Beyond Life Itself: A Letter to My Daughters on the Question of ‘Why Be Jewish’?

A father explains why he feels Judaism is so important for his daughters: offering them a sense of identity, a source of resilience, worldwide connections, ethical guidance and spiritual wisdom.

To Maya and Juliana;

As I write this, you are 8 and 5, respectively, and you each possess a forceful personality, a healthy curiosity and an essential goodness. You both ask questions that would impress the most hard-hitting journalist. You’ve asked about cancer, death, the civil-rights movement, interplanetary travel, family history, the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the identity of Jesus, the existence of Santa Claus, conception and childbirth and, yes, even about the current occupant of the White House. You’ve asked legitimate, pointed questions about Judaism and the imperfect Jewish household we’re building together: Why do we light Shabbat candles? How far away is Israel? Why don’t we celebrate Christmas? Do I really have to go to religious school today?

There’s one question I’m bracing for above all other: Why be Jewish? It is, in fact, the first in a series of unending questions that include: What is Judaism for? Why do we bother? What difference will Judaism make in my life? How can I contribute to it? One of you has gotten close and asked your mother why we are Jewish? (I’m told that she answered: because your mommy and daddy are, which is less and less true for people who identify as Jewish.) But why be Jewish? Why do Jewish?

In this increasingly digital, secular and individualized society—in which the fastest-growing religious segment are people of no religion—it will likely be easier than ever for the two of you to opt out of Judaism and the Jewish people. Your lives are yours to lead. But choices have consequences. I hope the two of you opt in. I hope you engage in Judaism for your own sakes, for the sake of the Jewish people, and, if I can put a little pressure on your life choices, perhaps even the sake of the world.

Perhaps I’m old enough—or at least close enough in age to the post-World War II generation—that I’ve absorbed a sense of obligation, otherwise known as Jewish guilt, that appears lost on subsequent generations. It goes something like this: I must be Jewish in order to be another link in the millennia-long chain. I must remain a Jew to deny Hitler a posthumous victory. These ideas will likely sound utterly alien to you. If you do choose to find a space for Judaism in your life—whatever form that might take—it will be because of positive associations and experiences, not guilt.

Yes, the why be Jewish question scares me. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time thinking about this stuff that I should have a good answer. The truth is that I always imagined I would have figured out more by the time I became a parent. But that’s parenthood in a nutshell. We’re never ready. We’re never prepared. And no instantaneous acquisition of wisdom happens the moment a child lets out a first cry. Fatherhood is a role I’ve slowly grown into out of utter necessity. Maya and Juliana, if you are fortunate enough to become parents yourselves, I guarantee you that from the moment you hear that first cry, for the rest of your lives you’ll be playing catch-up.

I’ve spent the better part of my career working on behalf of the American Jewish community, even as my own personal Jewish engagement has ebbed and flowed. As a teenager, I wanted nothing to do with any of it—saw the synagogue experience as void, hollow, in part because I was a teenager determined to find it void and hollow, wanting to scream heavy-metal lyrics from the pews. Only in college did I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, Judaism could play a part in filling a missing piece of myself, filling out an incomplete soul. Emerging into a proto-adulthood, I shed the teenage notion that my life story began with birth, that the decades and worlds came before had little to do with me. And, if I’m just infinitesimal part of a very big story, I wanted to grasp the narrative.

Why have I remained engaged all this time? Why do I care so much? Part of the reason is that I have acquired a sense of collective responsibility to do my part to ensure (pardon me for invoking a cliché) a vibrant Jewish future. But I also still pursue meaning, community and literature via a Jewish perspective because I get something out of it. Many things. I wanted to share a few of those positive aspects with you.

A Sense of Identity

Human beings, I believe, need to feel anchored, to have a sense of where we come from and our place in the world. Tragic things can happen to individuals—to entire peoples even—as the result of disconnection. As Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician Natan Sharansky wrote in his 2008 book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, “One universal quality of identity is that it gives life meaning beyond life itself. It offers a connection to a world beyond the self.” The world is a less interesting, less resilient place when unique cultures and religions are subsumed in a globalized monolith.

I believe in multiculturalism and relish human diversity. But multiculturalism becomes meaningless if we all shed our own identities, if we bring nothing to the table but the vapid identity of global citizen. People steeped in their own identities—or, in our increasingly complex world, hybrid identities—greatly enhance the vibrancy of human diversity. I don’t want to build a wall between you and non-Jews. Non-Jews, after all, represent nearly the entirety of our human population. I want you to bring a more complete self to your interactions with others. I want the two of you to have a sense of who you are. I want you to feel connected to the past, the future—to a narrative larger than yourselves and larger than whatever cultural moment you find yourself in.

A Wellspring of Resilience

There’s ample evidence to suggest that people with developed spiritual lives who are part of spiritual communities possess a deeper sense of inner resilience. Speaking not scientifically, but subjectively, prayer and song have indeed helped me through some difficult times and have served as a stabilizing force in an unstable world. Judaism has been a source of stability when my emotions and confidence have been shaky. We can’t help others or improve the world if we can’t make it through our own days and nights. Jewish worship is part of the toolbox that helps me slouch towards an effective and meaningful life. One of the most surprising things I have learned is that music and rituals can bring joy, open my heart and help me lose my self-consciousness. Do I always love services? No way! And, if I’m being completely honest, exercise has been the key practice that has helped me keep my mental equilibrium. And all kinds of secular music have made an imprint on my soul in a way that Jewish music has not. But Judaism remains a piece of the puzzle, an important piece. Girls, I want you to have all the tools you possibly can to withstand the worst in order to rediscover life’s joys, in order to look beyond your own days and nights to grasp and brighten the world’s horizon.

Friends in Far Places

More than 30 years ago, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg questioned in an influential essay whether the Jewish people is really many peoples. These days, it’s difficult to sustain the argument that global Jewry constitutes a single people. To be sure, the Jewish people have always occupied multiple civilizations. Today, many of divisions appear unbridgeable: Israeli and American, Zionist and anti-Zionist, Orthodox and everyone else, conservative and liberal, those who care and those who couldn’t care less.

Yet whether we are one people or many is, in some ways, a question of semantics. There is still much that unites us, and in a world that is very big, it is a gift to be able to make it a little smaller. I’ve made meaningful connections with Jews in South Africa, Tunisia and Israel. To be sure, my life has been deeply enriched by interacting with people from all over the world connected to many religions and no religion. But at the risk of sounding chauvinistic and out of touch, there is something irreplaceable about having a potentially deep connection with Jews from around the globe. You stand a better chance of making that connection if you have some grounding in traditions, know basic Hebrew and some common points of reference, even if your perspectives vary widely.

A Means to Explore Ethics

It’s easy to possess the will to do good. Few of us view ourselves as villains. But actually doing good is hard, whether in politics or philanthropy or interpersonal relations. So often, the choices you face in life won’t clearly be defined as right and wrong. Whether by studying Torah, practicing Mussar or delving into The Ethics of the Fathers, Judaism offers many avenues to explore how to make ethical choices in a complex world.


It’s not lost on me that I’m raising two daughters in a tradition that has, for millennia, born the hallmark of patriarchy. For most of Jewish history, women’s voices were nearly absent from the texts, arguments and traditions. It may not always have been a man’s story, but the story of men is what has been told and retold.

In so many ways, it is a good time to be alive. There has been a flowering of feminist thought, of critical, textual and artistic reconstructions of our core narratives. And, thankfully, there is no shortage of positive role models. We now have rabbis representing nearly all expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation, mirroring the increasing diversity of our Jewish communities. Your path is no longer utterly prescribed. When it comes to the identity you wish to assume in this world, you have all manner of choices and, thankfully, many Jewish models to draw upon.

We live in a contemporary society where people have their lives and choices picked apart on social media. Finding yourself—becoming your best, true-self—is a lifelong task. The Jewish world will offer you community, tools and programs, like Moving Traditions, to help you find you way. I fully expect that there will be many occasions in life where you feel you don’t know where you are going. I don’t want you ever to feel lost, but if you do, there are spiritual compasses to guide you.

A Means to Explore Ultimate Reality

As your father, as someone who wants you to be the best you possible, I hope you make room in your life for spiritual pursuits, and I hope those pursuits are informed by the Jewish tradition. (By all means, look outside the tradition as well.) Human beings are spiritual animals, and the desire to connect with ultimate reality and the unknowable has been ever-present.

The very idea of God initially served as an obstacle for me as I tried to connect with Judaism. I was never a particularly original thinker and generally stuck on things like why would a good God allow evil and suffering. There have been times in the past 20 years in which I have felt God’s presence in my life. Once in my early 20s, camping out in the Galilee near a wheat field with the lights of an Arab village flickering in the distance, I could feel the spirit of God in the breeze, sweeping through the crops, a presence in the land. At that moment, I was sure God was no metaphor, that God was right there. That certainty didn’t last long: Soon, I ascribed this feeling to a trick of my own subconscious. At other times, I’ve found solace in modern theology, particularly Reconstructionist theology, which understands God as a metaphor, a process, an inspiration of human goodness, a natural force. Sometimes, I haven’t connected to the idea of God at all and trudged through worship services nevertheless. I’ve even taken extended breaks from Jewish ritual and prayer.

In our age of science, technology and information, most human knowledge is based on evidence, on building upon and questioning previous knowledge, on testing hypotheses. None of that applies to a belief in God. God is not a hypothesis you can test. Nothing can be proven. Nothing can be ruled out. I have found contemporary theology interesting, but of limited help in discerning my place in the world. No matter how much collective knowledge human beings acquire, it’s hard to imagine human life losing the pervasive presence of mystery, of the unknowable. As you face that mystery, I hope you are aided by a sense of spirituality, one that is at least informed by our tradition that stretches back millennia.

I hope Judaism offers some of the inspiration you’ll need to strive against the madness of things, life’s fundamental injustices, and leave the world better than you found it. I also deeply hope that Judaism serves, strengthens, sustains and inspires you. I hope it challenges you and gives you a framework to question your assumptions. I hope Judaism becomes part of who you are—an integral aspect of your wide expanse. To paraphrase Whitman, you contain multitudes.

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