American vs. Jewish Values

American-Jewish may sound natural, but the hyphen hides deep contradictions.

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Midrash refers to the Jewish tradition of text interpretation. The author of the following opinion piece applies the term midrash to describe the way that American Jews have reinterpreted some traditions to fit the American worldview. Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma magazine.

"Contemporary Jews don't like to be told what to do," wrote Rabbi Melanie Aron after taking a pulpit in California, where she was told that "mandatory" was a word akin to waving red before a bull. Why? Because American Jews, like their countrymen, place a high value on freedom and autonomy.

But Jewish life is based on values like authority, community, and eternity. As a result, Ameri­can Jews sometimes find their Jewish values at odds with the values of the American society in which they live.

Americans pride themselves on being inde­pendent thinkers who recoil at being told what to do or what to believe. How do we reconcile this with Judaism's central principle of mitzvah--our obligation to live life in service to God according to a defined set of practices?


The He­brew word mitzvah means "command." There is an identical word in Yiddish (mitzveh) that means "good deed." Most people use these words interchangeably, but they are polar op­posites. A good deed is done for another per­son out of kindness. A commandment is done to serve God out of obligation. The difference is that as Jews, we are obligated even when we're not feeling kindly or we think we've done enough.

From a Jewish perspective, people who take the commandments upon themselves do not sacrifice their personal autonomy. Accord­ing to the Sayings of the Fathers (6:2), "The only free person is one who is concerned with To­rah." True autonomy comes when people can live free of the limitations of human nature by attaching themselves to a "Higher Authority." The Hebrew definition of mitzvah reflects this religious understanding, while the Yiddish one reflects a more secular view. Apparently, this debate has been going on long enough to enter the language.


The discrepancies between our American and Jewish values create a dilemma around which we have tiptoed. One of Judaism's greatest strengths has been its ability to adapt to its surroundings. In this spirit, we have cre­ated an "American Midrash" learning to live with certain contradictions.

An example of American Midrash is our interpretation of Hanukkah and Passover as freedom holidays--reflecting American ideals. The Hanukkah story is actually about the internal Jewish struggle between assimi­lationists (Hellenists) and zealots (the Maccabees) who wanted to preserve Judaism from the influences of Greek society. But it fits better into our American context to see it as a battle for freedom of religion.

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Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox is Co-Chair of the Advocacy Branch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.