Skip to main content

Our True Jewish Identity

The English term Jew originates in the Hebrew Yehudi, meaning from the tribe of Judah. This week we read, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him, and the homage of peoples be his.” (Genesis 49)

Judah was one of Jacob’s eldest sons. Each of these sons gave birth to one of the twelve tribes. Some 3,000 year ago, after the death of King Solomon, the northern kingdom of Israel, comprising the territory of ten of these tribes, was conquered by the Assyrians, which led to their absorption into the Assyrian empire or their integration into the southern kingdom. This southern kingdom of Judah was formed by the combination of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Eventually the tribe of Benjamin was likewise absorbed and thus Judah’s descendants came to dominant the ancient landscape and the future Jewish story.

To be a Jew is to trace one’s lineage or connection to this tribe of Judah. To be Jewish is perhaps a different matter. It can be at times confusing and confounding.

George Santos, our rightfully embattled incoming representative, contorts the term, and defames those who take pride in their Jewish identities as well as those who believe honesty—at least about oneself—is a prerequisite to service, to mean that he is only somewhat Jewish. He appears to believe that an invented biographical detail about having one Jewish grandparent allows him to make a partial claim on being a Jew.

Can one’s Jewish identity be partial?

For millennia we have debated the meaning of these terms and argued about our identities. (This controversy did not start with Santos!) What does being Jewish mean? What does saying, “I am a Jew!” convey?

We can hear our brethren suggesting that some people are members of the tribe and others are not. In today’s Israel, these debates will soon emerge anew, and we will once again fight (and I expect, vociferously) about who is a Jew. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis will argue that only a person who is born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to the strictures of Jewish law should be welcomed as an immigrant in the State of Israel.

I have sometimes been called to attest to such matters. Recently I was asked to affirm the Jewish identity of a student who is making aliya and moving to Israel. I had to state that his mother is Jewish. I did so happily. And yet, this definition feels unsatisfactory. The rabbis authored this innovation some 2,000 years ago at a time when the mother’s identity was clear, but the father’s might be more difficult to ascertain. When Roman soldiers, for example, raped Jewish women, the rabbis’ decision to trace one’s lineage from the father to the mother was an act of compassion. It brought people into the community who otherwise would have been written out.

Now it may have the oppositive effect.

Recognizing this, the Reform movement shifted the emphasis from birth to practice in the 1980’s. It proclaimed that if someone has one Jewish parent and identifies as a Jew, they should be considered Jewish. And while this definition makes it more difficult to size people up and makes what was once a clear and decisive line gray, it is more in keeping with who we really are.

To be a Jew is about what we do. We are defined by our actions. Maybe we should spend less time sizing other people up and more time thinking about how we want to assert our own Jewish identities.

In Abraham’s time the term used was not “Yehudi—Jew” but instead, “Ivri—Hebrew”. This word is more about what defined Abraham rather than about his birth father or mother. Ivri comes from the term to cross over. Abraham and Sarah moved from Ur to the land of Canaan. He travelled from one place to another. Why?

Because God called to him and commanded him to go. In response, he moved to a better place. He found there a life of meaning—or perhaps he found this on the way. He took matters into his own hands. And he was defined by his journey.

Our Jewish identities might begin with what our parents give us (or they may not), but they must always be defined by what we do. It is not enough to call ourselves a Jew, or a member of the tribe. We must seek instead to move the world as Abraham’s journey did. We must be called Jew by the noble actions we perform.

Only then will tribute come to us and the homage of peoples be ours.