Navigating the journey of life “without a religious tradition is like trying to cross open country without a path,” Antonio García Martínez writes. “You can do so, but you’ll do lots of stumbling and very likely lose your way.” That opens his well-crafted and exceptionally argued essay on “Why Judaism?” Antonio’s conversion frames the approach through his personal agency, how he chose to be chosen, as it were. Judaism contains depths beyond its shallow representations, more profound than we can imagine. That is why Antonio says, “I choose to hold fast to that tree of life.” It has what to offer.
That is all said and good, but there is one hovering question in that more general approach: It assumes choice. Judaism is a great religion, a great choice. But the discomfort felt by many exists outside that binary: “I didn’t have a choice—I was born into the Jewish covenant.”
Indeed, Judaism is the impervious thread coursing throughout generations and countries and people. The Torah endlessly reminds us that it our heritage, our portion, our tradition. A present from God to His chosen people. Anyone with a Jewish mother is Jewish, and there is no gift receipt. Something feels “off” about that: Why are we born with arrangements we did not co-sign to? Why should our ancestors’ choice become our obligation? Why is there no out-clause to the Jewish covenant? In Parshat Nitzavim, the question comes to light.
“And not with you alone do I make this covenant,” Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael, “but with those standing today before Hashem our God and with those who are not here with us this day” (Devarim 29:13-14). There it is written in no uncertain terms: The covenant is included with those present and those absent. It supersedes their choice.
That approach does not bode well with many commentaries. In Shemot Rabbah 28:6, Rabbi Yitzchak offers a creative, mystical reading: Instead of saying those not “standing with us today,” the pasuk simply says those “not with us today.” The lacking word “standing” is taken as a point of significance for Rabbi Yitzchak. It must be, he reasons, the pasuk really refers to the souls that will live in the future who, at the time, do not have actualization and cannot, therefore, be “standing.” Each soul was not deprived and still “received that which was his.”
In Shenei Luchot HaBerit, we see the same idea take form: All generations were at Sinai, listening to God face-to-face. We were there, and we accepted the covenant. Our choice was made millennia ago. Sifrei Chakhamim offers the same suggestion that all souls were present. And buried beneath that, he offers a second one: We are outgrowths of our ancestors and thereby bound by their covenants. Why is it that at least one camp feels so compelled to dispel the notion of a concurrent covenant that we are born into?
The answer, perhaps, lies in our notions of agency and autonomy. Are we, as God’s creations, entrusted to make our own choices—even bad choices? Our personal power feels compromised, sacrificed on the altar of tradition. The all-souls-agree approach surely alleviates that tension, but there can be another: We are all born into situations we did not choose. Familial, financial, medical, social. Empowering autonomy comes from the choices we make within those conditions, not from choosing the conditions themselves. That we are Jewish is the reality in which we live. What we choose to do next is the agency we are entitled to wield.