What Being Jewish Means to Me
By Max DuBoff ’19
This is the first of two blog posts written by students who spoke during the Rutgers Hillel Kol Nidre service for Yom Kippur.
Yonkel goes to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi, I want you to make me a Levite.” The rabbi replies, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” to which Yonkel immediately answers, “How about if I give you a hundred dollars? “No.” “A thousand?” “No, I just can’t do that.” Now Yonkel is absolutely irate: “But my father was a Levite, and his father before him, and his father before him! Why can’t I be one too?!”
Judaism obviously means different things to different people at different times. For Yonkel, it represents a connection to tradition, in particular to his immediate ancestors as well as his distant ones of biblical and Temple times. I happen to be a Levite, but for me the concept of being Jewish transcends a simple lineage or tradition and instead invites me to be part of a grand communal and individual process of improvement and fulfillment.
For those who don’t know, I’m a Philosophy major, so I think quite a lot about issues like our place in the world and how we should live. Meaning and ethics are great concepts, but what do they really mean? Jewish tradition does provide some guidance, but more importantly our tradition provides a means of connection to something greater than the self–maybe history, maybe God–but definitely communities, both now and in the past. The balance between community and the self defines my outlook on Judaism, so I’ll explain a couple main ways I approach it.
One major element of that balance is practice, and we certainly have many practices as Jews: holiday meals, services, learning, etc. Most of these actions involve more than one person, but they nourish us individually too: I personally enjoy scrumptious food; I pray the silent Amidah alone before it’s repeated for the whole minyan; I gain new perspectives on Judaism that only I can analyze while in a chevrutah (learning with a partner). Although the community and the self may at first glance appear contradictory, they are actually symbiotic because a better community helps form a better self and a better self helps form a better community.
Another major element of that balance is reflection, the natural sort we do in our daily lives as well as more formal examination of practices and beliefs. Ultimately, however, reflection must be organic, of our own volition, and Judaism provides motivation and guidance. People ask me all the time why I wear a kippah, and, among other reasons, I always say that it prompts me to think about my actions. The same reasoning applies to kashrut, an even more clearly communal endeavor. As Jewish communities, we ought to constantly reappraise our mores, but individuals must come to their own conclusions and act accordingly in dialogue with the community.
Remember Yonkel? He fails in his quest for Jewish fulfillment because he selfishly looks only at his own desires and not at the larger community whom the Levites are symbolically supposed to serve. Being Jewish to me means striking that essential balance between within and without, the small picture and the big picture, and finally moving toward answers for life’s big questions.