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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 (160)
December 8, 2016
Whether you follow whatever rules one's particular religion may be or not, my point is that if you have Jewish ancestry then you should seek genetic counseling and have your DNA tested. The reason that I am a Triple Negative Breast Cancer Survivor is because I was tested and my tumor was caught early. One more time: 1 in 40 people of Ashkenazi or European Jewish Ancestry are BRCA1 and/or 2 positive. 1 in 600 people in the general population are positive. TNBC is one of the fastest moving and fastest growing breast cancer that there is. Being BRCA 1 and/or 2 positive also causes what we now know my Aunt had and what I have: Breast Ovarian Cancer Syndrome. My Aunt died in 1991 from Ovarian cancer. These mutations may cause many other cancers. Many people on my Father's side of my family have had cancer and most have died from it.
Lisa Lovett
November 3, 2016
Esther is right except for one thing: the word
Christians don't call their way of life Christism. They reserve "ism" for everybody else. They invented the words "paganism," "Judaism," "Buddhism," "Hinduism" and even "Mohammedism".

The Jewish way of life is not an "ism". It is Torah. Read the Bible, the mishnah, the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch. None of them uses the word "Judaism" for a Torah-true way of life. Since I learned who invented this word "Judaism," and why, I"ve avoided using it. We are Jews, yes, and our worship is to live according to Torah. That means the Ten Words, of which the first is to avoid worshipping strange gods, and the 613 mitzvot, of which the main ones are these: "Shma Yisrael: HaShem Kelokenu, HaShem Echad; And thou shalt love HaShem thy Gd with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might." And the next one is Lev 19:18: "love thy neighbor as thyself" and "love the stranger" and "if you see your enemy's donkey fallen under its load, you shall help him"....

This is not an ism.
Rochester, NY
October 30, 2016
"Jewish" is an adjective. Jewish food, Jewish culture, Jewish beliefs, Jewish actors, Jewish writers,etc.

Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. However, just to be even more confusing, it isn't necessary to follow any of the beliefs typical of Judaism to be a Jew. And the beliefs are very, shall we say, open to debate and discussion. Ask ten rabbis what followers of Judaism believe and you'll get 12 opinions.

"Jew" is a noun. It refers to a member of the Jewish people. To be a member of the Jewish people one must either be born a Jew or "adopted" into the "tribe" — converted to Judaism. Just as an infant born overseas has to undergo a naturalization ceremony to be an American citizen when adopted by an American family, someone not born to a Jewish mother has to undergo conversion to become a member of the tribe. Even if you followed all the dietary laws and observed the holidays, you still would not be regarded as a Jew without formal conversion — and the Orthodox community only accept Orthodox conversions.
Esther Schrager
September 13, 2016
An anthropological view of our tribe (or group)
Yes, we are a tribe. Granted, we no longer live in a single location, we speak very many languages, listen to and dance many musics, etc. But we do have common traditions, a taste for books, a huge creativity, common jokes, common kitchen delights, and some of us share belief in the same myths and the same religion.
This is what anthropologists call a common culture. They are trained to analyze any culture (i.e. tribe with common traits beyond the genes) without any bias, without a classification, without degrees of superioriy or inferiority.
Anlyzing any culture form this point of view has yielded incredibly rich results. The anthropologist who started this way of thinking was Claude Levi-Strauss. His work is a powerful theoretical framework that explains with enormous insight and helps understand well the social behavior, the religions, the myths of many tribes, no matter how far, how primitive, isolated, etc they may be.
(2nd part continues in another comment)
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires, Argentina
September 3, 2016
I have always known that my Dad's side of my family are Jewish. Then in 2013 I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. When the doctors found out that my Dad was Jewish, I was tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. They can cause TNBC and other cancers. 1 in 40 people of Jewish Ancestry have BRCA mutations. 1 in 600 people in the general population have BRCA mutations. I am BRCA1 positive. According to Genetic testing, I am 49% "European Jewish". Being Jewish is a religion and an ethnicity.
Lisa Lovett
September 1, 2016
West of the Nile was Africa. Your DNA results verifies history.
August 31, 2016
I’m Jewish on my father’s side. My mother is not Jewish. I’m middle aged now and have always felt myself a Jew. I’m not religious but I try follow the laws of Torah as best as I can. I look more Jewish than gentile so other Jews don’t doubt my Jewishness unless I decide to volunteer the truth. When I have, I’ve only received negativity. I would get a whole spiel about conversion and so forth. Proper conversion requires a religious lifestyle and not everyone is wired for that. Jews are a race, an ethnicity—a people. Part of my genetics are Jewish. If a blue-eye Aryan from Northern Germany properly convert he’s considered a Jew, but I’m not because my mother is not. Absurdity at its finest. Originally being Jewish went by the father, which makes sense since the father is the one who impregnates the mother. I’ve met many fully Jews don’t care about G-d or being Jewish, but are embraced by the orthodox, while half-Jews are considered shmucks. Shame.
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.