You probably have had this conversation before. Probably more than once. You are talking with a person – a person whom, for the moment, we will call “a curious non-Jew.” In the conversation, the curious non-Jews asks you about the fact that you’re Jewish. The curious non-Jew summons up the courage (because it takes courage to ask questions that you fear might cause offense) and asks, “So, what exactly do Jews believe in?”
There is an awkward pause. At first you thought that this might be a good chance to demonstrate how great it is to be Jewish, but after a moment you realize that you’re not sure how to answer. What do Jews believe in? It’s a hard question.
The curious non-Jew tries to fill the silence by adding, “I mean, do you believe in the Bible? Do you believe in heaven and hell? Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in Jesus? Do you celebrate Christmas?”
If the follow-up questions were meant to make it easier for you to answer, they actually make it harder. You consider taking on the questions one at a time, but you’re not sure that you even know all the answers, and, really, you don’t want to get into a heavy conversation about religion in the office break room, or while you’re watching your kids at the playground, or during your weekly bridge game. You now wish that the curious non-Jew had never asked the question in the first place.
So does the curious non-Jew.
If you are brave, though – and I know you want to be brave – you go back to the original question – “What do Jews believe?” – and try to take it from there. You might say, “Jews believe in one God who is loving and just. Jews believe that the purpose of human beings is to try to make the world a better place. We are supposed to do mitzvot, the good things that God wants us to do – treating people with dignity and respect, loving our neighbors, taking care of the earth, standing up for justice, celebrating Shabbat and the holidays with our families and our community, learning about the Torah and our tradition, and just basically being a good person.”
“Oh, and we don’t believe in Jesus or celebrate Christmas, but my kids go over to my sister-in-law’s house every year to see their tree because it’s so pretty.”
If you managed to say something like that, congratulations. You did great. You affirmed a basic truth: Judaism does stand for something. Judaism does ask us to believe in something. That may not sound like a radical statement, but it is. If you look at the way Jews and Judaism are portrayed in the press and other media, you will see that Jews are often shown, first and foremost, as a people who are interested in themselves – their own history and culture, the state of Israel, the Holocaust, and defending themselves from anti-Semitism.
You have to respect the curious non-Jew who asked the question about what Jews believe in, because, for the most part, Jews are portrayed in popular culture as not believing in anything other than what’s good for the Jews. So, I’m glad you asked your question, my curious non-Jewish friend. Yes, Jews do believe in something more than just themselves.
Now, mind you, I am not saying that Jews should not be interested in Jewish culture, Jewish history, in the Holocaust, in combating anti-Semitism, and in the state of Israel. Those things should all be important to us. But, remember Hillel’s famous teaching: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). We do need to care about ourselves as a people, but we cannot be concerned only with ourselves. The core of Judaism is a call to courageous action to repair the world. It is a system based on core beliefs.
Judaism believes in justice. The Hebrew word for justice is tzedakah, and it means so much more than charity. Tzedakah means that no matter the circumstances of your birth – whether you are black, brown or white; whatever nation you are from; whether you are rich or poor; whatever religion you adhere to; no matter whom you love; whether you are male or female, transgender, or non-binary – you are a human being created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and your life matters.
That means that you do not have to accept harassment or lower wages because you are a woman. It means that you do not have to tolerate being stopped or scrutinized by police because of the color of your skin. It means you should not be branded as a criminal because you are from another country. It means that you should not be denied the essentials of living – food, housing, healthcare, education and a living wage for hard work – just because you are poor. Judaism stands for justice.
Judaism believes in and stands for love. Judaism stands for the idea that the world can only be repaired when human beings truly and deeply care for each other, know each other, and seek peace with one another. V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Our tradition teaches us to be more interested in allowing different people to live with each other in kindness and acceptance than in keeping them apart out of fear. Judaism stands for a society grounded in awareness that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers – every one of them. Judaism stands for love.
Judaism stands for reverence – a sense of awe before our Creator, and the awareness that we are not the center of the universe. V’yareita mei’Elohecha, ani Adonai, “You shall revere your God, I Adonai” (Leviticus 19:14). Judaism teaches that we have an obligation to the greater good and not to think only of self-interest. That requires humility – the humility to recognize that we don’t have all the answers and that we need to listen to each other with open hearts.
Our tradition teaches us that when we disagree with other people, it is not an invitation to insult and hate them. It is an invitation to engage in sincere inquiry, discussion, mutual respect, and genuine connection. Judaism stands for reverence.
I know. These are pretty thoughts and ideas. However, they don’t mean anything if we don’t live them. That is why Judaism is also about action. How do we turn our ideals into an action plan?
Step number one, always, is to live our values in our personal lives. Be the person who embodies the world as it should be. Think of every person – those you interact with in your daily life, and those you hear about in the news – as another human being, like you, created in the image of God. Command yourself to treat the suffering of others as if it were your own suffering. Bring compassion and caring to people in need. Make your life an example of forgiveness, acceptance, generosity, respect, and awareness of your limitations and limited experience. Rejoice in the variety of humanity and in the lives of people whose circumstances are wholly different from your own.
But the action plan for living Judaism requires more than just a personal attitude adjustment. Judaism teaches that each of us is more than an isolated individual. We belong to each other and we are at our best when we act together as a community to make our world a better place. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another” (B. Shevuot 39a). Judaism stands for something, and we make it real when we do it together.
This summer, a group of Temple Sinai members organized our Outreach Group, which we are calling Bikur Cholim, the Hebrew phrase that means “Visiting the Sick.” People like Phyllis Solod, Ellen Gourse, Sheila Land, and Abby McLean have volunteered to visit elderly people and people living with disabilities in our community who are in need of lovingkindness, care and support. Bikur Cholim is a way to make our Judaism real through the simple act of being with people who need love and attention. I’m asking you today to consider being a part of Bikur Cholim. Help us organize our community to do something for the people who need us.
Bob Haiken and Elaine Land are two of the leaders of our Sandwiches at Sinai group that meets once a month on Sunday mornings to make simple meals, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We deliver the meals to “Be the Change,” an organization that serves dinners for the needy at the West Warwick Senior Center. I’m asking you today to consider joining Sandwiches at Sinai on Sunday mornings and helping to feed people who are hungry.
This winter, I am organizing a day for our community to go to the State House to talk with lawmakers about the values of justice that Judaism stands for. I ask you to consider being a part of that experience, too. We will tell our representatives and senators that justice demands that we address Rhode Island’s affordable housing crisis so poor people can find a home they can afford. We will tell our legislators that justice demands that we give immigrants a chance to be successful in America, and that they be treated with fairness and respect. We will tell lawmakers that justice demands that women receive equal pay for equal work.
How will we do that? We will do it in the way that our tradition asks us: We will do it in a spirit of holiness. We will listen. We will be respectful. We will hear what others have to say. We will do our best to serve justice kindly, lovingly, and with humility, and we will do it with determination.
If Judaism means enough to us to come together to pray on Rosh Hashanah, it should mean enough to us to do something about our broken world. If Judaism means more to us than just celebrating being Jewish, then we have to show it with our actions. We have to live in a way that acknowledges that Judaism calls us to moral action on our ancient principles.
We need to be able to tell that courageous and curious non-Jew – the one who asked what we believe in – that our Judaism stands for something. We need to show that we are willing to be courageous, too. Because, you know, you do need to be brave to be a Jew. You need to have the courage to live for something, to stand for something, and to stick with it even when it would be easier not to. You have to be brave to be a Jew. You have to be willing to take risks. That’s what our ancestors did to make sure that Judaism would be handed down to us, and it is what we have to do to make Judaism relevant to the lives of our children and grandchildren. There is no easy way to be a Jew.
And know this, too: It’s not just that one curious and courageous non-Jew who wants to know what Judaism stands for. It is the whole world. For thousands of years, our people have seen ourselves as the conscience of humanity – Or goyim, "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:6). The whole world needs to know what Jews are willing to do for the sake of justice, love, and true reverence. The whole world, whether it knows it or not, is waiting for Jews to live up to the values that our prophets proclaimed in the Bible. The whole world depends on Jews being Jews. If not now, when?
Be brave. Be courageous. Be a Jew who stands for something. Make waves. Make a difference. Help to heal the world.
Shanah tovah um’tukah. May you have a good and sweet new year.