Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Printed from
All Departments
Jewish Holidays
Jewish.TV - Video
Jewish Audio
Kabbalah Online
Kids Zone

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.
1000 characters remaining
Email me when new comments are posted.
Sort By:
Discussion (125)
June 19, 2014
to David of Toledo
Sorry I did not know that the Pledge of Allegiance included God only lately.
Anyway my point was, it was socially rejected to say you were a non-believer in the US until, say, almost the end of the 20th century, yes, of the common era.
Perhaps the fear of a God has for long been a necessary (but not sufficient) indicator of honesty and trustworthiness.
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires
June 18, 2014
To those with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother....
Christians cannot claim to be Christians because of their fathers being Christian.

They have to get baptized in order to be Christians.

In one European community, the mother tells the infant that he is a pagan, and that she wants him to "convert" to Christianity. Nobody can be born Christian. They all have to convert.

Jews CAN be "born" Jews--if their mother's mother's mother was a Jew. (before that, we could rely on our mothers to be Jews if they said so. Nowadays our mothers may be the daughter of a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, so we cannot rely on her alone, but must enquire about her own mother and grandma.

But anyone who accepts Torah and agrees to live by it can be certified by a bet din as a Jew. So if your father is a Jew, ask the bet din what you need to learn in order for them to accept your promise to live by Torah.

Go for it! Come home to us!
June 18, 2014
Ricardo, your remarks about the USA are in error
The phrase "under Gd" was added t the pledge of allegiance after I became an adult. When I was a child, we said the Pledge of Allegiance as the opening exercises in school, but it did not yet have that phrase in it.

The pledge of allegiance is NOT a founding document of the USA. It was instituted in the late 19th century to be sure children of immigrants would be loyal citizens.

The only reference to Gd in the Declaration of Independence is the claim that all men are endowed by "their Creator" with "certain unalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".

The Constitution of the United States makes no reference to Gd, but insists that there be no law establishing any religion. It does, however, use "a.d." for the date, merely because "c.e." had not yet been proposed as an alternative (or if it had, they did not know of it).

Most of the framers, both of the Declaration and of the Constitution, were Deists rather than members of conventional religions.
June 18, 2014
You are misinformed.

Jews--American or otherwise--socialize with non-Jews, devout Christians or Chinese Buddhists or "cultural" Jews, without seeing any of them as actually Jews.

Any Jew OR nonJew can join the Jewish Community Center (not a synagogue) . It has a swimming pool & a gym & Israeli dance classes & other cultural events. It does have membership fees.

Any Jew (or non-Jew) can attend synagogue services any time except Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur (3 days in the whole year) without joining the synagogue or paying any fees at all. I attend a synagogue without membership fees even for those three days. It depends on voluntary donations. I donate often, but I don't have to.

To be seen as an ACTUAL Jew needs a series of steps, like becoming an American citizen: education, quiz, statement of loyalty to the Constitution/Torah in principle & in practice.

This needs to be heard by a recognized body (bet din of three observant Jews-- & bris & mikveh). No synagogue required.
June 18, 2014
Your remark is correct, that's the way --- in the US
Yes, Chana, the gate for belonging to the community in the US is the synagogue, one must show adherence to the religion (and pay the synagogue fees) in order to be accepted.

Not so in other countries, Argentina included, where there are several non religious.Jewish community organizations and clubs which welcome "cultural" Jews like myself. Though I should mention that in some cases certain ultra-religious Jewish sects are trying to take them over.

This is probably because the US was established as "One nation under God, indivisible, etc." Until recently it was socially rejected to say you were an atheist in the US.

Luckily there came Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other thinkers, modern Spinozas, who helped shake up a little the ways and beliefs of the people who enjoy to hallucinate collectively.
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires
June 16, 2014
Very cute, Ricardo, but no cigar.

Actually, Ricardo, if one wants to be actually Jewish, then one must be adopted BY the community.

And the way the community adopts people is by their adopting the worship customs, rather than the culture.

Once you have been accepted as a Jew, you need not believe anything, but it's probably a good idea to avoid saying so. Oh, and you'd best not worship other gods.

Once you are accepted as a Jew you have all the culture at your fingertips. But getting that "citizenship paper" does have a set procedure.

Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that naturalization could be done according to your own rules.

"My bad."

All the best.
June 16, 2014
What is the meaning of "converting" to Judaism?
Thank you for your comment, Chana.
Therefore, to all those who decide to become Jewish, I say: "You need not embrace and adopt the religion, because it is a quite narrow part of being a Jew, and is in contradiction with proven scientific discoveries. Rather learn the history, the literature, the jokes, the kitchen recipes, the traditions, the language; get to know Israel; feel all of that as part of your own, and you can then say you are Jewish"
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires
June 10, 2014
Ricardo is right
You can be born into a culture. Or you can be naturalized into it.

"Belief" is incidental. Claiming that belief matters sounds starry-eyed to a Jew.

I know Jews who attend an orthodox congregation who do not "believe" Gd is real. I know that Gd is real, but that does not make me any "more" Jewish than these folks. Nor am I any "more" Jewish than Jews who have become atheists and no longer go to any synagogue or temple.

However, it did increase the chances that my little boy grew up to marry a Jewish woman and thus to produce Jewish grandchildren. And it turns out that these two little boys, Ken ein hora, asked to be allowed to wear a tallit katan. This in turn makes it more likely that these grandchildren will give their own children a Jewish home life.

I urge all Jews to provide some meaningful level of Jewish observance at home, or even to let them go to a Jewish day school. You never know what will make a difference to them when they grow up and choose who to date/marry..
June 10, 2014
if I deny the Jewish religion, am I not a Jew?
Wrong!!! - Actually I deny the need for all religions, including the one of my ancestors. to be the mediators between men and the gods they believe in.
I am Jewish because Judaism is a culture to which I, and every child born and raised in a Jewish home, belong.
Religion is a part of every culture, and not the opposite. Whoever that belongs to a culture can stop adhering to its religion, and even deny its significance, and such decision will not hinder nor diminish his or her cultural affiliation.
And by the way, I am proud to belong to the Jewish culture.
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires
June 9, 2014
In ancient times, every nation had its own national gods, its national shrines, its national worship services.

Christianity initially called itself "universal"--the word for universal was, and is,"catholic". (The Protestants came along about 1000 plus years later.)

Those who did not join the "universal" Christian church remained "pagans" (following the Roman gods) or Jewish (worshipping Gd in the Jewish fashion).

Nowadays, with secularization, it is assumed that everyone is either Christian or secular. Yes, people are starting to notice Muslims, Hindus, & Buddhists, but Buddhists and Muslims, like Christians, made a point of converting people in all the other countries nearby.

Hindus, like Jews, retain a national worship. But Jews, unlike Hindus, were without a physical "country" for the better part of 2000 years, &, unlike Hindus, have proven the ability to continue the national worship in exile.

Like any nationality, Jews can adopt or "naturalize" others as full "citizens".
Show all comments
Load next 50