Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors

What Does Being Jewish Mean?

Can being Jewish mean whatever each of us wants? According to a just-launched consciousness raising and community building initiative launched by Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), it can.
The online initiative, unitizing Facebook and Twitter, says that “Being Jewish means something different to everyone — whatever it means to you, that’s your #ish”. But does being Jewish really mean something different to everyone, and if so does it have any meaning at all? For me, the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.
No two people ever experience anything in exactly the same way. And according to rabbinic tradition (Mishnah in Sanhedrin), our uniqueness is one of the three defining features of our fundamental humanity. The other two, by the way, are the fact that each of us is equal to the other and of infinite value.
So while some people will immediately squawk about this campaign as undermining fundamental Jewish values or of surrendering to a contemporary narcissism which allows anything as long as we like it, nothing could be further from the truth. If taken seriously, the responses to the question “what’s you #ish?” could be the beginning of an identity revolution for all people claiming any kind of Jewishness – a revolution as significant as any we have seen in Jewish history.


To be sure, nobody can know the precise outcome of such revolutions in how we understand who we are. But this much is certain: listening carefully to what people think about who they are, and taking seriously the larger social context in which we find ourselves, especially at times of transition, has created the movements which have sustained the Jewish people through 3,000 years.
From early rabbis, to Maimonides; from the first Hasidim to the first Reform Jews; from 19th century Zionists to the 21st century individuals who will participate in this new project, it’s always been about celebrating who you are in the present in ways that you feel connect you to your past and promise you a better future. We need not agree with all the aforementioned movements or all of the answers which are posted to to acknowledge and appreciate that this is how the future is created, and always has been.
We shouldn’t make more of this project than it is, but neither should be dismiss the power of shifting from a community obsessed with demographic categories and how people can be fit into them, to a community fascinated with individual biographies and self-definitions which, when taken together, give us a true picture of a vast and vastly interesting Jewish community. In a world obsessed with trends, this is one to be welcomed.

  • Greg S

    YES! The Jewish religion has a unique complexity ….the combination of religion, culture and family tradition. We each tend to weigh these aspects differently and thus define Judaism differently. Rabbi Brad, I commend you for your openness to this JFNA concept as it seems to acknowledge that being Jewish is more than just religion.

  • Jay Kravette

    Shalom Rabbi,
    I am a Messiamic Jew and have been for 25 years. One of my friends asked me whether Jewish people believe in Heaven and Hell and I did not have an answer for her. As you know as believers in Yeshua we believe that the only way to Abba is through belief on Him who died for our sins. I would like to be able to give her a scriptually based answer. Would like your input on this.
    Blessings to you and your ministry,

  • Bonnie

    A very good commentary. I’ve always maintained the Judaism is a unique faith, in that we take a set of concrete precepts and interpret them in so many different ways. It’s not just a religion; it is a way of life.

  • Emily with the Kippah

    Rabbi, thanks for posting about this. Unfortunately too many Jews will snap, “a Jew is a person with a Jewish mother. Period.” And yet those same Jews will not have any idea where their OWN mother’s family came from, or what Halacha is relevant to their assumption. I encourage this as a way for Patrilineals like me to be more accepted.
    Jay Kravette, you might try contacting the rabbi privately with your question. However, because Jews don’t believe in a literal “Hell” with fire brimstone and a demonic pseudo-god that serves as Hashem’s evil antithesis, I would say you would answer “we do not have a hell.”
    Which leaves open the question, “if Jews do not believe in Hell, why do I need to have somebody else ‘die’ for my sins in order for me to reach the Almighty?”

  • Longwinded Gentile

    I realize this post is a week old, but I’ll check for replies.
    This is an interesting topic. Is truth itself a subjective matter?
    If each can believe what they feel lead to believe, what is the point of God positively revealing Himself in any way, as He did in creating Israel?
    @Emily with the Kippah:
    [ Which leaves open the question, “if Jews do not believe in Hell, why do I need to have somebody else ‘die’ for my sins in order for me to reach the Almighty?” ]
    I understand this reader may not speak for all others here, but this point raises a serious question.
    No disrespect is intended to anyone here, but in the interest of understanding each other, and to be concise, I’ll simply refer you to your own ancestry, the law handed to them, their inability to keep it, and the procedures of sacrifice and atonement given to them.
    My question hinges on two points, so please bear with me:
    Point 1: [
    When the ancient Israelites brought a goat or a lamb to the temple for a sacrifice, they placed their hands on its head and confessed their sins. The priest then killed the animal and sprinkled some of its blood on the altar of atonement. The ritual symbolized a confessor’s payment for sin. But the lamb could not actually take on the sin and die in place of the Israelite (Heb. 10:4).
    If an animal’s blood could actually erase a sin-debt, we’d still be offering those frequent sacrifices, and Jesus’ death would have been unnecessary. Yet we must remember that, though the act itself had no saving power, the ritual of sacrifice was God’s idea (Lev. 4). He established such offerings as a powerful illustration of the seriousness and penalty of sin.
    ]-(taken from )
    Don’t panic, the reference above to Hebrews 10:4 is a reflection on Psalm 40:6. Whether or not you accept the conclusion drawn, please go on.
    Point 2:
    Looking back to Isaiah 53..
    5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
    6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to his own way;
    and the LORD has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
    Which brings me to my question.
    Whether you believe in Hell or not, is there not atonement to be made? Is that not FIRMLY established even among those few ancient texts that you so deeply celebrate?
    Yehoshua the Messiah, whom we consider the very “Word” or the “Arm” of Yahweh Himself (and not some finite intercessor), had stronger words than I about this:
    7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
    8 ‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
    9 They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
    (Matthew 13)
    I’ll remind you (by at least four separate accounts) that when Christ was crucified, cried out “It is finished,” and died, the temple veil was torn from top to bottom (no small feat, I understand). The ground shook violently, the sky turned dark, the dead walked the streets, and the Centurion at his feet cried out “Surely, this man was the Son of God!”
    In time, even Josephus, the Jewish historian would find himself obliged to write of the accounts of hundreds of people who witnessed the resurrected Christ.
    Again, no disrespect, but inquiring minds want to know… Even as you await another Messiah, what God-given *covenant* do you keep, that makes you sure of your reconciliation to the Almighty?

  • Abambagibus

    It is not in the intelligent complexity of its social and its intimate involvements that Judaism is unique, but in the uniqueness of its holding a singular Law as the basis of all of its involvements. But, if such be not the case, then the person so involved is merely a Jewish façade.

  • Charlie Sahner

    Great article. Many of us are already offering more open, accessible sites for people interested in what “ish” is about. We welcome anyone with the chutzpah to call themselves to call themselves “Jewish” in today’s crazy world.

  • Dax Michaels

    Fabulous article! I COULDN’T agree more with you on your main point that Judaism is whatever we interpret it to be! THAT IS WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS RELIGION! I interpret the teachings and Kabbalah in a way that works for me and I feel extremely empowered. Someone may argue with me on several of those points but unlike Christianity, I don’t just “have to believe”. I could go on….but won’t! SO KEEP EM COMIN’ CHAMP!Am

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment imadoubter

    I raise the question that if 3 different people wrote the torah, is any of it real? There is one thought that God wrote the Torah and that everything is true. But if someone wrote that statement then what becomes real. There is no Adam and Eve. There is no Abraham and none of his sons. If there was any proof I would change my mind. But there isn’t. According to the movie, The Ten Commandments, Ramses ordered every obelisk, everything ever written about Moses, to be obliterated.
    How convenient. That means that Moses never existed and therefore no Torah. If the torah was written by three men at different times, then everything is fictitious. So I am a Jew who believes in fables.

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