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What's a Jew? by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I have tried very hard to avoid labels. Sure, some, like ‘male’ are unavoidable and others are badges of honour. But in truth all labels are in one way or another inadequate and problematic. The very term ‘Jew’ can be spat out as an expletive of primitive hatred or pronounced reverently as a badge of pride.

Who is an Englishman? Someone who has a British passport but cannot speak a word of English? A Muslim, anti Democratic fundamentalist? A Jewish fundamentalist who dresses like a sixteenth century Polish nobleman? Or an atheist of Anglo Christian birth who lives in a brothel in Thailand? In one way or another they might all fit the bill and yet not.

The great philosopher Wittgenstein was wont to say that ‘the meaning of a word is its use’. We can’t find one definition that explains all the usages of the word ‘game’, we simply learn how to use the word appropriately. Many misunderstandings occur when there is no agreement about the word being used. So we need to know a little more about what the user means before we can begin to agree or disagree.

If we take the obvious case of ‘Jew’, if I mean to apply a specific religious label then this would automatically exclude someone who belongs to another religion. But then if I only apply a traditional halachic definition, this would exclude a lot of people defined as being Jewish by other governments, denominations or traditions within Judaism.

Since the Enlightenment, the term ‘Jew’ has been applied to millions of people whom I, for one, would not consider Jewish at all, by Hitler and other anti Semites, and indeed by the Israeli Knesset in formulating its ‘Law of Return.’

Some people still insist on calling Jews a ‘race’ even though a quick visit to Israel should disabuse anyone of a common racial link, given the range of colours, shapes and characteristics on view. (Though, of course, logic has never been a tool much favoured either by racists or anti-Semites.)

Nowadays we talk about being Jewish by birth, by religion, by history, by association, by adoption and by empathy. When people who love slogans ask, ‘Will your grandchild be Jewish?’ I wonder if they ever stop to ask what they actually mean by ‘Jewish’?

I must declare an interest here. Although I recognize that millions of people call themselves Jewish, and frankly in this day and age the more who do, the better, many of them do not meet any of the criteria that matter to me.

I am not disturbed if ‘personalities’ want to claim they are Jewish or Kabbalists or rabbis or pipicks for that matter. Nicer that than going to the other extreme. But unless they behave in a way that resonates with Jewish values I take it all with a huge pinch of a publicist’s salt.

Although I understand what a person means when he or she says he is Jewish in a non-religious way, I’m not on the same wavelength. For me, without religion Judaism might as well disappear tomorrow for all the difference it would make. I certainly would not want to be Jewish in any way other than the spiritual. Of course, this is just my personal position and there is a great deal of traditional literature on the importance of ‘the people’, ’Amcha’ to use a current term. Certainly mystics and Hassidim take it very seriously. But that’s not enough for me.

And this is just where my own problems begin, because what do I mean by ‘religious’? I certainly do not mean someone who either claims to be religious or dresses ‘religious’ but behaves regularly in a corrupt fashion ( ‘though of course we all make mistakes sometimes).

It means accepting that Torah in its broadest meaning is how God and tradition would like us to behave. Note I do not use the word ‘believe’ because, philosophically speaking, such a notion means very little to me. Anyone can say, ‘I believe!  Glory Halleluyah!’  But if that belief does not translate itself into action then it is meaningless twaddle. And of course you might well ask how the heck I can presume to know what God wants. So that is why I added adhering to the Jewish tradition that sees Torah as defining our way of life. At least this way I can point to a clear constitution that I wish to follow and to transmit to the next generation.

Most other definitions fail at the hurdle of ‘How do I transmit this to my children?’

And yet if truth be told, there are very few Jews that I find myself at ease with in the sense of sharing the same religious values. Even amongst the ‘religious’ I can share my experience of Judaism with, I struggle to find those I can share my ideas with. They exist thank goodness, but they are few and far between.

When I was a young rabbi I remember reacting strongly against a prevailing attitude in my community that one didn’t need to behave in a religious manner at all, but being Jewish was like belonging to a social club. The result was that parents got very agitated if their children who had been brought up with very little positive Jewish identity wanted to marry out and join another social club. Then they would come to me and ask me to dissuade their children. But how could I all of a sudden inject a degree of religious commitment where there had been none, or appeal to feelings of identity when none had been engendered? Was I to argue that non-Jews had different genes? (Actually, it is fashionable at the moment to talk about identifiable Jewish genes or kohen or levi genes, but I confess I remain a sceptic, after all we share some 80% of our Hox genetic makeup with worms and rats). If the parents had not bothered to give any good reasons for being different other than accident of birth or membership in a social group, why should their children be obliged to follow in their ambiguous footsteps? It all smacked of taboo. For me, being Jewish was about living a particular way and experiencing the grandeur of a spiritual life. On one occasion I shocked my congregants by declaring that I would rather marry a non-Jewish woman who cared about God and Torah than a Jewish one who did not. Of course the sky fell in!

As far as I am concerned, accident of being born into a tradition, relevant as it is, is not justification enough. Neither is the fear of persecution or a shared past of suffering or a gastronomic preference or even a specific sense of humour. It is about being committed to a vibrant, living a tradition. And here comes the challenge. How do you get someone totally disconnected to sample the wares?

But here I have only got half-way in my desperate search for a label that fits. You’ll have to wait until next week to see how I arrived at the next stage.

Visit Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com


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