By Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz
Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida
As a rabbi I am often asked why it is important to be Jewish.
A plethora of answers are offered, but only one is intellectually honest.
Some argue that Judaism is a religion of ethics. Others say that it encourages free thinking and open dialogue. Others invoke Judaism’s old age and tradition. To my way of thinking, these answers do not suffice.
Judaism is ethical, that is true, but so are many other religions. Judaism does encourage open dialogue, but so do many other academic, social and cultural movements. Judaism is the oldest Western religion, but what of other, more ancient religions? Besides, since when is age a criteria for religion?
Since Judaism is not the only ethical, traditional or philosophical tradition, why should we be Jewish? What does Judaism have that no other religion has?
The only honest answer can be summed up in two words: Mount Sinai. God appeared to every single Jew at Sinai and gave us his Torah. This is a religious answer that requires a leap of faith, that is true; but what else did you expect from a religious rabbi?
The moment you say that you are Jewish, you have distinguished yourself from every non-Jew on the planet. By what right do we distinguish ourselves? By what right do we establish a difference between ourselves and others? By virtue of the pact God struck with us at Sinai. God chose the Jewish people, and with that we stand apart from others.
Abraham was three years old when he discovered his faith in monotheism. He examined every possibility and analyzed every faith system before reaching his conclusion. As a young boy, he was renowned for his sterling character. As an adult, he gained fame for his morality, generosity and hospitality.
He was beloved for his kindness and respected for his conviction. He was a trail blazer in the philosophy of religion; a scholar of original, even revolutionary, thought, who converted thousands to his way of thinking. He was persecuted for his faith and sentenced to death, but miraculously escaped execution.
These tales were preserved in the annals of Jewish tradition and documented by the Talmudic sages, but the Torah itself is mute on this era of Abraham’s history. Abraham is introduced in the Torah at the age of seventy-five, long after all of the above transpired, when God instructed him to leave his birthplace and travel to an undisclosed destination.
This is because Abraham is introduced in the Torah as the first Jew. There is scholarship in Judaism, but Judaism is not defined by scholarship. There is conviction in Judaism, but neither is Judaism defined by conviction. The same is true of kindness, morality and even persecution. They all exist in Judaism, but they do not define Judaism.
Abraham was not unique among the people of his day by virtue of his many qualities. He was surely a man of note, but he was not a category unto himself. He was not the father of Judaism. Not until God appeared to him and gave him his first commandment.
It was then that Abraham began the journey that culminated four-hundred years later at Sinai. It was then that Judaism was born. The father of Judaism surely required all the qualities listed above for Judaism encompasses all these qualities. Yet these qualities alone do not define Judaism. Judaism is defined by God and his choice of the Jewish people. He chose Abraham in Ur Kasdim and his children at Mount Sinai.
This is the essence of Judaism. Without it we have no reason to be Jewish. The noble qualities espoused by Judaism are available, in one form or another, elsewhere. The only element unique to Judaism is its divine mandate. To reject it, is to reject Judaism itself. To embrace it, is to set ourselves apart.
Many are uncomfortable with the notion of a “chosen people” because it evokes shades of racism or bigotry. Should we set ourselves apart? Isn’t this a form of racism or bigotry?
I make choices every day. I decide which coffee shops to enter and which boutiques to patronize. Which books to read and which music to listen to. Each decision entails a form of discrimination. I discriminate between that which suits my tastes and that which does not.
I don’t view those I dismiss as inherently deficient. I pass them by only because they have yet to meet my standards and needs. The moment they alter their style to fit my tastes I would select them too. Such decisions are a form of discrimination, not bigotry.
To view one race as inherently better than another, is indeed racism, but Judaism doesn’t make that claim. Jews are not better than non-Jews; their religion is. Anyone can join this religion. A non-Jew, who converts to Judaism is every bit as chosen as a Jew from birth.
Rabbi, you might say, the entire notion of a “Chosen Religion” might be true if God did indeed appear at Sinai. But can you prove that he did?
The Sinai episode is an article of faith, yet I suggest that you give honest consideration to the following thought. Billions of people throughout the world heard about Sinai from their parents. These parents heard it from their parents, who in turn heard about it from their own parents. This chain of tradition goes back thousands of years, but it had to originate somewhere.
Is it reasonable to assume that at some point in history a group of scholars persuaded an entire generation to accept a hitherto unheard of tale of fantasy? Is it reasonable to assume that not a single voice of dissent was heard at that time? If there was dissent it would surely have been recorded.
By contrast, is it any less reasonable to assume that the original transmitters of this tradition believed it because they experienced it themselves?