What is a Jew?

This week's Dvar Torah is by Emanuel Elstein, former shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12), currently CFO, Torah MiTzion.

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement

Judaism Torah Mitzion
Torah Mitzion

Recently, as violent events rock The State of Israel, we can see the entire Jewish nation rising in response. Each in his or her own way, Jews cannot help but be moved by the news reports coming out of Israel. But what is it that makes us Jewish? What connects Jews in Australia, America, Israel and South Africa? Why is it obvious to A Jew in Montevideo and Munich that event in Israel affect him as well?

What do we Jews have in common? What connects us to each other?

Historically, Jews were defined by their religion. Despite being dispersed all over the globe, The Jewish people were unified around their religious lifestyle. We all believed, more or less, in the same tenets of faith, we all obeyed the same commandments, and we all celebrated the same holidays. While there were always individuals who rejected the religious lifestyle, those were the exceptions that proved the rule.

In the modern era that is obviously not true. Many Jews today do not adhere to any form of halakha or tradition, not to mention being obligated to Orthodox halakha. There are even many Jewish organizations and movements that, while clearly defined by themselves as Jewish, just as clearly do not see themselves part of any form of halakhic or religious tradition. And of course there are Jews who do not affiliate themselves with anything Jewish, who might not even define themselves as Jewish. But they are Jews too.

Rav Ovadia Gaon said in the 10th century: “Our people are not a nation except for its Torah”. That obviously is no longer correct.

If Jews aren’t defined by a religion, maybe were can be defined as a race? Well, that doesn’t work either - We definitely don’t fit into the definition of a race. We can't claim to have 'pure' Jewish genes. A person can't change his race, but converts have been joining the Jewish people since Yetziat Mitzrayim and till today. It’s enough to walk down the street in Yerushalayim you can see a very obvious mix of faces and features, with some looking Slavic, some African and some mid-eastern. Their racial connection may be very slim at best, but they are still all Jews.

We also don’t fit into the ordinary definition of a nation. A nation can be loosely defined as a large group of people living within a certain territory, speaking a single language and having a common culture. We don’t meet any of those criteria – we have not all lived in one territory since the destruction of The First Temple. While Hebrew has followed us everywhere we went, it remained out of reach for most Jews. Hebrew is far from being a unifying factor for Jews around the world. Similarly, when it comes to culture, many of the Jews in different countries had much more in common culturally with their non-Jewish neighbors that with their Jewish cousins across the border. While Jews in Israel could be considered a nation, that would still not be a good definition for all Jews.

So if we’re not a religion, and we’re not a race or a nation, what are we?

To understand who we are, we’ll have to look back to where it all started, in this week's parsha. The Torah calls us Beit Yisrael – The House of Israel. To tell us that fundamentally, before anything else, Jews are a family.

The family started as the nuclear family of Avraham, which later grew to a clan, a tribe and ultimately, a nation. But despite our numbers we remained as we began – a family. A Jew is someone who belongs to the House of Israel. Being part of one big family will help explain many aspects of our relationships with others, but even more so – it will explain the relationships between us and our fellow Jews.

We are not connected to other Jews because of a cultural or religious similarity. Not because we speak the same language and not because we have the same tenants of belief. We are connected because we’re Mishpucha, we’re family. In Israel, if there is a terrorist attack, the first thing a mother does is call all her children to make sure they’re okay. Similarly, on a larger scale, when there is a hurricane in Thailand or a monsoon in Brazil, the newspapers will always be sure to note if and how many Israeli’s are involved.

In a family, we don’t need to agree with our brothers. We don’t even have to like them or get along with them. But deep down, we still love them. We can distance ourselves from our family, but we can’t disconnect from them. Once you’re born into a family, you can never leave. It doesn’t matter who your parents were or how observant they are, if they are part of the family, so are you.

In that case what is conversion? Conversion is adopting someone into the family. Once you adopt them, they are legally fully Jewish. The Talmud describes a convert as a tinok shenolad – a newborn baby. He is born again into a new family, and from then on they are our brothers and sisters just like any other Jew. That’s also why we have no aspirations to convert the whole world. Judaism is the lifestyle our father in heaven set out for us, for the Jewish family. It really isn’t meant for outsiders.

It would seem that also non-Jews grasp the fact that we are not part of the family of nations. We are our own family, no matter how well we fit into society as individuals. We can be accepted and respected, be involved in all aspects of our surrounding culture, but somehow we’re still the eternal outsider.

Our strong sense of kinship can also explain an additional aspect of Jewish life – our innate ability to disagree with each other. Arguments and fights inside a family are probably more common and much more intense than disputes with outsiders. While with a complete stranger it’s relatively easy to agree to disagree, when it comes to family that doesn’t seem to work. On the other hand, you can also say the most horrible things to your brother, but you’ll still remain brothers. It is  because we’re family we allow ourselves to have such intense arguments. That’s why our internal wars get so ugly. Just like in a family.

But in times of hardship, when things go bad, a family knows how to put its differences aside and react as a united body. Family is still family. That’s why Jews in America fought for the release of Soviet Jewry, and why we’ll arrange mishloach manot for children in sderot, even though we’ve never met them, and probably never will.

So what does it mean to be a Jew? It means to be part of a family. Judaism is not just a religion or a nationality. It’s much more inclusive and inescapable than that. Looking at ourselves like that can give us a new perspective on our relationships within our community and with Jews around the world, as well as with non-Jews.

But more than that, understanding who we are is also understanding our relationship with the true father of the Jewish family, our Father in Heaven.

Torah MiTzion (see their dynamic website) was established in 1995 with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities around the globe and infusing them with the love for Torah, the Jewish People and for the State of Israel. Over the past eighteen years Torah MiTzion has recruited, trained and dispatched more than one thousand 'shlichim' (emissaries) to Jewish communities in countries spanning five continents and impacted Jewish communities with an inspiring model of commitment to both Judaism and Zionism.