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June 14, 2016 3:58 am

What It Means to Be A Jew

avatar by Harry Zeitlin

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A chupah, a Jewish wedding canopy. Photo: WikiCommons.

A chupah, a Jewish wedding canopy. Photo: WikiCommons.

There are so many attempts to define what it means to be a Jew. Is it genetic? Consensual? Opting-in? Participatory-only? Are you a Jew because you eat bagels and cream cheese, or, as we’re in the midst of Shavuot thoughts, cheesecake? Do you experience being a Jew by studying Torah? By acting “ethically” (whatever that might mean)? Does not driving a car on Saturday qualify? Do you need to wear the uniform of a black suit and an oversize hat? Is daily prayer non-negotiable? Can watching TV or going to movies disbar you? What about on Saturday? Are we a people, a race, a religion, a country?

These are all old questions, addressed, answered and re-answered countless times.

In the spirit of Shavuot, which we just finished celebrating, my working definition is that to be a Jew is to be married to God; not in the same sense as Catholic nuns and priests who renounce marriage with other humans. Of course, there is the Aggadata that God held Mount Sinai over our heads, as a chupah — wedding canopy — when giving us the Torah (though the simple meaning of the story is a little less romantic: He gave us the choice to accept the Torah, in which case the mountain was, indeed, a chupah, but if we refused, we’d be buried beneath it.) This image of coercion, combined with our laws of relationships, removes, as it were, God’s option of ever divorcing us. And, as the second chapter of Hosea (2:21-22) has God saying to us, “And I will wed you forever……”

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Today, the concept of eternal marriage and commitment sounds to many of us as fantasy. But even in the “good old days,” when divorce was the exception rather than the rule, an eternally ideal marriage was never on the menu. Since, by definition, we humans are not perfect and complete within ourselves, we  have, and always will have, needs. No matter how loving one or both of a couple are, the combined individual needs, no matter how small they might theoretically be, doesn’t allow us to be permanent givers, concerned only with our mate’s happiness and not with our own. As humans, everything will be flawed and the best we can do is to minimize those flaws.

A Jew’s marriage with The Creator, on the other hand, is of an entirely different order. God is, by definition, complete within Himself, lacking nothing. In His simple Unity as One Who creates and creates for the benefit of others, His “agenda” is to fill each of us with precisely what we individually need, both in terms of quality and quantity. God is never “in competition” with us over any supposedly “rare” resource since, to God, the Creator and Source of All, not only has no needs nor desires for any “things” but ho,w could any conceivable resource possibly be “rare” to Him?

Since, in His Wisdom, He understands that a necessary component for human satisfaction is a sense of independence, He provides a modality for us to earn our satisfaction rather than giving it to us without any effort on our part, accompanied by the unavoidable shame of feeling undeserving. This “modality” the Torah, both guides us, step-by-step, to earning fulfillment, and is, itself, that fulfillment.

The Ketubah (the marriage contract), with which The Almighty betroths each of us as individual elements of His beloved — the Torah is an ingenious “interface” in which He embeds those aspects of Himself that he gives us the potential to experience, bond (devekut) and interact with, the 613 mitzvot (as well as the historical and moral tales of our ancestors). Moreover, he creates each of us with an analogous structure that allows us, by following these mitzvot-directions, to fully engage with the 613-faceted interface to Him that He provided.

Imagine an earthly marriage where not only can good intentions be assumed, but where an opportunity to express our love and to deepen our connection with our lover is provided every single instant! Here is that marriage where our Lover never puts Himself before our needs, where counsel and encouragement and explicit instructions are lovingly offered every moment.

Just as with a material marriage, there is both much to prepare in advance, and also much to review and revisit after experiencing such an intensely transforming moment. In addition to the fellowship, the happiness and, yes, the cheesecake, may we all experience, and continue to experience the primal transformation that is Shavuot.

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