August 3, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
Surveys reveal a disturbingly large number of American Jews who feel disconnected from their Jewish identity. How painfully sad! In response, let me share the essence of what being Jewish means to me.
It means championing what is arguably the single most revolutionary concept in the annals of human civilization — monotheism — and its corollary, the inherent belief that we are all created in the image of God (in Hebrew, B’tzelem Elohim).
It means embracing the deep symbolic meaning the rabbis gave to the story of Adam and Eve. Since all of humanity descends from the “original” couple, each of us, whatever our race, religion, or ethnicity, shares the same family tree. No one can claim superiority over anyone else.
It means entering into a partnership with the Divine for the repair of our broken world (in Hebrew, Tikkun Olam), and recognizing that this work is not to be outsourced to a higher authority, or to “fate,” or to other people, but that it’s my responsibility during my lifetime.
It means affirming life — “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Hebrew Bible) — and the moral choice that lies in the hands of each of us to bring a little closer the Jewish prophetic vision of a world at peace and in harmony.
It means celebrating the fact that Jews were early dissidents, among the very first to challenge the status quo and insist on the right to worship differently than the majority. Today, we call this pluralism, and it is a bedrock principle of democratic societies. It also ought to be an essential component of Jewish communities everywhere.
It means welcoming the pioneering Jewish effort to establish a universal moral code of conduct and seeking to act as if that code of conduct were my daily GPS — to pursue justice, to treat my neighbor as I would wish to be treated, to welcome the stranger in our midst (and, I might add, the newcomer to the Jewish people), to be sensitive to the environment, and to seek peace. It’s not by accident that America’s Founding Fathers chose words from the Hebrew Bible for our nation’s Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Or that the Ten Commandments continue to be an ethical guidepost for so many around the world.
It means recognizing that I am an heir and custodian of a civilization that is thousands of years old, and that has within it bountiful riches of theology and faith, philosophy and ethics, music and art, ethnography and history, and so much more — enough for a lifetime of endless exploration and inspiration.
It means experiencing the indescribable joy of belonging and community just about anywhere I go in the world; celebrating the extraordinary impact of the Jewish people, barely one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population, in advancing the frontiers of world civilization, including winning an estimated 22 percent of all the world’s Nobel prizes; embracing the centrality of discussion and debate about life’s big questions, informed by a multitude of Jewish teachings over the centuries; and marveling at the almost unimaginable Jewish determination to persevere against all the odds, without ever losing hope for a brighter future. The author Mark Twain, an admirer of the Jewish people, once noted in amazement: “All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
It means having a past to which I am inextricably linked by the generations that preceded me; that prepared their sons and daughters for their bar and bat mitzvahs; that blessed their children at the Shabbat table; that sat at the Passover seder and yearned for “next year in Jerusalem” and the coming of the prophet Elijah; that fasted on Yom Kippur as they underwent their moral inventory, and celebrated joyously at Purim in the knowledge that our enemies had been defeated; and that passed the baton of the Jewish people from generation to generation.
It means living in perpetual mourning for all that was lost in the Holocaust, the pogroms, the inquisitions, the forced conversions, the exiles, the blood libels, and the other deadly manifestations of antisemitism — while, at the same time, living in everlasting gratitude for the gift of life, the blessing of opportunity, and the sacred task set before us of igniting that special spark within each of us.
It means the exultation of knowing that, in my lifetime, the prayers of millions of Jews over many centuries have finally been answered — the exhilarating return of the Jewish people to the cradle of our existence and the rebirth of the sovereign state of Israel. As the legendary Winston Churchill, a lifelong Zionist, said in 1947: “The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand, or even three thousand years.” How right he was!
It means affirming the inextricable link between Israel and the Jewish people. This land represents not only the physical, or sovereign, symbol of our nationhood, but also — whether we choose to live there or not — the highest metaphysical expression of our faith, our prayer, and our yearning. As the Psalmist wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
It means knowing that in fighting against antisemitism and for Israel’s right to live in peace and security, I am striving for a better world that holds promise for all people who aspire to coexistence in peace and freedom.
It means taking pride in the vast Jewish contribution to the defense of human dignity. Not by accident, the Hebrew Bible — from the exodus from Egypt to the very concept of the Promised Land — has been a source of inspiration for America’s Founding Fathers, as well as for the American civil rights movement (e.g., the African-American spiritual — “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go!”). And not by accident, either, Jews have been disproportionately represented in the forefront of the global struggle for the advancement of human rights. Strikingly, Jews have never been satisfied with things as they are. If Isaiah and the other prophets returned to earth, as perennial critics of the status quo, they would remind us that, for all that has been achieved, there’s much more work to be done before we can declare success here on earth.
And finally, as the late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once said, it means not necessarily seeking to make the world more Jewish, but rather more human. That is the goal animating our people, through good times and bad, from the very beginning of this extraordinary historical journey to the present day.
May Jews everywhere feel, or come home to, the sense of joy and enrichment, connection through time and space, shared destiny, collective responsibility, and, yes, immense pride that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing throughout my life.
David Harris is CEO of American Jewish Committee.