by: Rabbi Moshe Zeldman
I’ve been a teacher on the world-famous Discovery seminar for many years. And it’s exciting to have the honor of being able to introduce audiences to the power and veracity of our Torah. Each class in the seminar has its own flavor and appeals to different personalities in the audience in wonderful ways.
As much as I always loved teaching the class on the seven wonders of Jewish history, I also dreaded it. And here’s why. Every time I taught the class, I hit the same impasse. And it always went something like this:
Me: Not only have we miraculously survived thousands of years of anti-Semitism and exile, but it’s even predicted in our Torah that we’re going to be an eternal people! And what makes it even more remarkable is that we have a very hard time even having a clear definition of who we are! Let me ask you a question. If a total stranger, that’s never met a Jew, stopped you on the street and said “I overheard you say that you’re “Jewish”. What’s Jewish? Some sort of club?” What would you respond?
Member of the audience: We’re a religion. You know- there’s Christians, there’s Hindus, there’s Muslims and there are Jews.
Me: So being Jewish means you’re religious? Clearly not. In every other religion in the world, your “membership” in the religion is established by adhering to the beliefs and practices of the religion. You can’t reject belief in the divinity of Jesus and still call yourself a Christian! And so too with Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the others. Yet, a Jew can call themselves an atheist, can totally reject all Jewish values, beliefs and practices, and they’re still 100% Jewish. So it’s not a religion. Instead, maybe we should say it’s a…?
Audience: Race! It’s like being Latino, or Asian, or black. If you’re born into it, you’re part of it!
Me: ALSO no good! Why? First of all, because there are Jews of all races. There are Oriental Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Caucasian Jews… just look at the Kotel any day of the week. It looks like a United Nations. And more so, we know that being Jewish isn’t racial because anyone can join in. One can convert and become 100% a Jew. You can’t become Chinese. You can move to China, pick up the language, become a citizen, eat only Chinese food…..but it doesn’t change your race! So being Jewish has nothing to do with race. So instead, maybe we’re a…..?
Audience: Nation. There are French, Germans, Italians and there are Jews. You don’t have to be born into it, it doesn’t require any beliefs or practices,… THAT’s what we are!
Me: Sorry, but three strikes and you’re out. What’s a nation? Look at every example we have of nationhood. Being French, Italian, etc means that you have a common land, language, and culture. French people live in France. They speak French. And there’s a French history and culture that French people all have in common. Same with Italians, Americans, Germans, etc. But let me ask you: Do Jews have a common land?
Me: How many of you live there? (3 hands go up in a room of 50 people). Not a very common land huh? What about language?
Me: B’emet? Kama mikem medabrim Ivrit?
Me: Never mind, Just proving a point. Do we have a common culture and history? Kind of. We could say that all Jews- Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Yemenite, Ethipian, HAD a common history two thousand years ago when we were all living here. But now? I think most of us have a lot more in common culturally with our fellow non-Jewish American neighbor than we do with a Jew from Yemen or Ethiopia. So in summary, that’s it. Here we are, a group of people that’s lasted thousands of years, and yet we don’t even quite know what we are! So let’s move on to the rest of the class.
—-HERE’S WHERE THE TROUBLE BEGINS—-
Audience: But wait a second Rabbi. SO WHAT ARE WE?
Me: Um, we’re not a nation, not a race and not a religion.
Audience (sensing that I’m getting a little uncomfortable): Well then WHAT ARE WE?
Me: I’ll tell you what we are. We’re confused.
This question plagued me for years. And I’m a Rabbi for crying out loud! I can define kosher, I can explain Shabbat, and I can show you the deeper moral lessons layered in the stories of our Torah, but I don’t know what a Jew is!
One day, I was walking down the stairs leading to the Kotel to go pray, and my phone rings.
It’s Rabbi Shalom Schwartz, a close friend and mentor. He says “Moshe, I just found the answer”. (Living in Israel, you get a little used to these kind of mini-miracles). He says “I’m here in the bookstore in the Old City, and I see a book on Jewish identity that caught my eye, written by a Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He asks exactly your question! And not only that, he gives a stunningly simple answer! It’s TWO WORDS!”
Rabbi Steinsaltz points out, that the most common reference to the Jewish people in Torah is the term “bnei Yisrael”, literally the children of Israel. Why? Because all of us are the kids of our forefather Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.
All Jews that you ever meet are all Jake’s kids. So what does that make us? A FAMILY.
So as I stood there on the steps, 3 feelings overcame me:
1) Stupidity- How could I have been learning Torah all these years and not thought about this simple phrase that’s so pervasive in Torah?
2) I felt an immediate bond to everyone around me, all Jews in Israel, and all Jews from around the world—Jews facing anti-Semitism in France, “unaffiliated” Jews in the US, Hassidim, Ethiopians, soldiers, Jews in bomb shelters in Sderot, proud Jews and self-hating Jews, converts (they’re the ones that the family adopted), left wingers and right winger… we’re all one family! And we have a home! Many of us know that feeling when the plane lands in Israel. We don’t have the world’s nicest beaches, or fanciest museums and cafes, or exciting entertainment, but hey, there’s just no place like home.
3) Boy, is this dysfunctional family! It’s not just that we have different opinions, customs and practices. In a healthy family, you love and accept people even if they don’t think the way you do (Believe me I know…I’ve got teenagers). You love them even if you think they’re crazy (Believe me I know…I’ve got teenagers). How can we allow our family in Sderot to be bombed and allow ourselves to think of it as “their problem”? How can Jews in the West look at the Iranian nuclear threat and think of it as Israel’s problem? How can anybody look at Jews that intermarry, leaving the family, and think “as long as they’re happy”?
The truth is, there is more to the story. The Torah also calls us Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel. That means that ideally there is another dimension: we’re a nation that’s meant to impact nations; to exemplify kindness, justice and responsibility. But the starting point is to know who we are.