He was dating a non-Jewish woman seriously, and when Sarah would ask him if he planned on raising his children as Jews, his answer was no; Judaism wasn’t important to him. Sarah had one question for me: How do I convince my son to be Jewish?
Although I didn’t know Sarah, she had asked for an appointment to see me. The issue was her son. He was dating a non-Jewish woman seriously, and when Sarah would ask him if he planned on raising his children as Jews, his answer was no; Judaism wasn’t important to him. Sarah had one question for me: How do I convince my son to be Jewish?
This same question motivated Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to write the book “A Letter in the Scroll,” which was published in 2000. As he explains in the introduction, he wrote the book as his response to the growing problem of assimilation; and in the book, he speaks personally about why he is a Jew. As you read the book, what becomes clear is that he believes that all Jews need to take this question seriously. To underscore the point, Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction that he offered a first draft of the book to his son and daughter-in-law as a gift for their wedding. Even respected rabbis have to make sure to inspire their children to be Jews.
The book begins with a question about our Torah reading. Moshe renews the covenant with the second generation of Jews, the children of those who left Egypt, and says: “I make this covenant … not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” This covenant includes all future generations.
Two Biblical commentators, Rabbi Isaac Arama and Don Isaac Abravanel, pose the very same question about this passage: How could the generation of the desert accept the covenant on behalf of their descendants without the consent of future generations? Why can’t any Jewish child refuse to accept the Torah, which they never consented to? It is worth noting that both Abravanel and Arama were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. (According to Bentzion Netanyahu, they would meet to discuss theological issues, which is why there is a great deal of overlap in their Torah commentaries.) They had both watched many of their compatriots convert to Christianity, and wondered whether future generations would care about Judaism.
Over the years, three explanations have been given for this verse, and they are cited by the Malbim in his commentary. The first is that the covenant is actually irrelevant; Jews are obligated to keep the Torah because one cannot refuse the commandments of an all-powerful creator. The second answer is that the generation of the desert could accept the covenant for all future generations because the covenant is fundamentally a gift, which allows one to gain reward in the world to come; and one is entitled to assume consent, and thereby accept a gift on behalf of another person. The third answer, which is mystical, is that all future generations stood at Sinai; the soul of every future Jew, both born Jewish and converts, stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah.
These three answers can rephrased this way:
You must be a Jew.
It’s a gift to be a Jew.
You were meant to be a Jew.
These answers, with a contemporary spin, are still used today. But are they convincing to the next generation of Jews?
The answer of “you must be a Jew” now focuses on antisemitism, and argues that one has no choice; other people will always push Jews away, and Jews can never leave their ancestry behind. A Jew can try to assimilate, but the haters will still hate them. Ben Hecht, in his autobiography “A Child of the Century,” writes about a conversation with movie mogul David O. Selznick. Hecht wanted him to sign a telegram in support of the Zionist cause. Selznick said he wouldn’t because: “I’m an American and not a Jew. It would be silly of me to pretend suddenly that I’m a Jew, with some sort of full-blown Jewish psychology.”
Hecht responded: “If I can prove that you are a Jew, David, will you sign the telegram as a co-sponsor for me?”
Selznick asked Hecht: “How are you going to prove it?”
To which Hecht replied: “I will call up any three people you name, and ask them the following question: What would you call David O. Selznick, an American or a Jew? If any of the three answers that he calls you an American, you win. Otherwise you sign the telegram.”
Selznick signed the telegram.
This type of response may have resonated in the 1940s, but seems foreign today. Abigail Pogrebin interviewed Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame for her book “Stars of David.” Alexander explained that his parents would offer this very same argument: “‘There are people in this world who would kill you just because you’re a Jew, and you have to know what you’re dying for.’” Alexander wryly noted that “this was a real incentive program.” Focusing on antisemitism does not inspire people to love Judaism; it only inspires panic and guilt.
The answer that “it’s a gift to be a Jew” no longer focuses on other-worldly rewards; instead it says Judaism is a gift because it makes you happy. This is a reasonable perspective, considering that a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Jews were the happiest religious group in the United States. This argument is quite popular, and many sermons and articles have focused on how Judaism contains important wisdom about health, psychology and relationships.
In 1946, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote “Peace of Mind,” which sold over a million copies in one year. Since then, books about Jewish wisdom for business, relationships, health and sex have been best sellers. Undoubtedly, many Jewish rituals do bring peace of mind, and there is a great deal of interest, both among Jews and non-Jews, about the gifts of Judaism. But the problem with this answer is that it reduces the Torah to a guide on psychology, health and finance; Judaism is no longer a spiritual journey or the search for transcendence.Yet even great thinkers were tempted to see the mitzvot as utilitarian. Maimonides wrote that the reason for eating kosher food is because it is healthier, and that pork in particular led to unhealthy conditions, and communities that raised pigs were “cesspools.” Don Isaac Abravanel offered a harsh criticism of Maimonides’ view, saying it transformed the Torah into a “short medical textbook.” Abravanel is correct. While we may find happiness in the pursuit of Judaism, that cannot be its purpose. There is plenty of non-kosher food that is healthy, and plenty of very happy people who don’t practice Judaism.
The most meaningful answer is the third one: “You were meant to be a Jew.” This response is not based on proofs or arguments. Instead,one hears a voice in the depths of one’s soul that says: I am a Jew because I cannot imagine not being one. This person’s journey to Jewish identity is inexplicable, a magnetic pull that draws them near. Beginning with Avraham and Sarah, the Jewish journey has been an all-consuming passion for those who want to be a part of the greatest story on earth. Like Yonah, they say “I am a Hebrew.” Like Ruth, they say “don’t turn me away.” Like Avraham, they say “I am ready.”
Rabbi Sacks concludes his book with an eloquent three-page summary about why he is a Jew. In every word, one can recognize that he is driven by his love for Judaism, and cannot imagine being anything else.
The weakness of the final approach is it doesn’t persuade. Those passionate about their Judaism can share what Judaism means to them, but it remains a personal experience. Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction that his book “is a personal reply. None of us can answer the question for anyone else.” He writes simply to share his own experience.
How do you convince your children to love Judaism? There’s no answer for that question. But if you know you were meant to be a Jew, if you feel like your soul was at Mount Sinai, share that inspiration; perhaps you will inspire them.
Toward the end of the book, Rabbi Sacks shares a moving story about a chasidic rabbi in Kew Gardens Hills. The rabbi had moved there after the Holocaust and opened a small shtiebel. One Shabbat, a boy wandered in, wanting to see what a chasidic rabbi is like. After services, the rabbi went over to the boy and said that Pesach was rapidly approaching, and he did not have a child old enough to ask the four questions; would the boy be his guest and say the Mah Nishtanah? The boy accepted the invitation, and sat at the Seder with the rabbi and his wife; at the side of the table was a carriage with their baby daughter. At one point during the Seder, the baby started to cry, and the rabbi excused himself. In another room, he rocked the baby to sleep, and sang a Yiddish song. The boy could make out the words, but didn’t know what they meant.
After the Seder, the boy was intrigued enough to want to learn more about the rabbi’s story. He found out that both the rabbi and his wife had been in concentration camps, and the rabbi had been in the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka. After the war they reunited, but had difficulty having children. After years of trying, they were told by doctors to give up hope; despite all odds, this baby was born.
This boy was transformed by that evening, and decided to become religious, eventually becoming a rabbi. But what inspired him was not the rabbi’s story; it’s when he learned the meaning of the song the rabbi sang to his daughter. The words were: “it is good to be a Jew, it is good to be a Jew.” This rabbi, who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka, could still sing about his love for Judaism; he still knew he was meant to be a Jew. At that Seder, this young boy saw a role model of Jewish identity.
There is no answer to the question of how to convince my child to be a Jew, but there is a response. If you feel the passion of Sinai, live that way, because that passion just might inspire others. And never be shy to say “it is good to be a Jew.”
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.