What does it mean to be Jewish? Here's one answer. What is yours?
The perennial Jewish answer would be that there is not one answer!
For some of us Judaism is about a profound sense of history. For others, being Jewish involves the ethical imperative. Some of us might say that being Jewish is to feel an inextricable connection to the land (and people) of Israel. Or about tapping into a deep and broad spirituality.
We have so many ways of ‘being Jewish’—we are a global religious civilisation that spans continents and millennia—but each of these is deeply personal, bound up in our personal narrative and experience.
Flavourful matzoh ball soup on Friday night, the white-and-blue JNF tin for loose change. Faded sepia photographs of trade unionist grandparents in the garment industry. But also vicarious pride when a famous Jew is mentioned in the newspaper. Being Jewish may mean kibbeh and choumous and Torah readings with every ayin and chet crisply pronounced, fresh challah baking in a rustic European bakery or kosher marshmallows toasted over a bonfire at summer camp.
Of course, all these ‘ways of being Jewish’ are wonderfully clichéd. Being Jewish is more than ethnic stereotypes and pop culture references.
It is love, community and ethics, ambivalence, anger and a feeling of ‘I-don’t-know-what-I’m-supposed-to-do-with-this’. Being Jewish is chafing against our painful and at times tragic collective history while also taking great pride in that history. It is about being called to serve the one God, in Whose image all of humankind is created.
Regardless the power and colour of our personal Jewish narratives, being Jewish is about choice.
We are all converts - Jews-by-choice.
Parashat Yitro teaches us that choice is not just a contemporary post-modern construct but that it has never been any different.
I confess to sharing a particular passion for Parashat Yitro. The reading is brimming with a riveting narrative and key Jewish themes: Covenant, the Aseret haDibbrot (the Ten Utterances), Revelation, the Giving of the Torah and even some pyrotechnics (because there’s nothing wrong with telling a good story with spectacular special effects). But Parashat Yitro also sets the stage for some of our most beloved heroes in the Torah: Jews-by-choice.
The perennial Jew-by-Choice is the man this Torah portion is named after. Yitro. Yitro is Tzippora’s father and Moses’ father-in-law. He is a ‘Kohen Midian’, a Midianite priest. The Midrash claims that Yitro was quite the religious pluralist: he worshipped every deity and idol under the sun.
It is intuitive to imagine Yitro as a kindly and wise man, tolerant, with a sound, practical perspective. He gives Moses much needed management advice and warmly welcomes Moses into his clan, during his hour of need.
Yitro was a man of many names. Yet, according to Rashi, when he felt compelled to choose Judaism, he, like Abram and Sarai before him, added a letter to his name, Yeter. Where Abraham and Sarah added the letter Hey, Yitro added the Vav. It is fitting that both these letters are part of the most sacred Name of God, as they chose to enter the Eternal’s covenant.
Tzipporah, his daughter, is another Jew-by-Choice. Like her father, the Sages of the Talmud indicate that she converted. And like her father, she is a personality writ large: a brave young woman who follows her husband Moses in his compelling yet controversial vision of deliverance. She sires two sons whom she names Gershom and Eliezer. Interestingly, these names hint at a deeper truth that we all as Jews experience: ‘Gershom’ means, ‘ger haiti be’eretz nochri’ah’- ‘I was a stranger there [in a foreign land]’ while ‘Eliezer’ means ‘ki Elohai avi be’ezri’ - ‘God [of my father] is my Help’ (Ex. 18:4). Perhaps these names point us to an answer of the question what it means to be Jewish.
Matzoh balls and choumous aside, there is a complex and beautiful dichotomy that we Jews experience.
Parashat Yitro sets the stage by introducing these two monumental characters. (And let us not forget that Moses himself, although not a convert, is a Jew-by-Choice as he consciously embraces his Israelite identity!) Soon after, the narrative shifts: from individual stories to a collective experience. It is then that Israel stands at the foot of Har Sinai, ready to enter the covenant with the God Who bore them out of slavery ‘al kanfei nesharim’ - ‘on eagle’s wings’ (Ex. 19:4).
The preparations for Revelation are unique. The Israelites are commanded to wash their clothes and bathe. The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 46b) indicates that what the Israelites went through was a conversion ceremony and immersed in a mikveh. Until that point, they had been privileged to inherit the covenant through the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, though through no merit of their own. But now, they were invited to choose.
And choose they did. ‘Na’aseh v’nishmah’, they responded at the foot of the mount, overwhelmed by the glory of flame and thunder and the deep, eternal silence within. ‘We will do and we will hear’.
The Torah instructs us implicitly and explicitly. We are to follow Yitro and Tzipporah, this phenomenal father-daughter team, to embrace the covenant on our own. Love your Judaism, hold it close. Cherish it, believe in it. It is our beautiful ‘segulah’, our treasure. It is only when Judaism becomes more than just a stereotype and a cliché that we can truly fulfill our mission of what our parashah calls us to be: a ‘mamlechet Kohanim’ and a ‘goy kadosh’ – a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex. 19:6).
Every covenant is conditional. The contract has been written, the terms are set but the conditions are compelling; in both new and ancient ways. We made that choice thousands of years ago. Every moment we can choose again to be the best Jews we can be. Then we can, in the words of the prophet Micah,
‘love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with our God’.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz is Assistant Rabbi at Sinai Synagogue, Leeds (UK), and Paideia Emmanuel Levinas Fellow.