, p. 53
[Our] destiny was to create a society that would honor the proposition that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. It would be a place in which the freedom of some would not lead to the enslavement of others… Judaism is the code of a self-governing society. We tend to forget this, since Jews have lived in dispersion for two thousand years, without the sovereign power to govern themselves, and because modern Israel is a secular state. Judaism is a religion of redemption rather than salvation. It is about the shared spaces of our collective lives, not an interior drama of the soul… because Judaism is also the code of a society, it is also about the social virtues: righteousness (tzedek/tzedakah), justice (mishpat), loving-kindness (chessed) and compassion (rachamim). These structure the template of biblical law, which covers all aspects of the life of society, its economy, its welfare systems, its education, family life, employer–employee relations, the protection of the environment and so on… None of this was possible without a land…
Judaism is the constitution of a self-governing nation, the architectonics of a society dedicated to the service of God in freedom and dignity. Without a land and state, Judaism is a shadow of itself. In exile, God might still live in the hearts of Jews but not in the public square, in the justice of the courts, the morality of the economy and the humanitarianism of everyday life. Jews have lived in almost every country under the sun. In four thousand years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of the Torah and its concern for freedom, justice and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews today speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Avraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.Future Tense, pp. 135–136
- What is the destination of the Jewish journey? (Hint: the ‘Promised Land’ is more than a geographic location.)
- What is the destiny of the Jewish people to build there?
- How is this a fulfilment of the Jewish national mission?
The Jewish people exists in all its bewildering complexity because it is both a religion and a nation, a faith and a fate. Remove either element and it will fall apart. That is what is wrong in focusing exclusively on fate—antisemitism, the Holocaust, the people that dwells alone. For it is faith that keeps bringing us back to the idea that Jews are a people: it was as a people that our ancestors left Egypt, as a people that they made a covenant with God in the desert, as a people that they took up the challenge of life in the Holy Land, and as a people that they understood their destiny. Jewish life is quintessentially communal, a matter of believing and belonging. Maimonides rules: ‘one who separates himself from the community, even if he commits no sin but merely holds himself aloof from the congregation of Israel … and shows himself indifferent to their distress’ has no share in the world to come.
Judaism is not a sect of the like-minded. The Jewish people is not a self-selecting community of saints. It is not, in other words, like most communities of faith. Jewish identity, with the exception of conversion, is something into which we are born, not something we choose. This mix of fate and faith, nationhood and religion, means that from the very beginning, Jews have had to live with the tension of these two very different ideas, and it is that tension that has made Jews creative, unpredictable, diverse, conflicted, yet somehow more than the sum of their parts.
There were times—between the first and nineteenth centuries—when the primary bond between Jews was faith. There were others—during the Holocaust —when it was fate. It is that double bond that has held Jews together. When one failed, the other came to the fore. Call it chance, or the cunning of history, or an invisible hand, or Divine Providence, but the old polarities—fate and faith, goral and ye’ud—remain, dividing Jews and uniting them in a way that is sometimes exasperating but often inspiring.Future Tense, pp. 47-48
- Is Judaism a religion or a nation?
- Is the Jewish people connected through faith or fate?
- Which one is our main focus today?
A Letter in the Scroll
We can see life as a succession of moments spent, like coins, in return for pleasures of various kinds. Or we can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined to others they make a word, words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people at any one time are a paragraph. The Jewish people through time constitute a story – the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.
That metaphor is for me the key to understanding our ancestors’ decision to remain Jewish even in times of great trial and tribulation. I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their ancestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with God and of thus undertaking a very special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past and continued by every successive generation. At the heart of the covenant is the idea of emunah, which means faithfulness or loyalty. And Jews felt a loyalty to generations past and generations yet unborn to continue the narrative. A Torah scroll which has a missing letter is rendered invalid, defective. I think that most Jews did not want theirs to be that missing letter.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 39
Imagine that we are in a vast library. In every direction we look there are bookcases. Each has shelves stretching from the floor to the ceiling, and every shelf is full of books. We are surrounded by the recorded thoughts of many people, some great, some less so, and we can reach out and take any book we wish. All we have to do is choose. We begin to read, and for a while we are immersed in the world, real or imaginary, of the writer… Once the book no longer interests us, we can put it back on the shelf, where it will wait for the next reader to pick it up. It makes no claim on us. It is just a book.
That, for the contemporary secular culture of the West, is what identity is like. We are browsers in the library. There are many different ways of living, and none exercises any particular claim on us. None of them more than any other defines who we are, and we can try any for as long as we like. As browsers, though, we remain intact, untouched. The various lifestyles into which we enter are like books we read. We are always free to change them, put them back on the shelf. They are what we read, not what we are.
Judaism asks us to envisage an altogether different possibility. Imagine that, while browsing in the library, you come across one book unlike the rest, which catches your eye because on its spine is written the name of your family. Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story each generation of your ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so that everyone born into this family can learn where they came from, what happened to them, what they lived for and why. As you turn the pages, you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name.
According to the intellectual conventions of modernity, this should make no difference. There is nothing in the past that can bind you in the present, no history that can make a difference to who you are and who you are free to be. But this cannot be the whole truth. Were I to find myself holding such a book in my hands, my life would already have been changed. Seeing my name and the story of my forebears I could not read it as if it were just one story among others; instead, reading it would inevitably become, for me, a form of self-discovery. Once I knew that it existed, I could not put the book back on the shelf and forget it, because I would now know that I am part of a long line of people who traveled towards a certain destination and whose journey remains unfinished, dependent on me to take it further.
With that newfound knowledge, I could no longer see the world simply as a library. Other books may make no special claim on me; they may be interesting, inspiring, entrancing, but this one is different. Its very existence poses a set of questions addressed, not to the universe, but to me. Will I write my own chapter? Will it be a continuation of the story of those who came before? Will I, when the time comes, hand the book on to my children, or will I by then have forgotten it or given it away to a museum as an heirloom from the past?
This is more than an imaginative exercise. There is such a book and to be a Jew is to be a life, a chapter, in it. This book contains the knowledge of who I am, and is perhaps the most important thing I can be given. Each of us, to feel we belong, needs to know something about our personal history – about who gave birth to us, where they came from, and the history of which they are a part.Radical Then, Radical Now, pp. 41-43
- Imagine yourself in the library Rabbi Sacks described. How would it feel to find ‘your book’?
- What do the pages before your chapter look like?
- What will your chapter look like?
- The Way of Identity: On Being a Jew (Unit 1 of the Ten Paths curriculum)
- ‘The Jewish Algorithm’ – A Commencement Speech from Rabbi Sacks
- The Greatness of Being Jewish (full video from which the ‘Jewish Algorithm’ was taken)
- On Being Jewish (JInsider video)
- On Being Jewish (New whiteboard animation version)
- Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish Peoplehood
- On the Jewish Narrative (JInsider video)
- On Peoplehood (JInsider video)
Further articles from Rabbi Sacks on Jewish Identity
- In Search of Jewish Identity (Covenant & Conversation, Kedoshim)
- Why Be Jewish? (Covenant & Conversation, Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech)
- Being Jewish in the 21st Century (in Little Books of Big Questions)
- Letter 5: On Being Jewish (from Letters to the Next Generation)
- “Chapter 1: Story of the People, People of the Story” in Future Tense
- “Chapter 2: Is There Still a Jewish People?” in Future Tense
- “Chapter 1: Why Be Jewish?” in Radical Then, Radical Now (alternative book title: A Letter in the Scroll)
- “Chapter 16: Why I am a Jew?” in Radical Then, Radical Now (alternative book title: A Letter in the Scroll)
To be a Jew [is to] inherit a faith from those who came before us, to live it and to hand it on to those who will come after us. To be a Jew is to be a link in the chains of the generations.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 6
Jewish identity …is not only a faith, but a fate. It is not an identity we assume, but one into which we are born.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 12
It was then [in 1967,] that I knew that being Jewish was not something private and personal but something collective and historical. It meant being part of an extended family, many of whose members I did not know, but to whom I nonetheless felt connected by bonds of kinship and responsibility.Radical Then, Radical Now, pp. 27-28
Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people at any one time are a paragraph. The Jewish people through time constitute a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 39
The history of my family is where my identity begins.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 44
To be a Jew, now as in the days of Moses, is to hear the call of those who came before us and know that we are the guardians of their story.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 46
I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 46
Jews were always a tiny people, yet our ancestors survived by believing that eternity is found in the simple lives of ordinary human beings. They found God in homes, families and relationships. They worshipped God in synagogues, the first places ever to become holy because of the mere fact that people fathered there to pray. They discovered God in the human heart and in our capacity to make the world different by what we do. They encountered God, not in the wind or the thunder or the earthquake, but in words, the words of Torah, the marriage contract between God and the people He took as His own. They studied those words endlessly and tried to put them into practice. They brought heaven down to earth, because they believed that God lives wherever we dedicate our lives to Him.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 50
Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by JudaismRadical Then, Radical Now, p. 205
I am a Jew because, being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to its unfinished story. I am a stage on its journey, a connecting link between the generations. The dreams and hopes of my ancestors live on in me, and I am the guardian of their trust, now and for the future.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 217
This, then, is our story, our gift to the next generation. I received it from my parents and they from theirs across great expanses of space and time. There is nothing quite like it. It changed and today it still challenges the moral imagination of mankind. I want to say to my children: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to your children. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their eternity live on in you.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 217
To be a Jew is to be part of a history touched, in a mysterious yet unmistakable way, by the hand of Providence.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, p. 9
Pesach is the festival of Jewish identity. It is the night on which we tell our children who they are.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, p. 15
To be a Jew is to hear a voice from the past, summoning us to an often tempestuous and never less than demanding future, and knowing inescapably that this is the narrative of which I am a part.The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, p. 17
Jewishness is not an ethnicity but a living lexicon of ethnicities.Future Tense, p. 62
To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope. Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism, the religion of the free God, is a religion of freedom. Jewish faith is written in the future tense. It is belief in a future that is not yet but could be, if we heed Gods call, obey His will and act together as a covenantal community. The name of the Jewish future is hope.Future Tense, p. 250
The Jews who came to Britain as refugees, among them my late father, became passionately British as well as Jewish. They saw no contradiction between the two; nor should we. In the secular state there is no incompatibility between religious and national identities. None the less, a sense of collective belonging does not happen without sustained and focused effort. I argued then, and believe still, that each of us has to learn to be ‘bilingual’, at home in two identities, one we share with fellow believers, the other we share with fellow citizens.The Persistence of Faith, p. viii
Today,.. as we stand as if on a mountain peak surveying the breathtaking landscape of Jewish history, we know this: that those who sought to destroy the people of the covenant gather dust in the museums of mankind while am Yisrael chai, the people Israel lives. Ancient Egypt is no more. The Moabites have long since disappeared. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans successively strode the stage of world dominion. Each empire played its part, said its lines, and each in turn has gone… But the Jews survive.Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, pp. 7-8
Jews did more than survive under seemingly impossible circumstances. They maintained their distinctiveness against every inducement – sometimes benign, often brutal – to assimilate or convert. To every crisis they responded with renewal. Heirs to one of the world’s oldest faiths, they remained perennially young, creative, challenging, revolutionary. In each generation they embellished their ancient faith with new customs and interpretations and made it gleam as if it had just been given. Whenever the opportunity arose they enriched the life of the larger society in which they lived. Through thirty-seven long and difficult centuries they remained faithful to the mandate given by God to Abraham in the first words of covenantal history: ‘Through you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ And we are their heirs.Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, p. 13
As individuals, there is nothing remarkable about Jews. There have been many theories, Jewish and non-Jewish, which attribute to us an innate genius, a racial gift, a genetic endowment, a mystic difference. None is convincing. Removed from our traditions, our past, our way of life and our community, within three generations or less we merge into the wider landscape and become invisible. Individually we are ordinary. Collectively we become something else… though we might not be born great or achieve greatness, our history thrusts greatness upon us. We are more than individuals. We are part of a collective history and destiny, perhaps the strangest and most miraculous the world has ever known. That is our inheritance, and the most important thing we can do is to hand it on to our children.Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, pp. 13-14
If we are Jews it is because our ancestors were Jews and because they braved much and sacrificed more to ensure that their children would be Jews. Can we do less?Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, p. 15
To be a Jew is to be a member of the people of the covenant, an heir to one of the world’s most ancient, enduring and awe-inspiring faiths. It is to inherit a way of life which has earned the admiration of the world for its love of family, its devotion to education, its philanthropy, its social justice and its infinitely loyal dedication to a unique destiny. It is to know that this way of life, passed on from parents to children since the days of Abraham and Sarah, can only be sustained through the Jewish family; and knowing this, it is to choose to continue it by creating a Jewish home and having Jewish children.Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, p. 102
Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik
For just as Judaism distinguishes between fate and destiny in the personal-individual realm, so it differentiates between these two ideas in the sphere of our national-historical existence. The individual is tied to his people both with the chains of fate and with the bonds of destiny. In the light of this premise, it may be stated that the covenant in Egypt was a covenant of fate, while the covenant at Sinai was a covenant of destiny…
What is the nature of a covenant of fate? Fate in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies an existence of compulsion. A strange necessity binds the particulars into one whole. The individual, against his will, is subjected and subjugated to the national, fate-laden reality. He cannot evade this reality and become assimilated into some other, different reality… The sense of a fate-laden existence of necessity gives rise to the historical loneliness of the Jew… This special incomprehensible reality of the individual clinging to the community and feeling alienated from the foreign, outside world became crystallized in Egypt. It was there that the Israelites raised themselves up to the rank of a people. The God of the Hebrews does not wait for man to search for him, to freely invite him into His presence. He imposes His rule over man, against his will. A Jew cannot expel the God of the Hebrews from his private domain. Even if he violates the Sabbath, defiles his table and bed, and strives to deny his own Jewishness, his membership of the Jewish people, he will not be able to escape the dominion of the God of the Hebrews, who pursues him like a shadow. As long as a person’s nose testifies to his origins, so long as a drop of Jewish blood courses through his veins, so long as physically he is still a Jew, he serves the God of the Hebrews against his will.
What is the nature of the covenant of destiny? Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical being… The people is embedded in its destiny as a result of its longing for a refined, substantive, and purposeful existence… A life of destiny is a life with direction; it is the fruit of cognitive readiness and free choice. The covenant in Egypt was made against the Israelite’s will. God took them unto Himself for a people without consulting them beforehand… The covenant at Sinai, in contrast, was first presented to the Israelites before it was made. God sent Moses to the Israelites to bring them His word, and Moses returned to God with their response. The halachah views the covenant at Sinai as a contract that can only be drawn up with the knowledge and consent of the party assuming obligations for the future, in this instance the community of Israel.Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, New York: Yeshiva University/ Ktav (2006)
Therefore, a Gentile who comes to attach himself to the Jewish community must accept upon himself the yoke of both covenants [Fate and Destiny]. He must enter into the magic circle of Jewish fate and, in a spirit of holiness, dedicate himself to Jewish destiny. Conversion consists in a person’s joining himself to both the people formed by the covenant in Egypt and the holy nation formed by the covenant at Sinai. Take heed of a fundamental principle: There can be no partial conversion, and one cannot relinquish even the slightest iota of either of the two covenants. The devotion to Knesset Israel [the Congregation of Israel], both as a people whom God, with a strong hand, took unto Himself in Egypt, a people with its own history, suffering, sense of mutual responsibility, and commitment to deeds of mutual aid, and as a holy nation, committed, heart and soul, to the God of Israel and to His ethico-halakhic demands – this dual yet unified devotion is the most basic foundation of Judaism and the most fundamental feature of undergoing conversion.
Therefore, the halakhah has ruled that a convert who is circumcised but does not immerse himself [in a Mikveh – ritual bath], or immerses himself but is not circumcised, is not a proper convert until he is both circumcised and immerses himself. The act of circumcision (milah) was the charge given to Abraham the Hebrew, the father of Jewish fate; it was performed by the Israelites in Egypt prior to their sacrificing and eating the paschal lamb, the symbol of the redemption from Egypt. For this reason it signifies the people’s special fate, its isolation and its involuntary singularity. Circumcision is the ot, the sign incised in the very physical being of the Jew. It is a permanent sign between the God of the Hebrews and His people, a sign that cannot be effaced.
The act of immersion (tevilah), in contrast to that of circumcision, denotes the integration of a person in a great destiny and his entry into the covenant at Sinai. The Jews were charged with the commandment of immersion prior to the revelation of the Law at Sinai. Immersion signifies purification and ascension from the profane to the sacred, from an ordinary, prosaic life to a life replete with an exalted vision… If a Gentile was circumcised but did not immerse himself, he lacks that personal bond to Jewish destiny. Such a Gentile has disassociated himself from the covenant at Sinai and from an ethico-halakhic identification with the holy nation. In the conversion formula to be found in the Book of Ruth, both these aspects are set forth, and their gist is succinctly expressed in its last two phrases: Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, New York: Yeshiva University/ Ktav (2006)
Rabbi A. J. Heschel
There is a high cost of living to be paid by a Jew. He has to be exalted in order to be normal in a world that is neither propitious for nor sympathetic to his survival. Some of us, tired of sacrifice and exertion, often wonder: Is Jewish existence worth the price? Others are overcome with panic; they are perplexed, and despair of recovery.
In trying to understand Jewish existence a Jewish philosopher must look for agreement with the men of Sinai as well as with the people of Auschwitz.
We are the most challenged people under the son. Our existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world; it is either tragic or holy to be a Jew.A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man, pp. 420-421
Judaism is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances, but primarily living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present… It is not a doctrine, an idea, a faith, but the covenant between God and the people. Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel causes us to become part of eternity.A. J. Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, p. 45
Each body of thought has its own logic and is tied to others by a systematic relatedness… it follows that there is no such thing as a vain or useless thought; there is nothing without its proper place; for all emanate from the same source in the divine wisdom… As man grows in the scale of perfection, he draws from all ideas, his own and those of others, their kernel of eternity, logic and good which derives from the source of wisdom.A. Y. Kook, (1920), Orot Ha-Kodesh, Vol. 1, p. 17
- How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the issues surrounding Torah and Science as fields of study?
- How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
- Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
Suggested Lesson Plan
The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit which would take more classroom time to explore with your students.
Download our 60-minute class, designed for high-school aged students.
Bet Nidrash on Jewish Identity
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
Rabbi Sacks was passionate about embracing Jewish identity and he found elegant words to articulate what this meant to him, because he realised that he had a responsibility to help others develop their own understanding on what being Jewish means, and what their ‘Letter in the Scroll’ could be.
The Bet Nidrash for this topic could be encouraging your students to do the same, by participating in educational programmes as teachers and madrichim/counsellors themselves. This could take them form of a competition over the next month (or academic year) encouraging your students to spend a number of hours working as educators in some way. These could include:
- Madrichim/counsellors for youth movements or for other institutions such as synagogues or community centres
- Madrichim/counsellors at summer camps
- Teachers in supplementary schools
- Jewish Studies tutors for younger children
- Learning with younger siblings, at home, (or cousins, or neighbours, if they do not have younger siblings to learn with).
Arrangements and hours would need to be signed off by a supervisor of some kind.
A prize of some kind could be awarded to those with the highest number of hours devoted to this work.
Certificates of participation could be given to all participants.