Readers answer: ‘What drives the Jews?’

Several months ago I asked a question in one of my columns and invited readers’ input. Answers came from all over the country and were as diverse as Jews are themselves. The question was originally posed to me by my 23-year-old daughter: What drives the Jews? In keeping with the Jewish tradition of “two Jews, three opinions,” many readers had multiple responses and often the answers refined the question or posed new ones. To all of you who took the time to share your thoughts, thank you!

The consensus was that this question is not an easy one to answer because each of us views Judaism from personal and historical perspectives that differ based on the time period in which we grew up; our family traditions; our social, economic and cultural realities; and our genetic makeup. Yet of the themes that emerged, one was definite: there is a feeling deep inside, a spark that dwells within each Jew regardless of denomination, social background or education, which drives him or her to identify as Jewish.

Some may call this the pintele Yid (Yiddish for Jewish spark), others may think of it as the Yiddish neshamah (Jewish soul), while still others jokingly refer to it as being a Member of the Tribe (M.O.T.). It seems, however, that there is a unique, somewhat ineffable feeling of “being Jewish” that drives many of us to think, act and respond as Jews today.

Many readers identified the Torah, Jewish learning and the quest for knowledge as what binds Jews together in our struggle to survive. Jewish education consists of more than training the mind; it also requires training the heart. One reader eloquently wrote: “We are driven as a people by the knowledge that there is a power — for good, for right, for beauty, that is beyond our comprehension — that we strive to imitate and achieve. We are driven by this power, which is not random, and is intelligent beyond our grasp … the Torah is the earthly representation of this power we know as God.”

Other insights about what drives the Jews included a sense of community and feeling responsible for one another, the idea that the promotion of human freedom and dignity is essential to living a Jewish life, and that we are committed to the Jewish future because “we don’t want to be just the grandchildren of great men and women, we want to be the grandparents of an even greater generation!” Interestingly, each one of these ideas is articulated in traditional Judaism as Kol Israel arevim ze Lazeh, B’tzelem Elohim and L’dor v’dor, respectively.

One of the more controversial responses suggested that there is something “in our genes” that drives us — to leave a bad situation for a better one, to push ourselves to excel and succeed, to respond to the world’s problems with compassion and a sense of justice. While the genetic answer might be more applicable to the question, “Why have Jews achieved scientific, financial, artistic and cultural success to a greater extent than population statistics would indicate,” it opens the door to other arguments that are potentially dangerous to Jewish survival.

Judaism is and has always been a religion and a way of life but not a race. Contemporary scientific research on Jewish DNA concludes that while some genes may be more prevalent among modern Jews, Jews do not constitute a single group distinct from all others. Rather, modern Jews exhibit a diversity of genetic profiles, some reflective of Semitic/Mediterranean ancestry, and others suggesting an origin found in European and Central Asian groups.

The question of what drives the Jews can and should be discussed for years to come. Only in looking back at our past and examining our present can we hope to find inspiration, guidance and direction for how we want to live as Jews in the future. At a minimum, it gives us pause to recognize how remarkable we are as a people and feel grateful for the privileges and freedoms we have to live today as Jews.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at