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
  • participating in social action, perhaps with other Jews, perhaps alone
  • 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.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

5 thoughts on “Being Jewish, Doing Jewish”

  1. I come from a long line of Jewish ancestors from both of my parents that includes Rabbis, one of whom who died in Poland during the Holocaust for whom I am named. My heritage humbles me and instills in my heart a sense of fulfilling my legacy of doing Jewish.

    None-the-less in university I met my husband, a non-Jew, and he immediately immersed himself in my family’s culture and traditions. My parents (they should both rest in peace) loved and respected him greatly. Before we were married we were tested for Tay-Sachs and interestingly, the one carrying the gene was him, not me.

    A couple of year’s ago, visiting Prague’s Jewish area in the Old City, there is a synagogue (the name escapes me now) and inside it painted on the walls are the names of all the Czech people killed in by the Germans or in concentration camps during WWII. My husband is 100% Czech and on one of the walls there are listed 30+ names of decedents with his surname. When I returned to the States, I did some further investigation, and the majority of those individuals were Jewish, but we don’t know if they are any relation since his dear dad has passed away and there are no family records. Perhaps there is truly some Jewish blood in his veins, the Mensch! Oh, he participates in Jewish extremely well!!!

    1. It sounds like at some point one of his ancestors decided to “pass” for Gentile (I’m pretty sure my great-grandfather did). You brought one of the lost lambs back to the fold!

  2. Fantastic post! Thank you! This is a wonderful clear explanation of what it means to BE A JEW. It is a concept that is truly confusing for a lot of people – Jewish and not. I am delighted to have this reference for them.

  3. This is a lovely, clear post – but as a child of Jewish-Christian intermarriage who always felt Jewish (and, yes, I had the right configuration to be considered “born Jewish” across the board), I’ve always been and still remain puzzled by people who say they care about being but not doing Jewish. There are a lot of ways to “do” Jewish, of course – I am not limiting it to the traditional forms of observance I’m most attracted to – but I really don’t get why you’d identify as Jewish if there’s absolutely nothing in your life that reinforces that identity (and if you have the option of easily passing as non-Jewish, as I and many others do). Do you have any insight?

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