Why are we Jewish?…a two-part essay by Rabbi Chaim Ingram

August 29, 2018 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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In the first part of this essay, I cited the JCA/Monash University Gen17 survey and discussed the disturbing implications of the finding that “remembering the Holocaust” (95% of respondents) appeared to be the main identifier of Jewish identity in Australian Jewry…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Today I intend to explore the survey’s second most important indicant of Jewish identification (94%), namely “upholding strong moral values”.

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country.

When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realise the only thing I can change is myself.

HoweverI have also come to recognise that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world!

(Rabbi Israel Salanter 1810-1883)

 As these words stare out at me, I am irresistibly reminded of a Gemara passage (Talmud, Berachot 27b) that I always find slightly amusing:-

R’ Zeira said ….in the name of Rav: On the side of this pillar

R’ Yishmael b. R’ Yose prayed Shabbat Maariv when it was still Erev Shabbat.

When Ulla came he said: It wasn’t by a pillar but by a date-tree; it wasn’t R’ Yishmael but R’ Elazar; and it wasn’t Shabbat Maariv on Erev Shabbat but Saturday night Maariv on Shabbat!

In other words, there is nothing the matter with the original Talmudic account except that all the facts are wrong!

Similarly I wonder: are the “strong moral values” that the survey respondents wish to uphold actually strong, moral or valuable in authentic Jewish terms?

Paradigms of Contemporary Morality

Examining the moral values that govern the secular “free world” today, and by extension the secular Jewish world, we are confronted with two key but disparate paradigms:-

1)  Individual “rights” particularly with regard to what are seen as minority groupings within society must not be infringed even when they conflict with societal responsibilities

2)  At the same time, global societal reform or what modern Hebrew calls tikun olamis projected as the highest moral ideal.

 Rabbi Salanter’s soul-baring declaration with which we started provides an excellent launching pad to examine how contemporary moral assumptions compare with Torah (i.e. authentic Jewish) morality.

The source for his sentiments is found in the Torah itself.  … Open your hand to your brother, your poor and your destitute in your land(Deut 15:11)

On this verse, Rambam (Matnot Aniyim 7:13)bases his fundamental principle of priority in charity-giving.  Our first responsibility, after ensuring that we are self-supporting, is to our immediate family (“your brother”) then to the poor of your town (“yourpoor and yourdestitute”) then to the needy of our country (“in your land” which embraces both fellow-Jews in our country of residence and Erets Yisraelwhich is the object of our verse.  In a prior paragraph [7:7], the Rambam already makes it clear that the gentile poor must also be supported wherever necessary mipnei darkei shalom as an expression of the ways of peace.)

It is not surprising therefore that R’ Salanter takes this pecking-order as the basis for his pyramid of societal engagement.

Contemporary Morality vs. the Salanter ‘Pyramid’

1) Individual Rights vs Wider Responsibilities

Looking at our paradigms of contemporary morality above we see something quite fascinating.

On the microcosmic level of individual ‘rights’, contemporary morality appear to be concerned almost exclusively with championing the “I” (paradigm 1).  It declares that when my personal autonomy conflict with other moral imperatives, my rights must win out.

Thus, to take a bang-up-to-date example, Ireland has reversed its old abortion law (giving the unborn child equal rights with the mother) and moved to the other, pro-choice, extreme which will allow abortions unconditionally up to 12 weeks – notwithstanding that foetal brain function can already be detected at 40 days and foetal heartbeat at 6-7 weeks. The wilful destruction of potential life within my body (my closest relative, my [as-yet-unborn] child), declares contemporary morality, must take second place to my right to choose what I want to do with my body.

This vote in far-off Ireland has unexpectedly gained local relevance.  The National Council of Jewish Women of Australia has decided to broadcast its acclamation of Ireland’s vote.  No doubt the NCJWA believes that they stand up for the highest moral and ethical values among which the rights of women feature highly. Unfortunately these values bear no resemblance to the strong moral imperatives of authentic Judaism. True enough the old law did not represent the Torah standpoint.  But the new law resembles it even less!

The slew of other contemporary moral challenges including voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide and same-sex marriage throw up the same dissonances, namely that my moral duty to preserve existing life and create new life is outweighed, in modern morality, by my personal autonomy. Many within the Jewish community still take a traditional stance towards VE and AS although there are signs that this too is sadly changing. As for same-sex relationships, the tolerance and even approval level within the Jewish community has reached a level that would have been deemed unthinkable even a few years ago. Very recently a Sydney synagogue classified as Orthodox held a Friday night dinner to honour “invited (non-Jewish) members of the LBGTIQ community”. Its aim, which it presumably regarded as the ultimate in reflecting “strong moral values”, was to show how diversity-respectful it was. That it may have alienated or sidelined members of its own, non-LBGTIQ, Jewish community did not apparently cause it any moral anguish. Clearly another example of the chasm between contemporary and authentic Jewish morality which, of course, unconditionally outlaws same-sex unions.

2)   Global Societal Reform – The New “Global Morality”

On the level of ‘responsibilities’, the modern focus is directly on the global sphere (paradigm 2). In the secular Jewish world, this phenomenon is known as tikun olam.

Here, contemporary morality asserts, we are not to embrace a parochial outlook.  This doesn’t just mean not being racist. (Indeed discrimination founded solely on race has no place in Torah Judaism. Any person from any race may become Jewish – even Amon, Moab or Amalek!). The political liberal Left, which appears to have convinced everybody they hold the monopoly on ethics and morality, preaches that we must show no special consideration to our own families, coreligionists or fellow-citizens but must be equally committed to the rights of those whose interests may even conflict with our own. Otherwise we are guilty of discrimination, one of the worst moral evils of contemporary secular morality.

This is nowhere more graphically demonstrated than in the attitude to the defence of Israel’s borders by the IDF assumed by the world’s media and, shockingly, Left-leaning elements within our own communities.

In a typically trenchant piece published less than a fortnight ago, Australian-born, Israel-based Jewish activist Isi Leibler writes: There is a serious sickness among Jews when so many feel more concern about the death of those seeking to kill us than anxiety for their own kinsmen.

Such is the “new morality”. We must show “proportionality” in defending ourselves. If they wound ten of us but by the grace of G-D no Israeli lives are lost, Israel mustn’t dare kill a single murderous terrorist or the wrath of the nations will descend upon our heads!  No matter that it is only be-siyata diShemayathrough the IDF and the Iron Dome that casualties do not soar into the hundreds or thousands, r.l. We are not permitted, according to the international rules of morality of engagement, to create a situation where our borders are safe and the residents of Sderot and the Sha’ar haNegev region can sleep easy in their beds at long last!

This could not be further from the Torah view (see Deut 20:10-13) which teaches that (a) initially one is to offer a peace pact to any warring nation; (b) however if that offer is refused and one is subject to enemy attack one can and must target the entire militia. (If the enemy is forcibly using innocents as human shields the responsibility for their deaths lies squarely with their militia.) The Talmud expresses it succinctly (based also on Exodus 22:1).  If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first!” (Berakhot 58a)In this scenario we are to show no misguided mercy. 

In a war situation, every enemy combatant is a potential rodef (pursuer).A soldier who does not go into combat with that mindset not only puts his own life at risk but also the life of his fellow-soldiers and of the civilian population he is defending.  This truism which was undisputed in past generations has been rubbished by the purveyors of the “new morality” who delude themselves that they have more wisdom and compassion than all their forebears. (Intriguingly, this truism is borne out by the sacred Hebrew language.  The three root-letters of the word for war, milkhama, are lamed-chet-mem which spells lekhem, bread, the staple element of consumption. One enters war, regrettably but necessarily, with two options: to consume – or to be consumed.)

Setting the war scenario aside: with the principal means of communication nowadays being the all-pervasive internet, we truly inhabit a global village.  And so in a sense it is hardly surprising that one identifies as closely, if not more so, with a Facebook friend of another culture and faith living on the other side of the world than one does with one’s landsmannor even one’s own blood-relative.

Thus, in Salanterian terms, we believe we have the potential to change the world!  The trouble is we haven’t successfully addressed the more compact and readily accessible parts of the pyramid!

In Australia, one in three marriages end in divorce. I do not know the figures for the Jewish community but I do know sadly of many bitter divorces, broken families and messed-up kids.  How can we start to talk about fixing the world when the family unit is in such disarray? The irony, of course, is that it is often precisely the global idealists who are undermining the perpetuation of the nuclear family as the desideratum.


We have examined the contemporary moral paradox.  We have seen that on one level, individual rights, particularly when they are seen as addressing the desires of minorities – women, same-sex-attracted people, the infirm and dying – are regarded as valid and responsible moral choices. As an aside, I would observe that at one time a working definition of the new morality was “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else!” As we have already seen, things are not so simple.  Abortion-on-demand hurts the unborn child; planned, assisted suicide may hurt family members; the ‘right’ of a same-sex couple to raise a child takes away the right of that child to a father and mother.  No matter, apparently.  In these scenarios, my rights matter most!

On another level, the macrocosmic level, tikun olam, mending the world according to the lights of contemporary secular morality, means that we must show no special favours to our own family/fellow-nationals/correligionists because that would mean discriminating against others. The only problem is that one ends up disdaining one’s own.  As the American philosopher Eric Hoffer famously said “it is easier to love the world than it is to love your brother!”  (This is now manifest in some of the world’s most affluent democracies where sizeable pockets of poverty are emerging while the social-reformers prioritise global concerns, in particular agonising over Palestinian Arab poverty which is self-inflicted.)

So in summation: contemporary secular morality says two things: (1) I need to change the world; (2) I have no need to change myself!

This is the very mindset which R’ Israel Salanter recognised to be faulty, coming as he did in his mature years to the firm conclusion that (a) we need firstly to change ourselves; (b) we cannot ignore the middle of the pyramid – family and community; (c) true tikun olamaccording to the lights of the Torah must be routed from the inside outward!

(It is sad that modern-morality exponents do not think a human being is capable of change. We see the worst side of the modern-morality mindset with its almost pathological vindictiveness and witch-hunts against anyone who has broken the essential tenets of political correctness and made one unguarded, misguided remark out of turn.  Such an individual is branded a ‘racist’ or a ‘sexist’ for ever. Apologies and protestations of repentance count for nothing and trial by media results in his or her personal humiliation and professional ruination for life.)

We have merely skimmed the surface of this vast subject. But what results out of all this is very clear.  When 94% of the Gen17 respondents declare that “upholding strong moral values” is a main indicator of Jewish identity we cannot be at all confident that these moral values are authentically Jewish ones. This is because contemporary secular morality is, in all the ways we have seen, at odds with Jewish morality. And since apparently less than a third of these respondents think grappling with Jewish texts is important, we have to conclude that their mindset will most likely be a secular rather than a religious Jewish one.

For those who believe I have been overly negative and cynical in this study, I believe the facts speak for themselves. But here’s the thing. Even if we were to posit that the universal moral values being upheld by respondents are indeed those of the Torah or what is sometimes termed “the Judaeo-Christian moral heritage”, this hardly constitute the totality or even the bulk of Judaism.  You don’t have to be Jewish to be moral according to Jewish teachings. And so the burning question remains: If, as JCA head Stephen Chipkin asserts, “remembering the Holocaust and upholding strong moral values are the two most important identifiers of Jewish identity”, what, pray, isJewish identity.  In other words: Why really are we Jewish?                             

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