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?”

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Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

Question for My Readers: Conversion

I am working on a project about the experience of conversion to Judaism, and there’s a question I’d like to ask of my readers who converted to Judaism. If you choose to participate, please answer via the Comments on this post.

Please only answer this if you became a Jew after your birth, and you have completed that process – you are officially Jewish.

At what point in the process of conversion or after did you feel unequivocably Jewish?  Was it at some point in the year of living Jewishly, or during your study, or after brit milah, or after the beit din, or after the mikveh, or at some event later? Be as specific as you can – I’m looking for a particular moment at which you were clear that you were definitely Jewish and not anything else.

There are no wrong answers to this question, and I ask readers not to comment on the answers anyone leaves here. I promise to delete any comments upon comments for this one.

I also certainly understand if you prefer not to answer.

Thank you to all who participate!

A Course in Basic Judaism!

Image: My first “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class, in 2009. Photo by Scott Wexelberg.

Right after the High Holy Days, I start my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” series over again.

Intro to the Jewish Experience is a course in Basic Judaism offered by Lehrhaus Judaica and taught by Rabbi Ruth Adar – me.
Who takes this class? People who for whatever reason never got a basic Jewish education and want one. They may be born-Jewish, they may be considering conversion, they may be marrying into a Jewish family, or maybe they’ve taken a job at a Jewish institution. This class will give a good foundation in the basics, and also some insights about how Jewish communities actually work.
My goal is to equip all my students for whatever Jewish connections they want in their lives.
Class in the San Francisco East Bay:
Classes will meet at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley on Wednesdays starting October 10 from 7:30 – 9pm. For more information and to register, visit the course’s page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
Online Class:
If Wednesday evenings are not convenient, we offer the same course online on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-5pm Pacific Time, starting on October 22. To register, visit the course page in the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.
The course takes place in three terms, which may be taken in any order:
  • In the Fall (Oct – Dec) Jewish Holidays & Lifecycle Events.
  • In Winter (Jan – March)  Israel & Texts. (History of Judaism and Jewish Texts)
  • In Spring, (April – May) we learn about the the diversity in world Judaism and the similarities that hold us together, in a class we call Traditions of Judaism.

Information about the class is available at the class website, Jewish Experience Online.

 

Why I Chose Reform Judaism

Image: The logos of Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the three institutions that organize the Reform movement in the USA.

I chose Reform Judaism when I chose to become Jewish. I did it over my inclination to “more tradition” and the talk I heard from Jews about Orthodoxy being “more authentic.”

At the time (1995), I chose Reform because I was out as a lesbian and I had no intention of lying or hiding something so basic about myself. Reform welcomed me as I was. For the Conservative Movement at the time and for Orthodoxy, my orientation was at least a problem if not a deal-breaker, depending on the rabbi.

Initially, I was sad that more traditionalist movements were not available to me. But by the time I applied to Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, I was adamant about being a Reform Jew. Someone asked me if I had considered “upgrading” my conversion, since I kept kosher and was ritually observant. I said “no” because by then I had a strong sense of Reform Judaism as my home base within the Jewish People.

After ten years of service and study as a rabbi,  I can be more articulate: Reform is traditional in the sense that it hews closely to the creative spirit and adaptive genius of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the great rabbis of early rabbinic Judaism. Those rabbis built a form of Judaism that could survive two millennia of persecution. Reform continues to build a Judaism that can thrive in modernity and into the future.

Does the Reform Movement make mistakes? All the time. So did the early rabbis – witness Rabbi Akiva’s declaration that Shimon ben Kosevah was the Messiah. Akiva gave him the sobriquet “bar Kokhba,” the name by which his disastrous attempt at a revolt is remembered. That revolt (132-135 CE) resulted in our long exile from the land of Israel.

Reform Judaism valued me as a giyoret [female candidate for conversion] because it has a commitment to the idea that all human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. If there were no Reform Judaism, would we have families sitting together in shul? Women rabbis? Women congregational presidents? LGBTQ Jews living their lives without lies and closets? We’ll never know, because the Reform movement pioneered those innovations.

There are other issues where the jury is still out. Intermarriage rates are high in the United States. Beginning with in 1978 with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ,) our movement has reached out to embrace intermarried couples and their children, hoping to maintain the connection with them. We’ve had mixed results. Personally I know children of intermarriage who proudly identify as Jewish, but I am also aware of the number of families whose children identify as “both” or “nothing,” categories that most Jews understand to mean “gone forever from our community.” We are still struggling with that set of challenges.

As I see it, each tradition within Jewish tradition has a role to play in moving us forward in history. It would also be foolish to toss the “baby” of our tradition with the “bathwater” of superstition. It would also be foolish not to engage with the world as it is, in the present. But it is not possible to do all of those things at once. For every Jew, there’s a community somewhere that will feel like the right fit.  With our communities, each of us help to bring Judaism to the next generation, to the future.

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes

Image: The High Priest in the Holy of Holies, from the Holman Bible, 1890. Public Domain.

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, “Command.” It begins:

“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons thus…” – Leviticus 6:1-2

Nowhere in Scripture is there anything to suggest that Aaron wanted the position of High Priest. The more I think about that role, the more I am convinced that it isn’t the sort of job most people would want. It’s hard, heavy work: slaughtering animals, skinning them, cutting them up, stacking the pieces with wood in a very precise manner, burning the lot, then cleaning up the mess. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty work.  And as we will soon see,  mistakes in the vicinity of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] can be fatal.

It’s easy to miss the grubbiness and danger of the job. We read about elaborate vestments with fancy embroidery, precious stones, and magical devices. Most sacrifices involve a meal for the priests. The title is seductive, too: “High Priest” or in Hebrew, “Kohen Gadol.”

There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) about a non-Jew who walked by a synagogue, and heard the reading from Exodus describing the High Priest’s garments. He was very curious, and asked a bystander about the passage. “They are special garments for the High Priest.” The man was excited. “For this, it is worth becoming a Jew. I’ll convert and become the next High Priest!” The bystander, amused, suggested that he go see a rabbi named Shammai, who was a builder by trade.

He went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me, but only on the condition that I become the next High Priest!” Shammai, disgusted by his chutzpah, poked at him with a measuring rod until he fled the shop.

Undeterred, the man got the name of another rabbi, Hillel. He went to see Hillel and repeated his outrageous demand.

Hillel looked at him for a moment. “OK,” he said, “But if you want to become High Priest, you should learn the laws concerning the High Priest. Start with those.” Overjoyed, the student went away to study.

Then he read the verse, “Any non-priest who participates [in the holy service] shall die” (Num. 3:10). “To whom does this refer?’ he asked. Even King David, he was told. Even David, king of Israel, was not allowed to serve in the holy Temple, as he was not a descendant of Aaron the kohen. He was horrified: he didn’t want to die!

He returned to Hillel. “May blessings fall on your head, humble sir, for drawing me under the wings of the Divine Presence.” For you see, even though he no longer wanted to be the High Priest, he had found the beauty of Torah in the text itself and in the person of Hillel. He continued studying Torah, and eventually converted to Judaism.

There are many lessons available in that story. One I have to work to remember is that sometimes ignorant people ask offensive questions without meaning offense. I can pick up the nearest measuring rod to chase them out of my shop – Shammai’s response is understandable! – or I can give them what they need to educate themselves. It’s my choice.

Have you ever asked a question you realized later was foolish or even offensive? When and how did you learn better? And what did you do then?

Joining the Jewish Family

Conversion to Judaism is rather like a two-sided adoption: a person approaches the Jewish people, through a rabbi, and says, “I think I’d like to be a Jew.” The Jewish People, through the rabbi, say, “Let’s study.”

The study that ensues is partly intellectual, partly spiritual, and partly emotional.

The intellectual is for most the easiest part: we learn the Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle events, and we learn the prayers. We learn what Jews believe and what Jews do. It looks like a lot to learn, but it is really just a beginning. While even the sage Hillel did not expect candidates for conversion to master everything in order to become part of the Jewish People, it is necessary to learn enough to function as a Jew and to communicate with other Jews. Most Jews, converts or not, continue learning for their entire lives. There are many ways to live out this learning: some study Talmud, some engage in Jewish humor,  some learn how to keep their synagogue afloat, some learn how to nurture their Jewish grandchildren. Learning is part of who we are, and the sea of Jewish knowledge and Jewish wisdom is far too vast to be completely mapped in a single lifetime.

The spiritual part can be tricky. A person may feel attracted to Judaism, and then find that some aspect of Judaism was their fantasy, not the reality. Reality sometimes doesn’t measure up to a romantic or heroic view of Jews. One truly spiritual moment is that in which a person grapples with the discrepancy between their fantasy about Judaism and the real people who make up Am Yisrael (the Jewish People.)

There are also many choices to be made: what parts of the tradition are important to me? Do I love the sound of Hebrew so much that I will learn it? How far am I willing to alter my life to become a Jew? How will I handle it, when I am faced with anti-Semitism? How will I handle it, when another Jew says I’m not really Jewish? Until those moments arrive, we don’t really know how either will feel or how we will handle them.

Emotionally, there is a lot of work to do. Becoming Jewish isn’t just swapping one set of beliefs for another. If a person has any significant connections to another tradition, those need to be evaluated and decisions made. For instance, I grew up as a Catholic in the South. Pork was a comfort food. Halloween was a family tradition. Whenever I heard a siren, I crossed myself and said a little prayer for the people in trouble. I ultimately chose to (1) give up pork chops (2) not observe Halloween beyond offering treats to trick-or-treaters and (3) clenched my hands every time I heard a siren for years, because the habit of crossing myself was ground in so deep it took years to eradicate.

Some things, like making a cross for sirens, were annoying but not difficult. It had gone from being a spiritual practice I learned as a child to being a habit. Even though it took time and effort to quit flapping my right hand around every time an ambulance went by, it was something I wanted to lose.

Other things were harder to change, because I felt a loss. I really loved the taste of pork. It was a comfort food, something from childhood that I was loathe to give up. I still sometimes struggle with that decision, because the connections are so deep. It isn’t just about liking a taste: it is about going home to childhood nourishment. However, I think about all the Jews who went hungry rather than eat it, I think about all the meanness done to Jews on account of it, and I remember that I have thrown in my lot with the Jews.  Also, there is the question: will I allow a craving to dictate to me? Can I not say “no” to this old friend? This is how a Jew eats, I think, and I pass up the pork. (sigh)

Halloween was another hard one. I LOVED the holiday: choosing a costume, making the costume, and later, making costumes and treats for my children. My children did not become Jews when I did, so I kept Halloween going for a while. I didn’t want to take it away from them. Once they were grown, I stopped. I still feel the urge to decorate and wear costumes, but I save it for Purim. (If you are curious about my thinking about Halloween, read the article Halloween Hospitality.)

Processing the changes and losses is work that every convert must do. It’s more pleasant to focus on the gains – after all, that’s why we’re going to all this trouble! – but coming to terms with the hard stuff is part of the process.

These three challenges, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, are what takes up the time between the first conversation and the trip to the beit din and the mikveh. Some material must be mastered, if the person is going to live a Jewish life. A rabbi and a candidate have to explore that person’s attraction to Judaism, and find out how well Judaism fits the attraction. And finally, the emotional work must be well begun, if the conversion is to be a happy one.

It is also important to acknowledge that this process can lead a person to somewhere other than Judaism. One of the reasons we take time with it is that sometimes the introspection of the process reveals that conversion to Judaism isn’t a person’s destination. Maybe they would not be happy as a Jew, or that something about the Jewish community isn’t going to work out for them. Perhaps they are going to be part of Judaism’s extended family of “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) or be a member of some other faith community who happens to be well-educated about Judaism.

A part of me that was restless found a home in Judaism 23 years ago. Torah is still a challenge because it calls me to be the best person I can become. If this is a path that appeals to you, I invite you to find a local rabbi and give it a try.