In Defense of The Why: Judaism Needs a Mission

Cross-posted to eJewish Philanthropy.

One of the things that make my job at JFN so rich and interesting is the debates, even arguments, that we have within our staff. I love those, because they challenge me, they make me learn, and, above all, I know these arguments are “for the sake of Heaven”—meant not to make a point, but to make a difference.

In that vein, my colleague Seth Chalmer shared with me an article he wrote and asked for my opinion. We both thought that the debate was rich and decided to share it with you. Of course, you are also invited to chime in! 

Seth passionately — and brilliantly — argues against asking the question, “Why be Jewish”. He instead proposes a sophisticated version of what I call “the Nike argument”: just do it! In Seth’s view, meaningful Jewish experiences are their own justification and we shouldn’t “condition” Jewish existence on finding a compelling mission for the Jewish people in the world. Moreover, he claims, the search for that “why” is counterproductive because it puts in doubt something that should be a given: if you are part of a family, you don’t ask why—you just are.

I see things a little differently. First, I think Seth sees a dichotomy where there is none, because the three elements (the practice, the belonging and the why) are necessary and mutually enforcing.

Let’s start with what Seth gets right: Yes, Jewish practice (including not just religious practices but also cultural ones, like speaking a Jewish language) are necessary. I would go further: they are an unavoidable condition for the people’s existence. The most compelling mission can’t, and shouldn’t, replace a set of cultural practices that binds the group together and serves as an expression of that very mission. Platonic love may be love, alright, but it’s boring, and ultimately fruitless.

In my student years, I was deeply influenced by those that apply an “ethnographic view” of Judaism, and that is still with me. The ethnographers, like Levi Strauss, Clifford Geerz, and Gregory Bateson observe how a people behaves: what are their rites, customs, symbols, languages. We always need to ask what an ethnographer would see when they observe us. If there are no meaningful differences between us and the rest, then are we still a distinct human group? So I’m in full agreement on the importance of practice.

Where we start to diverge is Seth’s contention that the Jewish people’s existence (Jewish continuity, in other words) is its own justification, with no need for an extrinsic mission.

First, Clifford Geerz and other ethnographers don’t just observe, they do what’s been called “thick descriptions”, meaning, they question the underlying reasons for rites and cultural artifacts. They understand the role of symbols as representations. Without those underlying reasons, rites became empty and tend to wither away. Secondly, survival, the continuation of life in and of itself, is indeed enough for a biological machine; all life forms want to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. There’s no “reason” for that, it’s just the way life works. But can we say the same about a people? A people is not a biological machine, it’s a cultural construct. A people is, at the basis, a story we tell, and in that story, the question of “why we exist” becomes critical.

The idea that Jews exist to fulfill a mission (and not just to exist) is not a modern invention. In fact, it’s the very beginning of our existence as a people. 

When God establishes his first pact with Abraham God says, “All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3); and then “through your offspring, all the peoples of the world will be blessed” (Gen 26:4). The Jewish people is, in fact, established around a mission.

Throughout our history, prophets, rabbis, and sages have continued to uphold the centrality of that notion: the Jewish people exists to fulfill a mission, to add something unique to the conversation of humanity. “You are my witnesses,” says God, “and my servant whom I have chosen” (Isaiah 43:10). The idea of the people “chosen” to fulfill God’s mission is constitutive to Judaism. It’s not a marketing ploy to reach out to apathetic, consumerist, and individualistic Millennials. 

Of course, there’s no clarity or agreement about what that mission—“the why”—is; so part of the Jewish experience has been, from the very beginning, to debate endlessly and discuss the question of “why be Jewish” and “what is our mission”. Jews arrived at different conclusion on this question, but they never ceased debating it. The rites and cultural practices were understood as vehicles of that mission, not just as devices to ensure the people’s folkloric continuity.

Some rail against the modern attempt to define Judaism’s mission as “Tikkun Olam” (understood as social justice), but the moderns follow in the path of countless generations that tried to understand what the core mission of Jewish existence was. That mission was always related to the rest of the world (in the case of the Kabbalists, to the universe as a whole). In fact, a big part of our cultural practice is the discussion and the argument about our mission in the world.

Seth brings Chabad’s example, but Chabad is precisely a case study in the power of a mission. Chabad see itself as an army (they call themselves tziv’os Hashem – the army of God) with a mission of striving relentlessly to bring the messiah. Practices, from wrapping tefillin on the street to hosting Shabbat dinner, are steps towards the concretion of that mission. The assuredness they exude stems not only from their strong practice, but from their commitment to that mission.

Finally, Seth decries that asking for a why implies that the default option is not being Jewish, which is why one needs a “why” to convince Jews to be Jewish. But that is precisely the reality in a world of radical free choice. For good or bad, there is no default. In today’s world, people’s identities and belonging are not a given, so everybody asks, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, the question of why. The world is a smorgasbord of options and Jews see themselves as citizens of the world. If Judaism is just a practice, why do precisely that practice and not another? Many cultural practices are beautiful and meaningful, so why choose precisely the Jewish ones? What is the uniqueness of Judaism and why is it worthwhile for us and for the world to keep it alive? Many old traditions made a contribution to the world and then vanished. We thank them for their contribution and we go learn about them in museums.

I wish Seth was right that being Jewish was “a given”, a default that is not put into question, but it’s not. Whether we want it or not, the question will be asked, and we need to, at least, be willing and ready to engage in that conversation.

Now, I do think, as I said above, that a mission without strong cultural practices and normative traditions is a mere abstraction. We need, as Mordechai Kaplan said, the three Bs: Believing, Behaving, and Belonging. It is also clear that we don’t have to agree on “one” mission, there never was and I guess never will be a single response to the question of “why” be Jewish. Multiple “whys” can coexist, but none will make Judaism into an empty folklore.

My feeling is that we’ve offered Jews a diet of tribal kinship and victimization (be Jewish because others try to kill us and be Jewish because that’s your family). That diet has caused massive disaffiliation and apathy. Imagine a club that advertises itself with the slogan, “they want to kill us, join!” Imagine a family with which you have little in common that you have to see every Thanksgiving. You may swallow it once a year, but you’d rather celebrate “Friendsgiving” with the friends you really like.

In the last few decades we’ve made the problem worse: we’ve used the term “Jewish identity” as a placeholder, as a replacement for meaningful practice and for serious debate about the “why” question. We created massive “content-free” frameworks for Jewish life that have not succeeded in reverting the downwards trends.

Knowing that Judaism can still make a meaningful and unique contribution to the conversation of humanity can be a much more powerful driver of Jewish commitment that mere continuity—and, needless to say, a much healthier and richer one than victimhood and tribal kinship. 

The combination of both practice and mission is what’s necessary. Meaningful practices, vibrant cultural artifacts that are both preserved and re-interpreted by each generation, together with a powerful mission, may be the winning combination we are seeking.


Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network.