Jewish Identity

Published on 9 January 2024 at 10:23

The most asked question who is a Jew, but how do we define Jewish Identity? These are the questions that kept me busy for a while now and in search for answer, which I found in the book " A letter in the scroll " By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. 


In my journey to find the answer which I thought would be simple, turned out more complicated than I though. One question led to another, for example, is Jewishness determind by Halacha? Or perhaps by heritage? By choice whether or not to be identified as a Jew. Looks? Feeling? Who would we consider to be Jewish?


The Halacha definition of being Jewish is someone who is being born to a Jewish mother. But this still doesn't explain Jewish identity en what does it mean to be Jewish?


Reactions like " I am just a Jew and it never occure to me that I could be anything else " . The question, Why be Jewish is a more interesting, but I don't know how to answer this question,it is like asking: Why be alive ?


Belonging to a community and receiving a Jewish upbringing, doesn't determine my identity. Could it be the history we are part of, which happend more than three thousand years ago, when Moshe made a request speaking to the Jewish people, who were about to enter the promised land?


When Moshe said to his people:  " And you shall teach them to your sons and speak to them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up".


Moshe, a leader of a small and injured people, who had been enslaved in Mitzrayim and  now they are free. They were not a people inspired by confidence, they had a long tortured journey through the desert and yet  did not reach their destination.


But Moshe believed that his people would be the carrier of an eternal message, one that would not only have an effect on the Jewish people, but also on civilization of the world. But first Moshe had a more moving request.


" You shall love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your might ".


In Parshat Nitzavim, at the end of Moshe's life, he renews the covenant of Har Sinai, forty years later, before a new generation.


" All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your G-d, your leaders, your elders and officials and all other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the strangers living in your camps. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your G-d, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as His people, that He may be your G-d as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. I am making this covenant with its oath, not only with you wo are standig here with us today in the presence of the Lord our G-d, but also with those who are not here with us today ".




To whom was Moshe referring as not having been there? He clearly did not mean the nation at that time, as they where all there, nor was he referring to the previous generation, they already accepted the covenant.


He Meant as Rashi explained, those who are not born yet. The generation to come. This is the very basis of Jewish identity. The covenant will be eternal and it bind all future generations. Jews will be born into this obligation and each will be , as the Talmud states " Mushba ve-omed mi- Sinai ". There is no need for consent or conformation. 


Converts excepted, Jews do not become Jews, they are Jews by birth. Jewish identity is not only by faith, but fate. An identity which we are born into.


Born a Jew has it benefits, but it is also very demanding, bound by the 613 Mitzvos, there are restrictions and obligations. Which we would not have when not being a Jew.


How can we impose this status on a person's absence, without giving his consent? But this was just what Moshe did, he asked the people to bind their descendants who where not yet born to keep the covenant.


But how could anybody " not yet being born " keep the covenant? An early Rabbinical interpretation says that the souls of all future generations of Jews were present at Har Sinai, they heard the voice of HaShem, they witnessed the revelation.


But thinking about this answer would not do, as a person is a combination of body and soul, absent of one, it wouldn't be a person. The soul without the body would float in the air and would experience the Torah differently, HaShem's commandments would be a joy. To the body its a serie of limitations.


How are we going to solve the problem of future generations accepting the Torah? The soul and body have to be together. When its not the soul, but the body, the future generations were not physically present at Har Sinai and cannot take their agreement for granted.