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. [Read more…]