I often think about the question “Why be Jewish?” It is something that I frequently review when working with institutions and communities. I believe that each institution, organization, and community has to be able to concretely articulate an answer to that question. More particularly, “Why be Jewish in the context of a particular institution or the organized Jewish community in general?” I sometimes get pushback when I pose this notion. Some will argue that it is not the responsibility of an individual institution to answer that question; in other words, people have to answer that question for themselves. But I feel quite differently, especially for people—like those who are intermarried or are Jews by choice—who really reflect on this question a great deal. “What benefit will I,” they pose, “get from participating in the Jewish community?” “What benefit will my children gain from their participation?”
I often get the answer of “community.” And while I think I understand what they mean, they aren’t often able to distinguish between the benefit of participating in the Jewish community over any other assemblage of people who might also call themselves a community. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the last century, has some insights from his notion of an I-Thou experience, one that is modeled on the experience of the individual with the Divine—what might be called a Sinaitic or covenantal relationship. Buber argued that it is impossible to share with others the exact nature and experience of an I-Thou relationship. If you leave a part of yourself out of the relationship, enough of the rational self to observe and reflect on the experience so that you can share it with others, then you can never fully have that experience. And if you put your entire self into the relationship, so that it can be fully I-Thou, then there is nothing of the rational self left outside of the relationship in order to reflect and share.