Shmuly Yanklowitz

The Essence of Judaism is Obligation: A Foundation for Pluralism

The fundamental commitment of being a Jew is to answer the question, “Ayeka” (where are you?), with “Hineni” (here I am), affirming a sense of responsibility and obligation to the other.

Different Jews feel different kinds of commitments. We can come together as one people not because we share the same origin of obligation but because as Jews we all feel obligated. There are many different origins for obligation, but the great majority can be grouped into one or more of the following categories.

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  • Traditional Jews – Obligation originates from the commands given at Mount Sinai, from an ultimate Authority rather than from the self.


  • Existential Jews – Obligation originates from an autonomous and voluntary affirmation of and subjection to Jewish law and values.


  • Narrative Jews – Obligation originates from a sense of continuity with the faith and lives of Jewish ancestors.


  • Conscience Jews Obligation emerges in the moment of encounter and from moral and spiritual intuition.


  • Gratitude Jews – Obligation stems from recognition of and gratitude for the gifts that have been provided in one’s life.


  • Consequentialist Jews – Obligation results from the compulsion to ensure that the proper outcomes are achieved from one’s actions.


  • Social Contract Jews – Obligation comes from a sense of collective responsibility that binds us together, and affirming mutual obligations.

Of course, there are alternatives. One might simply live by social conformity, or by national law, or according to desire, or by rejecting the notion of obligation altogether. This is a departure from the Jewish way to live intentionally and to feel charged to improve the self and the world.

Many put each other into boxes based upon the origin of one’s commitments, but there are many entry points into Jewish obligation. We should move to a more inclusive and pluralistic paradigm where we differ on the origin and nature of our commitments but unite around our common sense of obligation. It is this ethical and spiritual impulse that we are “called” and that we are responsible which is a fundamental part of being a Jew.

In the modern era, Jews have defined obligation in different ways. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, spent the last 10 years of his life in an unceasing quest to find a homeland for the Jewish people: “It goes without saying that the Jewish people can have no other goal than Palestine and that, whatever the fate of the proposition may be, our attitude toward the land of our fathers is and shall remain unchangeable.”

Lion Feuchtwanger, who grew up in an Orthodox family, expressed his sense of obligation through his novels. In The Oppermanns (first published in 1933), Feuchtwanger wrote a chillingly accurate prediction of what would happen to Germany’s Jews based on only the first year of Nazi rule. One of the protagonists, Gustav Oppermann, a retailer of cheap furniture, has admittedly become “indifferent” to his contemporary society. However, as the political situation worsens, he feels uneasy, and dictates a card to himself with a paraphrase of Avot 2:16: “It is upon us to begin the work, It is not upon us to complete it.” Gustav at first flees from Germany, but eventually (like Feuchtwanger) realizes that his obligation is to document the Nazi atrocities to alert the world about this danger.

Elie Wiesel, through his experience in a concentration camp, has devoted his life to educating the world about the Holocaust and to work toward preventing future instances of genocide. His words ring with Jewish values: “Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.”

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Albert Einstein was one of the most noted scientists of the 20th century, but he was also noted for his humanistic philosophy, which often expressed Jewish values. His attitude toward obligation fits in well with this tradition: “Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”

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In the religious sphere, many leading rabbis have become involved in modern social justice movements. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for civil rights, expressed his moral obligation this way: “…there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Conservative Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights—North America), believes that Jews can work effectively for social justice within their congregation and other Jewish institutions:

The Jewish obligation for social justice stems from four sources: the historical experience, the legal imperative, a vision of the world to come, and practical considerations about the place of Jews in a diverse society. These four sources should inspire Jews to do social justice work not only as individuals, but also within the specific context of Jewish communal institutions (Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, 4).

In the political sphere, the recent passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey highlighted another view of obligation. Senator Lautenberg, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Paterson, served in the armed forces in World War II, and later launched a very successful business, Automatic Data Processing (ADP). Unlike many other management figures, Lautenberg was known for treating his employees with dignity, and the company thrived. In the Senate, he was responsible for laws regulating smoking and alcohol as well as gun control, along with key support and negotiating skills that won a great deal of revenue for public transportation projects. In spite of this, he always had time to speak with constituents, and would frequently speak to people he had just met for 10 minutes or more about their concerns. In other words, he never forgot his roots. Shortly before his death, he confided to his rabbi, Dan Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel of South Orange, NJ, how he wanted to be eulogized: “ he wanted to be remembered as a man from humble beginnings who did good and then used those opportunities provided to him to do the same for others.” He understood that his success was due to his community support and government policies of the New Deal era, and he worked for the rest of his life to ensure that others would have the opportunity to succeed as well.

Even Jews who convert to other religions often display a sense of obligation consistent with Jewish values. Simone Weil, who grew up in a secular Jewish home in France, had a philosophical trip through socialism and anarchism before converting to Christian mysticism. In the years before her early death, she focused her attention on the tremendous suffering of people during World War II: “It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance.” Another secular Jewish phenomenon was the “red diaper” babies of the baby boomer generation. These were the children of Jewish parents (many in Brooklyn) who had been Communists during the Great Depression and World War II, when the Party was about the only political faction working for racial civil rights, unionization for unskilled workers, and (with one major exception) opposition to fascism worldwide. Many of these children grew up and took part in the later civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and also connected back to their Jewish roots.

We all exist within this berit (sacred covenant) of obligation and shared responsibility. A covenant can be understood religiously, existentially, legally, emotionally, socially, etc., but all of these origins share a commitment to “ought” and not just to “is.” We are not merely a descriptive but also a prescriptive people. “To be” Jewish means that “I must do.” Judaism is oriented to value over fact.

The foundation of our pluralism and shared commitment can be in our embrace of dreaming of a more redeemed self and world. The origins of our commitments need not inhibit our ability to partnership and thrive together.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.