The ‘Great Jews’ Dilemma

Each year we are privileged to see Jews accomplish extraordinary things in science, art, literature and other subjects. Many of them strongly identify as Jews, but for many, Judaism plays little or no role in their lives. Rav Kook once asked a poignant question: When will Jews who are great also be great Jews?

It is no coincidence that Judaism has produced such a surfeit of accomplished individuals. The tradition of inquiry, of dissatisfaction with settled answers and thoughtless responses, is built deep into the Jewish tradition. The complacent mind cannot master Talmud; it is too knotty, complex and challenging. So when that training is let loose in other fields, it has a decided advantage. But sadly many Jews who are the inheritors of such riches do not understand their own debts.

When Golda Meir was prime minister, she tried to get Henry Kissinger to make Israel a top priority. The story goes that Kissinger sent her a letter stating: “I would like to inform you that I’m first an American citizen; second, secretary of State; and third, a Jew.” To which she responded, “In Israel, we read from right to left.” She knew his responsibilities, of course, but it would be wonderful if Kissinger too realized that he owed much of the first two identities to the legacy of the third.

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at

About the Author
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.