By: David Stav
The secret of the Jewish people’s survival has always intrigued thinkers – Jews and non-Jews alike, the religious and the secular. The definition of Jewish identity became more complex as the religious and national components became more separated from each other. In the Middle Ages, Jews in Spain or Ashkenaz did not have the dilemma of “Who is a Jew?” or “What is Judaism?” The Jew was known by his attire, his lifestyle and his holidays. In order to change his Jewish identity, the Jew would need to convert his religion – to Islam or Christianity. It was simple and relatively clear. However, with the Emancipation and the Enlightenment, the components of Jewish identity – religion and nationality – became differentiated, and the question of Jewish identity became increasingly complex.
With the establishment of the state, the first prime minister, David BenGurion, approached many Jewish circles and asked them to define “Who is a Jew?” according to their perspective. Is he an observant Jew who lives in Brooklyn and has no connection to the developing Jewish nation here, or is he a paratrooper and officer who grew up in the Land of Israel, but knows nothing of Shabbat and the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), who seeks to marry a non-Jewish woman but loves Israel with all his heart?
Naturally, the observant Jews claimed a Jew is one who keeps all the commandments that distinguish us from other peoples, the commandments that maintained our identity as a people. Others believed that antiSemitisim in all its forms was the central tool that preserved us, so the central component of our Jewish identity was our national symbols and not religious observance. Everyone agrees that today the nation faces a substantial crossroads that could determine its character for the foreseeable future.
A Jew whose mother is Jewish according to Jewish law (halakha) is at best a Jew according to the letter of the law, and there is no guarantee of his commitment to the future of the Jewish people, even if this is the only definition of a Jew according to halakha. Those who fight in the Israel Defense Forces or send their children to Jewish schools in the Diaspora cannot also necessarily promise that this is sufficient to protect our future. It is enough to see the number of Israelis who live overseas for extended periods, establishing families detached from the Jewish community and from anything with even the scent of Judaism.
A substantial study conducted last year in the U.S. by the respected Pew Research Center indicates more than anything the high rate of assimilation (58 percent of U.S. Jews marry nonJews). If we do not imbue the younger generation with the desire for a significant relationship with its Jewish identity, we will see the total collapse of American Jewry.
So who then is the Jew of the 21st century who will constitute a continuation and the key to preserving our future? It seems it is insufficient to speak about Jews and the time has come to discuss Judaism. Jews without Judaism cannot see any real value in maintaining their identity if it holds no significance for them. As we seek to define Judaism, we must get in touch with our past; there is no Judaism detached from its historic past. Without going into the question of faith, the past of the nation is inextricably tied to the Torah, and the Torah from the dawn of time has sought to improve the world, as told to Abraham: “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Along with the religious obligation to G-d, His values and His commandments, the people were commanded to make the world a better place through Tikkun Olam, to improve the quality of the moral life of man and the world.
To be a Jew committed to the commandments but detached from the world is important, but misses part of the historic role of our people – Tikkun Olam. And even worse, it essentially dismisses the loss of the world’s Jews who are tied to the Western world and parts of its culture. However, abstract discussion of a better world without practical commitment to Jewish values will be dismissed as empty words, much like the lofty discussion among many U.S. Jewish movements of Tikkun Olam that ends in massive assimilation and no visible improvement to the world at large. It is impossible to speak in moral terms that do not create practical, everyday commitment to that moral world. I would state this definition: Those who succeed in passing on the vitality of Judaism to the next generation in a manner substantial enough to keep them from marrying non-Jews, or alternatively, those who succeed in passing Judaism on to broad populations that are not necessarily observant Jews – can claim that they have identified the formula for a relevant Judaism that is rooted in the past but looks to the future.
Rabbi David Stav is chairman of the religious-Zionist Tzohar rabbinical association and the 2014 recipient of the Nadav Peoplehood Award.