Why Be Jew­ish?: A Testament

Edgar M. Bronfman
  • Review
By – March 28, 2016

Why Be Jew­ish? is the Edgar Bronfman’s final book, fin­ished weeks before he passed away in Decem­ber 2013. This is Bronfman’s most per­son­al reflec­tion, and he makes his moti­va­tions clear: My aim in writ­ing this book is to encour­age oth­ers to take anoth­er look at their tra­di­tion and craft a prac­tice of their own, one that need not include a belief in a tra­di­tion­al God.”

The author tack­les this chal­lenge with the skill and grace that char­ac­ter­ized his ded­i­ca­tion to advanc­ing Jew­ish life around the globe. In explain­ing his writ­ing process, Bronf­man iden­ti­fies twelves tenets that he will weave through his book while at the same time shar­ing high­lights of his per­son­al jour­ney and how they shaped his lead­er­ship in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty for over twen­ty-five years.

Bronfman’s twelve tenets include a rev­er­ence for Jew­ish tra­di­tion, a ded­i­ca­tion to social action, a pledge to engage in both Jew­ish and sec­u­lar stud­ies, and a com­mit­ment to eth­i­cal busi­ness con­duct. The chap­ters that fol­low describe how Bronf­man explored these tenets through­out his life. The author begins the sec­ond chap­ter, titled Ques­tion Author­i­ty,” with a sto­ry from his youth, when he walked out of the syn­a­gogue after com­ing to the real­iza­tion that his father read flu­ent­ly but did not under­stand the litur­gy. As Bronf­man reflects, this act of dis­obe­di­ence was at its core a very Jew­ish act, as our bib­li­cal tra­di­tion as well as Jew­ish lead­ers through­out his­to­ry state that ques­tion­ing, skep­ti­cism, and out­right rebel­lion are at the very heart of Judaism.” For Bronf­man, ques­tion­ing the sta­tus quo of the orga­nized Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty has fos­tered inno­va­tions in build­ing Jew­ish lit­er­a­cy and deep­en­ing a con­nec­tion to Jew­ish life.

In the con­clud­ing chap­ter, A Les­son in Lead­er­ship,” Bronf­man focus­es on the lead­er­ship prin­ci­ples found in the Book of Exo­dus and the life of Moses. Through a close read­ing, the author iden­ti­fies Judaism’s key qual­i­ties for effec­tive lead­er­ship, which include tak­ing a stand, dis­miss­ing rejec­tion, focus­ing on strengths, hold­ing fast to the vision, and pass­ing on the man­tle. In con­clud­ing Why Be Jew­ish? with a les­son on lead­er­ship, Bronf­man shares the hope that after read­ing this book you may be inspired to devel­op your own pro­grams, projects, or insti­tu­tions that address the cen­tral aims of Judaism — to advance the cause of jus­tice and to repair our bat­tered world. If so, these prin­ci­ples can be useful.”

Why Be Jew­ish? is at once the author’s final reflec­tion on a life in ser­vice to the Jew­ish peo­ple, an appre­ci­a­tion of what makes Judaism a world­view worth embrac­ing, and a charge to the next gen­er­a­tion to make Judaism their own. In her fore­word, Rab­bi Angela War­nick Buch­dahl, a past Bronf­man Fel­low, suc­cinct­ly cap­tures the goal of Bronfman’s book: to offer a com­pelling invi­ta­tion for younger gen­er­a­tions, and Jews of all ages, to take anoth­er look at Judaism.” Why Be Jew­ish? is an inspir­ing work that will leave the read­er grate­ful for this sec­ond look and for the com­mit­ment that Edgar M. Bronf­man made to shar­ing a tra­di­tion he held so dear.

Relat­ed Content:

Discussion/​Resource Guide

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Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions