How do we define a Jew? Is a Jew someone who is born to a Jewish mother? Or is the definition of a Jew defined by a person’s actions? In short, does the fact that we are born Jewish identify us as Jews regardless of how we act or whether or not we prescribe to the laws of the Torah, or must a person behave like a Jew as well – follow the Torah and act honestly in his business dealings – in order to be counted amongst the “Chosen People?”
As is usually the case with Jewish questions, both sides of the argument have validity. While someone who is born Jewish is undoubtedly, according to Jewish law, deemed as Jewish, there is still the underlying prerequisite that ones actions can perhaps equally define a person’s Judaism.
One only needs to delve into the Torah to feel this tension. Almighty G-d addresses the Jewish people at the end of the portion of Vaetchanan (in the book of Devarim) where the Torah states:
“For you are a holy people to Hashem and Hashem has chosen you to be for him a treasure people above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”
And yet in the portion of Eikev (also in Devarim) the Torah States:
“Not because of your righteousness are you coming to possess this land, but because of the wickedness of these nations …and in order to establish the words that Hashem swore to your forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
On the one hand we are chosen, yet it would seem that the reason we were selected was only because the other nations were more wicked than us and additionally, G-d made a promise to our forefathers. If we were righteous, however, we would not have to rely on the strength of our lineage.
Are we born with this identity or must we earn this title?
There are obviously two components in being a Jew; one to be born Jewish, the other to behave as a chosen people. Though technically one who is born from a Jewish mother is Jewish, there is also a responsibility that goes along with being born as a Jew. This responsibility is perhaps equally as important.
We are judged more stringently than others. We are commanded to be the light of the world. When Jewish people act dishonestly, whether in business dealings or in their interpersonal relationships, they create a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name. In essence, they negate their Jewishness and in a certain way dissociate themselves from being Jewish.
Given the fact that the Jews are referred to as a “priestly and holy nation,” special to G-d, how does G-d relate to the rest of the world? Further, how should we as Jews define our relationship with those who are not Jewish?
The Talmud tells us that when the Egyptians drowned in the sea, the Jews sang in praise to G-d. The angels also wanted to sing in thanksgiving, however, when they approached Almighty G-d to rejoice G-d responded:
“The works of my hand are drowning in the sea – and you want to sing!”
The implication of these words is that G-d has a love relationship with all people, albeit most of them less than the one he has with the Jewish people, but substantial enough that they are recognized as valued and dear creations to Almighty G-d. G-d loves and respects all of his creations and is profoundly sad when anyone dies or is hurt – Jew or non-Jew!
To say that this respect for all people is vitally lacking amongst many of our Jewish brothers and sisters is an understatement. There were times that I was called to observe yeshivot where I witnessed firsthand the scorn that the children had for non-Jews, attaching derogatory names to them and showing no reverence for them as human beings. Frequently they refer to them as a goyesha kops or other unfavorable terms without giving them any value that they too are the creations of Almighty G-d.
Adam was not Jewish. Neither was Noah nor our forefathers Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. They were the forerunners of the Jewish people. The first Jew was the entire Jewish nation when we assembled at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah. Appreciation and respect for all people should be inborn in us for we too come from non-Jewish descent.
To define “Jewish,” then, is to recognize that being Jewish demands from us not only that we are born into it but that we also act in consonance with our laws and traditions.
And being a Jew also requires of us to respect all people and to teach our children this lesson as well, cognizant that everyone was created in the “image of G-d.”