What Makes A Jew?
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
By Morty Breier
August 26 2000
What makes a Jew? I’ve taken a number of quotes from this weeks Torah portion and used them to try and define what I mean when I say I am a Jew. I hope these thoughts have meaning for you too.
1. Taking the Torah as the word of God
All this word which I command you, that ye shall observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
2. Obeying the commandments and the mitzvahs
Behold I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if ye shall harken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if ye shall not harken unto the Lord thy God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods.
I’m taking paragraphs one and two together. Let’s start with some statistical breakdown of the Jewish people. Only about eight percent of Jews are Orthodox, i.e. taking the torah as the word of God and fully observant of the 613 mitzvahs. Fifty percent are secular, with almost no religious affiliation. Most of the remaining Jews are Reform. We Jews have already spoken… if you look up Jew in the dictionary, you will see a picture of me… of you, of a non-observant Jew.
Most of us American Jews agree that we are part of a civilization in which the higher humanistic ideals of the western Wisdom Traditions, Judaism and Christianity, have been developed into codes of ethics, virtues, values and laws. Most of us try to honor these in our daily lives. Is this taking torah as the word of God? Is this Obeying the commandments and the mitzvahs? A great majority of us have said yes by the way we conduct our lives, I amongst them. Does my Jewishness help me out? Probably more my parent’s Jewishness. They, although atheists, instilled a moral fiber in me that had a distinctly Jewish flavor. It didn’t take a belief in God’s authorship of Torah or in observing the mitzvahs. I hope I’ve instilled that same moral fiber in my children. But many non-Jews can claim a very similar moral fiber with identical lineage, father to son to child.
On the other hand, we accept the word of our civilization’s findings in cosmology and the biological sciences as a true description of the physical world and its history, turning away from the Torah’s simplistic pronouncements. Is this the curse of not harkening unto the Lord our God? We don’t think so. And God doesn’t think so either otherwise He wouldn’t have allowed us to reap the technological rewards that these sciences have brought us. To be blessed with long and plentiful lives certainly doesn’t seem like a curse to me.
I reject the idea that to be a Jew I must believe in God’s authorship of the Torah, that it is therefore unchangeable and that its instructions are to be literally followed. So do ninety-two percent of us. Jews overwhelmingly, in other words, reject these fundamentalist notions, and do not, on average, suffer God’s wrath thereby.
3. Loving God with all my heart and with all my soul
For the Lord your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love your God with all your heart and with all your soul. After the Lord your God shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.
Do I love God when I love life? Do I walk with God when I protest injustice and demand a fair distribution of resources? Do I fear Him when I humble myself, I act kindly and respect all of my fellow men and women? Do I hearken to His voice, serve and cleave to Him when I am present from moment to moment to His wondrous reality? Are these Jewish traits or are they human traits? Do orthodox Jews do more of the above than I do? Than good Christians do?
I am a living being, a human being. I am an American. I am a Jew. And I’m a New Yorker by birth and a Hawaiian Islander by choice. Do I love God with all my heart and all my soul? Only sometimes, to be truthful. When I do love Him it is all the things I am that loves Him, not only my being Jewish. Maybe my being Jewish gives that love a certain flavor, but so would being Armenian or being Italian.
And another aspect of this “loving your God” mandate. Is the key wording here “your God”?… does this mean Israel’s God?… does it mean a universal God?… or does it mean my personal God? Because it is “your God” and humanity, the “your” part, whether Israel or civilization or me, changes over time, does the concept of God to which I am asked to cleave also change over time? Must it remain the domain of black hats, payes, and gaberdine suits? Must it be a strictly Jewish God who speaks Hebrew, argues with His people, and is one of the bearded old-timers?
4. Believing I am part of a chosen priestly nation
For thou art a holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be His own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth
This is a hard one. We don’t seem to shake this one easily, secular, reform or orthodox. Some say it is the reason for our survival over the millennia, the reason we stayed, and still stay, apart. I honor our long tested ability to remain a unique people. I am glad to be part of that ancient lineage. But I am disturbed by the hubris involved. And the world doesn’t forgive us this chutzpah either. It has been the cause of a lot of Jewish problems and sufferings. Others find us clannish and stiff-necked and overly pride-full. We are viewed with suspicion as though our rules apply only within our clan and not outside it. And, my experience shows, for the black hats this is often the truth. Even now it haunts our thinking and actions vis a viz the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Does my Lord choose me and your Lord choose you and their Lord choose them? Surely someone else’s Lord wouldn’t choose us. Are each of us chosen by the Lord my God? Are the Armenians chosen to be His treasure by the Lord their God? Or is there ONE God for all to be called His or Her treasure? Is not the treasure of God humanity itself? Maybe even life itself. Do we Jews have the right to call Him our God?
It is said that maturity comes when we stop thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe. We start this process by recognizing that each of us is the center of his or her universe. Having realized this we go on to seeing each other as the same sparks of God that we are. We are all sparks of God, our God’s unique and holy treasures. Does this make Jews less chosen or does it elevate everyone into the fold of chosen-ness. I want to celebrate my belonging to the great family of Man, the great family of life, the great family of being. As Karen says “Thank you God for having made me!”
I am priestly when I am full of God, when I am grateful for His gifts, when I honor His creations, when I help His story unfold. We are each priestly and chosen when we are in that state of mind. Being Jewish doesn’t automatically put me there. Most of us, whether Jew or otherwise, most of the time, are not there. Some of us, whether Jew or otherwise, some of the time, are there and when we are we deserve to be called chosen. I don’t deserve the title otherwise.
5. Celebrating history and tradition with other Jews
Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover unto the Lord thy God; for in the month of Abib the Lord thy god brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.
6. Having a heritage to uphold
If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother.
7. Being born of a Jewish mother
One of thy brethren
I’m taking these last three paragraphs together. The first reminds me of Barry’s description of a Jewish Holiday: They tried to Kill us. Hashem saved us. Let’s Eat. Yes, to be a Jew is to think back on a long eventful history with great causes both to celebrate and mourn. Yes, to be a Jew is to be a long term survivor, attached to a root that has served us through feast and famine, fortune and calamity, brilliance and darkness. Yes, to be a Jew, is to belong to people who have honored thoughtfulness, learning and justice, who have been at the forefront of social change, who have practiced Tikkun Olem. If pride weren’t a sin and didn’t come before the fall, I would be proud to be a Jew.
To be a Jew is to learn to laugh at yourself, better, to love to laugh at yourself. Is this the antidote to the sinfulness of pride? I hope so, because we are good at this. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves, to prevent our difficulties from burying us. And, of course, having Jewish mothers, without a sense of humor, we might otherwise be overwhelmed by guilt. I’ve always thought that saying something funny, making someone laugh, is the highest form of discourse, trumps all other exchanges, and would interrupt any serious conversation for the sake of a piece of humor. And we Jews are a good audience for this Jewish shtick, this kibitzing, this good natured cheppering, this non-stop shpeil of a tumler … there are so many Yiddish words to describe it.
To be a Jew is to love to eat, better yet, to talk and eat, often at the same time. And, of course, to have an opinion, “Opinions are welcomed.” We love food and we love words, especially when they express our opinions, and we love people, so gathering for the sake of being with other Jews, expressing opinions and eating good food is a principal activity amongst Jews.
The town Rabbi was approached by two contingents from the congregation. The first said “Rabbi, isn’t it the tradition to stand while reciting the Sh’mah.” “No” says the Rabbi. “Then it’s the tradition to sit while reciting the Sh’mah” said the other. “No” said the Rabbi. “But if you don’t tell us which is right we’ll argue forever” they both said. “That’s the tradition” exclaimed the Rabbi.
It starts at the family level and goes on to the neighborhood and sometimes develops into a full fledged political agenda. Food is important. Words and opinions are important. Sharing food and words with others is important. I’m a Jew, so I like these priorities. I am happy when I’m with others who also like these priorities. That’s why I’m here. It’s a family thing.
So, who do we have coming for the High Holidays?…..
Have you heard the latest towel joke?….
Tell me about your trip?….
What do you think of Nader?….
When are we going to eat?….