What it means to be Jewish

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.”


By Rabbi Rose Jacob

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.


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