Jewish identity is both simple and mysterious.

Simple: A Jew is anyone who was born of a Jewish mother, or has undergone conversion according to halachah (Jewish law). This has been the case since Biblical times and is firmly established in the Code of Jewish Law. The Jews live their lives in accordance with Judaism, the oldest monotheistic religion.

And mysterious. You’ll never hear of an atheist Protestant or a Catholic Muslim, but a Jewish atheist, or even a Jew who converts to another religion, is still a Jew.1

The same applies to a convert. To provide an extreme case, let’s say a female convert changes her mind and reverts to her original religion. Any children she now has will be Jewish—because she is still Jewish.2

But don’t imagine that beliefs are irrelevant. It’s only through acceptance of all the beliefs, practices and ideology that a person becomes Jewish.

But that’s not enough. A person who was not born Jewish and has not converted according to Jewish law may hold all the beliefs and keep all the laws and practices of Judaism and still not be a Jew.3 That seems more like a tribal identity than a religion.

Here’s the greatest mystery of Jewishness: Once in, there’s no way out. You can join the team, you can fumble the ball, but you can’t quit. No one can throw you out—not even G‑d.

So is Jewishness a tribal identity, an ethnic identity or a religion? We can’t seem to fit it into any of these boxes. And how do we explain why this identity, once adopted, can never be erased?

Jewishness as Permanent Citizenship

Perhaps Jews are permanent citizens.

Citizenship is one of the landmark innovations of the Western world. In his series of lectures, “Epochs of European Civilization,” historian Geoffrey Hosking lists citizenship and the closely related idea of the nation-state among the four ideas that distinguish modern Western civilization.4

Before there were nations, there were kingdoms. Kingdoms The idea of citizenship was born not in Athens or Sparta, but in the Sinai peninsula. have subjects. The king makes you his subject. It’s not your identity—it’s that of the king.

To have a nation-state, you must build a strong sense of identity from the bottom up—which is the idea of the citizen. Citizenship implies a sense of responsibility between citizens, along with certain privileges, such as the right to own property, or to have a say in legislation.

Where did these two ideas of the citizen and the nation-state originate? Hosking insists it was not in Athens or Sparta, but in the Sinai peninsula, with the birth of the Jewish nation.

At Mount Sinai, every Jew, man, woman and child, became a team player in a fledgling nation. When they took over the Promised Land, every Israelite became landed—with ownership of his inherited plot of land for perpetuity. During the time of the Judges, the people had no king to unite them, but they were held together by a sense of common lineage and destiny. The law was absolute, but it’s interpretation and application was always discussed, principally amongst the elders, those most respected by the people. The identity of the nation depended on every individual doing his or her part, and behaving in accordance to the law.

So we could explain Jewish identity very much as that kind of participatory citizenship, continuing throughout history, even as we have left our land and are without a monarch or central authority. We are citizens of a mobile, distributable, highly-resilient nation—quite similar to the World Wide Web.

That explains how Jewishness is inherited regardless of your parents’ conduct—just as citizenship is inherited.

It would also explain why someone who wants to become Jewish must commit to keeping all the rules, while someone who is already in and flagrantly breaks the rules remains a Jew. That’s no different than citizenship. Even a traitor remains a citizen—albeit a jailed citizen.

But the permanence of it—that remains a puzzle. Although it is rare today for a nation to denaturalize a citizen, it is certainly common and accepted for a citizen to renounce his citizenship. What is it about this most ancient form of citizenship that makes it irrevocable by both G‑d and man?

The Covenant that Makes a Jew

The mystery has deep roots. To unravel it, we need to trace it back to the origins of the Jewish people, and to an ancient institution called “the covenant.”

Most nations are groups of people united by a common land, similar language, The Jewish people are unique in that they are a people who were formed by a series of covenants even before they had a land. and a ruling power. The Jewish people are unique in that they are a people who were formed by a series of covenants even before they had a land.

Covenants were a common institution in the ancient Near East. The covenants of the Hebrew Bible are most similar to the covenants made among the ancient Hittites. These were made between powerful, sovereign kings and less powerful, subordinate vassals.

The Hittite covenants provided protection in return for allegiance. They were always voluntary and just. They were made under oath and included no termination clause. In other words, they were meant for all time.

Unique to the Hebrew Bible was the idea of a covenant between the common people and G‑d. The result is truly astounding—an established form of alliance was applied in a radical, original way to create a people with a destiny. As we will see, that revolutionized everything.5

The Covenants With Abraham

The first two of these covenants were with Abraham.

Almost 4,000 years ago, G‑d told Abraham to leave his birthplace and Almost 4,000 years ago, G‑d told Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to “the land that I will show you.” travel to “the land that I will show you.” When he arrived in Canaan, G‑d told him to travel the course of the land, for this was the land G‑d would give to Abraham’s offspring. Abraham did so, and G‑d once again promised him, telling him that all the land that he had seen would belong to his offspring eternally.6

Yet Abraham was already quite old and had no children. When Abraham raised this issue, G‑d made His first covenant with Abraham, promising him that he would have children, and specifying the boundaries of the land He had assigned for them—boundaries that are quite large and have yet to be fulfilled.7

Jews recite the words of this covenant every Passover. They then lift their cups of wine and declare:

“This is that which has stood for our forefathers and for us. For not one alone has stood against us to destroy us. Rather, in every generation they stand against us to wipe us out. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.”8

In that covenant, Abraham was also told that his children would first be “strangers in a land not their own” where they would be enslaved and oppressed. It would take four hundred years before they could return to take this land.

The next covenant was when G‑d instructed Abraham to circumcise himself and all male members of his household. One who does not keep this covenant, G‑d declared, will be “cut off from his people.” This is fascinating. A people is conceived generations before they come into existence.9

In that covenant, G‑d added that the land He had promised him would be an eternal holding of Abraham’s offspring. An “eternal holding” implies that it would belong to them even if they would temporarily be exiled.

The covenant was no longer just a word, but an obligation and a physical sign in the human body for all generations. To this day, when a Jewish child is circumcised, we say that he enters into “the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Even a Jewish man who cannot be circumcised—for instance, when circumcision presents a mortal danger—is considered circumcised and a member of the covenant of Abraham. Jewish women are considered to be “born as circumcised members of the covenant.”

Nevertheless, any covenant with human beings provides no guarantee.10 Yes, G‑d had promised, and “G‑d is not a man that He should change His mind.”11 But a human being has free choice. Every descendant of Abraham had free choice to keep to the covenant and count himself among Abraham’s descendants, or opt out and join some other nation.12

So, in G‑d’s eyes, this person is still a child of Abraham and his rightful heir. But for the individual, that identity is gone.

The notion of an inescapable identity had to wait for a later covenant, one that would fuse both parties in an unbreakable bond.

The Covenants With the Children of Israel

Abraham had a son named Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob. Jacob and his children ended up in Egypt, strangers in a land not their own.

The second two covenants were with those descendants of Abraham. They were enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, and then rescued through divine intervention—as Abraham had been promised.

When the Jewish people arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, G‑d told Moses to ask the people if they were willing to enter into a covenant with Him, to be a “nation of priests and a holy people.”13 The people unanimously answered, “We will do and we will obey!”14

So G‑d made a covenant with all of them, as a people and as individuals,15 men, women and children, promising to bring them into the land granted to their forefathers, and to protect them there. They They understood that they would have their own land and distinct way of life, but also that they were to be an example and a light for all people.understood that they would have their own land and distinct way of life, but also that they were to be an example and a light for all people, so that eventually the entire world would be united under a single, just and caring G‑d.

In return, the people were to keep the laws of the covenant, as outlined in the Five Books of Moses. This covenant and these laws are known as the Torah.

Forty years later, shortly before entering the Land of Canaan, Moses brokered another covenant between all the people and G‑d. In this covenant, all Jews became responsible for one another’s fulfillment of the covenant at Mount Sinai.

When Abraham was circumcised, an eternal Jewish nation was conceived. When his children were taken from Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai, every individual was given an inescapable identity. What’s the difference?

The difference is in chosenness. At Mount Sinai, every Jew was chosen by G‑d for an all-encompassing mission.

Jews and Chosenness

Chosenness is deeply misunderstood. To be chosen means be entrusted with a role, a task, a mission that is greater than your own small self as an individual. Chosenness means to have both meaning and destiny.

France, England, the United States of America, and other modern nations provide that sense of national meaning to their citizens. To the degree that they are capable of communicating and sustaining that message, so is their long-term viability.

Yet, these nations were not initially formed by choice, but by geographic or socio-political circumstance. Within those circumstances, they found identity. Furthermore, a nation does not choose its citizens, and even if it did, it would be a human choice, liable to change.

Such was the state of the Jewish People before the Exodus and Mount Sinai. True, it was an identity established even before they had a land of their own. That enabled them to survive as a cohesive whole throughout the oppression of Egypt. But it was still an identity that they had adopted of their own accord.

Divine choice carries a nation to a whole new level. It When your Creator assigns you a mission, the mission is who you are. You can’t walk away from who you are. redefines the subject. When a nation chooses it meaning, they are a people with meaning; when their Creator assigns them their meaning, they are that meaning in the form of a nation.16

The same applies to an individual: If you choose your mission in life, you have a life, and this life has meaning. But when your Creator assigns you a mission in life, the mission is your life. It is who you are. You can’t walk away from who you are.

It is divine choice, then, that seals a Jew’s citizenship for perpetuity. If a Jew should say to his Creator, “Fine, You chose me. But You also gave me free choice. And with my free choice, I choose to opt out of Your choice. So, if You need it done, You better choose someone else.”

G‑d could answer that person, “I don’t need it done. I don’t need anything. But I chose you for this mission. That is who you are, your very core and being. Nothing you can say or choose can deny that essence.”

When the Jew says, “I’m not part of this!” we don’t believe him. We know that his true identity, at his very core, is his people. His statement is the statement of an external self, not his essential being.

You could say that all of G‑d is invested in this choice—the choice that you be the one to get this mission done. And as with the Chooser, so with the chosen—there is nothing left of the Jew other than that choice and that mission.

And if a Jew should ask, “Why me?” the answer is simple: G‑d made a covenant with Abraham that He would choose his children. You are that child.

So that even if a Jew professes to opt out of the covenant of Abraham, walks away from his people, sinks to the lowest depths and commits every transgression in the book and more, he or she remains intimately bonded with the G‑d of Abraham. The responsibilities and obligations remain, and G‑d awaits the moment this precious soul will return.

When that soul does return, no restatement or conversion is necessary.17 On the contrary, for G‑d and for all Israel it is the greatest celebration, a lost child returning back home.

And this soul will return, if not in this life, then in some future life.18 Because nothing, not even our divinely-given free choice, can stand in the way of the fulfillment of the personal mission of our soul.

As Rashi comments:19

The day on which Israel’s exiles will be gathered is so monumental and will be so difficult, that it is as though God Himself must literally take each individual Jew with His very hands, [taking him] out of his place, as the verse says, “And you will be gathered up, one by one, O children of Israel”20

How These Covenants Determine Who Is a Jew

We explained how these covenants form a nation. This makes it obvious that being Jewish is not simply private matter that one chooses on his own. Rather, being Jewish means being a member of a larger, singular entity—the Jewish people. This explains why no person can make himself a Jew without the agency of a rabbinic tribunal. The tribunal represents both G‑d and the entire Jewish nation.

Another element of these covenants is that they are all deeply attached to a specific geographical territory. The The people, the covenant and the land are innately inseparable. people, the covenant and the land are innately inseparable. The land is an eternal inheritance to the people of the covenant. They all come in a single package, as a single child from the womb.

The covenants with Abraham are unconditional and eternal. But they are limited only to the offspring of Abraham. The covenant at Sinai, on the other hand, included many people that had joined the Jewish people in their exodus from Egypt. Indeed, even those who were biological descendants were required to enter into this covenant—so that all Jews at that point were effectively converts.

From this we know that it is possible to become an heir to Abraham even if you are not a biological descendant. Indeed, a convert is called “a child of Abraham” for ritual purposes, including marriage. You need only to enter into the same covenant as the Jewish people did at Sinai, in the same way as they did. These, indeed, are the requirements of Jewish law.21

Judaism and the Rest of the World

Yet, there is no obligation upon any human being to enter into this covenant. G‑d created a G‑d created a great diversity of peoples upon this planet, and all of them have their role and purpose. great diversity of peoples upon this planet, and all of them have their role and purpose. One who embraces the basic tenets of Judaism but has not joined the Jewish people is considered to be a righteous individual, and has a share in the ultimate state of peace and wisdom foretold by the prophets. He or she may not be chosen to be a Jew, but there is no person who is not chosen to fulfill some particular divine mission in life.

As Geoffrey Hosking notes, the Jewish nation, with its notion of chosenness, charged with a message of universal harmony, was “the first precursor of today’s global community.”

That truly is what the Jewish people are chosen for: To be an example of chosenness, so that each person on this planet will also ask, “Why was I created? What does my Maker want from me? What am I chosen for?”22