This question has dogged me. I have 5 grandchildren, ages 1 through 7. So, I decided to lead a Torah Study this year focused on the question. During these days of reflection, I think more about it.
I focused on “live a Jewish life”1 rather than “be Jewish” because many of our children or grandchildren are automatically Jewish by birth even if they choose not to lead a Jewish life.
One Jewish philosopher argued that in in light of the Holocaust, we and our children must be Jewish to avoid giving Hitler a posthumous victory. Others have objected that you should not live your life guided by negative reasons.
A book I found helpful is A Letter in the Scroll, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Sacks writes that we Jews are a letter in an unfinished scroll constituting the story of Judaism, a story that began over two thousand years ago and is still being written through our lives and through future lives to come, but the loss of our letter will diminish the entirety of this precious scroll. Sacks also examines the joys inherent in a Jewish life and gives as another compelling reason: “Because it’s good to be a Jew.”
A Chabad Rabbi informed me that a Jew should lead a Jewish life because Jews have been commanded by God to do so, and only by leading a Jewish life can we live a life in harmony with the Divine, restore the Shekinah, repair the world, and bring about Messianic times. He believes God instructed all Jews at Mt. Sinai how they must conduct their lives.
One Torah Study regular commented that we have an inherent need for “connection” to other people, and to something greater than ourselves, and leading a Jewish life is a time tested means of enhancing these temporal and spiritual connections.
Karin Altonaga shared that Judaism gives us a roadmap to giving our lives more meaning and to building a relationship directly with God and with other people through the words of Torah and through the deeper meanings of the Jewish Holidays and rituals. Being thankful, compassionate, understanding, kind, respectful and more – it’s all in the Torah and our words and actions should be closely tied together to live those values every day.
Karin also shared the words of an orthodox Rabbi, her son Michael. He wrote that he embraces being Jewish because this is the purpose of existence for him. There is no greater thing in this world than doing a mitzvah and the Torah outlines how I can do many every day. With seemingly small acts that I do all the time, I can connect to the Infinite Creator of the Universe. … When I eat breakfast, I bless the food and build my relationship with G-d. That simple mundane act has been transformed from a base mechanism of survival into a transcendent
experience. … It would be worth being Jewish just to get that feeling of meaning, but it’s even better than that, because it’s not just a feeling. It’s real.
There were many more meaningful reasons expressed at our Torah Study (and in Rabbi Sacks’ wonderful book). Some commented that Judaism provides the finest moral code ever devised. Perhaps the simplest and wisest comment was that it is not so much what you tell your grandchild that is significant, but it is the example you provide by leading a Jewish life yourself. If you make Judaism important to your life and your family’s life by living a rich, tradition filled Jewish life, your actions speak for themselves and leave a stronger impression on your grandchild than any words you can say.
As we travel through the weeks of Elul, what would you tell your grandchildren?
1. While the definition could occupy hours of discussion, I defined “lead a Jewish life” as follows. Identify oneself as a Jew, take an interest in learning Jewish customs and rituals, practice at least some customs and rituals that are identified with Judaism (including principal holidays), and follow the moral code that is based upon the memory that we were once slaves in Egypt, and the notion that every human being is created in the image of God (and is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, except possibly for those who flagrantly violate that moral code).