A response to Call & Responsa V. 2, N. 1: What is a Jew?
By NEIL S. COOPER
The question of “What is a Jew?” is different than the question “Who is a Jew?”. For me, the passive nature of “being Jewish” is the answer to the question, “Who is a Jew?” That is, there are objective and even halachic definitions to answer this question. Debate regarding “Who?” implies nothing regarding the meaning which one’s Jewish status brings to that person.
Answering the question: “What is a Jew?” is more difficult, more nuanced. The answer is malleable and dynamic as it may change, depending on time and circumstance. To answer the question “What is a Jew” we must consider the meaning of Jewish Life to the individual, the practical impact of her Jewish connections and the meaning of her attachments in the context of the time and place in which she lives.
My answer to “What is a Jew” can be distilled into at least three categories and, as I see it, the degree to which each category impacts upon the individual would be the measure of that person’s attachments to Jewish Peoplehood.
Assuming as a responsibility for the well-being of other Jews. As I see it, Donniel’s “ethnic consciousness” is included in this category. Ethnic consciousness corresponds to the degree to which one feels connected to other Jews. The sense and depth of responsibility one feels toward other Jews is the measure of that sense of responsibility, the degree of ethnic consciousness of which Donniel speaks. There is no theology, no belief or spiritual component here. Instead, the apt motto is: Kol Yisrael ‘Araivim Zeh BaZeh.
The question “What is a Jew” suggests a deeper question: “What meaning does my Judaism have in my life?” What does it mean for me to live a meaningful Jewish life? Here I would invoke the notion of “Mitzvah Consciousness.” Mitzvot add both beauty and meaningful intrusion into our daily routines. Mitzvot, as Prof. Max Kiddushin described mitzvot in terms of “value concepts”. Mitzvot are the actions we take which concretize values of Jewish Life. A Jew, in this context, is a person whose Judaism brings meaning and depth to his/her life by way of Jewish values, concretized through the performance of mitzvot and embedded in one’s daily life. A Jew here is a person whose life, through the performance of mitzvot, reflect the values to which he/she is committed.
“What is a Jew?” is a question which must be asked in a larger context: In the context of the world, what differentiates me from others in this world? This, to me, is the question of our connection to all of humanity. How do I behave, help, build, defend and repair the world in which we all live. A Jew is a person, therefore , who also assumes responsibility for the larger world, for those who are still slaves, those who are hungry, those who cry for help and whose cries are ignored. A Jew is one who recognizes problems in the world and refuses to ignore, to neglect, to pretend not to hear.
As one who is continually involved in the training of those considering conversion to Judaism, these aspects of “What is a Jew” are those which foster the discussions and the decisions of our candidates. The emphasis in our training is that those who convert must answer the question “What is a Jew?” for themselves. We discuss each of the three realms noted above. The easiest aspect of conversion is the technical but the most meaningful aspect of the journey is in the changes and impacts which Judaism makes in the lives of those who are converting.
From the description of Bilaam, who saw the Israelites as “as a People not figured among the people of the world”, we have always been seen as different, apart and unlike others. A Jew embraces the qualities which, in positive ways, make us different. A Jew refuses to see the world as someone else’s problem. A Jew champions the sanctity of all life and responds to the world, to their neighbors and to other Jews in ways that reflect that sanctity.
Neil S. Cooper is rabbi of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Wynnewood, PA. He is a member of the Rabbinic Advisory Board of the Shalom Hartman Institute.