Why Judaism? Questions And Answers On Jewish Faith – Rabbi Joshua Caruso

Rabbi Caruso

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the presentation shared at Shabbat Worship on Friday, September 5, 2014 by Rabbi Joshua Caruso. As the text of Rabbi Caruso’s presentation describes, we encourage questions, responses and for you to share the text of this talk and make comments below.

Simon Sinek, author of The Golden Circle, roots his whole book on the importance of first answering the question of “why.” Sinek, whose book (and TED Talk) is getting a lot of attention from CEO’s who seek to take their organizations to the next level, believes that once you answer the “Why” question, you can move on to the “How” and “What”. Sinek argues that too many organizations and companies act first before answering the “Why” question. So “Why Judaism?” We Jews can “do” Jewish, but do we know WHY we do what we do?

On the surface it would appear very apropos to ask “Why” in Judaism, as we are a faith of questions – and lots of answers! There is a reason we still employ the old joke, “Ask two Jews…get three opinions!” Indeed, we are an inquiring folk. We have volumes upon volumes of rabbinic literature addressing some of the most essential questions in Judaism from our relationship to God to how we tie our shoelaces. We have a whole category of commentary the rabbis gifted to us called, “Midrash, which seeks to bring light to the unanswered questions in the Torah. Midrash, in fact, means “seeking”. When prospective conversion students approach me looking to become a Jew-by-Choice, invariably they tell me that the reason they are considering conversion is because Judaism is a faith that encourages questions. Our learning opportunities underscore this approach, as Rabbi Nosanchuk, Cantor Sager, and I (not to mention our other faculty) seek to open up the conversation so that it always include questions.

And still, asking WHY does not necessarily invite easy answers. Most of us can remember that wonderful scene In Fiddler on the Roof when the hardened but vulnerable Tevya asks his wife, “Do you love me?” She spends most of the song skirting the question, not because she doesn’t love Tevya, but because Jews are not always adept at asking why we do or feel the way we do. When I ask Bar and Bat Mitzvah parents why it is important for their child to rise to the bimah, read from the Torah, and take hold of this significant rite of passage, they are often hard-pressed to give a cogent answer, and I half-expect them to start waving their arms in the air like Tevye, and being singing, “Tradition, Tradition!”

That all said, tonight, I will attempt to answer some fundamental questions that arise time and again in my rabbinate. And we owe thanks to Cantor Sager for beginning the discussion of “Why” with her talk on the festival of Shavuot, and its continuing disuse in the Reform movement. Coming off of her inspiring talk, I will move forward with some essential questions.


Here are my “Four Questions”:


  • Why be Jewish?


When one subscribes to Judaism one enters into a club. This is not the kind of exclusive club where only certain people can join; it’s the kind of club that does, however, issue requirements. Judaism provides a system of legislation and ethical precepts that are gift-wrapped for us so we can do the business of “doing good”, and repairing the world. “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”; “Love your neighbor as your love yourself”; “Justice, justice shall you pursue”, are all directives given to us from our tradition. Tasked with the charge to be better people, and make an even better society, being Jewish means something; it’s more than a label.

In their book, “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism”, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager take up the question about Jewish particularism and ask, “Isn’t it enough to be a good person?” In response they state that Judaism emphasizes what we must do proactively to be more than just “good people”. They write, “The Jew is commanded to give charity, silence gossip, and visit the sick. In contrast, secular laws are almost all negative laws, not to commit criminal acts. There are very few secular laws demanding good acts.” To the authors, this leaves room for religion to provide pathways to make the world a better place; not only to be a “good person”. Does one need to be Jewish to be a good person? Can’t an atheist be a social justice champion? Of course, but most of us are not social justice champions – and don’t have the drive to be one. That’s why we need an “oodge” or a “nudge” from pour tradition to point the way. And how inspiring it is when we know that the Call is from the prophets and sages who preceded us. What a privilege to carry on the legacy!


  • Why must we fight anti-Semitism?


Anti-Semitism is a scourge in the world, and – as we have witnessed with the recent events in Europe and in Gaza – it is not going away. This fact begs the question, “What do we do in the face of such hatred?” Judaism has always been about life – not just survival. This is not the time to bunker up and wait for the next Hitler to rise up. It is the time to continue to make strides of connection to the greater world. In America we Jews have succeeded, in part, because we have integrated into the lifeblood of this country. We have not taken a back-seat, and have assumed places of power. Now is the time to continue our advocacy for the Jewish people and for Israel. What we can do about anti-Semitism is to vehemently defend our place in the world and in Israel. Recently, anti-Semitism has been hiding under the anti-Zionist or anti-Israel guise. Make no mistake, those who accuse Israel of genocide or who divest from companies who operate in Israel are dangerously walking the line of anti-Semitism (and I am being generous). In his book, “The Crucifixion of the Jews” Franklin Littell wrote, “No one can be an enemy of Zionism and be a friend of the Jewish people”. And there are many who have condemned the Jewish presence in Israel. Our work is to be proud of who we are and work to destroy anti-Semitism in our midst.

As you may have heard, the Ohio University student body president chose to sensationalize the popular ice bucket challenge (designed to bring awareness and provide research funds for ALS) and threw a bucket of blood over her head, demanding that OU, and its student body divest from Israel, calling Israel out as practicing genocide. Thankfully, Sarah Weingarten, a Fairmount Temple grad and current OU student spoke out on her blog and wrote the following:

(The student body president) has no right telling Ohio University and its students to alienate their relations with Israeli affiliates. By saying this, she has also alienated Ohio University students who are Israeli, have family in Israel and are Jewish. Every student who identifies with Israel has done nothing wrong and shouldn’t be subject to this humiliation and feeling of isolation from Ohio University and its students…

“If anything”, Weingarten continued, “This ice bucket video, in my eyes, is considered an act of anti-Semitism.” I am proud of Sarah, and her response. It’s not easy to stick your neck out as a college student, but she should be a model to us all to defend Israel and all Jews when we are attacked.


  • Why belong to a synagogue?


Being Jewish cannot be done in a bubble. The reason why most of the world’s 13 million Jews live near one another is because Judaism is best lived in community. At its best, a synagogue-community provides support during good and bad times. This is evidenced by our amazing Caring Community here at Fairmount Temple, staffed by the incomparable Wendy Jacobson. Unfortunately, the synagogue-community is often viewed as a consumer-oriented organism that provides a usury function for a price. Pay-for-service. “You get a Bar Mitzvah service if you pay dues.” While our temple is financially dependent on dues-paying members and generous givers, we do that not to survive, but to thrive and “make Jews”. Our mission is not to simply sustain ourselves, but to grow Jews and Judaism. Our goals are part of a longstanding chain of tradition that has been alive for almost 4,000 years. Fairmount Temple may stand as alone as a physical structure on Fairmount Boulevard, but we are part of a bigger organism that works to make Judaism relevant and alive for each generation. Where else can many generations be together to worship, learn, and do social justice? Where else can we stand side-by-side to celebrate the joys of Judaism, and mourn together as one people?

I believe my colleague, Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove put it best,

Only here, only in a synagogue, is the unique and infinite divinity of every human being brought into full relief in a communal context. One can go to the Grand Canyon to feel God’s presence; one can, according to Jewish law, pray pretty much wherever one pleases. But only here, only in a synagogue, can you be part of a community whose operating assumption is that everyone – young and old, rich and poor, single and married, people you like and don’t like – all of us exist equally, collectively and covenantally in God’s image and presence. With each birth, a new world begins that never existed before. With each death, we lose a life that can never be replaced. In sin, we arrive here knowing that despite our shortcomings, we may still seek spiritual rehabilitation and repair; our flaws do not preclude us from standing before God or our fellow humanity. Just the opposite, in this place we are reminded that God’s presence dwells within sinner and saint alike. In our joy we come here to express our thanksgiving to God… And in our sorrow, we come here to ponder the burdensome mystery of a world in which inexplicable pain exists. If God’s presence is elusive, then a synagogue bears the promise that another person may brighten our darkness by way of the light of their divine spark, and together we may mend a broken world together…


  • Why does one need to believe in God to be Jewish?


This “Why” question may be the most difficult of them all! First, nothing can take your Judaism away from you. Nothing. Still, we run into a challenge when we think about the nature of religion. If we regard Judaism as a religion, which it is, then the essence of religion is a belief in some form of God. In Judaism, God is found in the majority of the liturgy in the prayer book. And God is featured in the most central of prayers…Shema Yisrael. Barukh Atah Adonai…means “Blessed are You, God…” The most iconic of High Holy Day prayers, “Avinu Malkenu”, means “Our Father, Our King”, in reference, of course, to God. And yet, so very many Jews struggle with belief in the supernatural; in an omnipotent deity. Perhaps this comes from our rational nature, and our history of picking ourselves up from our bootstraps to survive the oppression we have faced through the years. We might tacitly ask, do we even NEED God? Whatever the reason, we Jews sometimes have trouble believing. And while most of us are experienced thinkers, and many of us carry multiple degrees, often the muscle in our brain that thinks about theology goes unused. For many of us, our concept of God is relegated to those put forward in the arts or popular culture – or in our prayer book, which presents a limited (and entirely narrow) view of the Holy One. And, even when we say, “Holy One”, it evokes an image of a being; one, perhaps, who resides in the heavens or in the clouds. I believe, however, that Judaism encourages us to think of God in many ways, and in many forms. Just think about how many names we have for God: HaMakom, Adonai, Eloheynu, Shaddai, HaShem, etc…And think about how God appears in the Torah: in a burning bush, with an outstretched arm, in the form of angels, as a voice, and sometimes even imbued in humans (after all, Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God). And what if God were in all places, but does not necessarily remain there? What if our God is both with us and elusive? What if God is playing hide and seek – and maybe, just maybe, WE are the ones playing hide and seek, too?

On a personal note, just because your rabbi has an unflagging belief in God doesn’t mean that he doesn’t struggle with tragedy and random circumstance that could make one feel quite distant from God. A believing person can have questions – and I certainly do! Doubt and uncertainty can creep in, but I am always guided by the higher force. Even when I have questions I walk across that uncertain threshold, and hold on dearly to a figurative (and sometimes real) mezuzah which shepherds me from one place in life to another. I hold on and ask God to “lead me into the mystery”. It is my privilege and honor to walk through that threshold with all of you – whether you are believers or not. We are all in this together.

Let’s keep asking the “Why” questions. I do believe that within the questions (and sometimes the answers) God is truly present in our midst. Amen.