Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

What’s Klal Yisrael?

Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972
Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972

Members of the Jewish community of Sochi and Israeli delegates to the Olympics held a memorial for the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists in Munich at the Summer Games in 1972. [from a report in The Forward, 2/10/2014]

Jews live in lots of interesting places. The largest Jewish community in the world is the one in the State of Israel, and there are large communities in Los Angeles and New York City. But there are also small communities all over the world, little groups like the one in Sochi, Russia.

Wherever Jews live we feel a connection to other Jews everywhere and in every age. Thus the Jews of Sochi feel a connection to 11 Olympic athletes who were murdered in Munich 42 years ago. This is what Klal Yisrael means: “All of Israel.”  Klal Yisrael includes both the yeshiva boys and the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem,  the intermarried Jews and Chabadniks in Los Angeles, the totally secular and the totally Satmar in New York. It includes the Jews of Singapore and Nashville and Auckland, the Jews of Buenos Aires and, yes, Sochi.

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Home Sweet Jewish Home

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIX...
English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping a Jewish home is an important part of Jewish life.  Here are some reasons:

HOME RITUALS Many of Judaism’s key rituals take place in the home: Shabbat candle-lighting, Shabbat dinner, Passover seder, Chanukah candles.  Even one lifecycle event, the bris [ritual circumcision] is most often performed at home.

JEWISH IDENTITY Everywhere except in Israel, Judaism is a minority religion. Even in the United States, which has a number of large Jewish communities, we are only 2% of the population.  For Jews, home is the key place where Jewish identity is formed and nurtured, not only in children but in adults.

HOME MITZVOT – There are Jewish commandments that pertain specifically to the home.  We hang a mezuzah in the doorways of the home.  Cooking and meals have many different mitzvot [commandments] associated with them: blessings, dietary laws, even some rules for cooking. Those may occasionally be performed in a synagogue, but they most often are observed in the home. Even certain safety rules for the home are actually commandments from Torah.

MIKDASH ME’AT means “little sanctuary.” Ever since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D., our sages have regarded the home as a primary worship environment for Jews. Torah is a set of instructions for living our daily lives, and those lives take place at home, not at synagogue.

If a visitor came to your home, would he or she recognize that it is a Jewish home? What would be the tipoff?

How many different ways is your home identifiable as a Jewish home?