Freely Choosing Jewish Identity

Oddly, the freer a Jew is, the more likely he or she will be willing to abandon Jewish identity

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Jewish existence is an enigma for more than one reason. Anyone with even a shallow familiarity with Jewish history knows that, in times of great trouble, Jews traditionally preferred suffering and even death over the convenience of conversion, be it to the enlightened culture of the time, Christianity or Islam.

It seemed as if the more Jews were persecuted, the more they held on to their heritage; “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.”

The opposite can be said about Jews living in tolerant societies. The more a given society is tolerant, the more Jews are willing to let go of their heritage. When the Greeks, the enlightened of the time, ruled Israel, Jews were Hellenizing themselves en masse. After years of such sinful behavior, Mattathias in 167 BC ignited the Maccabean revolt by killing a Jew who obeyed Antiochus Epiphanes’ decree to offer sacrifice to the Greek gods. Mattathias and his followers were a small minority who refused the good life that assimilated Jews had enjoyed for many decades.

This anomaly can be seen today, perhaps like never before. In America, the land of the free, more Jews are assimilating than those who aren’t. It is in a land where Jews can live out a full Jewish life without the slightest disturbance that they choose to identify with the “enlightened” culture around them rather than with Judaism.

In the one-and-only Jewish state in the world, most Jews are secular, and many complain bitterly over the religious restrictions in our country, such as the lack of entertainment on Yom Kippur (the Day of Attornment). It is almost an axiom that the freer a Jew is, the more likely he or she will be willing to abandon Jewish identity.

As strange as it may sound, it seems to be more difficult to choose Jewish identity in a free society than it is in an oppressive one. This difficulty was actually recognized long ago by the Jewish sages who praised the Jews of Persia in the time of Ahasuerus (often identified with Xerxes) because they, for the first time in Jewish history, chose freely to submit themselves to the Law of Moses.

Choosing to be a Jew is nothing short of a wonder. Well remembered is Tevye’s funny, yet profound monologue with God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” This is why there is nothing obvious about Mark Zuckerberg’s post this week, which, in essence, is a statement of commitment to his Jewish heritage. Zuckerberg, who owes nothing to anyone in this regard, chose, and not for the first time, to highlight his Jewish identity. “Tonight concludes Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews when we reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness for our mistakes … For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness,” he wrote on his personal Facebook profile.

At the same time, Israeli tennis champion Dudi Sela was taking a very similar stand. Sela is not religious by any means. But, when the Day of Atonement crept up on him in the middle of China’s Shenzhen Tournament, Sela had to make a decision about what was more important to him, tennis or his Jewish values. Sela chose the latter, which cost him tens of thousands of dollars. For his choice, Sela was highly praised by Israel Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, who wrote: “I was moved by your decision to cut your game short because of the Day of Atonement … May God bless you and stand by your side as you continue to peruse your career.”

Sela, it should be emphasized, wasn’t competing in a private capacity. He was representing Israel, and all it stands for.

Today’s spiritual valor, wrote journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir, comes from one’s inner being, rather than from external pressures. The valor of Zuckerberg and Sela is just as praiseworthy as the valor expressed under duress.


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