Is it your choice? Or were you forced into it?

We're talking about your Judaism, the fact of your being a Jew in the world today and having all those laws and traditions in your background. Is this something you chose? Do you have a choice?

As with many questions, Jewish teaching gives at least two answers. First answer: Yes, it is your choice. Second answer: Yes, you are born into it, it is who you are and you cannot escape it… How can both answers be right? Let us try to see how. For this we will look at the parshah of the week and also at Ethics of the Fathers.

The Torah tells us about "a woman who gives seed and bears a son" (Leviticus 12:2). It is interesting that it starts with a woman rather than with a husband and wife getting married. It does not say that "a man married a woman and she gave birth to a son." The focus is on the woman herself. Chassidic teachings explain that this woman in our parshah represents the Jewish people or the Jewish individual, whom our prophets describe as the "wife" or "betrothed" of G‑d. The Torah is telling us about a person who makes a step forward in Jewish life, by his or her own volition. A choice was made, and this has a good result: the birth of a child, signifying achievement and success.1

According to this, the important thing is our own choice. If one makes one's own choice to express one's Jewishness, rather than being forced, then it will have a positive and lasting effect.

Ethics of the Fathers touches on the same point. Chapter 1 begins "Moses received the Torah from Sinai..." Chapter 2 starts by asking: "What is the path that a person should choose?"

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that the first chapter of Ethics of the Fathers begins with something being imposed from above: Moses received the Torah from G‑d at Sinai and then transmitted it to future generations of Sages and leaders. As a result, if someone is brought up in a traditional Jewish environment they get a strong input of Jewish teachings and practice in their daily lives. It is coming from "above"; they did not choose it themselves.

By contrast, says the Rebbe, the second chapter starts with the idea of choice. A person chooses for themselves, and this gives them a deeper relationship with their Jewish identity.

The Rebbe explains that in fact we need both qualities. We need as much input as we can get from the chain of tradition, the Jewish environment, home life and education which mold us in a Jewish pattern. But then comes the important next step: our own choice, our own personal recognition of our identity and our relationship with the Torah.

You might ask, does this always happen? Does every Jewish person find their "real" identity in Judaism? Well, let us look at a Talmudic comment on pregnancy and birth, the opening theme of our parshah.

The Talmud says that while a woman is pregnant, her unborn child is taught the entire Torah. When it is born "an angel strikes the child on its upper lip" and he or she forgets.2 Yet this means that deep down in every child's subconscious there is still an awareness of the entire Torah.

Each Jewish man or woman has this inner level of knowledge and recognition. Life is a process of remembering, and the patterns imposed from above, "forcing" us into Jewish patterns of life, in fact evoke our own inner recognition, our own choice to be a living Jew.3