What is a Jew?

From amongst our own people, too many people ask the question “Who is a Jew?” but not enough people ask the question “What is a Jew?”   Not so for the non-Jewish enquirer who is often fascinated by the Jew, and the longevity of the Jewish people.

As a “visible” Jewish person on both the outside and inside, I am often engaged by colleagues, professional people, even strangers in the street who wish to discuss matters connected with my faith.  It is mostly positive, and I detect a genuine interest in most of these conversations.  There are always those who have an alternative agenda (to win over my soul) or those who are decidedly secular who stare me down not too dissimilar to the way a vegetarian prejudges a hungry man in a steak bar – with a mixture of beleaguered tolerance and suppressed abjection.  Yet they are still willing to enquire as to why I have this little round piece of cloth on my head.

Whilst confident in my identity, I sometimes struggle to explain about Judaism.  Mainly because the people I am speaking to define Judaism as a religion, and therefore a belief system.  That Judaism is so much more than this is hard to explain in a practical sense.  A national identity, and a lifestyle/ethos/culture are to the uninitiated a sub-component of Jewish religious identity.  To me, they are as critical, and on occasions even more critical than spirituality, otherwise defined as belief and faith.

It was Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who said that the difference between Judaism and other religions is that Judaism is a religion created by G-d to define people, while the other faiths were created by people to define G-d.

There are many distinguishing factors that make Judaism so different from other religious systems. It is ground in practicality, and its literary composition is one of law, commerce, day to day conduct and ethics.  This is why Judaism has survived 4,000 years.  It’s interpretive system is contemporary and moves each generation towards new insights and applications of its law.

Often when I am discussing Jewish beliefs and identity with others, they ask or cite Biblical scripture to determine a faith based belief.  It is at this juncture that one of the major points of departure emerges.  Whereas “Bible study” for many people revolves around the literal interpretation of Biblical writing, it is not so for the Jewish scholar.  A Jewish person is unable to determine Halacha – the lifestyle code of conduct by which we live, from reading the Torah scroll.  It is the oral tradition and interpretive debate that gives us our contemporary lifestyle, our unity, and our cultural diversity.  By tradition, the Oral Law, codified in the form of the Talmud, was imparted to Moses on Mt Sinai when the Torah was delivered.

On our most recent festival which commemorates the receiving of the Torah, Shavuot, I was able to learn from the Perth Yeshiva team a wonderful lesson about the Book of Ruth, read as a special citation for this holiday.

Ruth was a Moabite, who converted to Judaism out of her desire to be part of the Jewish destiny.  What is troubling about this, is that Torah law explicitly states that an Amonite and Moabite are unable to convert.  To compound the situation, Ruth was the progenitor of King David, (who was born and passed away on Shavuot), and it is King David who is the progenitor of the Jewish Messiah.  When we look in the book of psalms we can see that king David had a hard time dealing with this fact. The people of David’s generation were learned Torah scholars who chased after David and claimed he could not claim a Jewish birthright because his great grandmother was a Moabite who can never convert. That is why David says “and from your words my heart had feared”- David was afraid of these words of Torah that might mean that he isn’t part of the Jewish nation he so wanted to belong to.

However the Psalmist David also says “I am full of joy because of your words, like someone who has found a treasure”. David finds comfort and happiness in these “Words”. And what are these words? The Oral Torah

It was in the Oral Torah that David found the proof he had been searching for. Within it, our Rabbis expounded that the Torah citation about Moabites and Amonites not being able to convert refers strictly to the men of those nations, and not the woman. This of course, meant that Ruth’s conversion was sound, as well as David belonging to the Jewish people.  From this we see just how important the Oral Torah is, because if not for it we wouldn’t be able to have Messianic hope and redemption.

There are countless examples of how Oral Torah not only defines written Torah, but in some cases “overtakes” the literal text of the Torah.  This is why when people criticize literal scripture for advocating matters such as the death penalty, violence and other unseemly punitive measures, they fail to understand the structure of Jewish law.

If Judaism held by the written Torah alone then our understanding of it would become static, with no way of moving forward and developing it, and with no human interpretation. It wouldn’t be the Torah Temima- it wouldn’t be the complete Torah that we so yearn to have.

Judaism is virtuous, but very pragmatic and practical when it comes to everyday experience.  It prescribes moderation, limitation, challenge, and accomplishment.  It does not shy away from dividing roles and responsibilities, obligating people to help one another, and it treats welfare in the context of providing the dignity of gainful employment ahead of bestowing charitable dollars.  Judaism is aimed at making the mundane spiritual and worthwhile, as opposed to advocating “escapism” from the commercial markets and geopolitics of the world.

For these reasons, when I am discussing Judaism with my non-Jewish friends, I make sure that they understand that my Jewish appearance is not simply a matter of difference over liturgical interpretation, and not a discussion that can be resolved by comparing one form of scripture with another.  There is a place for academic enquiry, but Judaism is not just about the ideology.  It is also about the work ethic that builds the belief, not about the belief that builds the work ethic.  In Hebrew this is called Naaseh Vnishmah.

There is also a wonderful Yiddish phrase that cautions about how appearances can be deceptive.  “Di tsig hot a bord un vert alts nit gerekhnt far kayn rov” – the goat may have a beard, but it’s still no Rabbi!