The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week. It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community. I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.
Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations. Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.
At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class. Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.
Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago. Some are members of synagogues. Some are not.
There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners. Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.
Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism. This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.
Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.
As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.
Some share strange, mysterious family traditions. Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.
Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection. But not always.
With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry. That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.
Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons. It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing. That is kind of the point.
Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion. Simply by being born to a Jewish mother, a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes. Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs. It does.
So does this make Judaism a race? Not at all. For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert. And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.
Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.
The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms. Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.
Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition. Then he offers us one:
Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.
“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.” We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.
This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him. Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.
וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:
Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:5)
A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence. v’et ha’nefesh asher asu. Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household. Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently.
An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively. Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.” Is it possible to create life?
Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being. The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted. We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.
In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran. They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.
In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family. This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values. That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.
Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day. People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.
A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism. Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.
Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”
Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”
She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”
Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words. We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.
Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words. He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point. His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”
In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry. Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.
For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household. In other words, part of the family.
Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts. Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”
Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.
While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view. Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.
A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip. She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible. She was ultimately denied.
This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law. I hope it is not a precedent.
Jewish identity is not in the blood. It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents. It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children. Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.
Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out? Absolutely. But we are a family, after all. And families are messy.