What Makes You a “Jew”?


Moshe Ben-Chaim



In an age where the differences between Jewish sects and communities are enough to render each a different religion, one wonders what identifies us all as “Jewish”? What are the ties that bind, the fundamentals that across the spectrum are the unifying truths that define each of us as “Jews”?


Having recently addressed many distinctions among our varying practices, I wish to express this qualification: all our studies must – over all else – be targeted at the strengthening of Judaism’s fundamentals, insuring that we and future generations are not confused by our differences, but conversely, that we all understand and uphold the primary ideals that separate Judaism from every other religion. We must shift the focus from our dividing distinctions, to our unifying fundamentals. We focus on such ideational goals, not to isolate ourselves from all of God’s other peoples, but the opposite: to understand and transmit His one religion to both Jew and Gentile.


Judaism was never ‘matched’. All other religions lack proof of divine origin: God’s Revelation at Sinai was the only event of God giving a religion, witnessed by two million Jews whose miraculous Egyptian redemption by God, His unparalleled Exodus, and our travels via pillars of cloud and fire, and fed by manna, are historically undisputed, and even confirmed by other religions. The question is, with the plethora of Jews and Jewish denominations, how to we ensure that Judaism maintains its originally given identity? What is this identity? Compound this with the variety of causes supported by Jews such as anti-Semitism, Israel, anti-terrorism, Zionism, settlement, education, conversion, poverty, and the list is endless. However, each one of these issues must finally be viewed as a “means” not an end. Meaning, you cannot fight against anti-Semitism as your ultimate goal in Jewish life, because once that is resolved, is this truly the objective? Is there nothing else obligatory on us all? Of course not. The objective of eliminating hatred is the backdrop of the harmony, essential for us all to live as Jews, to follow the brilliant system of Torah granted by God to each one of us. You see, we come back to the ultimate question: what defines Judaism and how do we live as a true Jew once we have addressed all other issues? The removal of a negative of any kind is only a ‘means’. What goal are we trying so desperately to arrive at after we have vanquished all negative forces?


From the most irreligious Jew living in Israel, to the most pious anywhere else, all agree that the Land of Israel is distinguished as the “Land of the Jews”. And all agree that Israel attained and maintains this status due exclusively to God’s Biblical oath to Abraham. The Torah is our source for our claim to Israel. Therefore, one is puzzled at those who seize this Biblically-based right to Israel, while dismissing the rest of God’s words. This position is with no rhyme or reason. Furthermore, the land was given to us conditionally: we must adhere to the Torah. Again, all denominations cherish the fundamental Shima blessing; we start our toddlers on these words as we gently tuck them in each night once they can talk. No Jew is ignorant of the Shima. But as remarkable as it is, many are ignorant of the Siema’s message: Israel is “conditional” on our adherence to God’s laws, His mitzvos. If we observe God’s Torah, the land is ours. If we deviate, God abandons us. The Talmud states that the Shima is so essential to our daily prayers, as it contains the fundamentals of Judaism.


This week, we start a series of articles addressing what are Judaism’s tenets, regardless of our denomination. Uniting under our fundamentals, studying the words of our greatest teachers, we will insure that we truly adhere to one Judaism: retaining its identity and tenets for our children.



Proof is Mandatory

The most primary concept in Jewish life, which forms the basis of everything else we learn in life, is a true and accurate idea of God, as far as man’s feeble mind can understand. For if our idea of God is corrupted and false, then all that we attribute as “God’s” creation, is in fact, attributed not to the true God, but to an imaginary and false god. So we must take great care to dismiss all false notions of God, and learn what are the truths concerning Him.


We must also be mindful that all of our studies must be governed by intelligence, where we strive to prove our ideas using analysis and rational proof. Without such rigid criteria, we may come away believing in something imaginary and not real, since we failed to prove its validity. Certainly, in this most fundamental area, we must use reason to arrive at our convictions.


This approach and these truths may be seen in our great Rabbis’ analysis of a Torah verse: “And you shall know them today, and you shall place them on your heart; for God is the Governor in heaven above, and on Earth below, there is no other.” (Deut. 4:39) This was Moses’ command to the Jews after he recounted the event of Revelation at Sinai, which transpired 40 years earlier. He reminded the Jews that Jewish history is unparalleled; 1) no other people heard God’s voice emanating from fire; 2) God never selected a nation with miracles as displayed in the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the journeys in the dessert; 3) and that the Jews were proven that God exists, and nothing compares to God. Moses then told them that verse above.


Rabbi Bachya author of Duties of the Heart says that one lesson from this verse, is to prove things to our minds, and not live based on simple acceptance of authority. Thus, the verse first says, “And you shall know today” which Rabbi Bachya explains as “know through the teachings of the Rabbis”. But Rabbi Bachya continues, “and you shall place it on your heart” means that you shall then, after hearing ideas from the Rabbis, think into them until you can prove them to your heart through proofs. What is Rabbi Bachya’s lesson?


He is teaching us this fundamental: as beings gifted with intelligence (the faculty for proof) we are mandated to engage this intelligence, and not remain relying on authority. We must fulfill our role as human beings created with reason and use our minds to the utmost, which is when we arrive at proof for our views, surpassing and abandoning faith. Proof is available, and we are to use this ability in the greatest of areas: knowing what God is. For when we realize any matter by way of proof, we are then living with an indisputable conviction, and such conviction is our mission in life. Conviction also affords us the greatest satisfaction in life, for belief without proof leaves us dissatisfied, and wondering. But when something is clearly proven, our minds and emotions find the greatest happiness, all conflict is gone, and we actually enjoy such knowledge made this absolutely clear.


So the first lesson in this verse is to engage our intelligence, for through it, all else depends.




Knowledge of God



God exists: He Is the Creator

What are the next few fundamentals taught by our verse? “God is the Governor in heaven above, and on Earth below.” What may we derive from here? What do the Rabbis teach? Sforno, (1470-1550, Italy) writes the following: “God is the eternal Creator [arranger] witnessed in the heavens above and on Earth below. For God’s mastery is demonstrated by their order and relation, which cannot be known without them [the planets and stars].” This means that God created the universe to display His role as Creator. For without creation, how will man come to know there is a Creator? It is a subtle, yet primary idea, that creation exists not for itself, but to point to a Creator. God wishes that man use his mind to uncover great things, and to do so, God gave us this universe to study. Maimonides too says this very idea, that we come to a love of God through studying the physical universe. (Mishneh Torah: Laws of the Torah Fundamentals, 2:2) Sforno continues, “It becomes known that there exists a Existence who directs [the cosmos] Who created all this for a specific purpose, which comes from Him.” 



God Has a Plan for Mankind

We now learn from the fact that God created everything with such wisdom, that this is His desire for man, that we study this wisdom. We don’t simply marvel at creation, but comprehend that there is a “will” behind the creation of all we see. God has a plan for mankind. We must take this realization seriously; we must look at ourselves as “created beings”, created “for” a purpose. We must know this purpose, as Sforno underscores here: to study creation and come to know what we can about God. Unfortunately today, and even in Sforno’s times as he writes, man is more absorbed in the amassing of wealth which does not travel with him to the next world, than he is with what is our real purpose and what is truly eternal: Torah and virtues.



God: The Only Cause for Everything

Moses words also teach us that God is the “exclusive” Source of all creation: “in the heaven above and on earth below” includes everything. Our concept of God must include this idea, as the verse ends, “there is no other”. God is not in need of any other being; He created the entire universe from nothing, by Himself. This is truly the greatest Being: One Who independently created the universe.



God is One: No other gods

The Rabbis and philosophers agree: God must be One. For if there were two gods necessary for the creation of the universe, it implies limitation on both: neither one could create ALL of creation, without help from the other. And if this were the case, then who imposed the limitation on each of the gods, so that they could not create the universe independent of the other god? Again, we would arrive at another more powerful, singular god responsible for the limitation on these first two.



God is Not Comparable to Anything

God is also One from another perspective: “number” exists in the physical world, as one body is distinguished from a second body its properties and by location. But these physical features do not exist with that which is not physical, so number cannot apply to God. But someone may ask: “Do we not count the “laws” of the world, and these laws are many? So if number applies to non physical laws, why can’t I suggest that number also applies to God, and therefore, there are many Gods?” The answer is as follows: the reason we may accurately count various laws, is precisely because they are various, and different in the function. We say the law of gravity is #1, the law of moisture #2, the law of weight #3, etc. They may be counted as their differences may be counted, even though these laws, which govern the universe, are truly non-physical. But to suggest there is “A God Who created the universe” and “There is also another God Who created the universe”…one is not describing two Gods, but the same God. If there is no difference in two non-physical things, then there is no way in which to distinguish them. This is unlike two identical water droplets, or two identical metal cubes. Here, although identical, their place distinguishes them: one cube is on the left and the other, on the right. So in the physical world,  “number” truly exists for identical things. But number cannot exist in the non-physical world, unless what we count varies one from the other somehow. Hence, there cannot be two, identical “Gods”.



God is Unknowable

One final idea for now: as all physical matter did not always exist, and requires creation, and cannot create itself, that which created everything is Himself, not physical, or governed by the very physical law he created. God, the Creator of all matter, therefore is not subject to following the laws of matter that He created. All worldly features such as aging, division, separation, ignorance, place, weight, visibility, weariness, etc. do not apply and cannot apply to God. For this reason, we say that God is not “in” the universe; He is not “on” Earth or “in” heaven. God told Moses that he could not know Him…certainly lesser minds as we are, cannot fathom God.


We will continue next week to discuss more fundamentals essential to Judaism and Jewish life. All our great prophets, Sages, Talmudic Rabbis, and leaders from Moses through Maimonides echo these fundamentals. These leaders define Judaism. It is of the utmost importance that we know what makes Judaism, “Judaism”, so as to insure we are living a true Jewish life, in line with reality, not fantasy. And once we apprehend these tenets, it is our obligation to teach them, and then see what we may derive from them.