What it means to be Jewish

Rappahannock News - - COMMENT - BY RABBI ROSE JA­COB

Editor’s note: In sub­mit­ting this com­men­tary to the Rap­pa­han­nock News for con­sid­er­a­tion, Rabbi Rose Ja­cob of Syria and the Fauquier Jewish Con­gre­ga­tion, drew at­ten­tion to the Ku Klux Klan fliers that were dis­trib­uted late last year in Rap­pa­han­nock County, and the re­sult­ing “Hate Has No Home Here” yard signs. Said Ja­cob: “In the spirit of the Fes­ti­val of Light, Hanukkah, I am at­tach­ing some­thing about Jews that might clear up a few things. I worry less about An­tisemitism on fliers than the kind that dwells in the hearts and minds of oth­er­wise ed­u­cated and ra­tio­nal folks.”

I wish I could ex­plain what it is to be a Jew in just a few para­graphs, but that is pretty much im­pos­si­ble. The great rab­binic teacher, Hil­lel, was once asked by a soldier to teach him ev­ery­thing about Ju­daism while stand­ing on one foot. Hil­lel hes­i­tated for just a mo­ment be­fore ask­ing the soldier to stand on one foot. Hil­lel then said, “That which is hate­ful to you, do not do to your neigh­bor. The rest is com­men­tary, now go and learn.”

If you ask ten dif­fer­ent Jews what it means to be Jewish, you’ll get at least eleven dif­fer­ent answers. Some say it is a re­li­gion or a se­ries of hol­i­days and ob­ser­vances, with its Sab­bath on Satur­day. Oth­ers de­scribe it as a way of life. Some are “gas­tro­nomic Jews,” in search of the per­fect bagel, chicken soup or pas­trami on rye. Some view it as a civ­i­liza­tion go­ing back mil­len­nia, based on the teach­ings of the To­rah, the Five Books of Moses. For that rea­son, we are called “The Peo­ple of the Book.”

Ours is a rich her­itage draw­ing from places Jews have wan­dered; our history, pep­pered with sto­ries of per­se­cu­tion and sur­vival. We have, since the very be­gin­ning, been tied to the Land of Is­rael, and we are called col­lec­tively, “Am Yis­roel” the Peo­ple of Is­rael. Our prayers and pol­i­tics are in­ter­twined with the fate of the Na­tion of Is­rael.

Today, peo­ple use “Jewish” as an ad­jec­tive; Jewish Hu­mor, Jewish Co­me­di­ans, Jewish Au­thors and Play­wrights, Jewish Mu­si­cians, Com­posers, Ac­tors, Di­rec­tors and Artists. In fact when you read a re­view of any of these tal­ented peo­ple, they are al­most al­ways iden­ti­fied as be­ing Jewish, as if that is where their tal­ents stem from, and they might be right!

Our re­li­gion en­cour­ages ed­u­ca­tion, both re­li­gious and sec­u­lar. Fifty-eight per­cent of Jews in the U.S. have col­lege de­grees, 29 per­cent have post grad­u­ate de­grees, which is why you find a great num­ber of Jewish doc­tors, sci­en­tists, in­ven­tors, teach­ers, econ­o­mists and busi­ness peo­ple. We also hold dearly the words from our To­rah, “Jus­tice, Jus­tice Shall You Pur­sue,” lead­ing so many to be­come lawyers, judges, and civil rights ad­vo­cates.

I think the one thing that all Jews, no mat­ter their level of ob­ser­vance can agree on is that, as Jews, we have an obli­ga­tion to be God’s part­ner in sus­tain­ing and re­pair­ing the world. We can’t ex­pect God to do it all; we are in it to­gether. This is ac­com­plished by liv­ing our life in Godly ways.

We are in­structed to feed the hun­gry, clothe the naked, are ad­mon­ished not to take ad­van­tage of the widow or the or­phan, we are cau­tioned to treat the strangers or aliens among us kindly and to re­mem­ber that the Chil­dren of Is­rael were once strangers in a strange land. We are com­manded to take care of the earth, the an­i­mals, the trees, and most of all, each other. Be­ing God’s part­ner in re­pair­ing the world is called Tikkun Olam and it is an ar­du­ous task. But our sages gave us the fol­low­ing wis­dom; “It is not your re­spon­si­bil­ity to fin­ish the work of re­pair­ing the world, but nei­ther are you free to de­sist from it.”

We are blessed with a re­li­gion that en­cour­ages us to talk to God, ar­gue with God, rage against God, ques­tion God, praise God and love God. But in the end, we know that we, as Jews, have been given a won­der­ful gift, a moral, eth­i­cal code of be­hav­ior and jus­tice that, on a daily ba­sis, asks us to part­ner with God for the good of all.

We are blessed with a re­li­gion that en­cour­ages us to talk to God, ar­gue with God, rage against God, ques­tion God, praise God and love God.

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