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.
Download our discussion and resource guide for this book here.
Jonathan Fass is the Chief Operating Officer of Jewish Family Service in Stamford, CT.