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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 (138)
April 24, 2015
A person can belong to a nation by inheritance from his ancestors, or by naturalization. Jews constitute a nation, or a people, or a folk, rather than a religion. The word "religion" is absent from the Bible.
This nation/people/folk is commanded [Exodus 19] to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation". Not self-identification; rather, a burden. Every Jew is called upon to perform abstention which usually apply to priests. Catholic priests abstain from marriage (and from all sex). Jews are instead called upon to limit sex to marriage (as most religions require), and, in addition. to limit food to a narrow spectrum of animals--those with sharp claws are all forbidden, and even those with hoofs are required also to chew their cuds. Limiting the behavior of priests forces priests to focus their attention on learning Gd's will: on obedience to Gd, and/or to loving Gd's Will. Those Jews who submit to these limitations hasten to coming of the Messiah, so do urge Jews to keep kosher/Shabbat.
San Diego
April 23, 2015
I like the idea that you know you are Jewish when your grandchildren are Bar and/ or Bat mitzvah. I do identify myself as being Jewish but I also Think ! And my thinking has led me to believe, " I am an atheist ", "Thank God ! " and as far as bloodline goes, it is not blood but it is in our genes. More specifically it's the mitochondria, mitochondria that exist in every cell of the body , passed on from Jewish mothers to her Jewish sons and daughters then Jewish daughters to their sons and daughters. And this is why genes are important in that you can only have mitochondria from a Jewish mother in order to be truly Jewish. Don't mess with Science unless you'd rather Not Think and believe in faith, the thinking of delusional others.
March 19, 2015
G-D? Seriously?
I am not an anti-Semite, but quite the contrary. I do fear that those loyal to the failth are being mislead by (how do I put this nicely?) ..evil people?I Catholics and other religions likewise have also fallen prey to..umm, evil people. A few quick questions: First, (sorry but) the bloodline thing is ridiculous. Anyone with the slightest bit of understanding of genetics and interchange of electromagnetism knows such theories are scientifically impossible. Second, I merely seek understanding. find that understanding in in the ancient texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Quite frankly, the differences between these faiths are minuscule with regard to moral behavior. The differences only seem to come only when money and power is at stake. Lastly,what is the real reason for the omission of the letter "o" from the word "God"? Is it really respect o a license to deceive? The only truth comes while looking in the mirror.
February 2, 2015
It is bloodline. Everyone is part of the heritage and ancestry they are born to .Torah keeping men and women. Not for one or two generations but customs , tradition, lineage handed down generation to generation. It is not possible to copy because every land is different when it comes to customs and traditions.
February 2, 2015
Same bloodline!
We all come from the same bloodline-- Adam and Eve! religions came later...
Boca Raton FL
February 2, 2015
Is being Jewish a bloodline?
October 14, 2014
Such a nice article. I think it is really true and gives one a lot to think about.
September 11, 2014
Jacob of Wichita, you seem to agree with me
I contend that Jewish is a nationality, and you compared the process of becoming a citizen of the US with that of (a non Jew) becoming Jewish.

There are nations so resistant to accept foreigners to become citizens that in that aspect they resemble the Jews.

Please look elsewhere than the States, because the US laws are quite open in that respect (Jus Solis). Japan is one case of a close policy (no foreigners), and much more so in previous centuries.

The European countries accept those who want to become nationals only by birth (Jus Sanguinis), i.e. one of their parents or grandparents must be a national. Does this ring a bell?
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires, Argentina
September 9, 2014
Not just the descendants of the tribe or nation of Judah. Also all those who have gone in the mikveh and obtained a "Jewish soul"--and THEIR descendants.

A nation can adopt citizens.

A person can read the Constitution of the USA & agree with it & abide byl the laws. But if s/he is not born of American parents & was not born within the boundaries of the United States, & nonetheless wants to be counted as a citizen of the USA, that person must be "naturalized"--i.e., s/he must go through the process outlined by American law to be accepted as an American under American law.

The nation of Judah similarly has such a naturalization procedure for those who were not born into the nation (i.e., who were born of any but a Jewish mother). A person cannot merely read Torah and Halachah and practice it & arbitrarily declare him/herself a member of the nation of Judah. The person must be properly "naturalized" to come "home" to us.

Welcome home to all gerim!
September 8, 2014
Jewish, like Polish or Danish, is no other than a NATIONALITY.
Yes, my fellow contributors and readers, Jewish is the nationality of the people of the land of Israel and their descendents.

It is a nationality well preserved for a number of reasons, and it is a most remarkable case for the absence of a national territory for quite a long time.

Considering all the nationalities of the world, we have our own particulars like every other one has, and so we are NOT too different from most other nationalities.

Every nationality has its own culture, its own cooking recipes, music, literary production, etc..

In some cases, e.g. Italians, Pakistanis, the nation has its own religion, to which there are adherents and the contrary. Our case falls into this category.

Please forget the title of "Chosen People", it is worthless because it is self inflicted. In my opinion it still has another dimension: the inherent difficulty of the Jews to look at themselves with objectivity.

Think deeply about it.
Ricardo Hadis
Buenos Aires