Book Reviews

Why Be Jewish? A Testament – Edgar M. Bronfman

Edgar M. Bronfman’s memoir poignantly describes his search for identity and meaning, and how he understood the impact that mindfully adopting “Jewish” as a personal label shaped his values. As a devout secularist, Bronfman writes about his path, understanding Judaism as a heritage and a set of lessons with a focus on human interactions. If one isn’t sure that God exists, doubts that being Jewish requires absolute allegiance to a seeming minutiae of Divine commandments, lacks satisfactory role models for engaging in Jewish communal life, or is cynical about identifying with a particular religious, ethnic, or national group, Bronfman’s voice will be immediately recognizable. And if none of these positions resonate, Bronfman’s thoughtfulness illustrates the value and vitality of a fully explored personal Jewish life.

The greatest challenge with this book is that Bronfman tries to present himself as a kind of “every Jew”, while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s impossible to ignore the privilege that allowed him to explore his identity. With a family name that instantly places him among the Jewish community’s philanthropic elite, he obviously had access to time and financial resources to travel and study in ways that most Jews do not. Reading Bronfman’s words, it is clear why he is so motivated to provide such opportunities for others. Nevertheless, his tone sometimes veers towards the condescending, or perhaps takes on the authoritative voice of a mentor. It was difficult to read the book without recognizing that much of Bronfman’s involvement in the Jewish community took place with young adults.

This is clearest in the final section of the book, in which Bronfman takes the Biblical person of Moses, and presents him as a model for Jewish leadership. Bronfman’s analysis and respect for the Torah text itself are unimpeachable. The process of struggling to identify with Moses and other canonical leaders is an important one. But in an attempt to discover what it means for an individual to embrace a Jewish identity, the reality is that not everyone can be a Moses. While Moses certainly found it exceedingly challenging to find his place as part of the Israelites, after his initial reluctance, his status as leader emerged pretty much immediately. Bronfman argues that the consequences of Moses’ choice to accept this identity allow Moses to fulfill his human potential. In this regard, his message is salient. However, one’s internalising and development of a mature Jewish self does not need to have such public results. Rather than a message of exploring being Jewish to become leaders in the footsteps of Moses, Bronfman would have better encouraged readers to explore being Jewish to understand who you are, not who you may become.

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