In a lecture to senior officers of the Israel Defense Forces, I spoke of the way an officer should relate to soldiers under his command – not to manipulate, not to create excessive dependency, and not to embarrass in public. The officers agreed, but asked what makes these values Jewish given that officers in other countries such as Holland, Sweden and Norway are instructed to treat soldiers in a similar fashion.
The question really is: Is being Jewish something that needs to separate us from the world and the rest of humanity? Leviticus, Ch. 19 provides the following commands: Pay your worker on time; do not humiliate people; love your neighbor, don’t exploit the weak. What makes these Jewish values? The fact that they are in the Torah. Jews and Judaism are an integral part of the world, and the world needs ethical values governing daily life in order to create a just and ordered society. If other people live by the Bible’s ethical precepts, that doesn’t make them any less Jewish.
The question then becomes: How do we maintain a unique sense of identity if other people are actually required to abide by the same rules?
I speak of this often in Israel, because the meaning of Zionism is to be a self-governing people, functioning by the same rules of political, social and economic justice as apply throughout the world. The meaning of Judaism and Zionism is not found in defining ourselves in opposition to the world, but in the way we participate in it. Being Israeli and living in a sovereign Jewish state, I have to worry about things like caring for the elderly and creating a security net for the less advantaged; these are just some of the issues that face any state responsible for the totality of its citizens’ lives. We are now a self-governing people, living a life determined by us in our own country, making the mistakes all sovereign peoples make and striving to build something decent and meaningful.
All over, I see people who define Judaism in opposition to others and the world. Are kashrut, Shabbat observance and the festivals the exclusive mediator of Jewish uniqueness and identity? Jewish tradition regards Judaism not just as a set of rituals, but as a way of life. It includes kashrut and other laws, but it also includes universal norms such as respect for your parents, the aged and every human being.
I don’t polarize between ethics and ritual. I observe kashrut; I observe Shabbat. It’s how I live as a human being. But that’s not the exclusive carrier of my identity. There is also visiting the sick, comforting the mourner and rejoicing with the bride and groom. This is Judaism as a total way of life, which Israel has brought back to Jewish consciousness.
There is no Jewish sovereignty in the Diaspora, and our identity there is defined by that which is distinct and separate. Outside Israel, Jews live in societies in which rules and ethics are formulated by the non-Jewish majority. In Israel, we are the majority. Our concern for ethics and justice brings Judaism away from exclusive focus on the synagogue and home, and into the whole marketplace of life.