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What does it mean to be Jewish?

NEW YORK, Sept. 13 (JTA) — The High Holiday season is a unique time in our tradition, an annual ritual when the period we spend in synagogue, and with our families at home, allows for deep reflection on our Jewish identity, as well as a reaffirmation of its distinctiveness. During this time I reflect on why I celebrate my Jewishness every day by working to defend the Jewish people. So allow me to share what being Jewish means to me, with a hope that others will go through a similar process in the days ahead. To me, being Jewish means entering into a partnership with God for the repair of our broken world. To me, being Jewish means recognizing that this is not the work of a higher authority alone, or of others, but my responsibility during my lifetime. To me, being Jewish means affirming life — and the moral choice that each of us is given to bring us all a little closer to the prophetic vision of a world at peace, a world in harmony. To me, being Jewish means championing the revolutionary Jewish monotheistic concept that we are all one human family created in the image of God. To me, being Jewish means embracing the rabbis’ interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve — that if these were the first two human beings, then it suggests that all of us, whatever our race, religion or ethnicity, share the same family tree. No one can claim superiority over anyone else. To me, being Jewish means appreciating the fact that the Jews were the original revolutionaries, the first to challenge the status quo, and the first to insist on the right to worship differently than the majority while still being treated equally under the law. Today, this is called pluralism. To me, being Jewish means welcoming the pioneering Jewish effort to establish a moral code of conduct where previously there was none to speak of. To me, being Jewish means seeking to act as if that code of conduct were my daily map — to pursue justice, to treat my neighbor as I would wish to be treated, to welcome the stranger in our midst, to be compassionate to the less fortunate, to be sensitive to the environment, and to seek peace. To me, being Jewish means recognizing that I am an heir and custodian of a civilization that is more than 3,000 years old, and that has within it riches of theology and faith, philosophy and ethics, music and art, ethnography and history, cuisine and humor and so much more — enough for a lifetime of exploration and more. To me, being Jewish means appreciating the centrality of discussion and debate about life’s big questions, the significance of education and learning that never stops, the delicate balance of tradition and modernity, and the categorical rejection of imposed views or doctrinal thinking. To me, being Jewish means the joy of being a Jew — the sense of belonging and community, the excitement at watching our three sons celebrate their bar mitzvahs and enter into the adult Jewish world, the meaningful and symbol-laden annual holiday cycle, the extraordinary contribution the Jewish people has made to world civilization, and the admirable determination to persevere against all odds. To me, being Jewish means living in perpetual mourning for all that has been lost in the Holocaust, the pogroms, the inquisitions, the forced conversions, the exiles and the other deadly manifestations of anti-Semitism — and, at the same time, living in perpetual gratitude for the gift of life, the blessing of opportunity and the sacred task set before us of igniting the divine spark within each of us. To me, being Jewish means the elation of knowing that in my lifetime, the prayers of millions of Jews over many centuries have finally been answered — the return of the Jewish people to the land of our ancestors, the Land of Israel. To me, being Jewish means affirming the inextricable link between the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. This land represents not only the physical, or sovereign, symbol of our peoplehood, but also — whether we choose to live there or not — the highest metaphysical expression of our faith, our prayer and our yearning. To me, being Jewish means knowing that in fighting against anti-Semitism and for Israel’s right to live in peace and security, I am affirming the values of tolerance and democracy for all. To me, being Jewish means being proud of the disproportionate Jewish contribution to the defense of human dignity, human development, human rights and civil rights for all. We have never been agents of the status quo. If Isaiah and the other prophets returned to earth, they would remind us that there’s more work to be done before we can declare success. And finally, as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once said, being Jewish means not seeking to make the world more Jewish, but more human. That is the goal animating our people, through good times and bad, from the very beginning of this extraordinary journey and into the future.David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

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