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What Makes a Jew a Jew?

  • What Makes a Jew a Jew?

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

Throughout the millennia, one question that has continued to pique the curiosity of Jews and non-Jews, rabbinic sages and scholars, and leaders and hoi paloi alike is: What constitutes a Jew? This question has been answered in a variety of ways that range from theological election asher bachar banu-to personal autonomyim ayn ani li, mi lifrom Sinaitic designation to individual choice. Is Judaism, that collective word encompassing all Jews, a religious, cultural, or civilizational designation? Is it something else?

In recent times, this question has become increasingly poignant. In an integrated and assimilated American society, as more and more Jews intermarry and as the liberal Jewish community increasingly defines the majority of Jews in America, the older historical and theological definitions seem to have waned. Today's Jewish culture appears to embrace the designation of Jew less for any literal Sinaitic connection—a God transmitting finite doctrine atop a mountain—than for cultural attributes and personal, spiritual, and/or religious aspirations.

This week's parashah, Sh'mini [literally, "Eighth"], raises these definitional concerns. It begins with a description of the holocaust offerings, a sin offering, a burnt offering, a well-being offering, and a meat offering in Leviticus 9:3-4. The prophet Micah was concerned lest the ancient Jewish community define itself by such a sacrificial cult rather than by compassionate and ethical behaviors (see Micah 6:6-8). In fact, Aaron's two sons, Nadab and Abihu, were struck and slain by lightning when they chose to follow a nonprescribed path by offering "before Adonai a strange fire" (Leviticus 10:1), thereby challenging the cultic definitions of prescribed priestly behavior. Their action was so condemned that Aaron and his family were prohibited from observing normal mourning because Nadab and Abihu had seemingly challenged the fundamental definitions of proper Jewish practice by rejecting the preparation rites mandated by God for the priests.

In Leviticus 11 we learn of another answer to the question What constitutes a Jew? as reflected by a divine list of permitted and prohibited foods. Over the centuries, many explanations have been suggested for the origins of this listing. From the biblical perspective, the definition seems clear: God commanded these behaviors, period. Although some have offered nutritional or cleanliness reasons for the mandated limitations on food, such reasons seem to miss the point. If one chooses to look beyond the theological reasons, a cultural, anthropological explanation for these dietary practices suggests that the early Israelite community was attempting to distinguish itself from other populations by virtue of its dietary and eating habits, a phenomenon common to many populations at the time. Today kashrut does not appear to be the defining feature of American Jewry from a liberal Jewish perspective.

Whereas such definitions provided points of identity for Jews in the past, Sh'mini challenges us to consider what it is that twenty-first century liberal American Jews regard as their fundamental identity as Jews. Like Nadab and Abihu, many have challenged the authority of tradition. Aaron's response-to shun one's wayward children after their death-is not the way of today's Jewish culture, which has taught us to embrace all of our children no matter how they respond to today's "strange fires."

As interesting as Sh'mini is for its stories and content, its underlying premises raise a significant question for each of us: We call ourselves Jews, but what is the fundamental definition that provides us with our Jewish identity? Moreover, once we have formulated such a fundamental definition, how consistent are our Jewish practices and beliefs with this proclaimed identity?

Consistency between how we define ourselves and our actual practices and beliefs should be as much a sine qua non for us as it was for our forebears, even though we may differ significantly both in our answers and our practices.

Suggested Readings
Samuel Sandmel, Alone Atop the Mountain
Jakob J. Petuchowski, Ever Since Sinai

Rabbi Terry R. Bard, D.D., is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford, MA. An author and international lecturer, Rabbi Bard also teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Not the What but the How
Davar Acher By: 
Debra Landsberg

As Dr. Bard has discussed, Parashat Sh'mini presents us with the challenge to define ourselves as Jews-to identify the behavioral boundaries that mark us as Jewish. Yet for many of today's liberal Jews this portion-with its description of sacrifices, rules about the ordination of priests, and details pertaining to kashrut-does not provide an answer to the perennial question What do Jews do? If we look beneath the details of the rituals described, however, this week's portion answers a question that we may not even have known we had. For behind the question being loudly asked about what Jews do is another one, equally important and often overlooked, namely, How do Jews do? How do Jews do all the particular actions that lead us to identify ourselves as Jews?

In the detailed description of the eight-day ordination ritual of Aaron as the High Priest, the Rabbis found guidance in that practice far beyond the sanctification of the priesthood and the performance of sacrifices in the ancient Temple. For example, in the fifteenth century, Isaac Arama stated that this lengthy ritual teaches that "instant Judaism" does not exist for anyone. The seven-day preparation period that Aaron and his sons had to undergo before the ordination itself reflects the seven days of Creation and, thus, the entirety of a person's life here on the created earth. Before they could ascend to a "higher" role, to a life that was more immediately connected to the Divine, Aaron and his sons had to prepare themselves, just as we are required to do. In Akedat Yitzhak, Arama stated, "Judaism cannot be absorbed instantaneously, though observance of mitzvot may commence suddenly. We develop into good Jews only step by step." We must prepare during our "seven days" by learning, acting, and growing as Jews before we can experience the spiritual "eighth" (translated literally as sh'mini) day.

The sacrifices themselves on the eighth day have also been viewed as a means of understanding how we can prepare ourselves Jewishly in post-Temple Judaism for that spiritual eighth day. The four kinds of sacrifices-the sin offering, burnt offering, well-being offering, and meal offering (Leviticus 9:3-4)-symbolize the stages of bringing God into our lives. First, we must recognize our sin and purify ourselves. Next, we must turn our will over to God (symbolized by the offering that was entirely burnt rather than eaten), which leads to dedicating our work to a higher purpose (symbolized by the offering of flour cakes, the result of human labor). Only then can we live with God present in our lives, with wholeness and true peace. These bloody sacrifices point to something spiritual and eternal: They direct us toward the fact that we can only attain God's Presence in our lives if we take the necessary steps, one by one.

What must we do today as liberal Jews? This week's Torah portion may not answer that question for us. How must we act? This we now know. Sh'mini guides us toward living a life filled with conscious actions, which, in turn, will help us draw closer to God and bring holiness into our lives.

Rabbi Debra Landsberg is the rabbi of The Temple Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, GA.

4/21/2001
Reference Materials: 

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636