Once, I was invited to address a local middle school class as they began a unit on the history of world religions. The teacher asked me to summarize Judaism in about 10 minutes. At least I had more time than Hillel when he explained the Torah "on one foot."1 But where was I to begin? I decided to start with Abraham, the first Jew.
I didn't have time then to analyze the complexities of Abraham's legacy and the questions raised by his call from God. Why did God choose him? Why did God make a covenant with a family rather than, say, anyone willing to behave in a certain way? Addressing these questions gets to the very heart of what it means to be Jewish.
The Torah gives us little indication about the reasoning behind God's choice of Abraham. We read simply, "The Eternal One said to Abram, 'Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you'" (Genesis 12:1). Midrashic tradition has offered various back stories to show Abraham's worthiness retroactively. In one midrash, "Abraham learned Torah all by himself" (Midrash T'hillim 1:13); in another, a three-year old Abraham comes to monotheism through his own intellectual insight (Beit HaMidrash 2:118-196). Then there's the famous story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father's shop (B'reishit Rabbah 38:13). These traditions seek to portray Abraham as a heroic monotheist, ahead of his time in devotion to the one God.
We can also point to examples within the Torah that suggest Abraham's worthiness. He responds diligently to God's call to leave his homeland. He argues prophetically with God about the administration of justice for Sodom and Gomorrah. He proves his faith by willingly preparing his beloved son Isaac as a sacrificial offering to God.
But each of these instances of Abraham's greatness occurred after God's call. Nothing Abraham had done up to that point had proved him worthy of special election. Thus this parashah introduces a central tension within Jewish identity: are we Jewish by lineage and birth, or are we Jewish by our commitment to a set of values and behaviors? In other words, are we Jewish by descent or by deed?
For Jews, Abraham is the paradigm for our dual commitment to Judaism. We are called to be part of the Jewish people by the accident of our birth or by affinity. Whether we respond with a positive, intentional commitment to Jewish living rests upon our free will.
In the United States today, as the Pew Study, "A Portrait of Jewish Americans," showed in 2013, there's a trend among younger Jews against identifying with the institutions of Jewish life. Of those born since 1980, only 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion. This trend tracks with the broader population, where those who identify as unaffiliated and "spiritual but not religious" are on the rise. For the increasing segment of American Jews who say their primary link to Judaism is through ancestry or culture, it's not clear whether their Jewish identity includes a commitment to peoplehood or religious values—or any commitment at all.
Perhaps the idea of "a chosen people" is too particularistic for Jews who are increasingly universalistic in their values. Perhaps they, like their fellow Americans, want to be spiritual seekers unencumbered by what they see as the sterile bureaucracy of institutions or the imperial voice of tradition. But perhaps there is a way for Jewish institutions to speak a different language that welcomes a new generation of seekers without compromising its core values.
We could start by taking Abraham's call and response as a model. You may be Jewish by accident, but you gain something profound by becoming Jewish by choice. Being Jewish by descent may be no more than a cultural curiosity, but becoming Jewish by deed reaps rewards in this life and for generations to come.
In the Shalom Hartman Institute's iEngage curriculum, "Engaging Israel: Foundations for a New Relationship," Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman offers a compelling articulation of a Jewishness that is both inherited and intentional. In the video for the session on religion and peoplehood, Rabbi Hartman makes a case for reclaiming the concept of peoplehood: First and foremost, peoplehood provides an individual with a past. It imparts not only a sense of rootedness, but also a collective memory that benefits from the wisdom of the ages. In our era of fractured identities, Judaism can be a grounding influence that allows you to try on other identities without losing your sense of self.
Following from this historical rootedness, peoplehood also creates a sense of belonging in the present. In addition to cultivating a sense of rootedness in the past, it also roots you in a community of the present. Since it is a community of the Jewish people, you have an essential right to be part of it simply because of who you are as a Jew. It's not a membership you have to earn, but it does come with an expectation of accepting responsibility for what it means to live as a Jew in the world.
Within this community of the past and present, Jews envision their future. You are part of a people, Rabbi Hartman says, who are supposed to transform history. The individual Jew finds his or her place within the tradition of the past and the collective of the present. Together, we shape our legacy for posterity.
Of course, it's one thing to read about these concepts and something else entirely to be transformed by them. Sometimes it doesn't take much: a grandchild enraptured by a grandparent's story of Holocaust survival and immigration; a marginal Jew who finds new purpose and connection in showing up to help a stranger say the Mourner's Kaddish; a parent who feels empowered by organizing other parents to get the local school district to respect Jewish holidays; a teenager whose trip to Israel opens the door to a new relationship with her extended family. The task for Jewish institutions is to create opportunities for Jews to find these roots and connections, because every moment like that is worth far more than a thousand words.
1. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.