Why I Am a Jew by Edmond Fleg

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Our member Marjorie Hart writes:

Why I am a Jew is a treatise that describes the thoughts and feelings of a man estranged from his Judaism as he comes to embrace his religion with fervor.  Edmund Fleg first published this book in 1927 when he was 53 years old and living in Paris.

Edmund Fleg was born in Geneva in an observant family.  Speaking of his childhood he says “At that time religion was mingled with every act of life, but in so simple a way that I saw no religion in it.”  As is the case with many adolescents, when a teenager he starting criticizing all he had been taught at home emboldened by the inconsistencies he could now see.  He goes so far as to being anti-Semitic himself and expressing that on these pages.  By the time he is 20 years old and living in Paris Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of espionage.  [Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew convicted of espionage and sent to prison.  There was a strong suspicion that another man was actually the culprit.  The prosecution produced evidence to convict Dreyfus but the defense was not allowed to see this information.]

In the beginning of this book he spends a lot of time talking about his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair.  Edmund Fleg is a very intelligent young man and starts to read the Gospel and the Christian literature about Jesus.  Eventually his studying (and his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair) brings him back to learning more about his Judaism.  When he does decide to get in touch with his Judaism, he studies all the literature and Hebrew and Jewish history.  He immerses himself.

This book was written for his unborn grandchild.  It was written to pass on what he had learned to another generation – it had not been passed on to his son.

In Why I am a Jew Edmund Fleg refers to a close friend of his frequently when examining the Dreyfus Affaire.  He calls this friend “the Logician” and their relationship was one of “intellectual Sympathy” with their greatest joy being “formulating our ideas in unison.”  They were not in unison about the Dreyfus Affair, however, and that bothered Edmund.  He began to see the extreme anti-Semitism that was all around him and was drawn to finding out what Judaism really is.  A number of questions follow and a description of his dissatisfaction with the time he spent in college studying philosophy and comparative literature.  He wishes he had studied Judaism instead.

Edmund Fleg was a young man when he first heard about Zionism and here he describes his reaction to Zionism.  When his son was born he devoted himself to studying Judaism.  He reasoned “I may not teach my children the religious practices of my fathers, nevertheless, I would transmit to them something of Israel.”  The book then proceeds to ask questions comparing the Christian religion and Judaism.  He looks for, and finds, the ethical values in Christianity in our Bible.  He finds that the things the Christian sages say were first said in the Torah.  Then he tackles the question of Judaism as a race or a nation or a religion and the why of anti-Semitism.  He found his heart moved by all the things he found even if his mind was not convinced.

He poses an interesting question:  “Was Judaism essentially revolutionary?  If moral, social and international progress mean revolution—yes; but not if revolution implies violence.”  A conclusion: “I came to realize that anti-Semitism had only one seemingly valid ground: the determination of Jews to remain Jews.”

At the very end of the book there are 12 statements that all begin “I am a Jew because…”  In the Reform liturgy today you will find these phrases on page 85/203 of the Mishkan Tefillah.  This is the translation in the copy of Why I am a Jew that I read.

I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I feel it revive within me more alive than I am myself.

I am a Jew because born of Israel and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive that it is within me.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires no abdication of my mind.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks any possible sacrifice of my soul.

I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.

I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.

I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.

I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet completed; men are completing him.

I am a Jew because Israel places Man and his unity above nations and above Israel itself.

I am a Jew because above Man, the image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.