Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Shemot – What Are the Jews?

The book of Genesis presents a family with all of the dysfunction common to families. Then under very peculiar circumstances, that family becomes a different kind of entity. Families we understand – but what are the Jews?

Among the baffling realities of Jewish life is that Jews are not a religion. Don’t believe me? Suppose tomorrow I woke up and decided that everything I believed about God and Torah and Jewish ideas and history and ritual were wrong. You know what I would be called? A Jew. Now that’s puzzling. It is clearly not exactly a belief system since one can be born a Jew. Let’s try again.

A race? Jews are emphatically not a race. You cannot convert to a race, but you can convert to being Jewish. Moreover, Jews come in all the different and diverse shades of humankind. So, if we are not a race and we are not a religion, what are we?

To say Jews are a “people” is at once too general and unhelpful. New Yorkers are also a kind of people, as are chessplayers and archeologists and redheads. What kind of people are Jews?

Here, Exodus gives us the answer. The Israelites have become numerous in Egypt, yet the story of their liberation begins with Moses and his family and God’s call. In other words, we are dealing with a unique kind of religious family. You are born into a family and you can also join one. You can’t really leave a family unless you reject yours and choose another one (“long lost cousins” are still family, after all.) Jews have been held together by a deep sense of common mission, a sacred calling in this world that makes us not just a family, but a religious family.

None of these phrases are perfect because Judaism was born before the English language and the Western tradition. That is one reason that it is so hard to pigeonhole the Jewish people and so easy to attack them from various directions. We don’t exactly fit. Jews, being part of a family, can act in ways that violate the deep values of the family as a whole, yet they are still Jews. They can fight with one another, join together and split apart, fulfill or disappoint the expectations of our tradition, and still, still they are Jews.

What are we? A religious family with a long history and sacred teachings and a traditional home, the land of Israel. Jewish identity is both given and shaped. In an often unforgiving world, Jews felt a covenantal calling that kept the family going as the ancient and enduring people of Israel.