Why Be Jewish?

In the last days of his life Moses renews the covenant between God and Israel. The entire book of Devarim has been an account of the covenant - how it came about, - what its terms and conditions are, - why it is the core of Israel's identity as an : am kadosh, a holy people,

Moses, however, is careful not to limit his words to those who are actually present ! About to die, he wants to ensure that no future generation can say:

"Moses made a covenant with our ancestors but not with us!

We didn't give our consent. We are not bound."

It is written in the Parasha of this week Nitzavim:

It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today.

As the commentators point out, the phrase

"whoever is not here" cannot refer to Israelites alive at the time who happened to be somewhere else.

In fact, this cannot be, since the entire nation was assembled there.

It can only mean:

"generations not yet born."

The covenant bound all Jews from that day to all times.

As the Talmud says: we are all mushba ve-omed me-har Sinai, " foresworn from Sinai "

By agreeing to be God's people, subject to God's laws, our ancestors obligated us.

One of the most fundamental facts about Judaism, we do not choose to be Jews. We are born as Jews.

We are part of the covenant from birth.

That choice took place more than three thousand years ago when Moses said

"It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant,

but with ... whoever is not here with us today,"

meaning all future generations including us.


How can we be bound by an agreement to which we were not parties?

How can we be subject to a covenant on the basis of a decision taken long ago and far away by our distant ancestors?


In short, this is the question of questions of Jewish identity.

How can we be bound by Jewish law, without our choice, merely because our ancestors agreed on our behalf?

We inherit many things from our parents

most obviously our genes.

But being Jewish is not a genetic condition,

it is a set of religious obligations !

For the most part, Jews did not ask the question, "Why be Jewish?"

The answer was obvious. My parents are Jewish.

My grandparents were Jewish.

So I am Jewish.

Identity is something most people in most ages take for granted.

The sages answered the question mystically. They said, even the souls of Jews not yet born were present at Sinai and ratified the covenant (Exodus Rabbah 28:6).

Every Jew, in other words, did give his or her consent in the days of Moses even though they had not yet been born.

Demystifying this, perhaps the sages meant that in his or her innermost heart even the most assimilated Jew knew that he or she was still a Jew. That seems to have been the case with figures like Heinrich Heine and Benjamin Disraeli, who lived as Christians but often wrote and thought as Jews.

Perhaps a simpler answer to this question is :

Not every obligation that binds us is one to which we have freely given our assent.

There are obligations that come with birth.

The classic example is a crown prince. To be the heir to a throne involves a set of duties and a life of service to others. It is possible to neglect these duties. In extreme circumstances it is possible for even a king to abdicate. But no one chooses to be royal. That is a fate, a destiny, that comes with birth.

We are part of a story that began long before we were born and will continue long after we are no longer here, and the question for all of us is:

will we continue the story?

The hopes of a hundred generations of our ancestors rest on our willingness to do so.

Deep in our collective memory the words of Moses continue to resonate.

"It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with ... whoever is not here with us today." We are part of that story. We can live it. We can abandon it. But it is a choice we cannot avoid and it has immense consequences. The future of the covenant rests with us.

Rabbi Jean Pierre Fettmann