Rabbi Neil S. Cooper says the recent Pew report on American Jewry is a testament to the great freedoms Jews enjoy in this country — but it also confirms that if we choose to be like everyone else, we lose our identity as a distinct people.
BY: Rabbi Neil S. Cooper
Toward the end of his life, the Torah tells us, Abraham becomes engaged in a real estate transaction. His wife, Sara, had died and Abraham needed to buy a cemetery plot for her. He chose as an appropriate site a cave that would become known as Machpeleh, owned by Ephron the Hittite.
After a detailed description of the negotiations, we learn that Ephron sells the cave to Abraham. It is during these negotiations, however, that Abraham uses a phrase to describe himself that is particularly relevant to discussions occurring today throughout the American Jewish community.
Approaching Ephron to make his case, Abraham describes himself as “Ger V’Toshav Anochi/I am a resident alien.” Why does Abraham use this phrase to describe himself? Rashi, the Torah’s primary medieval commentator, suggests that Abraham was simply informing Efron that he was “from another land” (and, therefore, a stranger) “but that he now resided in the land of the Hittites” (making him a resident).
It seems, however, that Abraham’s use of that phrase has something more to teach us. He wants to teach his descendents about his identity, about how he sees himself. Abraham tells Ephron and us that he and his followers will be destined to be resident aliens wherever and whenever they live.
A quick look at Jewish history confirms Abraham’s predictions. Jews had lived in Western and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years — in some cases, more than a thousand. Vibrant Jewish communities thrived in Syria, and Jews lived in harmony with their neighbors in Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Egypt and elsewhere for centuries.
Yet, despite the rich and full lives they lived, there was rarely, if ever, a moment when Jews were legally entitled or psychologically able to view their residency as permanent. Their status as residents and aliens was confirmed as they were chased from their homes, if not murdered by those among whom they had lived.
This status as the eternal stranger is brought to mind by the recently released Pew report on American Jewry. The report is a testament to the great freedoms and opportunities Jews enjoy in this country. Discrimination against Jews is illegal here. Unlike any other time in history, Jews in the United States are fully vested citizens. We can buy land, enter any profession we choose and attend any university, if we meet objective academic standards. We are part and parcel of America, no different than anyone else.
But the Pew Report confirms something else: If we choose to be like everyone else, we lose our identity as a distinct people.
Among the findings presented in the report is one that ranks those values respondents felt were most essential to their sense of being Jewish. The top three are:
• Leading a moral life (73 percent);
• Working for social justice (60 percent); and
• Being intellectually curious (51 percent)
If our Jewish identity, as the report notes, is manifested primarily in the kinds of values and activities in which both Jews and non-Jews participate, our lives become indistinguishable from our non-Jewish neighbors. When we observe our distinctive rituals, holidays and traditions, however, we remind ourselves that we possess an identity as a people apart, one that connects us to other Jews. Still, this identity creates within us a tension that pulls us in opposite directions. Abraham felt this tension as well: Ger V’Toshav: I reside in this land and yet remain, in some ways, apart.
The Pew Report is descriptive, not prescriptive. Yet its lessons have profound implications on where we as a community go from here. We are blessed to be citizens of the greatest and most tolerant country in the world. The report documents that we have taken full advantage of the opportunities we have before us. But as we have assimilated, we have also become indistinguishable from the rest.
If we want to assure our distinctiveness and enhance a sense of Jewish identity in our children, we may need to return to the message we have received from Abraham. For it was he, considered to be the first Jew, who reminded us that, no matter where we live, we must be a resident in the larger society while assuring that our practices and rituals continue to be observed. Without those features of Jewish life that distinguish us from others, we might in time be counted among the very last of the Jews. l
Rabbi Neil S. Cooper is the religious leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.