I’m sitting in Expresso Joe’s, our local internet café. A week or so ago a short essay of mine on Hanukkah appeared in the Murfreesboro Post (you can read it in Toto under “Chanukkah and Chutzpah”). I overheard a middle aged man talking about it, and introduced myself as the author. After a few minutes of small talk, he asked me, “Is there any idea you Jews are afraid to tackle?”
The question took me aback. I asked him what he meant. He said, “I don’t know, it just seems to me that Jews are into ideas. I mean I went to school in the Northeast and I knew lots of Jews, and none of them agreed on anything Jewish. One guy was very traditional, and some of the others were atheists. But they were all proud to be Jews. I mean my church is all upset with this new Golden Compass movie as if the film is going to rob us and our kids of our faith. We look like wimps. Like we are afraid of ideas, especially ideas that don’t support our notion of what is right and true. I don’t see that among Jews and wondered what you thought about this.”
“Well.” I said, “I can’t speak for all Jews but I get what you are saying. It points to what it is to be a Jew. While we call ourselves Jews after Judea, from which we hale, the Torah never uses that term. The Torah calls us Israel, and it is Israel that speaks to your point.
“Israel means to ‘wrestle with God and man and to survive.’ That is what we Jews do: we wrestle. It doesn’t matter if we are wrestling with theology, literature, physics, mathematics, art, whatever. We just don’t feel comfortable accepting the status quo. We like to dig deeper. We like to challenge ideas and be challenged by them. We like to test our beliefs. God is always testing Abraham; it is the Jewish way. We don’t feel comfortable if we are not struggling with some ideal or goal. And we don’t have to be right, either. It is just as much fun for us to discover we are wrong about something as it is to find out we are right about something. It is the finding out that matters to us.
“This is why we don’t just read the Bible, we investigate it. The Hebrew word for this is ‘drash,’ literally ‘to investigate,’ and what we find when we investigate is called ‘midrash.’ Each week when we read the assigned biblical text our reading is followed by a drash. We study all the investigations of the ancient and contemporary rabbis, and then launch into investigations of our own. It is the process of drash that keeps the Torah alive for us.”
“Yeah,” the man said, “that is what I like about you people. You investigate. Talking with Jews is always an adventure. You like to entertain multiple opinions at the same time. For the fun of it, I think.”
“I think so too,” I said. When he left I was feeling so excited about being a Jew. No, about being Yisrael. Jew is passive; Yisrael is active. Jew is a noun; Yisrael is a verb. I was born a Jew, and I choose to be Yisrael.