Parashat Shemot

Who Is A Jew?
by Rabbi Len Levin

“And these are the names of the children of Israel who went down to Egypt with Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah…” (Ex. 1:1-4)

Who are the Jewish people? Are they a biological family, a nation, a community of faith, a cultural group, or partners in a common destiny transcending all these categories?

The answer we get in the Bible seems deceptively clear. After enumerating the ancestors of the seventy nations of humanity in Genesis Chapter 10, the Torah goes on to focus on Abraham and his descendants. The Canaanites, Hittites, and Amorites (not to mention the Philistines) are given remote pedigrees, descended from non-Semitic branches of the Noahide family of humanity. The neighboring nations of Edom, Ammon, Moab, Ishmael, Midian, and Amalek are all given places as siblings or cousins in the Abrahamic family tree. Israel is identified with the descendants of Jacob through his twelve sons. So Israel is a biological family group?

But wait a minute. Tamar is presumably a Canaanite woman, but she becomes ancestress of the Davidic line (as does Ruth, a Moabitess of a later generation). Moses marries Zipporah, a Midianite woman, and relies on the advice of his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro, to establish the principles of the Israelite judiciary. A “mixed multitude” joins the Israelite tribes when they leave Egypt. (Ex. 12:38) Rashi comments on the phrase “and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran” (Gen. 12:5) that Abraham and Sarah were proselytizing and bringing in those men and women who were persuaded by faith to join the community of the worshippers of the true God. From the start of our history, we have been a composite group, a cross between a biological-ethnic family and a community of faith and culture.

In October, 2012 I was privileged to participate in a conference at Creighton University on the theme of “Who Is A Jew.” The proceedings of that conference have just been published as Who Is A Jew? Reflections on History, Religion, and Culture by Purdue University Press. The papers in this volume study the question of Jewish identity from many diverse aspects–biological, ethnic, racial, historical, halakhic, psychological, and sociological. In my own contribution, “It’s All in the Memes,” I offer a definition: “A Jew is a person with a critical mass of Jewish memes (Jewish knowledge, values, religious commitments, cultural memories), together with the marker: ‘This applies to me.’”

In his book Fate and Destiny Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik defined two kinds of covenant in Jewish history: covenant of fate and covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate is a historical category based primarily on kinship ties and common history. In the Bible, circumcision and the exodus from Egypt are markers of the covenant of fate. In modern history, those Jews who underwent the Holocaust and founded the State of Israel are similarly connected by common experience. We are Jews by fate because history made us that way. We cannot expunge it from our identity.

Sinai is the marker of the covenant of destiny. A partner in this covenant makes the willing decision based on faith to accept the positive teachings and values that Judaism has to offer. The motivating force in this covenant is the drive to find meaning in one’s life in relation to God and in relation to the positive teachings of the Jewish heritage. We can only participate in this covenant by active choice, and we can actively choose it whether we were born into it or not.

In the book that we now begin reading, we tell the story of the movement from the first covenant to the second. We begin with biological identity. The descendants of Jacob formed a distinct people within the Egyptian province of Goshen. They were enslaved and suffered a common fate not of their choice. They cried out to God and were redeemed, along with the people not of Israelite heritage who chose to join their fate.

Eventually the people came to Sinai and were given a commandment and a choice. They responded: “All that the Lord has said we will do and obey.” This was the moment of destiny. The rabbis tweaked the verse, kol gadol velo yasaf (a mighty voice that did not persist) to read velo yasuf, (Targum: velo pesak, i.e., it never ceases-see Rashi on Deut. 5:19).

The voice of Sinai recurs for us in every generation, on every day. It is our choice today to hear the voice and embrace our destiny.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.