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Jewish Values Are Everyone's Values

Originally published February, 2006. Republished August 13, 2012.

It began in Alexandra's first grade classroom, when a classmate asked her if she believed Jesus was the Son of God.

“I told her no, I'm Jewish,” my six-year-old daughter said. “She wouldn't play with me after that.”

We talked about how differences make us special, how if you are different from somebody else, that also means they are different from you. My wife spoke to the teacher, the teacher spoke to the class, and the incident was over--until the next time.

Every step on the interfaith journey has challenges; and it's these challenges that make the journey worthwhile. For my daughter, whom my Christian wife and I are raising as a Jew, her latest challenge is learning to embrace her own religious values while respecting the values of others.

What makes a value “Jewish?”
I have had to deal with a lot while raising a Jewish daughter in an interfaith family--ignorant relatives, holiday complications, explaining Shavuot to a six year old (try it sometime, it's not easy). I have had to make hard decisions and tough choices. But teaching values--and living by them as a family--has never been a problem.

Seriously, values are the easy part. Are there distinctly “Jewish” values? Perhaps. Tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a Jewish value, but it's not only Jewish. “Study the Torah”--okay, that's pretty Jewish, but it's not like the stories of Abraham and Noah “belong” to Judaism. Doing mitzvot (commanded good deeds)? It's central to Jewish teaching, but the ideal of helping others cuts across all religions and cultures.

And what about the most famous set of “Jewish” values, the Ten Commandments? As I recall, it was mostly Christians who protested the removal of the Ten Commandments display in Montgomery, Ala., a couple years ago. Christians feel pretty strongly about the Ten Commandments, too.

So what's my point? Just this: I don't believe there are strictly Jewish values any more than I believe there are strictly Christian, Islamic or Buddhist values. Values do not belong to any one religion.

Values vs. Faith
The more difficult challenge has to do with faith. While values bring us together, faith, more often than not, drives us apart.

God created heaven and earth. God created man and woman. And God created, one could argue, values and a moral structure, a framework within which to live our lives and raise our families.

But God did not create religion. We did. We created religion because, I believe, that's how God wanted it. God expected us to take different paths and build different cultures--not so we could be divided, but so we could meet each other along the way and see how similar we are.

What happened to Alexandra in her classroom was the result of faith misguided, not values misapplied. The girl in her class was only doing what she thought was right, what was undoubtedly taught to her--that believing in Jesus is “what we do.” As far as the girl was concerned, there was no other available option.

What do I teach my daughter? Because Alexandra is part of an interfaith family, she, perhaps more than most, understands and respects the differences among the faiths. She knows that while her religion makes her different from a lot of her friends, she is the same as any other person in the eyes of God and her “mixed” family. She knows that what really matters is that you are a good human being who lives a good life. And if you treat others the way you wish to be treated, everybody will be better off.

Are these Jewish values? Yes--and no. And that's the way it should be.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Gary Goldhammer

Gary Goldhammer is a freelance writer based in Orange County, Calif. Visit his blog, Below the Fold, at http://belowthefold.typepad.com.

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