Dear Alyssa

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Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO.  The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.”  Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover.  But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks.  If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary theme, which is common in non-Orthodox circles.  You might be focusing on the economic enslavement of workers in many places today, or on human trafficking, or on the environment or on civil rights

All, of course, are worthy subjects for focus.  But Passover, or Pesach, has a history that goes back long before all those concerns.  Your great-grandparents, if not your grandparents, likely conducted a traditional Seder, as surely did their grandparents, and theirs before them, and theirs before them, all the way back to the event such a Seder commemorates: the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.

It happened, Alyssa.  The Jewish people’s historical tradition has been meticulously transmitted from parents to children over thousands of years, and its most central events were the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai shortly thereafter

The exodus from Egypt was not, as some people think, a rejection of servitude and embrace of freedom.  It was, rather, the rejection of servitude to a mortal king and an embrace of servitude to the ultimate King.  If you read the Torah carefully, you’ll see that fact clearly.  “Send out My nation,” G-d commands, through Moses, “so that they may serve Me.”

And so, while you’re right that people, and especially teens, generally don’t like to be commanded, from the perspective of your religious heritage, being commanded by the Creator, and thus being a light unto the nations in that acceptance of His will, is the greatest privilege imaginable.

In fact, it is the essence of Jewish life.

The end of the exodus story is the revelation of G-d to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.  There, in an unparalleled historical event, the Creator spoke directly to hundreds of thousands of people.  No one could fabricate such a claim – and no other religion or group ever has.

And at that singular happening, the Torah was entrusted to our ancestors, along with the rules for understanding it and developing the system of laws that we have come to call Halacha.

You are correct that the Reform movement decided at its inception, in nineteenth century Germany, to reject what Judaism stood for over the previous thousands of years.  But there are still Jews – very many of us – who strive to maintain the integrity of the “original” Judaism.

As a thinking, caring young person, you owe it to yourself (and to your people) to not be satisfied with the conclusion you have currently reached, but rather to continue to investigate Jewish history and Jewish texts, and to keep an open mind.  You may be surprised to discover not only the historical veracity of classical Judaism, but the richness of living a “commanded” Jewish life.

I wish you well in that most important quest.