Delivered February 4, 2022
What is Judaism? A question asked ad nauseum by Jews and non Jews.
Whoopi Goldberg’s mistake on the The View earlier this week, in which she claimed the “Holocaust wasn’t about race and it was instead about man’s inhumanity to man,” again made antisemitism the topic of conversation this week. To be clear, and as Yair Rosenberg writes in the Atlantic, “Whoopi Goldberg is not an antisemite, but she was confused—and understandably so.” Her confusion, and sometimes even our confusion, stems from the fact that Judaism is hard to define.
Rosenberg writes that part of our issue is that Jews and others often attempt to fit Judaism and the Jewish people into existing frames of reference, using words such as race, religion, and ethnicity. The answer to the question “is Judaism a race, religion, identity, ethnicity” is yes and no and maybe depending on who you ask. This complexity is felt even in our translation of the Torah.
We are now free having been liberated from Egypt and now God is telling Moses to tell the B’nai Yisrael to make a mishkan, a physical dwelling space where God will“dwell among them.” The Hallo-Plaut Commentary, from the Revised JPS Translation translates b’nai Yisrael as “The People of Israel.” Later in Deuteronomy, while instructing the people on the rituals upon entering the Promised Land, we read: “Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the LORD your God,” In the Hebrew:
הַסְכֵּ֤ת ׀ וּשְׁמַע֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ נִהְיֵ֣יתָֽ לְעָ֔ם לַיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃
Here we use the word “am” for people.
Elsewhere in our Torah we read that Moses gathered the people, using the verb vay’keil, which shares the root of the word k’hilah, community:
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל
Even more confusing for us and everyone else using the Torah to define Judaism is that we are no longer the Israelites, we are the Jewish people. We have evolved since the building of the Mishkan in the desert, since the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, since its destruction two thousand years ago, since the writing of the Mishnah and the Talmud, since the days of Rashi and Maimonides, since the Shulchan Aruch, even since Reform Judaism was formed in the 1800’s. Judaism today, in all of its various forms and expressions, would be unrecognizable to the Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai.
1500 years ago our Talmud Sages understood this even in their day, revealed in the following parable:
“Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me. God said to him: Return behind you. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai. When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive.”
Judaism is supposed to evolve.
We are b’nai Yisrael – the descendants of Israel, the children of Jacob, we are an am, a people bound by a covenant, and we are a community, a group gathered together for a shared purpose. Using terms such as religion, ethnicity or race often fall flat when describing the Jewish people because the answers are not clear.
We do not agree about practice – some of us observe shabbat and others don’t, some of us keep kosher, some might be eating shrimp while celebrating Shabbat with us tonight – all of which is up to you. We don’t agree about traditions, half of the Jewish world eats rice on Passover, half does not. We don’t agree about theology and haven’t for over 2000 years. Our disagreement can confuse both Jews and non-Jews alike. Our unity lies in our connection to each other. This challenges us to describe what can sometimes only be felt: the concept of peoplehood.
In 2014 the Pew Research center did a comprehensive survey of the Jews of America and the most remarkable statistic was that over 94% of everyone who defined themselves as Jewish, whether they were born Jewish or chose Judaism, was that they were proud to be Jewish. We didn’t see anywhere near that amount of agreement for adherence to the commandments, rituals or practices, not about the support of Israel, not about denominational affiliation. What unites Jews, even those whose self-define as “Just Jewish” through birth, to feel pride in their Judaism?
Perhaps our pride lies at deep desire to belong. All Jews, no matter what, belong as part of the Jewish community. Jews are never bereft of connection to others; they only need to reach out and instantly they are embraced by a larger family. This is the idea of peoplehood.
We exist in the Western World and therefore we, as Jews, and non-Jews attempt to use western language to define the Jewish people as they might apply to other peoples. Instead of rushing to “cancel,” though I detest that language, or even suspend Goldberg, as ABC did, we might instead use this as an opportunity to educate. Keep her on the air and invite Jewish guests to talk about why her comments hurt them – not to make her feel bad but because her audience can learn and become partners in building a better world, instead of fueling the antisemitic trope that Jews control the media.
Yair Rosenberg concludes that Judaism “is not quite a religion, because one can be Jewish regardless of observance or specific belief… But it’s also not quite a race, because people can convert in! It’s not merely a culture or an ethnicity, because that leaves out all the religious components. And it’s not simply a nationality, because although Jews do have a homeland and many identify as part of a nation, others do not.
Instead, Judaism is an amalgam of all these things—more like a family”
We are a family that welcomes everyone who wants to proudly participate with us in spreading love, meaning and purpose to those who so choose.
May we always welcome those who want to learn and grow with us, may we be compassionate to those who, with good-intent, err in using the wrong words or phrases, and may we always grow and evolve.
 Ex. 25:2, Ex 25:8
 Deut. 27:9
 Ex. 35:1
 Talmud Bavli, Menachot 29b