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What is a Jew?

11/06/2013 08:59:00 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

What is a Jew? That question seems never to go away and is especially present in my life these days thanks to a course Rabbi Kramer and I are teaching on “Peoplehood” sponsored by the Shalom- Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The concept of Peoplehood provokes many questions about what it means to be a Jew. Religion, culture, ethnicity, nationality – just what are we, anyway?!?

A participant in the class recently emailed me with her own concerns about Peoplehood, which I am sharing with you now as well as my response to her, in the hope that our dialogue will inspire a dialogue in you.

“We enjoyed last night’s Hartman class but ‘Peoplehood’ remains a difficult concept for me to understand or feel comfortable with – hopefully by the end of this class I will feel more confident about it.   Meanwhile, I vividly remember the first time I heard Rabbi Donniel Hartman speak, on a congregational trip to Israel, and he said “today everyone who is a Jew is a Jew by Choice.”  This is hard to square with his comments about peoplehood last night, including his statement that ‘Jewish is like Irish’ – but being Irish is not a matter of choice; one cannot ‘choose’ to be Irish.   So maybe Peoplehood is some combination of heredity, place, and choice?”

So glad y’all are in the class. Thanks for being in touch with me about this. The concept of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, is complex (no surprise!). When Donniel called all of us “Jews by choice” what I believe he meant was that, unlike pretty much every other time in our history, we can choose whether or not we want to be a part of Jewish life.  There is no coercive force keeping us “in” and we can have full acceptance in secular, American life (more or less) if we want to walk away from Judaism, Jewish life and the Jewish people altogether. This is a historical reality we have never had before. Add to that the myriad other options competing for our loyalty and identity, and we really all are Jews by choice.

As for “choosing to be Irish”, well, one actually can make that choice. I don’t expect it would be so simple and it may take a while, but it can happen as it does with conversion to Judaism. More often than not one converts first to Judaism the religion and then, over time, internalizes that to eventually feel a part of Am Yisrael. Sometimes the assimilation never happens, and that is a limiting factor for the person – they feel connected only to part of what it means to be a Jew. Does that mean they are not “really” Jewish? No. In fact, it doesn’t even mean they are not a part of the Jewish people! All it really indicates is an inability to feel/relate to this aspect of being a Jew. It’s still there, and others, for better or for worse, will likely recognize it even if the person does not!

In reality there is great variation as to the things that combine to form any Jewish person’s identity — heredity, place, choice, and nature (the individual’s innate qualities) all play a role in what it means for one to be Jewish, but it has less effect on how the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds understand them.  This was one of a thousand great shocks of the Shoah; one could be completely assimilated and not even consider oneself Jewish anymore and still be brutalized to death by the Nazi’s because, at some level, one was considered Jewish.

One factor in both our understanding of ourselves and the way others see us is where we are from and where we reside. As an American you have a sense of citizenship separate from ethnicity or culture. This is not the case in much of the world and only came about during the post-Enlightenment era. In the former USSR, for example, “Jew” was a nationality on a passport, and an unfortunate one at that!

armyRabbi Gershom Winkler sees the Jews as an indigenous people not unlike the Pomo or the Miwok of Northern California. We have a sense of tribe as they do, as well as our own language and homeland/sacred land. We also have a history and a culture (really histories and cultures). This is the most helpful framework for me in that it encompasses the totality of my understanding of what Judaism is.

Hope that helps…

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780