How do we define a Jew? Is a Jew someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or is a Jew defined by his/her 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 – follow the Torah, 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 also and perhaps equally, define a person’s Judaism.
One only needs to look into the Torah at the end of the portion of Vaetchanan to feel this tension. Almighty G-d addresses the Jewish people and says:
“For you are a holy people to Hashem and Hashem has chosen you to be for him a treasured people above all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”
And yet in Parshat Eikev 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 why we were selected was only because the other nations were more wicked than us and also 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.
There are obviously two components to being a Jew. One is to be born Jewish, but equally to behave as a member of a chosen people. So that even 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 by Almighty G-d 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 then 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 were drowning 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:
“My handiworks are drowning in the sea – and you want to sing praises!”
The implication of these words is that G-d has a love relationship with all people, albeit less than the Jewish people, but substantial enough that they are recognized as a valued and dear creation to Almighty G-d. G-d loves and respects all of his creations and is sad when anyone dies or is hurt – Jew or non-Jew!
That this respect for all people is vitally lacking amongst many of our Jewish brothers and sisters is an understatement. There were times as an educator when I was called to observe yeshivot and witness firsthand the scorn that the children have for non-Jews; attaching derogatory names to them and showing no reverence for them as human beings. Frequently they referred to them as “Goyisha Kups” 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 or our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were the forerunners to the Jewish people. The first Jew was all of Israel when they assembled at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah. Thus that appreciation and respect for all people should be inborn in us for we too came from non-Jewish descent.
Being a Jew requires that we are not only born into it but that we act in consonance with our Torah.
And being a Jew also requires of us to respect all people and to teach our children this lesson as well – for everyone was created in the “image of G-d.”