Q&A : Jewish Identity – March 2011 – “Jewish Life” magazine
Isn’t Jewish identity often defined by the fact that we are the ‘other’?
Yes, Jewishness is sometimes defined by anti-Semitism, by an enemy. Like in Egypt – we were singled out as separate from others. But actually Jewish identity is much deeper than that.
Tell me more…
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik says that Hashem entered into two covenants with the Jewish people : the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny. Hashem has entered into a covenant of fate with the Jewish people, which binds all Jews together irrespective of who they are. And this is imposed from the outside.
What does it mean?
There is a spiritual dynamic and energy that enters the world that forces Jews into a similar fate, which cannot be escaped. This covenant with Hashem pushes us to recognise that we have to reach out and look after every Jew, no matter what, no matter whom, no matter why. To recognise that we share a common fate imposed on us by Hashem. There is a spiritual dynamic that binds Jews together that defies the ordinary laws of nature.
The kind of threats, delegitimisation, and attacks on the state of Israel defy the laws of logic – Israel just hasn’t been left to become a nation like all the other nations. In a sense, what we are seeing in the modern state of Israel and the events unfolding is the spiritual dynamic of being Jewish in action. Because there is almost no rational explanation to the kind of vicious anti-Israel sentiment in the world today. It defies all logic. And it goes against a previously-held explanation for anti-Semitism as well.
What was this previously held explanation for anti-Semitism?
Many people said that the reason for anti-Semitism in Europe was that Jews didn’t have a country of their own. And when Jews would finally have a country of their own, then anti-Semitism would cease. But we see now how it has not ceased, but rather gained a different focus. It defies all logic that one nation within living memory should have experienced one holocaust and then be threatened with another.
Aren’t we then again defining ourselves by the way others see us?
Yes – and the danger in Jewish identity being purely about anti-Semitism is that it becomes a painful identity to carry. What is the message to our children then? That to be a Jew is a burden, and all about how others define us rather than about how we define ourselves. It becomes an identity which is imposed against our will from the outside. This pain damages Jewish identity in a very deep way. New generations of children start saying – for what do we need this.
How can we repair this warped sense of Jewish identity?
This is where the convenant of destiny comes in.
What is the covenant of destiny?
Being Jewish is about a certain belief system and values. That’s what Rav Soloveichik calls the covenant of destiny. The covenant that Hashem entered into with us to give us the values and principles of the Torah. How we see and think about the world, what we believe, what we do, what we strive for, what our values are. Jewish identity is not just this ethnicity of shared history and cultural. It is so much deeper than that. It is based on Torah principles. G-d’s Torah is eternal and has a life-giving force which will always sustain us. One main difference is that through the covenant of fate Jewish identity is passive, imposed by others, but through the covenant of destiny, it is actively chosen by us.
How does this all relate to Pesach?
Part of the message of Pesach is that Pesach was the beginning of the process that created a new form of Jewish identity. Jewish identity was born in the anti-Semitism and pain of the slavery in Egypt, and the fears that went along with it. But it was also an attempt to redeem and transform that pain into something much deeper and elevated. Before the Jews could leave Egypt, they had to show loyalty to G-d by putting the blood of the offering on their doorposts. This was their way of identifying with G-d, and only those who did this left Egypt, because they were the ones saying ‘we want to be part of something greater’.
How can we do this today?
The seder experience that we have on Pesach acknowledges the pain that we went through but it doesn’t stop there – it also remembers the night of the liberation from Egypt. It remembers our gratitude to Hashem, and the bond that has lasted throughout the generations and for all generations to come.
In what elements of the seder do we see this?
The seder night is not just a night of maror – the bitter herbs, representing the bitterness of our experience in Egypt. It is also a night of matza – our liberation from all of that. It is a very spiritual and uplifting night, not merely one that remembers the pain and the anti-Semitism that we experienced.
How does this relate back to Jewish identity?
Because if Jewish identity is all about the maror, the pain and the anti-Semitism, and not about the matzah too, the potential and the positives – then it is an identity that our children will want to run away from. There has to be a reason why we want to be Jewish. It’s a higher calling, G-d’s mission for us. And that’s why Pesach and Shavuot are so connected. We start counting the Omer already from the second night of Pesach, linking Pesach to the giving of the Torah from the start.
But how did the Jews in Egypt define their identity then, if they never had the Torah yet?
Although most of the mitzvot were given with the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot, Hashem didn’t let the Jews leave Egypt without certain mitzvot. Like the bris mila – everyone who hadn’t had one had to do so before leaving Egypt; the mitzvah of the paschal offering and the matza and maror; the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon. They were given all these in Egypt before they left, so they weren’t leaving empty handed- and this changed the whole notion of what Jewish identity was about even then.
What do we learn from this today?
It’s true that Jewish fate binds Jews together irrespective of the level of observance, but if its just at that level of covenant of fate alone then it is an imposed identity, and has no inspiring vision and nothing which is compelling. We see from the Jews in Egypt that G-d wanted so much more for us. He didn’t want us to be merely the object of some supernatural fate in the world. He wanted us to have a higher calling, and to give good things to the world through his mitzvot. Pesach is about so much more than remembering slavery, and Jewish identity has to be about more than just remembering the pain and slavery – it’s about a grand, beautiful, uplifting moral vision that Hashem gave us to live with every moment of the day. We had to go through that pain – to learn what human suffering and discrimination is about, and what faith in Hashem in difficult times is about too. But that was a launch pad into something so much more elevated. And that reflects on the essence of Jewish identity.