What it Means to be a Jew

There is a well-known story – or at least a well-known story among us as rabbis who tell stories about rabbis – about Rabbi Solomon Schechter and Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Schechter founded United Synagogue and served as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is referred to by many as the architect of Judaism’s Conservative Movement in North America. One day, while President of the rabbinical seminary, he went for a walk with a young rabbinical student, Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein would eventually become chancellor of JTS from 1940-1972. Schechter, the Romanian-born scholar, told Finkelstein that in order to be a successful rabbi in America, you need to know the game of baseball and you need to be able to play the game of baseball.

In the early twentieth century, Baseball was more than just a game. It was America’s pastime. It was ingrained as part of one’s American identity – like apple pie. To say that a rabbi must know baseball is to say that a rabbi must fully embrace American culture and society. Schechter, who was of Eastern European descent, was suggesting that to be a rabbi in America one must identify as American. One must know pop culture, but more so, one’s Jewish values must also be American values.

There are legends of Jewish immigrants coming over to America from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As they saw Ellis Island in the distance, they would toss tallitot and tefillin, Jewish ritual objects, overboard. While these stories may only be that of legend, the symbolism is clear: they were leaving Judaism behind. Judaism was what caused hate and harm. Coming to America meant that they had to fully embrace their American idealism and abandon their Jewish identities. But this is not what Judaism teaches, nor what Schechter was suggesting.

And then you find the opposite of these legends in the Torah. We read this past Shabbat in Parashat Acharei Mot, the following command from Leviticus 18:1-3:

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

A strict interpretation of what God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion – don’t associate yourselves at all with secular society – would suggest that we should not embrace society. We should put up barriers to society. But this interpretation of Torah couldn’t be further from the truth, and certainly is not what Solomon Schechter was teaching a century ago.

The pious rabbi still laid tefillin every morning. He was not suggested giving up Judaism in favor of the religion of America’s pastime. In fact, he was quite religious and observant. He understood the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and still the importance of being immersed in society. This was not assimilation. This is acculturation. For throughout our history – as Jews and as Americans – we see that religion influences society and society influences religion. We cannot truly live a life based on Jewish values if we are disconnected from society because it is exactly that society that we are supposed to impact with our values!

Wikipedia_blue_star_of_davidThe prophet Isaiah reminds us of our divine responsibility to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world. We believe Judaism and our values has something to teach the world, and guides us in this world. If that is the case, then we cannot be disconnected from this world. Judaism is a part of this world and the decisions we make in this world.

This also means that we cannot limit Judaism to the synagogue, to Shabbat meals, or to lifecycle events. As my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, teaches, Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Jewish ethics are a part of society. They have something to teach us. So we must live a Jewish life daily by ensuring that the ethics and values of our tradition guide us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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