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What Makes a Jew "Jewish"?

What Makes a Jew "Jewish"?



Is Judaism a "religion"? Is the term "non-religious Jew" an oxymoron? Can one still be Jewish without observing the edicts and ethos of Torah in one's daily life?


Jews defy all conventional definitions of a "people" or "nation." We lack a common race, culture or historical experience. While we all share our eternal rights to the Land of Israel, for all but a few centuries of the last 4,000 years the overwhelming majority of Jews have not lived or even set foot in the Jewish homeland.

Throughout our 3300-year history, what has defined us as Jews is a relationship and commitment. We are Jews because G‑d chose us to be His "cherished treasure from all the nations... a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Exodus 19:5-6). We are Jews because G‑d chose us to play the central role in the implementation of His purpose in creation: to orientate our lives in accordance with His will, and to develop a society and world community that reflects His goodness and perfection.

The substance of this relationship, the charter of this commitment, is the Torah. The Torah is G‑d's concept of reality as communicated to man, the blueprint that describes the perfected world envisioned by its Creator and details the manner in which the Inventor of Life wishes it to be lived.

This would seem to define our Jewishness as a "religion": we are Jews because we adhere to the beliefs and practices mandated by the Torah. But the Torah itself says that this is not so.

The Torah itself proclaims (Leviticus 16:16) that G‑d "dwells amongst them in the midst of their impurities" -- that His relationship with His people remains unaffected regardless of their behavior. In the words of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), "A Jew, although he has transgressed, is a Jew."

According to Torah law, a person's Jewishness is not a matter of life-style or self-perception: one may be totally unaware of one's Jewishness and still be a Jew, or one may consider himself Jewish and observe all the precepts of the Torah and still not be a Jew.

In other words, it is the relationship between the Jew and his Creator that defines his Jewishness -- not his acknowledgment of this relationship or his actualization of it in his daily life. It is not the observance of Torah's mitzvot (Divine "commandments") that makes him a Jew, but the commitment that the mitzvot represent.

The Essence of a Transgression

This is the deeper significance of the axiom, "A Jew, although he has transgressed, is a Jew."

The simple meaning of these words is that a Jew is still a Jew despite his transgressions. But on a deeper level, it is because he has transgressed that he is a Jew. A non-Jew who eats chametz (leavened bread) on Passover has done nothing wrong; likewise, his eating matzah on the Seder night has no moral or spiritual significance. But for a Jew, the mitzvot of Passover are a component of his relationship with G‑d: by observing them he is realizing this relationship and extending it to his daily life; if he violates them, G‑d forbid, he is transgressing -- he is acting contrary to the commitment which defines his identity. Thus, in a certain sense, the fact of a Jew's transgression is no less an expression (albeit a negative one) of his relationship with G‑d than his observance of a mitzvah.

Indeed, the Hebrew word mitzvah means both "commandment" and "connection." The relationship between the word's two meanings can also be understood on two levels. On the behavioral level, we connect to G‑d through our fulfillment of His commandments. On a deeper level, we are inexorably connected to Him by virtue of the fact that He chose us as the object of His commandments. Obviously, these two levels of connection are two sides of the same coin, being the inner and outer faces of the same truth: our observance of the mitzvot is the manifestation, in our daily lives, of the intrinsic bond between G‑d and Israel.

The Six-Dimensional Link

The Zohar, the basic work of the Kabbalah, expresses this concept in the following manner:

There are three connections ('kishrin") that are bound to each other: G‑d, the Torah, and Israel --each consisting of a level upon a level, hidden and revealed. There is the hidden aspect of G‑d, and the revealed aspect; Torah, too, has both a hidden and a revealed aspect; and so it is with Israel, who also has both a hidden and a revealed aspect.

The Zohar goes on to describe the manner in which the Torah serves as the connecting link between G‑d and Israel: how the Torah is one with its Divine Author, and how the Jewish people connect to the Torah through their study and observance of its teachings.

But what are the "hidden" and "revealed" elements of G‑d, Torah and Israel? And what is their relevance to our connection to G‑d through His Torah?

The Zohar is intimating that these three "connections" are interlinked on two levels, both on a "hidden" and on a "revealed" plane. For each of the three interconnected links possesses both an explicit and an implicit dimension.

There is the so-called "revealed" aspect of G‑d -- those expressions of His reality which He chooses to manifest within the created existence; and there is His "hidden" unknowable essence. The Jew, too, has his revealed and manifest self -- the manner in which he expresses himself through his behavior; and his hidden, quintessential self. And the Torah, as outlined above, has both a more pronounced as well as a more implicit significance as the connecting link between G‑d and Israel.

On the "hidden" plane, the soul of the Jew is bound to the very essence of G‑d through the underlying relationship and commitment which Torah represents. Even if the Jew's life, on the conscious-behavioral level, is inconsistent with the revealed will of the Almighty, s/he is no "less" a Jew, G‑d forbid: no matter what, the "hidden" intrinsic bond that defines his Jewishness is unaffected. But in order to express this relationship on all levels of his being, in order to bring his life in line with her essence, the Jew must reiterate the connection on the "revealed" level. This s/he does by studying G‑d's Torah and observing its mitzvot.

The Third Juncture

There is, however, another, yet deeper meaning to the Zohar's words.

The above-cited passage speaks of "three connections which are bound to each other." The Aramaic word translated here as "connections" is kishrin, which literally means "knots."

At first glance, this seems to be an inaccurate usage. If Torah is the link between G‑d and Israel, then what we have are three entities (G‑d, Torah and Israel) linked via two connections (Israel's connection to Torah and the Torah's connection with the Almighty). Where do we have three knots/connections?

This brings us to a second definition of the "hidden" and "revealed" dimensions of the relationship between G‑d and Israel. The Midrash states:

Two things preceded G‑d's creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states "Speak to the Children of Israel...", "Command the Children of Israel...", and so on, I know that Israel preceded all (Tana D'vei Eliyahu Rabba, chapter 14)

In other words, G‑d created the world in order that Israel might implement His Divine plan for existence, as outlined in the Torah. So the concepts of "Israel" and "Torah" both precede the concept of a "world" in the Creator's "mind." Yet which is the more deeply rooted "idea" within the Divine consciousness, Torah or Israel? Does Israel exist so that the Torah be implemented, or does the Torah exist to serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the expression of his relationship with G‑d? If the Torah describes itself as a communication to Israel -- the Midrash is saying -- this presumes the concept of "Israel" as primary to that of "Torah."

This means that G‑d's relationship with Israel "pre-dates" (in the conceptual sense) the Torah, for the Torah comes to serve that relationship. In this sense, Israel is the "link" between the Torah and G‑d: the Torah's existence as the embodiment of the Divine wisdom and will is a result of Israel's existence and its connection with G‑d.

Thus, we have three connections linking G‑d, Israel and the Torah:

On the revealed level, the Torah serves as the link between G‑d and Israel: the Torah is connected to G‑d, and Israel is connected to the Torah. (This includes both levels of connection outlined above -- the connection achieved through the performance of a mitzvah and the connection defined by the commitment itself ).

But on a deeper, more quintessential level, there exists a third connection: the "direct" connection between G‑d and His people which precedes the very concept of a Torah. On this level, Israel's involvement in Torah is what connects the Torah to G‑d -- what causes Him to extend His infinite and wholly indefinable being into a medium of "Divine wisdom" and "Divine will." On this level, it is not the Jew who needs the Torah in order to be one with G‑d, but the Torah who "needs" the Jew to evoke G‑d's desire to project Himself via the Torah.

Nevertheless, the Torah is crucial to the Jew's relationship with G‑d. The essence of the Jew, as it is rooted within the essence of G‑d, is indeed one with its Source. But then it "descends" to become part of the created existence, assuming a distinct identity as a soul and then as a human being. So G‑d provided the Jew with His Torah. Through Torah, the Jew touches base with his own quintessential self and makes his intrinsic bond with his Creator a reality in his daily life.

(See also Moses Disappears)

From an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Discussion (153)
August 11, 2016
Being Jewish
I had a DNA test done and I found out that I am 95% Israeli with no African blood at all. I was surprised. They went very far back and I found out that we were originally from east Africa and ancestors were first to leave and head to the middle East. It's fascinating to find out that I'm very little of the European heritage i thought I was. Being a Jew whose family very well might have traveled with Moses to the promised land is the most incredible thing I could imagine. It's made me more of a Jew and following more of the laws. Im proud. I'm Jewish
July 14, 2016
If you have a Jewish mother, you are a Jew even if you fail to do a single mitzvah. Of course, such a Jew is breaking the promise he made at Sinai.

Meanwhile, if you do not have a Jewish mother, you only need to keep the Seven Laws of Noah and to treat all kinds of people, including Jews, with respect and kindness, and you will have a portion of the World to Come.

If you do not have a Jewish mother, and you want to be a Jew anyway, then you can become a Jew via orthodox conversion, which involves making the Sinai promise to keep the "613" commandments in the Torah. In that case, you should start with "modern orthodox," which will generally enable you to convert in about a year of classes, after which you will be questioned to be sure you have a modicum of understanding. After that, men need to become circumcised, and both men and women need to go in the mikveh (immersion pool).

You don't not "become Jewish" merely by beliefs or learning or loving.
July 9, 2016
It's simpler than everybody thinks. Believe in God at face value, read the Tanakh and believe like a little child, there is peace of mind. And love, love is your light to the nations. Exercise it often, not only on fellow Jews. Don't forsake wisdom, balance love and wisdom like walking on 2 legs. Also, fear not, have faith that the God of Israel is with you. Pray Psalms, keep Shabbat, and celebrate as much of the beautiful things as you can, do everything out of love and awe.
June 18, 2016
A Jew is neither a religion nor a race so being a Jew is unlike both of these
It's not a race. The ancestry of your father, your mother's father, or your mother's mother's father, are all unable to make you a Jew.

It's not a religion. Your beliefs aren't enough to make you a Jew.

If your mother's mother's mother's mother was a Jew, then you're a Jew. Your soul stood at Sinai & promised to keep the 613 commandments in the Torah. If you fail to do this, you're breaking your promise and you'll be held responsible for this failure.

If your mother's mother's mother's mother was not a Jew, you can become a Jew. First, hang out with a Jewish community. Take classes to learn the mitzvahs. When the rabbi is convinced you're sincere and have learned enough, you get circumcised (if male) and you go into the mikveh (the immersion pool). Once you've been properly immersed, you're a son or daughter of Abraham and it's the same as if you've always been a Jew. Mazal tov and welcome home!
June 10, 2016
Being Jewish means being singled out by neighbors,coworkers, and acquaintances as "The Jew". Thus, since you represent all the world's Jews, you should act with wisdom and kindness, as you would wish them to treat you. One person speaks to another about their experiences with "The Jew" and transfers their observation in their mind from hater or antisemite to judeophile, or lover of Judaism.
Ken Samet
May 31, 2016
If your mother's mother's mother's mother was a Jew, or if any of these women converted to become a Jew. then you inherit that status.
Your father's lineage is not relevant to your Jewish identity. If your mother is not Jewish (by birth or "conversion") you can become a Jew by "conversion".

If your mother is Jewish (by birth or "conversion") then you are a Jew. In that case, your father's identity determines what kind of Jew you are.

For example, you may be a Levite or a Cohen. Or you may belong to the tribe of Benjamin, since the kingdom of Judah included the tribe of Benjamin.

But if you are not a Jew, you are also not a Levite or a Cohen, and "conversion" will not make you into a Levite or a Cohen. However, after an orthodox "conversion," you are a fully Jewish Jew, with all the obligations that go with that status.
Why only an orthodox conversion? Because only the orthodox conversion requires you to promise to keep all the commandments.
Welcome home
February 22, 2016
To Anon in Victoria
As I understand it, Karet means that the person's soul is cut off from its spiritual source and nourishment. It does not mean that the person ceases to be Jewish.

With regard to teshuvah, while it is more *difficult* to repair the soul damage caused by more sever sins, no sin is beyond repair and no souls is beyond hope. Sincere regret for the past coupled with a firm resolve to do better in the future go a long way toward healing whatever may have been hurt.
Menachem Posner
February 15, 2016
Transgression of Torah
If a Jew who transgresses remains a Jew, then what of the offenses the Torah speaks of that result in Karet? And how can that Karet be reversed in the Ba'al Tshuvah?
January 22, 2016
What do you want to know?

You already know that, although you are not a Jew, you have many Jewish ancestors.

Do you want to be a Jew? You could convert if you so desire.

Or you can be whatever religion that suits you.

But if you are interested in genealogy, that is a totally different question, and needs to be addressed by experts in genealogy.
January 19, 2016
My grandmother surname was Verona, very probably a jew, but I never met her. My mother is not a jew, but my father's mother was a Verona. So I am not a jew but a part of my blood is. Is that right ? How can I discover my origin ?
Luca Alfonsi Verona