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How to be Jewish in a Non-Jewish World

February 21, 2013 12:58 pm 1 comment

Jewish boy reads Bar Mitzvah. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs.

Unlike a generation ago, today the walls of the ghetto no longer sequester us from the rest of society. We fraternize and do business with non-Jews on a daily basis and have become fully adjusted to western culture. The contemporary question is how do we strike a balance between retaining our Jewish identity while at the same time being citizens of the world, especially when that world may be indifferent or even hostile to our Jewishness?

This week, we read about the pure olive oil necessary for the kindling of the Menorah (candelabra) in the Mishkan (tabernacle), Moses’ Sanctuary and the forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that oil holds the secret formula for how to successfully live a proud Jewish life in an environment which may be far from Jewishly conducive.

Oil, you see, is a paradox. It contains conflicting characteristics and puzzling properties. On the one hand, it mixes easily and spreads very quickly, seeping through and permeating the material it comes in contact with. Ever try drying the excess oil off a potato latke? Good luck. Your serviette will be very oily indeed in no time at all.

On the other hand, when mixed with other liquids, oil stubbornly rises to the surface and refuses to be absorbed by anything else. (I remember in my student days in Yeshiva, one of my roommates had no menorah for Chanukah. Rather ingeniously, he collected 8 empty bottles, filled them almost to the top with water and then poured some olive oil into the bottles. I was most intrigued to see the oil remain clearly distinguishable from the water as it floated above the water. He then added the wick, lit it, and his makeshift menorah worked like a charm. A modern day Chanukah miracle!)

In other words, like oil, Jews too will often find themselves mixing in a wide variety of circles – social, business, civic, communal or political. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. At the very same time, though, we need to remember never to lose our own identity. We should never mix to the point of allowing our own Jewish persona to be swallowed or diluted.

When in outside circles, we often feel a strong pressure, whether real or imagined, to conform to the norms around us. Few among us enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb. The fact is, however, that other people respect us more when we respect ourselves. If we are casual and cavalier in our commitment to our own national principles, then our non-Jewish associates might worry whether we might not betray them next.

Just one example. Every major city of the world has any number of kosher restaurants filled with Jewish business people entertaining non-Jewish partners, clients, or would-be clients. Some establishments may be more upmarket than others, but everyone seems to manage and the deals get done. One can be perfectly sociable without giving up one’s principles. Most people are quite happy to accommodate individual needs and sensitivities. It seems to me that it is the Jews who complain more about kosher food than the non-Jews. Our apprehensions about stating our religious requirements are often exaggerated and unfounded. Provided we do it honestly, respectfully and consistently, our adherence to a code of values will impress our associates and inspire them with greater confidence in our trustworthiness in all areas of activity.

My dear friend, the late, lamented Dr Rodney Unterslak,  was a young doctor when he was called up for a stint of national military service. He was very obviously religious from his yarmulke and beard. In fact, the beard didn’t exactly meet army regulations and it was only with great difficulty that he managed to obtain special permission to keep it. Far from being a nuisance, he conducted himself with dedication and integrity and at the end of his tour of duty walked away with the Surgeon General’s top award for excellence. That was a Kiddush Hashem – a public sanctification of G-d by a proud, practicing Jew who found himself in a decidedly un-Jewish environment.

Compromising our values and principles is a sure way to lose the respect we crave from the world around us. Dignity, pride and self-respect earn us the esteem and admiration of those around us, whether Jews or non-Jews. It is a time-tested and well-proven method.

Just learn from the oil. By all means, spread around and socialize. But remember your uniqueness. Be distinctive and proud and know where to draw the line.

Excerpted from the book From Where I Stand by Rabbi Yossy Goldman. Available at leading Jewish booksellers.

1 Comment

  • the oLive branch was given to Noah from a white dove for the assurance of LIFE once again. We too must obtain this kind of Trust and confidence of the symbol behind our Creators methods to sustain LIFE. May His annointing be upon us ALL. Shalom

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