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What is a Jew?

05/16/2011 12:02:12 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Not too long ago my 16 year-old nephew Josh asked me, “what is a Jew?” His high school humanities teacher had insisted that “Jews were a race.” Josh knew this wasn’t true but was struggling to find a better definition, so he asked me. Twenty minutes later I was still trying to explain what “Jewishness” is all about. Eventually I gave up and went online to find him a definition he could take back to his class.

What are we? One thing for sure: since the Jewish community encompasses many diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, we are not a “race”!

So what are we then: a religion, culture, nation, people?

As it turns out, Judaism is a complex mix of all of the above and that is why my nephew was so challenged to counter his teacher’s misinformation.

One helpful way to understand Jewish identity is to view it through the lens of our holy day cycle, especially this time of year, when each holy day offers at least one focal point for “Jewishness”. First, there is Pesakh, which lays the groundwork for the Jewish emphasis on Social Justice, a common liberal framework for Jewish identity. Then we have Yom Hashoah, our commemoration of the Holocaust; sadly many Jews define themselves in negative terms as a persecuted people. After Yom HaShoah we have Yom Ha-atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, which is an appropriate springboard for those whose “Jewishness” is national in character. Many Israelis define their Judaism in national terms, as do some Jews in the Diaspora, as well. And finally we have Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, an appropriate focal point for those whose primary Jewish touchstone is religious in character.

Where do you fit in? Which aspects of Jewish life do you most relate to? Usually, our Jewish identity stresses one or two aspects of “Jewishness” over others but, while we may have a focus, the other elements of Jewish identity are there, as well. For example, you may identify primarily as a “Cultural Jew” yet, on occasion, you attend religious services, have a seder at home, etc.

Jewish identity ends up like a hologram; even when you cut it into pieces, each piece preserves the image of the whole.

The challenge and the reward of a progressive Jewish community like ours is to create an environment where all the various expressions of Judaism can flourish together.

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