“Hear Oh Israel, The Lord is our God, The Lord is One,” is Judaism’s highest affirmation and prayer, and perhaps the one thing most Jews readily agree on. What is a Jew? You’ll get as many answers as there are people to ask. What else might Bob Dylan, Karl Marx, Woody Allen, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Buber have in common but their Jewish roots — some well-watered, some exposed, some withered. There’s a Jewish saying that dialogues often take place among people far separated in time and space. Someone, somewhere, asks a question that someone else independently answers, which raises another question, and a continuing dialogue takes place through the ages. In the spirit of such a dialogue, woven loosely around the question, “What is a Jew?” here are some answers.
— Howard Jay Rubin
These people have been compared to sand and stars. When they fall, they fall as low as the sand, and when they rise, they rise as high as the sky.
The religion of the Jewish people, Judaism is the oldest of the monotheistic (one god) religions, and both Christianity and Islam are based upon its principal beliefs. The words “Judaism” and “Jew” are derived from “Judah,” the ancient Jewish kingdom of southern Palestine.
Judaism was founded by Abraham, who made an agreement with God that he and his offspring would spread the doctrine that there was only one God. In return, God promised Abraham the land of Canaan (Israel) for his descendants.
The Jews first came into being as a nation in the thirteenth century B.C. when the prophet Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, where they had been slaves, and into the land of Canaan. Since that time Judaism has had to struggle to survive. The Jews were kept captive by the Babylonians from 586 B.C. to 537 B.C. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Army and the Jews were either massacred or dispersed. In modern times the Jews have suffered much the same treatment at the hands of the Russians in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and the Germans in the 1930’s and the 1940’s. But in 1948 the nation of Israel was re-established.
Today there are close to 15 million Jews in the world, three-fourths of whom live in the U.S., Israel, and the U.S.S.R.
The basic beliefs of Judaism are a love of learning (in ancient times, on the first day of school, children were fed honey cakes in the shapes of the letters of the alphabet so that they would associate learning with sweetness); the worship of God out of love, not out of fear; and the performing of heartfelt good deeds without concern about rewards.
Judaism is based on two fundamental texts: the Bible (which in Judaism means the Old Testament) and the Talmud, a compendium of laws, traditions, poetry, anecdotes, biographies, and prophecies of the ancient Jews.
David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, The People’s Almanac
That is also a Jewish characteristic, very, very, Jewish. To believe with absolute faith, with glowing faith, with all their hearts and souls, and all the same, just very slightly not to believe, the tiniest little bit, and that tiny little bit is the decisive thing.
The Jew is in perpetual motion. He is characterized as much by his quest as by his faith, his silence as much as his outcry. He defines himself more by what troubles him than by what reassures him.
Elie Wiesel, One Generation After
As for me, I declare my faith that our history is not meaningless. . . . We are nothing at all, or we are a people apart, marked by history for a fate embracing the heights and the depths of the human experience. We live; and we live in a time when we can draw breath in freedom and renew our starved-out strength.
Herman Wouk, This Is My God
Now we will suffer loss of memory; We will forget the tongue our mothers knew, We will munch ham and guzzle milk, And this on hallowed fast-day, purposely. To gentile parties we will proudly go, And Christians anecdoting us will say, Mr. and Mrs. Klein — the Jews you know.
Rabbi Nachman taught: one must be extremely stubborn in the service of God. Every individual, no matter how great or small he may be, must undergo a seemingly endless number of ups, downs, and disappointments before succeeding in God’s service. Sometimes the very forces of heaven seem to cause him to become discouraged and make him want to give up. Often he finds that only through clinging stubbornly to what he has set out to do, can he gather strength to continue; but this takes an extremely great amount of stubbornness. Remember this advice well; its uses are many.
Gedaliah Fleer, Rabbi Nachman’s Fire
Bob Dylan recently celebrated his son’s Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. . . . In response to a question on his renewed interest in Judaism, Dylan said: “Roots, man — check up on Elijah the prophet. He could make it rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is.”
From the National Jewish Arts Newsletter
One thing I’ve learned, he thought, there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew.
Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
SUN: What does being Jewish mean to you?
RAM DASS: It’s certainly still a very active issue for me. I still feel there is a lot of reactivity in me about it. I am always open to a new possibility of finding a heart doorway through, into the living spirit of Judaism. But every time I try and open it, I end up meeting a lot of belief systems and a lot of proselytizing and rigid stuff that turns me off again. . . .
I’ve never even gotten to Jerusalem yet, because I just haven’t felt in my heart the rightness of it. I know that there are things about Judaism in terms of a quality of emotion, a quality of love of intellect, a quality of compassion, a quality of long-sufferingness, that are deep within me, and I know that I am incarnated as a Jew just this time. I mean, I’m not always a Jew, and I am not a Jew. I am in a Jewish form this time, and that’s what the Jews find offensive. That my identity isn’t first as a Jew, and then as a man, human being, and everything else. Because that’s the thing about Judaism — it’s a . . . first you’re a Jew — and I don’t feel that at all. I feel it’s merely part of the dance this time. And it’s interesting to be part of a persecuted minority group, and so on. I think that’s a certain kind of work one does on oneself through that.
An Interview with Ram Dass, THE SUN (Issue 56, June 1980)
Our emancipation will not be complete until we are free of the fear of being Jews.
What else, I ask you, were all these prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed? Practice, darling, practice, practice, practice. Inhibition doesn’t grow on trees, you know — takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hard-working attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being. Why else the two sets of dishes? Why else the kosher soap and salt? Why else, I ask you, but to remind us three times a day that life is boundaries and restrictions if it’s anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other, rules which either you obey without question, regardless of how idiotic they appear (and thus remain, by obeying, in His good graces), or you transgress, most likely in the name of outraged common sense — which you transgress because even a child doesn’t like to go around feeling like an absolute moron and schmuck — yes, you transgress, only with the strong likelihood (my father assures me) that come next Yom Kippur and the names are written in the big book where He writes the names of those who are going to get to live until the following September (a scene which manages somehow to engrave itself upon my imagination), and lo, your own precious name ain’t among them. Now who’s the schmuck, huh? And it doesn’t make any difference either (this I understand from the outset, about the way this God, Who runs things, reasons) how big or small the rule is that you break: it’s the breaking alone that gets His goat — it’s the simple fact of waywardness, and that alone, that He absolutely cannot stand, and which He does not forget either, when He sits angrily down . . . and begins to leave the names out of that book.
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
It is easier to take a Jew out of exile than to take the exile out of the Jew.
The heart, especially the Jewish heart, is a fiddle. You pull the strings and out come songs, mostly plaintive.
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of. . . . He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages, and he has done it with his hands tied behind him.
Judaism has not only a past; despite all it has already created, it has above all, not a past but a future. Judaism has, in truth, not yet done its work, and the great forces active in this most tragic and incomprehensible of people have not yet written their very own word into the history of the world.
It is really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd, and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder which will destroy us too: I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into heaven, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence — these are the features of Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars I belong to it.
The Jews are like other people, only more so.
Lord of the universe . . . send us our messiah, for we have no more strength to suffer. Show me a sign, Oh God. Give me the force to rend the chains of exile. Otherwise . . . otherwise . . . I rebel against thee. If thou dost not keep thy covenant . . . then neither will I keep that agreement, and it is all over, we are through being the chosen people.
Mendel of Kotsk
I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.
The whole world is praying all the time. The animals and even the leaves on the trees are praying. The way to receive light from God is through praying. The only difference is that some people pray unconsciously, some pray consciously, and some pray super-consciously.
God waits long, but pays with interest.
Judaism makes man find God in the act of seeking him.
The ungainly figure of the wandering Jew . . . acquires a heroic dignity when one realizes that he could have thrown off his rags, and clad himself in scarlet, and enjoyed peace and quiet and affluence, by pronouncing one single word — a word which he did not pronounce.
Why the people of Israel adhered to their God all the more devotedly the worse they were treated by him, that is a question we must leave open.
Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I’m not feeling it. I believe in God even when He is silent.
Inscription in a cellar where Jews hid from Nazis
One of the main elements of the tradition is silence . . . but we don’t talk about it.
Elie Wiesel in a B.B.C. television interview
What sort of God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served?
Reb. Yaakov Yitzchak
See how many hidden causes there are . . . hidden from the comprehension of human beings. . . . There are lights upon lights, one more clear than another, each one dark by comparison with the one above it from which it receives light. As for the Supreme Cause, all lights are dark in its presence.
Who are you?
— A number.
— Gone. Blown away. Into the sky. Look up there. The sky is black, black with names.
I cannot see the sky. The barbed wire is in my way.
— But I can. I look at the barbed wire and I know that what I’m seeing is the sky.
You mean they have barbed wire up there too?
— Of course.
And all that goes with it?
— The lot.
The tormentors? The executioners? The victims with neither strength nor desire to resist, to smile at the shadows?
— I’m telling you; it’s just like here.
Then we are lost?
— We alone?
Elie Wiesel, One Generation After
Excerpts from Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters and Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters by Martin Buber (Shocken Books):
The Foolish Prayer
At the close of the Day of Atonement, the rabbi of Bertichev said to one of his hasidim: “I know what you prayed for this day! On the eve, you begged God to give you the thousand rubles which you need in order to live and usually earn in the course of a year, all at once, at the beginning of the year, so that the toil and trouble of business may not distract you from learning and prayer. But in the morning you thought better of it and decided that if you had the thousand rubles all at once, you would probably launch a new and bigger business enterprise which would take up even more of your time. And so you begged to receive half the amount every half year. And before the Closing Prayer, this too seemed precarious to you, and you expressed the wish for quarterly installments, so you might learn and pray quite undisturbed. But what makes you think that your learning and praying is needed in heaven? Perhaps what is needed there is that you toil and rack your brains.”
Once Zusya prayed to God: “Lord, I love you so much, but I do not fear you enough! Let me stand in awe of you like your angels, who are penetrated by your awe-inspiring name.” And God heard his prayer, and his name penetrated the hidden heart of Zusya as it does those of the angels. But Zusya crawled under the bed like a little dog, and animal fear shook him until he howled: “Lord, let me love you like Zusya again!” And God heard him this time also.
Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ”
Rabbi Nahum once said to the hasidim gathered around him: “If we could hang all our sorrows on pegs and were allowed to choose those we liked best, every one of us would take back his own, for all the rest would seem even more difficult to bear.”
A man once confessed a sin to the rabbi of Apt and told him with tears how he had atoned for it. The zaddik laughed. The man went on to tell what more he intended doing to atone for his sin; the rabbi went on laughing. The man wanted to speak on, but the laughter robbed him of his speech. He stared at the zaddik in horror. And then his very soul held its breath and he heard that which is spoken deep within. He realized how trivial all his fuss about atoning had been and turned to God.
Interviewer: But why do Jews always answer a question with another question?
Isaac B. Singer: Why not?