The Definition of the Jew: The Dimension of Freedom
Reprinted with permission from “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.” Based on excerpts from AB Yehoshua’s book, Between Right and Right.
We discover an astonishing fact in the classic Halachic definition. According to the Halachah, nothing is said about the Jew’s conduct, his thoughts, or basic principles of behavior. There is nothing indicating his homeland or language, or even the nature of his affiliation to a specific collective (such as maintaining solidarity with the Jewish people). A Jew is nothing more than a child of a Jewish mother, not even of a Jewish father. Is this biological fact really so compelling and binding? Not at all! Jews are not a race and never viewed themselves as such. They viewed themselves only as a people. According to the Halachic definition, a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother, who converts to Christianity ceases to be a Jew. That the Halachah enables someone not born of a Jewish mother to become a Jew also indicates that the Jews do not constitute a race.
To be a Jew means to belong to a national group that can be left or joined, just as any other national group is left or joined. Countless Jews have abandoned the Jewish people, and the struggle now and in all generations against assimilation indicates that it is possible to leave the Jewish people, that the individual is not compelled to retain
his membership in it.
We are now approaching the root of the matter. If we delve deep into the logic of the religious definition we see at its base another definition:
A Jew is someone who identifies as a Jew.
Someone born of a Jewish mother is no longer considered a Jew if, for example, he converts to Christianity or to Islam. It is of no importance where the Jew goes. What matters is his desire to leave. It must be understood that in the past, when everyone had a religious identification, Judaism ruled that passing to any other religion turns the Jew into a non-Jew. But today, when the individual is not obliged to maintain a religious identity, a person can leave the
Jewish people without having to pass through a religious corridor, even if according to the Halachah it seems that he must. The determining factor is not the technical step of formal religious conversion but his desire no longer to identify with the Jewish people. A Jewish atheist can become a non-Jewish atheist; the passage through another religion is a dispensable formality.
The same holds for joining the Jewish people. The determining factor is the act of identification, free will, and not the formal conversion, which may be altogether meaningless for the convert who, let us assume, is a confirmed atheist. These religious corridors (for entry and exit) may be good as a salve for the conscience of religious establishments, but they are irrelevant and meaningless for someone who wants to enter or leave, and does so as a freely chosen act.
The definition I am proposing, that a Jew is someone who identifies as a Jew, is not one I would want to be maintained always, but his definition has been the realistic, correct, and genuine definition until now. It is the base definition underlying the Halachic definition. The Halachic definition, born in the recesses of Jewish history, was suited to a world and situation in which religion was the decisive element of a person’s identity. The secular identity taking shape before our eyes in the world and in Israel (which always existed as a potential) exposes the deep and true definition at the foundation of the Halachic definition, that which declares that a Jew is someone who identifies as a Jew.
All the pseudo-Sartrean theories that would base Jewish self-identification on the existence of the Gentile (in the best circumstances) or the anti-Semite (in the worst circumstances), who forces the Jew to identify as such, are ridiculous. I don’t need the Gentile’s perception or the anti-Semite’s hostility to establish my Jewish identity. Even if there weren’t an anti-Semite in the world I would still want to identify as a Jew. How demeaning to present Jewish identity and belonging as a kind of trap from which there is no escape. Hundreds of thousands of Jews have left the Jewish people for good, as a matter of their own choosing, and have been lost forever among other peoples. To be a Jew is a matter of choice. This element of freedom in the act of Jewish identification has of late been obscured, but it is an element of tremendous importance, for it brings with it responsibility. If I identify as a matter of free choice I assume certain responsibilities. When young people repeatedly ask, as they have been doing with increasing frequency since the Yom Kippur War: Is it possible to cut one’s ties with the Jewish people? Is it possible to carry out a “disengagement of forces” with the Jewish people? Or, in the words of a soldier, is it possible to be just a person?—to all of these questions my answer is clear: It most definitely is possible. But if a person decides to identify as a Jew he assumes responsibility for his identification, since his decision was freely made. I do not ignore the social, cultural, and family influences a decision about identification, but these are not sufficient to determine the identification. It requires willed choice. The dimension of freedom, which always formed part of Jewish identification and which has recently been obscured by notions of Jewish “fate” and by the experience of the Holocaust, needs to be highlighted once again. The sense of freedom immediately lightens the sense of responsibility. A man is capable of mighty actions if he has a sense of freedom, while feeling coerced only depresses and incenses him.
The element of freedom in the act of identification is also what makes possible change and reinterpretation of Judaism. I do not dismiss those who think only of continuity, who want to keep alive the “ember” they imagine has been passed on to them. But no less legitimate is the desire of those who want to introduce change in Judaism, with which they identify as an act of free will.