Definition of a Jew

September 5, 2011 | by

I am Jewish, but the other day someone asked me: “What is a Jew?” I was a bit shocked that I could not articulate a proper answer. So... what is a Jew?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

This answer has two aspects: Technically and philosophically.

Technically, Jewishness is passed on via the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the child is 100 percent Jewish. At the same time, if someone's father is Jewish (but not the mother), then the child is 100 percent not Jewish. Jewish identity passed on through the mother has been universally accepted by Jews for 3,000 years, and was decided by God. This is recorded in the Five Books of Moses in Deuteronomy 7:3-4. The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b) explains how this law is evident from those passages, and the Jewish people have collectively adhered to this law throughout the generations.

Philosophically, the Jewish legacy is called “Tikkun Olam” – literally “repairing the world.” In looking back at the first 3,000 years of Jewish history, we don't recall the names of any great entertainers or athletes or corporate executives. We recall the great teachers of the Jewish message: Moses, King David, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon. That is the essential Jewish legacy. The message was engrained in our souls at Mount Sinai and it is the single defining characteristic of our people.

And the world needs that message now more than ever. Just look at the institution of marriage. In Western society, the rate of divorce is over 50 percent. That is a crisis of immense proportion. Family structure is crumbling, and dysfunction in relationships is at an all-time high. And it seems that nobody has a clue how to stem the tide.

Not so long ago, "morality" was a dirty word. It implied an imposition of conscience and a curtailment of personal freedom. But today, the leaders of Western society realize that morality is the key to human survival. The great civilizations of Greece and Rome fell due to moral decay. Now our globe is increasingly more complex, and to navigate the maze we need solid moral direction.

Today, the great universities – Columbia, Harvard, Hebrew University – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop curriculum for teaching "morality" to primary and high school students. They're scouring centuries of philosophical texts to try to find an effective approach.

Yet the answer is right in front of our eyes! Our very own Torah contains time-tested tools for personal and communal success: How to give and how to receive... When to be strict and when to be compassionate... Individual rights versus communal responsibility... How to show appreciation and respect... When to lead and when to follow... Balancing family and career... The boundaries of modesty in actions and in dress... How to listen and converse effectively...

Torah methodology is universal – for Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, Israel and the Diaspora, left and right. The Torah is alive and relevant for today. And for the Jewish people, the ability to effectively communicate this message is our single most important undertaking.


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