By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
Who are we? What are we?
I picture that question, asked by countless romantic couples, perhaps at a café, in a moment of reflection: What is the status of our relationship? That moment is a critical juncture; it defines and determines the future of that relationship. Social media has recognized that we don’t always get clarity at that moment, by offering the option of “it’s complicated … .”
And no less complicated is the relationship with which the Jewish people has defined ourselves, throughout history: What are we? A people? A nation? A religion? A family? A tribe or collection of tribes?
Unlike many other of the world’s religious identities, we embrace multiple definitions. We are adherents of a religion, yes — but we also have a national, peoplehood-based understanding of what it means to be Jewish. People inherit Judaism — but can also become Jewish. Geneticists track a so-called “Kohen gene” — lending a sense of ethnicity to how we define certain Jewish tribal lines.
In the narrative flow of the Torah, before this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, it was less “complicated.” Up to the moment of the gathering at Mount Sinai, the people of Israel are a tribal family defined almost entirely by bloodlines, marriage and childbearing. Organized into tribes as descendants of Jacob’s original children, we approach Mount Sinai with full knowledge of what branch of the family tree is ours — united and traceable back to Abraham.
With the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, this changes. First, the Torah speaks of an erev rav, a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that joins the people of Israel in leaving Egypt and similarly assembles at Mount Sinai. The Torah itself serves as a new form of constitution of the people — defining us as adherents to a set of observances, parties to a covenant. This forms a completely different definition of what it means to be part of this people — a definition that will evolve over centuries, but from Sinai onward, is markedly more diverse and complicated than just a single family, traceable to Jacob.
Indeed, this tension in defining the Jewish people even predates this moment — in a moment foreshadowed at the end of the Book of Genesis. Recognizing how, even after Jacob attains his new name, Israel, he is referred interchangeably by both of those names, one commentary (from Sichot la-Torah, the chumash edition from the Great Synagogue/Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem) explains, “As he neared the end of his life, Jacob was not fearful of his own death; rather, he feared the end of ‘Israel’ — his NATIONAL identity…” Thus, even in the interchangeable nature of the names of our patriarch Jacob/Israel, we see a struggle to define ourselves as family or nation, tribe, religion, people, or otherwise.
Once we receive the Torah, and we begin to live out its ritual, moral, civic and legal dictates, we become a religion. We are constituted as a people or a nation. We retain the vestiges of tribal, familial identities. The question of what are we becomes, well, complicated.
In truth, there are different benefits and drawbacks to each of these definitions: The definition as a nation allows others to naturalize in, to join the Jewish nation, but this also means that we can be porous and people can drift away from a Jewish identity.
An identity as a Jewish people might also allow the chance to welcome those who choose Judaism and may have given us the transnational, borderless identity that has enabled Jews to live as contributing citizens of other nations across the globe for millennia.
Religious observance has always bolstered our particular identities as Jews, but given the strong secular Jewish communities in North America and especially in Israel, religion hardly seems adequate to fully define what it means to be Jewish. The notion of family or tribe connotes a kinship, an instinctive closeness (regardless of geographical difference) that once united the Jewish people in common cause.
However, such familial bonds may be misunderstood to encourage tribalistic exclusivity and cloistering that undermines the nobility of our mission as Jews; besides, such consciousness of a sense of kinship may be fading from our Jewish identities in recent generations.
Much like the framers of the United States Constitution sought to unite disparate colonial, religious, national and socioeconomic identities into one national identity, this moment of constitution as a people of Israel at Mount Sinai in this week’s parshah complicates the definition of “what we are.” However, these different definitions may have given us the flexibility and multifaceted approach key to our survival and success in the many chapters of Jewish identity.
We can be the family descended from Jacob and the people of Israel. We can be a people and a nation and a tribe or family and a religion — and perhaps these are only a few of the different ways to define what it means to be Jewish.
May we continue to seek to define ourselves with the closeness of kinship and family, with the broad-based inclusivity of peoplehood, with the necessary structures of support and protection of nationhood and with the recognition that it’s complicated, as no one definition could suffice to define our legacy as Jews.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is a rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.