What is a Jew?
You could call Judaism a religion, a culture, a race, or even a nation—all have been done before, but which one is right? Is a Jew someone who keeps all the commandments of the Torah? Is a Jew someone who believes in the existence of the land of Israel? Is a Jew someone who marries other Jews and goes to synagogue every week? These are questions I’ve been wrestling with, and I’m just now beginning to find some answers.
The problem is that as the world evolves, so does Judaism– finding one, stiff definition for something constantly in motion is extremely difficult. So who is one to tell another whether he or she is Jewish? If one person observes every Jewish holiday, does that make him or her more Jewish than someone who doesn’t observe every Jewish holiday?
Even at the Western Wall in Israel, there is argument over which form of Judaism to follow: the head rabbi can only represent one sector of Judaism, yet there are always disputes between the different sectors about who that head rabbi should be. On a universal level, the Jewish community is split into levels of religious observance, from Orthodox to Reform. There are Jews who believe in God and there are Atheist Jews; there are Jews who believe in Jesus and Jews who practice Buddhism. How can each one of these people identify as a Jew—and again, who is one to say that one person is less Jewish than another? Who can decide that?
That’s Judaism as a religion– now, what about Judaism as a race and culture? There are Caucasian Jews, African-American Jews, Asian Jews– the list goes on. As a Sephardic Jew, I celebrate Passover much differently than most of my friends— one of my family’s traditions is going around with leeks during the Passover Seder and hitting each other with them. This tradition represents the lashes the enslaved Jews underwent. Despite our diverse traditions, my friends and I consider each other just as Jewish as the other. So, Jews are scattered– since Jews all over the world look dissimilar and practice Judaism in dissimilar ways, does that mean we can rule out race and culture?
And now, the nation of Israel. Some people believe that Israel is critical to the identity of Jews. The reality is that politically, Jews stand all over the spectrum when it comes to this country. It’s a place in which any Jew can become a citizen, a place considered “The Promised Land,” and a place in which thousands of young Jews are given the opportunity to go on an all-expense-paid trip, otherwise known as Birthright. All of this aside, the politics to any country can be tricky and should always be examined, and there are many, many Jews out there who oppose or strongly question the existence of Israel. Does this mean that all Jews stand as a nation?
We’ve questioned the Jewish people as a religion, made note of Judaism’s evolution, looked into concepts of Jews as a race, culture, and nation– all of these observations and inquiries have connected to one point: Judaism is all about interpretation. What are we to make of this? Well, the Jews are people, and that is vaguely stated because it’s all about interpretation—Judaism, I have realized was built on the basis of questions, arguments, and personal meaning.