American vs. Jewish Values

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

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Similarly, the point of the Passover story is not the physical freedom from slavery celebrated at the Red Sea and seder tables in America, but rather the events at Mount Sinai where the Israelites, freed from their Egyptian masters, were able to obey a new and more demanding master--God.

An awareness of this contradiction is begin­ning to bubble to the surface. Rabbi Eric Yof­fie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called for a Reform movement "grounded in autonomy and pluralism and also willing to talk of obligations." He called for observance that is "regular and consistent," and asserted that "our actions need not always begin with our own impulses."

We live in a society where fulfilling our personal needs and desires is seen as our birthright. But as the late Profes­sor Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote in his essay "Commandments," "Every action through which one satisfies his own needs, whether physical or spiritual, is a service to himself and not service to God."

More Contradictions

Another contradiction: Except in times of extreme crisis, it is unusual for the American "we" to supersede the self. In Judaism, even our prayers are written in the plural. Herbert Bronstein, writing in Tikkun magazine, says, "Since God's covenant is with the community of Israel, a communal consciousness... transcends the individual self."

Finally, American society is goal-oriented in nature, while Judaism is not. One can never do mitzvot well enough to stop doing them or reach the pinnacle of holiness and rest. Think of Neilah, the concluding Yom Kippur prayer service-- the shofar sounds, all is forgiven, and yet, the very next words speak of atoning for sin. As Jews, we understand observance as our way of tapping into eternity--being part of something more enduring than ourselves.

After 350 years, we continue to struggle with what it means to be Jewish in America.

While we cannot fully resolve the contradic­tions between our American and Jewish values, we might try acknowledging that the hyphen in American-Jewish is not always an uncom­plicated path between our two realities.

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