|Read Rabbi Barras’ Monthly Reflections — “Rav Bar Oz”|
In this space each month, we feature the writings of one of the members of our Beth Am Clergy. This month we invite Rabbi Rachel Greengrass to share some thoughts with you. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments.
We Are All Jews-By-Choice
While the term Jew-by-choice we use to describe people who were not born Jewish who later chose Judaism as their spiritual path, each and every one of us, each and every time we pray, study or do an act of loving kindness, are choosing Judaism.
We live in a free society, one in which it is frankly easier to choose not to participate in Jewish practice, and yet you (like me) have chosen to part of the Jewish family. Gone are the days when belonging to a congregation was part of what it meant to be an American, and so your choice is incredibly valuable.
But it’s not just our generation that were Jews-by-choice.
The first choice (for us as a nation) was actually back in Egypt. Moses tells the people to take a lamb and put it out in front of their house for three days while everyone prepares for the Exodus. This paschal lamb in front of the home told the neighbors who was in, and who was out. Then came time for the slaughtering of the lamb, and the placing of its blood on our doorframes. Again, showing all our neighbors who was in and who was out. Eating the lamb was also a significant action — the Egyptians worshipped this animal as a god and would not eat them. Those who chose to eat showed they were choosing a different faith from that practiced by their Egyptian overlords.
But perhaps the biggest act of choosing came as we were settled around the base of Mt. Sinai. We celebrate that we said, “na’aseh v’nishma—whatever it is God, we agree to do it so let us hear about it.”
We receive the ten commandments while standing – ”tachat haHar.” We unusually translate this as “around the mountain,” but it really means “under the mountain.” The Talmud interprets this to mean that “God held the mountain over them like a jar and said to them: If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave.”
So, was choosing Judaism really a choice for those at Mt. Sinai?
The lawyers out there know this was a contract signed under Duress — and therefore, we could argue, that the covenant is null and void.
So, we don’t have to keep the covenant because of a contract that our ancestors made. But even so, we choose to.
My grandfather was strawberry blonde and had blue eyes. He spoke perfect Polish and German, in addition to the Yiddish he spoke at home and the biblical Hebrew he had mastered as the fifth generation of rabbi in his family. When the majority of his family was burnt in their synagogue by the Poles a few years before he would find himself a slave in the concentration camps, he could have taken on a new identity as a non-Jew. In fact, having run away from the ghetto and being discovered hiding in a farmer's barn, he was offered the opportunity to marry the farmer’s daughter and have a whole new identity as a Christian. But despite his family being burned alive in their synagogue, despite the horrors of the camps, my Grandfather chose to be Jewish.
We choose to be Jewish today. Despite the rise in anti-Semitism, despite the obligations our faith puts on us, despite the fact that there are little to no repercussions for those who walk away from the faith.
We choose Judaism because it gives our lives meaning, because it teaches us how to make the world a better place. Because it gives us tools to thrive as individuals, and a community to raise our children with. Because it teaches us how to be menches and raise menches.
So, this Shavuot, where we celebrate the choice our ancestors made back at Mt. Sinai, we also celebrate the choice each of us has made, to be Jewish.