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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
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
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Discussion (113)
November 28, 2013
To Adinah
Welcome home! I rejoice for you and with you.
October 20, 2013
A matter of heart??
I love G-d and always have, I was always drawn to HaShem! I was raised protestant, however a few years ago my path took a turn, and HaShem led me home to Torah. I recently found out it is a huge possibility my Mother was Jewish and so were both her parents. When tracing my Grandmas side I found out my Great Gran was forced to change her name, and convert to Catholicism in order to marry my Catholic Great Grandpa. I can not get all of the paper work, and financially can not pay to trace this. So I am converting! Why? because your people are my people, where you go I shall go. My soul is 100 percent Jewish and proud. Shalom and love xo.
Adinah (Josette)
October 3, 2013
Do Jews really defy all conventional definitions of a "people" or "nation." ???

In my opinion, it is NOT true that "Jews defy all conventional definitions of a "people" or "nation." ". as stated at the top of this page. Jews are one of the world's peoples that have more difficulty to look at themselves with objectivity, as an observer would look at ourselves from the outside.

All the more so if the statement comes thru the lens of religion, which defies truths which do not match with its own myths.

Let Truth enter your heart before conventional thinking.
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires
October 1, 2013
The official definition among observant jews is that we have a Jewish mother.q
It's a recursive definition, since our mother is Jewish because SHE has a Jewish mother. And so on back up the line.

My mother was born in the old country. Her mother's brother was a rabbi. So I am confident that she was a Jew, which makes me a Jew, which makes my child a Jew.

It doesn't matter what my father was, although it so happens that he was a Kahen. But that wouldn't make me a Jew if it weren't for my mother's mother's mother.

And bagels matter zilch.
Kansas City
September 17, 2013
Who is a Jew
Do you believe that G-d hears you? Have you experienced his Khesed? Do you love speaking Yiddish? Do you feel jewish? A YID YOU ARE !
Israel Samson Melamed
May 19, 2013
how can we be certain of the Jewish identity of a Jew today?
If being Jewish means to have a special connection with the Creator, as written in that sentence " The essence of the Jew, as it is rooted within the essence of G-d, is indeed one with its Source” (from "What Makes a Jew "Jewish"?"), how then can we be sure today that a child born from a Jewish mother is really a Jew, maybe his grand… grand-mother had converted to Judaism ? Or how can we be sure that the women ancestors of a gentile was not a born Jewish women/a real Jew, whose essence is in fact rooted within the essence of G-d, "forced" to convert to another religion, because of the inquisitions or Pogroms?
This also begs the following question; can we consider converted people to Judaism as really being Jewish or can we consider Jews converted to Christianity as still being Jewish, because how can we judge about the essence of a being? Who can tell for sure that X is a real gentile and Y is a real Jew ( meaning that his essence is rooted within the essence of the Creator)? How can we judge about the root of someone else’s Soul?

I hope that someone would help me answering these difficult questions.
December 2, 2012
Am I Jewish?
My grandson asked his mother. They were looking at books at a holiday book fair and there was one on the Jewish Holidays. She thought for a moment and answered "Grandma Lisa is Jewish, which makes me Jewish. And although I am currently Pagan, I'm still Jewish. Which makes you Jewish." He smiled and picked up the Jewish Holidays Book. He now says the prayers better than I do having embraced his Jewish Heritage.
Yep, it's in the soul, just waiting.
Grandma Lisa
San Jose, CA
April 25, 2012
Ricardo, a bit of humor here...
You have to love bagel, lox and cream cheese and gefilte fish to be Jewish. Also, Kishke.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
April 25, 2012
Dr. Tuney, another point to ponder...
How many people who believe they have always been Jewish down through generations can prove it on paper through birth certificates?How many Jews have we lost by insisting on birth by Jewish mom only?
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
April 25, 2012
A Jew is Jewish because...
... he or she is born or bred inside the Jewish culture.

By culture I mean everything that is not genetically transmitted. Which, by the way, is the anthropological definition of culture.

Culture includes varenikes, Pesaj, using hands to talk, believing in Hashem, etc.

You belong to the culture when you have SOME of these traits, but not necessarily all of them.

By definition, it does NOT include long noses, etc. That is genetic.

In other words, you can be Jewish and not believe in Hashem, or dislike soup with kneidlej, etc.

Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires, Argentina
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