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How to be Jewish in a non-Jewish world

  • Parshas Ki Tetze - Rabbi Yossi Goldman
Unlike a generation ago, the walls of the ghetto no longer sequester us from the rest of society. We fraternise, shop, and do business outside our own immediate community all the time. We are all part of the dominant western culture. The contemporary question, then, is how do we strike a balance between retaining our Jewish identity while being citizens of the world, especially when that world may be indifferent or even hostile to our Jewishness? Especially at this time of year, when trees are dwarfing menorahs, and Santa Clauses outnumber rabbis.
by RABBI YOSSY GOLDMAN | Nov 29, 2018

Chanukah has an answer.

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil, when only one day’s supply lasted for eight days. My revered teacher the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM once taught that oil holds the secret formula for how to live a proud Jewish life in an environment that may often not be 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 whatever material it comes into contact with. Ever try drying the excess oil off a fried 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 eight empty cold drink bottles, filled them almost to the top with water and then poured some olive oil into each bottle. I was quite intrigued to see how the oil was clearly distinguishable from the water as it remained afloat above the water. He then added the wick, lit it, and his makeshift menorah worked like a charm. A modern-day Chanukah miracle!

Like oil, Jews today find themselves mixing in a wide variety of circles – social, business, civic, communal, even political. The challenge is to retain our identity in the process. We don’t have to mix to the point of allowing our Jewish persona to be swallowed or diluted.

When in circles outside our comfort zone, we often feel the 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 principles, then our non-Jewish associates might worry that we might betray them next.

There have been times when on international airline flights, I have had no choice but to daven on the plane. I mean Shachris, the morning service, complete with talis and tefillin. To be honest, I really don’t enjoy those situations, but when the schedule of the flight leaves me no option, nu, a Jew’s gotta do what a Jew’s gotta do! But, I confess to feeling rather self-conscious. (Of course, I always make a point of going up to the flight attendants first to make them aware that I will be praying and not strapping explosives to my body!)

But, afterwards, to my pleasant surprise, I almost always get some curious fellow passengers who are intrigued by it all asking me questions about Judaism and its traditions. And I always get the sense that they have a deep respect for our faith. Even on local flights, when I pull out a Jewish book in Hebrew to study on a flight, it arouses many questions by my non-Jewish neighbours which always lead to friendly and enlightening discussions. Last year, I was sitting next to an influential member of parliament from the ANC, and it gave me an opportunity to state Israel’s case in the context of a friendly conversation.

Or another example. Most major cities in the world have 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. We can be perfectly sociable without giving up our 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 life.

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 esteem and admiration, whether from Jews or non-Jews. It is a time-tested, proven method. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect themselves.”

Learn from the oil. Spread around and socialise. But remember your uniqueness. Be distinctive and proud, and know where to draw the line.

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