This week's parsha
Jew: Noun or Verb?
What is a Jew?
Here is Webster's take:
Jew \΄jü\ n 2. one whose religion is Judaism - Jew·ish adj
But what is Judaism?
Ju·da·ism \΄jü-de-i-zem, - dā-, dē-\ n 1 a religion developed among the ancient Hebrews…
Is this definition consistent with Judaism's definition of itself?
The first Jew was Abraham. Our first real encounter with Abraham is in the context of his first G‑d-given commandment.
The following is how that encounter began.
G‑d said to Abraham: "Leave your land, your birthplace and your father's house [and go] to the land that I will show you."
The following is how that encounter concludes:
So Abraham went as G‑d had spoken.
Common reaction of the confused reader of this Biblical narrative: Who is this Abraham?
The only thing made known about him in an earlier account is his ancestry and his choice of Sarah as his wife. Nothing is said to describe the man who plays such a pivotal role in the genesis of our people.
The background of the man commanded to leave everything behind and relocate to an unnamed location – to "stop, drop, and roll" – remains shrouded in secrecy.
Could it be that nothing is mentioned because there's nothing worth mentioning?
At the age of three, Abraham had already recognized the existence of the One G‑d. This, in stark contrast to his neighbors, all steeped in idol worship. He then devoted his life to spreading the message of monotheism -- no small challenge in that pagan world.
He faced danger all the time, on one occasion even staring death in the eye. The Midrash relates that Nimrod, king of the region, had him thrown into a fiery furnace for his refusal to denounce his belief in the One G‑d, and only by a miracle was he saved.
With time and dedication, he went on to successfully reach countless heathen and transform them into believers.
Quite the résumé.
Yet the Torah keeps Abraham's glorious past under wraps. For whatever reason, we are meant to meet an anonymous Abraham.
Isn't there much to be learned from Abraham's exemplary beginnings? And perhaps more importantly, wouldn't that better inform us about the origins of our faith?
And from a literary point of view, wouldn't the Biblical narrative flow better if we knew a little more about its main character? Why was he singled out for a resettlement mission that promised huge dividends? What earned him the awesome privilege and responsibility to partner with the Almighty in such a historic covenant? What had he done to merit fathering G‑d's chosen nation?
These are only some of the questions that might have been answered had we been told of Abraham's unique early life.
Yet the Torah, in its unfathomable wisdom, chose to keep silent.
Ironically, it is this obscurity from which the strong lines that define a Jew emerge. It is this mystery that helps us solve another; namely, what defines a Jew?
By keeping quiet regarding Abraham's beginnings, the Torah tells us all there is to know about ours.
As it happens, the beginning of Judaism and Abraham's beginning are not one and the same. Although Judaism was born through him, Abraham wasn't born a Jew. He became a Jew at the age of seventy-five; G‑d's words, "Leave your land," were his official induction.
Until that point he was a "Noachide"; upon receiving his first commandment, he became a Jew.
What brought about the change?
Until G‑d revealed Himself to Abraham, it was Abraham who had chosen G‑d. Until that point, G‑d had been Abraham's discovery, unearthed by the means of his intellect.
However bright he was, he was limited and unable to reach past himself and connect to an unlimited G‑d.
From the moment G‑d revealed Himself, however, a connection between them was forged. An infinite connection made by an infinite G‑d.
At that moment he was chosen by G‑d.
Until that point he had known G‑d in his mind; from that point onward he knew G‑d in his soul. He felt G‑d in his gut.
Until that moment he had understood that G‑d existed; through the revelation he experienced it. G‑d was now a part of him, and he was now a part of G‑d.
…So, Judaism is not "a religion developed among the ancient Hebrews" as Mr. Webster would have it, but "a religion revealed by G‑d to the ancient Hebrews."
A Question-Turned-Exclamation Mark
We asked why Abraham's past would be ignored. Wouldn't the knowledge of his discovery of G‑d and the sacrifices he made for Him serve to deepen our admiration for this giant of a man?
Perhaps, but it would also have caused us to miss the point of the story.
This story was recorded in the Torah not so much for us to learn about Abraham's personal life, but more significantly to learn about our own.
In these few verses, a Jew and his religion are defined. And that definition is given as much by what is expressly left out as by what is expressly stated.
Abraham's childhood discovery of G‑d was deliberately omitted so that we not mistake Judaism as a faith based on knowledge.
A Jew who knows more about his heritage may appreciate being Jewish more than those with less knowledge, but he isn't more Jewish than they are.
(Which is why the terms "better Jew" or a "bad Jew," for example, simply don't make sense and should be deleted from our Jewish dictionary.)
All talk of Abraham's virtues are likewise absent, to teach us that even religious observance, however necessary, does not create one's connection to G‑d; it only enhances and reveals the connection that already exists, ever since G‑d revealed Himself to Abraham.
If we had been told of Abraham's lofty service to, and discovery of, G‑d, we may have walked away thinking that G‑d chose him due to his devotion, and worse, that He chooses us based on ours.
More or Less Jewish
In different words: "Judaism" describes an individual's identity, not his or her performance.
There is no such thing as a Jew who is more, or less, Jewish. You either are or you are not.
A Jew is a noun, not a verb.
What's in It for Me?
Sometimes we tell ourselves that before getting more involved in Jewish life, logic dictates that we become more educated.
How sophisticated. But how wrong.
Judaism is a birthright, with no need to be acquired.
To misquote a famous saying:
It's not what you know, but who you…are!