What is a Jew?

Image: A person holding a question mark in front of their face. (anemone123/pixabay)

What is a Jew? Today I assisted with the rituals associated with conversion to Judaism (beit din and mikveh). It set me to thinking about the process and these are some admittedly disjointed thoughts that I’ve been juggling. I thought writing might help, which is has, somewhat.

The usual question is “Who is a Jew?” which has come to be the standard opener for a discussion about qualifications for Jewishness. People often say, “Oh that’s simple!” and say “Jewish mother, or converted” but it isn’t that simple. There are differences among various denominations of Jews, plus arguments about what constitutes a valid conversion, and then you add in all the 21st century options for childbearing and we’re off to the races.

And anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about right now. What is a Jew?

We could look at the process of conversion as magic: someone is not-a-Jew then splish-splash in the mikveh and whoo! She’s a Jew! Presto-change-o! Except that it doesn’t work that way at all.

It isn’t magic. It’s a slow process that ideally takes time, because an adult identity has to make some significant shifts to move from “not-a-Jew” to “Jew.” The halakhic ritual markers are part of that, but by themselves they do not transform someone from one state to another.

So I repeat: What is a Jew?

A Jew stands in relationship with all the other Jews on earth. We stand together in something I will call the Jewish circle, meaning that everyone inside of it is a Jew and everyone outside isn’t a Jew. That circle also includes three to four thousand years of ancestors, depending upon whom you ask. Sometimes it feels crowded.

A Jew has some awareness of being a Jew. The person who suddenly discovers Jewish ancestry is not necessarily a Jew: first of all, that ancestry may not qualify them under the “Who’s a Jew” discussion, but secondly they may already feel connected elsewhere. A person who understands themself to be in relationship with Jesus Christ is not a Jew.

A Jew feels connected to other Jews. That may be a warm fuzzy feeling but it may also be a feeling of intense irritation, or of a terrifying threat. Jews notice other Jews in the news. Some Jews scour everything Jew-ish out of their lives, because being associated with Jews is anything from a nuisance to a source of terror.

A Jew is not described by belief. Some Jews have very definite ideas about God, which differ from other Jews with equally definite ideas about God. Other Jews are not so sure, and prefer to “do Jewish” than to spend time speculating on theology. Still other Jews are atheists or agnostics. All are Jews.

As a rabbi, I have learned definite criteria for “Who is a Jew?” I have also encountered people who are quite sure they are Jews, and who do not meet the criteria I learned. After watching them and listening to them for a while, I am inclined to agree with them, but I confess I would be more comfortable if they availed themselves of the ritual process of gerut (conversion.) Rabbis are trained to be uncomfortable with fuzzy boundaries. That is partly because many Jews don’t like fuzzy boundaries, either, especially when it comes to questions like, “Is this person a Jew or not?”

A Jew is a person apart. We are not alone, because we are with other Jews in the Jewish circle. But the perception of both the world and the Jews is that Jews are different, apart. Words such as “chosen” or “special” are sometimes used to denote that quality, but most of us learn to be wary of those words, because they are loaded.

When I first became a Jew, a quarter-century ago, a wise friend said to me, “Mazal tov! The good news is, you will never be alone again. The bad news is, you will never be alone again. Welcome to the family.” That may be the best answer I will ever find to my question, “What’s a Jew?”


Meditation on the Morning Blessings

Image: Sunrise in space. (Qimono/Pixabay)

I am very fond of a section of the morning service known as Nisim B’chol Yom [“For Daily Miracles.”] Often when I chant it, I am half-awake, clinging to the melody in an effort to keep my eyes open. It is a laundry list of blessings, things for which I ought to be thankful. As I wake up to the new day, these prayers wake me up to my life.

Each blessing begins with the same opening phrase: “Praise to You, YHVH our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who…” Each concludes with the good thing that I might otherwise forget to notice. (I normally say or sing them in Hebrew, but it is fine to use English.)

As I chant each line, I wake up a bit, because the mention of all these good things is itself a stimulation of the senses:

…who has given the mind the ability to distinguish day from night.

Yes, the brain is working! I may not know much, but I know it is morning. It’s wonderful to have a brain that can do that.

…who opens the eyes of the blind.

My eyes are open, maybe bleary, but they are open. I can see things. How wonderful is that? And it also brings up the question: are there things that I am refusing to see?

…who frees the captive.

I was taught that the ancient rabbis put this in because when we were asleep, we were captive to it, locked in our beds. But it also reminds me that freeing the captive is an important mitzvah. To what or whom am I captive? Whom might I have the power to free, if I opened my eyes?

…who lifts up the fallen.

I was taught that this has to do with the gesture of getting out of bed. I don’t just lift myself, I am lifted! As a person with arthritis, sometimes I wish a Divine Hand would lift me and get me past those first excruciating moments walking. However, so far I’m still getting up and I should appreciate that. I guess you could say this one is still a work in progress.

… who stretches the earth over the waters.

This one is a favorite. Just as the God in Genesis created the world, I am beginning my day by stretching… stretching… stretching. It’s the only way to get these joints to move, but it works! Another miracle.

…who strengthens our steps.

Whatever I face in the day to come, I trust that I can handle it, that I will be given or I will find the strength to do what has to be done. I do not walk forward alone; I will be surprised by the strength that finds me.

…who clothes the naked.

This blessing corresponds to the process of getting dressed, but it also points to the fact that I need to be God’s hands in my little corner of the world. Who’s going without something they desperately need? How can I help? Who might suffer embarrassment (nakedness) unless I am present to their need?

…who gives strength to the weary.

I love this one. The year I learned it was my year in Israel, and many mornings I would hear Chazzan Eli Schliefer chant these blessings at the morning service. He always did this one with special emphasis on “Koach” – strength – and I always chant it that way, too. Some of it is the love for my teacher, and some of it is that I have learned that if I boom out that word, I often will feel stronger!

…who removes sleep from the eyes, and slumber from the eyelids.

Some mornings I scrub my face with a washcloth, trying to get my eyes to wake up and work. Sleep can be such a powerful need that when I allow myself to run short of it, nothing will lift that heaviness. This blessing is a subtle and poetic reminder that God brings the morning, but it is up to me to get enough sleep!

…who made me in the image of God.

This blessing replaces an older pair of blessings in which men give thanks for not being women, and women give thanks that God made them the way they are. I like it because it reminds me to be grateful that I live in a time when I am not regarded as chattel by most of the people I encounter. I still need to stand up for myself and for other women, and for other people who are mistakenly seen as “less than” but I am grateful for the progress I continue to see in my own lifetime.

…who has made me free.

Occasionally this one stops me in my tracks. There are many people who are not as free as I am: people who are literally in prison, people who are in prisons of their own making, people who are held captive literally or figuratively by employers, people who are trapped in impossible situations. The first step in helping them is the simple act of appreciating my own freedom.

… who has made me a Jew.

I confess this blessing always gives me a thrill. I am delighted to be a Jew, even on occasions when that is not easy. I was not born a Jew, and I will never, ever take it for granted. Thank you God for making me a Jew – and buckets of gratitude to all the people who guided me to this day.

…who girds Israel with strength.

This blessing can mean so many things. It can be a celebration of the deep core strength of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, who have managed to hang onto the covenant and to out identity through millenia of challenges. It can be a prayer for the survival of the State of Israel, when those millions of Jews are under threat. It can be a prayer for strength for any Jewish community in danger: it reminds me that we have endured for a long, long time. It also reminds me that we have to be responsible for whatever strength we have, to use it justly and wisely.

…who crowns Israel with splendor.

Suddenly, just before the end, the blessings take a turn for the mystical. I do not yet see the “splendor of Israel” – I do not yet quite know what that means. There’s something there about being an ohr l’goyim – a light to the nations – or perhaps it is about someday seeing the Holy One panim al panim, face to face. I don’t know. I count it as a blessing that I do not yet know everything.

Then finally, inevitably, because we are Jews, we conclude:

…who sanctifies us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with the words of Torah.

When the sage Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah: go and study.”

And then the day can begin.

Note: This version of the Nisim B’chol Yom is from Mishkan Tefilah, A Reform Siddur. The blessings will differ slightly in other prayer books.

To hear these blessings chanted to the daily nusach (tune) try this link to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

What Can We Do after the Christchurch Murders?

Image: Landscape view of Christchurch NZ. (Shutterstock/Clem Hencher-Stevens)

My heart bleeds for the Muslim community of Christchurch, NZ and for all the people of that beautiful, peaceful city. Today two mosques in the city were assaulted during the Friday Jum’ah service, and at this writing, 49 people have perished and many more are in the hospital.

I deliberately chose the photo above for this article because I want to give the perpetrators no publicity, since notoriety appears to have been at least part of their motivation. Christchurch is a beautiful city on the South Island of New Zealand. I had the good fortune to visit there a few years ago, and was impressed with the peace and friendliness of the place. I offer readers a taste of its peace in this photo, as a reproach to any who would have us remember it otherwise.

What can we do to express our horror, our grief, and our solidarity?

  • We can attend a service at our local masjid (mosque) in solidarity and friendship.
  • We can send cards and letters of support to local mosques and Islamic Cultural Centers in our area.
  • We can reach out personally to Muslim friends and acquaintences to let them know that we stand with them at this time of fear and sorrow.
  • We can observe zero tolerance for anti-Muslim sentiment in our homes and workplaces as well as in our houses of worship.
  • We can give tzedakah in memory of those who were murdered and address the notification to our local Islamic institution.

This is a time for all religious minorities to stand together in peace and friendship.

May the day come soon when no one need fear violence in their house of prayer.

White Collars & Blameless Lives

Image: (l to r) Paul Manafort, Bernie Madoff, Michael Cohen (Images are in the Public Domain)

On March 7, 2019, U. S. District Judge T. S. Ellis sentenced political operative Paul Manafort to just shy of four years in prison for five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. The judge spoke at length about the unfairness of the federal sentencing guidelines, given Manafort’s “otherwise blameless life.” So instead of 19 1/2 to 24 years, Manafort received not quite 4 years.

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to various financial crimes including tax violations, lying to a bank and buying the silence of women who claimed that they once had affairs with future president Trump. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Only one high ranking investment banker went to prison for his part in the financial crisis of 2008, Kareem Sarageldin of Credit Suisse. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsify the books and records of Credit Suisse, which caused the bank to take a $2.65 billion write-down of its 2007 year-end financial results, contributing to the destabilizing of U.S. financial markets. For his crimes, Judge Hellerstein sentenced him to 30 months in prison, to two years of supervised release, forfeiture in the amount of $1 million, a $150,000 fine, and a $100 special assessment.

Thomas Zenle, one of Manafort’s lawyers, said “Tax evasion is by no means jaywalking. But it’s not narcotics trafficking.” That appears to be the logic behind much of our legal system when it comes to white collar crime.

Business crimes are hard to describe, hard to understand, and their effects are often diffused across many, many victims. Narcotics trafficking is easy to understand: bad man sells drugs.

In the case of Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced for white collar crimes ten years ago this month, it was simpler: he defrauded people via a Ponzi scheme. The people and institutions he stole from were high-profile and easy to identify. For pleading guilty to this easy-to-understand bit of criminality, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Still, I am struck by the slap-on-the-wrist received by most white collar criminals, and especially by the dismissive language employed by Judge Ellis and Thomas Zenle. There is a sense in which even our judges and the officers of the court seem to think that white collar crimes are less serious than, say, robbing a 7-11 or dealing drugs.

Jewish tradition does not agree with this assessment of business crime. Torah is specific on this point:

You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah [dry measure], and an honest hin [liquid measure] .

Leviticus 19:35-36


When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another .

Leviticus 25:14

The rabbis built and built on these topics, filling entire volumes of Talmud with discussions about standards for business dealings. Rules were very specific: a deal involving price gouging was rendered null and void, for example.

If you will heed the Lord diligently, doing what is right in His eyes’ (Exodus 15:26) – this refers to business dealings. This teaches us that whoever trades in good faith. it is accounted to him as though he had observed the entire Torah”.

Mekhilta, ( Vayassa, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, p. 96 )

Jewish tradition is not American law. Still I wish we could take white collar crime more seriously in this country. The cavalier attitudes put forth in the words of Judge Ellis and Thomas Zenle belie the real damage that financial crimes inflict. Savings are destroyed, lives are ruined, people’s health is affected. These are not victimless crimes, and while it is certainly true that a drug dealer ruins lives, he does not have Wall Street as the distribution system for the misery he inflicts.

Moreover, if more well-dressed white men who had led “otherwise blameless lives” were to see prison as somewhere they might end up, perhaps white America would care more about others who have been incarcerated, however justly.

The Terrible Tale of Shimon ben Shatach

Image: Queen Salome Alexandra of Judea, the sister of Shimon ben Shatach, from Guillaume Rouillé‘s Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum . Public Domain.

Shimon ben Shatach says, “Examine the witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie.

Pirkei Avot 1:9

Shimon ben Shatach was a Torah scholar, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a rabbi during the first century BCE. He is most often remembered for the saying above.

There is a sad and terrible story connected with that saying. Shimon was a well-connected man. His sister was Queen Salome Alexandra, the wife of King Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled as Queen after her husband’s death in 76 BCE. While Shimon had to go into exile for a while, because the King did not like rabbis, for most of his life he enjoyed great power and respect despite the fact that he was not a wealthy man.

As co-chair of the Sanhedrin, Shimon was called upon to make many judgments, and he was known to be extremely strict. A young man came to him telling a story about eighty Jewish women who were practicing witchcraft in the city of Ashkelon. According to Rashi (on TJ Sanhedrin 6) Shimon went to Ashkelon and arranged a trick to convict the women he believed to be witches. Rashi does not explain to us why Shimon, the righteous judge, believed the witchcraft charge on the word of one person, contrary to the rules of the Jewish court. The convicted women were hanged to death. The rabbis discussing the case in TJ Sanhedrin 6 note that this was extremely unusual, and cite it as an exception to the rule without explaining it. (Modern day feminists might well argue that the “exception” had to do with the fact that the accused were women, and their alleged crime was “witchcraft,” which before modern times might well mean “women not adhering to male expectations.”)

The relatives of the dead women were furious, and plotted revenge against Shimon. They plotted together to fabricate evidence against Shimon’s son, accusing him of a capital crime, and Shimon’s son was convicted and sentenced to death. On the way to his execution, the young man wept and insisted on his innocence so eloquently that the witnesses recanted, confessed their lies and said that he was indeed innocent. Shimon wanted the sentence reversed, but his son said to him, “Father, if you want salvation to come through you, let the law take its course.” (“Simeon ben Shetah,” Jewish Encyclopedia, v. 14, p. 1563)

Why might the son have said such a thing? Under the rules of the court, witnesses who were discovered to be lying were subject to whatever punishment the accused would suffer. In this case, all the relatives of the women that Shimon had caused to be executed would themselves be executed if the judgment was reversed. Perhaps the son was saying, better to execute one man than to compound the execution of eighty women with the execution of all their relatives!

Most sources say that Shimon’s saying at the top of this page has to do with his belief that had the judges on his son’s case been more careful in cross-examination, they would have seen through the lie and not convicted his son.

Having seen Rashi’s account of the story, I wonder if the saying came out of Shimon’s regret for his own behavior as a judge in the case of the alleged witches. For one thing, the tradition says that a person may be put to death for a crime only when there are two witnesses – and yet there is no account of more than one witness accusing the women. Mishnah Makkot 1:10 says that a court that executes more than one person in a seven year period is a destructive court – yet Shimon had overseen the execution of eighty women!

While our tradition has been lenient with Shimon ben Shatach, very little about his story suggests to me that he was a righteous judge. However, in this saying, his most famous, I hear the rueful voice of a man who recognized that his bad behavior had led others to sin, a sin that bore terrible consequences for the son he loved.

Also, Shimon ben Shatach lived in the very early years of rabbinic Judaism. Later rabbis would become very careful about capital punishment, putting so many hurdles in front of it that it would be very difficult to convict anyone of a capital crime. Perhaps the story of Shimon ben Shatach had something to do with that.

Jewish Diversity: An Online Class

Traditions of Judaism is an introduction to the things all Jews have in common as well as an exploration of the vast diversity in Jewish life. The goal of this course is to acquaint students with Jewish communities worldwide, and equip them to appreciate and interact with Jewish cousins whose customs are different from yours. Some students will also learn more about the histories behind their own family stories.

We’ll start with the things we have in common: Shabbat, the synagogue, and the prayer service. While each of these has analogs in other religions, the Jewish approach to Sabbath, to organizing ourselves, and to prayer are quite distinct. I’ll offer a model for understanding the prayer service so that you will be able to attend a service anywhere, in any language, and get something out of the service.

Then we’ll move on to explore many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi history and traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews in Israel, and then come full circle to look at Jewish food traditions.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Mizrahi Communities: History & Culture
  6. North American Judaism (including Canada)
  7. Jewish Communities in Israel
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

Online Class: To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. Begins Sunday, March 31, 2019 at 3:30pm, Pacific Time.

Berkeley Class: If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Berkeley, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. This class begins on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, at 7:30pm. The links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order.  (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching this class – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service