Rabbi Rant: On Jewish Values

by Aaron Potek / July 19, 2017

Do you consider “Jewish values” to be a core part of your Jewish identity?

If so, try this fun activity in six easy steps! Warning: may bring about existential crisis.

Step 1: Write down a list of your “Jewish values.”

Yes, actually spell out what they are, instead of letting “Jewish values” be a catchall phrase, like saying “we hooked up.” I want details.

Step 2: Now, cross out any value that is universal (ex. being a good person).

If it’s a universal value, then by definition it can’t be a Jewish one. Judaism can reaffirm these values, but if Judaism were to go away, you’d still have them. In fact, calling them Jewish values might even be dangerous, because it could imply that they are held by only Jews – leading to a false sense of moral superiority.

Step 3: Next, cross out any value that is also American (ex. democracy).

Of course, America has been deeply influenced by Judaism. And, of course, we don’t all agree on which values are American values. But if you can find the source for any of your values in the Constitution faster than you can in the Torah, it’s probably more rooted in your being American than your being Jewish.

Step 4: Next, cross off any value that isn’t actually Jewish (ex. freedom of speech).

I sometimes hear people talk about a value that they have as being a Jewish value, as if the fact that they are Jewish and have that value makes it Jewish. Not only are some of them not in Judaism but often Judaism is actually against these values. Wearing whatever you want, marrying who you like, enjoying the foods of different cultures… these values run directly counter to many traditional Jewish texts. And if you’re thinking, “I suppose some of these values might not be explicitly Jewish, but surely it’s a Jewish value to live out my own values” – sorry, the Torah is against that too: “Perchance there is among you some man or woman… who thinks ‘I am safe, because I follow my own heart’… the Lord’s anger will rage against that person.” (Deut. 29:17-19).

Step 5: Almost there. Now, cross off any value that you don’t act upon in your everyday life (ex. Tikkun Olam/repairing the world).

The Talmud raises the question: what is better, Torah, or action? It concludes: Torah, for it leads to action. Judaism is action-based, and our values must lead to action. If you have values on your list that you don’t act on (like, hypothetically, justice), then that’s not a value of yours. And talking about it a bunch won’t change that.

Step 6: Finally, cross off any value that isn’t actually a value (ex. Jewish food) but rather is a way to feel Jewish. Yes, things like matzah ball soup are yummy, and yes, they make you feel nice and warm and Jewy. But while it may have value to you, it is, alas, not a value.

So, anything left on your list?

If yes – congratulations! I’d love to see them – feel free to post them in the comments below.

If not – don’t worry. This isn’t meant to suggest that Judaism doesn’t matter. But if finding something uniquely Jewish is important to you, values might not be the way to go. We have unique rituals, unique perspectives, unique wisdom – but values? In my opinion – not so much.

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