Why Be Jewish?
By Edgar M. Bronfman
Amazon lists eight books titled, Why Be Jewish? It is a question that can be answered from many different perspectives and is ‘the question’ of the 20th and 21st centuries. Prior to the emancipation of Western European Jews in the late 19th century, Jews really had no choice but to cling to their heritage as a mode of personal survival. Laws and societal norms established by the Catholic Church, feudal princes and authoritarian rulers made it virtually impossible to reject one’s Jewish heritage.
Emancipation provided Jews the opportunity to participate in secular, civil society. It even offered the possibility of rejecting one’s birthright. We are all too familiar with the path taken by the descendants of Moses Mendelsohn. Michael Meyers, a noted historian of the period called him the first modern Jew. His descendants did not choose to follow the religious or ethnic path of their father, grandfather or great-grandfather. In 1985, noted American sociologist Charles Silberman wrote a fascinating study, A Certain People: American Jews and their Lives Today, in which he argued that all Jews of the 20th century are “Jews by choice.” He argued, as many did before him, that external societal pressures forcing individuals to remain within the tribe no longer exist. Therefore, each individual chooses to identify as Jewish.
This background serves as the environment in which Edgar M. Bronfman was raised. Son of Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Seagram liquor empire, he was raised in Montreal in a home that gave him space to live in both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.
Bronfman – who eventually served as president of the World Jewish Congress for 20 years, chair of Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus life, and founding supporter of the Bronfman Fellowships and My Jewish Learning – has entered into the discussion with Why Be Jewish, a very personal account of his epiphany. He completed writing the book shortly before his death, at age 84, in 2013.
Bronfman tells us that, as a young man, he walked away from his rudimentary practice of Judaism; and, while he was always engaged in fighting anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution, “his identity was shaped by a sense of belonging to a specific ethnic group rather than an attachment to Jewish tradition.”
However, at age 60, that all changed. Returning to Montreal from Moscow, he found himself sitting next to an Orthodox Jew reading a Hebrew text. One thing led to another, and Bronfman learned that the text was Talmud and the gentleman was studying Daf Yomi, the 7.5 year project of learning the entire Talmud, one page per day.
Intrigued by this, Bronfman promised to investigate what kind of writings can hold one’s attention for 7.5 years of daily study. From that moment on, Bronfman committed himself to Jewish learning and to basic Jewish practices. He never became a ‘believer,’ but he began searching for the intrinsic values of Jewish Life. Why Be Jewish is a compilation of his answers.
The book lists Bronfman’s 12 principles that guided his secular Jewish practice. His choices and his interpretations of the principles serve as the main content of the book. Interspersed with personal vignettes and rabbinic midrashim, the text is a very readable memoir. He has opened his heart and his soul to his readers in an attempt to convince a generation searching for reasons to be Jewish. I applaud his energy and his ability to synthesize a life of Jewish commitment with Jewish learning.
I find his principles oddly traditional for a text that claims to offer new insights. His list begins with a lengthy discussion of how Judaism demands one to ask questions, repair the outer and inner worlds, perform acts of loving kindness, welcome the stranger, engage with Jewish traditions, texts, philosophy, history and art to name just a few.
As I read, I thought of the famous story attributed by the Gemorah to Rabbi Hillel the elder: Once a gentile came to Hillel and asked him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel answered: “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest is commentary, now go and learn!”
That is the essence of Why Be Jewish. It is a personal account of one person’s search for commentary. His answers are not unique, but they are pathways to understanding how one can find meaning in a Judaism that is defined as secular. I am not convinced Bronfman has achieved his stated goal, but he has eloquently given reason to feel proud that such a searching, probing individual spoke on behalf of the Jewish people.