Pessah defines 'Who is a Jew'


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DONNIEL HARTMAN, THE JERUSALEM POST Apr. 21, 2005

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The distinctiveness of Pessah lies not its unique rituals but in that, unlike all others holidays, it answers the question of who is a Jew.

What is it that makes one a Jew? The answers often inadequately represent the living reality of the Jewish people. The confusion lies in the failure to distinguish between the questions "Who is a Jew?" and how one ought to live one's Jewish life. The first is the domain of Pessah, the second the concern of Shavuot.

The exodus from Egypt was the founding moment of the Jewish people. It is here that Israel began to function as a free and independent nation. We began as a people even though we as yet had no land, and no Torah. The majority of us were of little faith, mostly idolaters who did not even abide by the covenant of circumcision. What constituted our collective identity was our decision to affirm our membership in the People of Israel.

The test and expression of this affirmation was during the final plague, directed against the first born. Here, to be separated from the fate of the Egyptians one had to make a mark on the doorposts of one's home. Being an Israelite was determined by who was willing to declare their belonging. This act is Pessah's answer to the question of who is a Jew.

While in Egypt, this decision was limited to the descendants of Jacob; later Jewish tradition opened membership in the Jewish people to converts as well, and again asserted the decision to belong as the essential criteria for membership.

Our rabbis taught: "If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that [the people of] Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions'? If he replies, 'I know and yet am unworthy,' he is accepted forthwith."

The potential convert is not asked whether he or she is willing to follow Jewish law or believe in God but whether he understands that becoming a Jew means joining a people and sharing a destiny.

If the convert declares a willingness to embrace this people, then he or she is "accepted forthwith." This decision is the only absolute condition for membership; circumcision and immersion are its formal ritual confirmations. Instruction in Jewish law and practices, which are minimal, follow after the individual is already accepted. In fact, according to Jewish law, if this instruction is missing one's conversion remains valid, for it applies to the domain of how one lives a Jewish life, not who is a Jew.

The Haggada's story of the four sons accentuates this understanding of Jewishness. The evil son is not the heretic, nor one delinquent in observing mitzvot. Rather, the rasha asks and Haggada explains: "'What is this worship to you?' You and not him. Since he has excluded himself from the collective, he has denied the essence... If he had been there he would not have been redeemed."

Just as the Pessah perspective stipulates that those who include themselves are in, it defines those who exclude themselves as out.

ONLY ON Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah, do we ask what it means to live a Jewish life. Shavuot teaches that without an engagement with the values and ideas of Judaism Jewish life is incomplete. However, regardless of Shavuot's importance, Pessah precedes it. The message of Shavuot does not shape whether one is a Jew, but only what Jews ought to do.

There are and always have been different Jews, some better and some worse, and some considered by others to deviate from the requirements of Sinai. No one knew this better than God, who yearned for "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" and received, certainly in the biblical period, an idolatrous and stiff-necked people.

The appropriate response to these differences, however, is an educational one. It is critical that we separate the struggle for quality from the question of who is a Jew. We cannot allow particular conceptions of how a Jew ought to live to determine membership in our people. At a time when our differences are so pronounced, any such attempt ignores the teaching of Pessah and destroys our future as one community.

What, then, unites us as Jews? Pessah's answer to what makes a Jew is commitment to belonging to the Jewish people. As Jews we are commanded to see ourselves as having personally been delivered from Egypt, walking together as Jews. There is no parallel requirement to imagine ourselves at Sinai, receiving the Torah.

Does that mean that anything a Jew says or does becomes Judaism? Not at all. We can disagree with each other. What Pessah teaches is that we cannot exclude each other.

Does this mean that anyone can call himself a Jew? What about Jews for Jesus? Followers of Jesus are and have been for almost two millennium members of a different collective. This is not an ideological assessment but a historical fact. Jews for Jesus fail the Pessah test of membership because the concept is perceived to be an oxymoron. To claim to belong to the Jewish people while one is in fact a member of a different community is perceived by Jews to be disingenuous, at best. What is missing is precisely what being a Jew requires, which is the decision to belong to our community.

What about the danger that implementing Pessah's inclusive notion of Jewishness could lead to a destructive proliferation of people claiming to share in our story? I wish we could be so fortunate. Not only are we attracting new members at an insufficient rate, we are losing our own. Fewer and fewer Jews are willing to commit to membership in our people.

The message of Pessah is that Jewishness begins with a choice. Let us unleash evermore diverse and compelling models of Jewish life - to inspire that choice. Let the best ideas win.

But such a renaissance, born of the full diversity of Jewish practice, cannot flourish by shunning those who have made the momentous choice of declaring: "I too am with you, we came out of Egypt together."

The writer, an Orthodox rabbi, is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
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