Personal Reflections on My Jewish Identity


I am a Jew. I was born a Jew. I have lived my life as a Jew. And I will die a Jew. This I know for certain. The rest is shrouded in mystery, doubt, and metaphor.

I regard myself as fortunate to have been born a Jew, though I attach no cosmic or even religious significance to the happenstance of my birth. I do not believe in destiny or choseness. But having been born into the Jewish tradition, I feel an enormous responsibility to help preserve it and make it thrive.

The Jewish people have played an important, and in some ways a unique, role in human history. In part they have chosen this role. In part it was thrust upon them by their persecutors. They have challenged the conventional wisdom, thereby provoking antagonism of governments, churches, universities, and other established institutions. They have been restless wanderers, moving—sometimes by force or threat—from place to place, without a singular home. They have been stiff-necked in refusing to bow to tyrants or to change their ways in face of physical threats. The very survival, not to speak of the disproportionate influence, of this tiny group of people is a remarkable mystery.

By being part of this people, I am part of the unfolding mystery. Were I a Jew who literally believed in the biblical narrative of choseness or the theological notion of predetermination, the mystery would be less interesting. But I believe that we make our own destiny and history–that we are responsible for our choices. I love the Jewish Bible, Talmud, and other sacred texts, but I study them as a metaphor—midrash—on the Jewish experience, written by fallible human beings. It is their very human quality that has inspired, fascinated, and educated me over so many years. It has been these books which have encouraged me to challenge everything, even their status as sacred and their authorship by God. They have also encouraged me to challenge all secular truths and accepted wisdom. Judaism is a tradition of challenge—of questioning, of doubting, of debating, and of living with uncertainty. Being a Jew means always living with uncertainty—never letting one’s guard completely down. History is too powerful to ignore or deny. Being a Jew means facing constant challenge. Challenge for me is not only a means toward finding enduring truths. It is also the end state. Constant challenge is the only truth. The hardest moral questions have no singular answer. If the Torah has one hundred faces, it is because it reflects the complexity of life.

Over the years, some Jews have chosen or been compelled to abandon their tradition and join the mainstream. That is their right, and perhaps their need, but for those of us who have chosen to remain Jewish—in whatever way we have defined that choice—a special responsibility accrues. We have chosen to remain part of a wonderful civilization—an ever-changing yet enduring civilization. Although originally based on a distinct theology, the Jewish civilization has diversified to include many components beyond religion. We’re a culture, a heterogeneous culture to be sure, but a culture nonetheless. Aspects of that culture—such as the Yiddish language, literature, and lifestyle of eastern Europe—have been destroyed, while other aspects—such as largely secular, Hebrew-speaking Israel—have emerged. We are a living history, an often quite tragic history, but one with a remarkable and enduring record of accomplishment. We are a religion, though not practiced nor even believed by many who proudly identify as Jews, and yet we have influenced the dominant religions of the world beyond calculation. We have helped change science, create new genres of literature, cure illness, and promote human rights, and we have left tracks everywhere we have wandered. Will our influence continue? Will so many of us choose to assimilate or turn inward that we become a historical curiosity?

Each of us who regards himself or herself as a Jew has a responsibility to do something to maximize the chance that our civilization will not only endure but also thrive. Our survival and continuing influence is a moral imperative for at least two reasons—one positive, and the other negative. The positive reason is that Judaism has so much to offer—both to Jews and non-Jews alike. If diversity means anything, it must include a significant Jewish presence and influence. The negative reason is that if the forces of evil that would destroy us are allowed to succeed it would set a terrible precedent for other vulnerable minorities. We have always been the “miners’ canary”—the litmus test for tolerance in the world. Some see enhancing the positive as their primary role. Others see preventing the negative as their mandate. I see my own role, as a human-rights advocate, as including helping to ensure that never again will any Jew be murdered—as Daniel Pearl was—because he was a Jew.

This essay is an excerpt from I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Lights, 2004). It is reprinted with permission from the author.