Adapted from a talk given at Limmud Cape Town as part of a panel discussion “What happens when you Google Jew”
by David Jacobson
What is my definition of Jew? This is a very modern question, asked OF us by our increasing engagement with the secular, modern world and asked BY us as our particularistic Jewish identities collide with 21st century universalistic ones. The truly observant Jew would not ask such a question but might rather ask ‘what is my role as a Jew?’ or perhaps ‘How can I be a better Jew?’ That traditional definition of Jew, the one that has defined us for the vast majority of our history, is integrally related to an unshakeable belief in the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. I am a Jew because I am a Jew. It is not a choice. It is by divine decree.
For those of us who have more secular/cultural/nationalistic/spiritual leanings, the question is infinitely more complicated.
I am not a social anthropologist or a psychologist, but I would imagine that humans have an innate need to belong to a group. A powerful need. A self-defining need. So if you take G-d out of the equation, we have to acknowledge that our Jewish identity might be inextricably linked to our overwhelming desire for group affiliation. One big, warm ‘Yiddishe Group Hug’. It feels good and gives us a sense of purpose. It differentiates us from ‘the other’ and offers a unique, group identity and a reason to be. These are powerful emotional motivations and should not be discounted.
So accepting all that and with all its myriad complexities and conundrums, I will attempt to give some expression to why I am a Jew. This is a question I believe we should ALL be able to answer. Otherwise, we are merely rather dreary automatons, clinging to our Jewish ‘blankie’, defending ourselves and our nation out of a very deep primal fear.
I am a Jew because it is somehow wired into my spiritual DNA. Physically I am a man. Spiritually I am a Jew.
I am a Jew because I choose to bind my destiny with that of the Jewish people.
I am a Jew because I am the inheritor of a 3500 year old tradition whose wisdom continues to astound and amaze me.
I am a Jew because I believe our ancient tradition has everything to say about being human today and retaining our humanity for tomorrow.
I am a Jew because it takes me out of my ego and into the world.
I am a Jew because although it binds me to my fellow Jews, it compels me to overcome my innate, parochial prejudices and accept all humanity.
I am Jew because our Talmudic tradition of critical engagement is so compelling to my mind and it makes me superbly proud to be able to own it.
I am a Jew because even though we have been hated by so many for so long, we have generally managed to resist the urge to hate others.
I am a Jew because our tradition has a great deal to offer the world and I am proud to be an emissary of this prophetic message that has helped shaped Western civilization.
I am a Jew because I pursue justice as my tradition commands me.
I am a Jew because to NOT engage with a tradition that has thousands of people infinitely smarter than me, who have spent thousands of years agonising over ethics and morals, over every dot and comma in a sacred text, over the eternal questions of human desire and human possibility, over concepts and constructs that I have not even begun to consider, would be antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom and would simply be: stupid.
I am a Jew because our people and tradition have always stood against tyranny and hatred and stood against the tide of popular culture and conventional wisdom, even when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so.
I am a Jew because it helps me find the balance between my innate desire to connect to my fellow Jews, to my group, and my responsibility to be a citizen of the world, and care for my fellow beings on this planet.
I am a Jew because it helps me be a better man.
I am a Jew because it simply fits.
And I really like pickled Herring.
David Jacobson is the executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies.