Jew vs. “Jew-ish”? Something to think about

I have a non-Jewish friend who believes he can ascertain who qualifies as a “real Jew” based upon the extent to which a Jew follows Jewish customs and laws. I’ve thought extensively about this, and I would like to share the following with you, as something to think about on the occasion of Passover.

The suffix “ish” often modifies a word to express doubt or diminish the nature of a person or feeling. For example, I could use a nosh but I don’t want a meal; I feel “hungry-ish.”

A non-Jewish friend is convinced that this definition applies equally well to “Jew-ish.” A Sabbath observant person with a yarmulke or wig is a full-fledged Jew. Anyone else is quasi-Jew, a.k.a. Jew-ish. Physicist Albert Einstein was Jewish, not a Jew. Athlete Mark Spitz? Jewish, but not a Jew. Singer Barbra Streisand? Not a Jew, but Jewish.

What about you, dear reader? Are you a Jew or Jewish? To a Jew (or Jewish person), I hope the answer is obvious.

Semantics aside, Jew and Jewish are synonymous. No one Jew is intrinsically more Jewish than another.

Yet what forms this innateness in every Jew? Why is Harry Houdini as much a Jew as a chief rabbi and vice versa? It’s true they both have Jewish mothers and are therefore heir to an immemorial lineage, but mustn’t there be something more that makes us Jewish?

We find the answer in the “Tanya,” a text composed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Hasidism.

Imbued in the soul

The rabbi explains that imbued within the soul of every Jew lives our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This is not solely referring to a genealogical lineage, linking grandmother to mother to daughter, but rather a living embodiment of our Patriarchs within us. The very breath of our Patriarchs, every fiber of their being at every moment of their lives, was utilized to perform G-d’s will.

Consequently, our Patriarchs are referred to as chariots of G-dliness and merited that their descendents for all time be infused with a soul emanating from G-d’s infinite light that is truly “a part of G-d above” (“Tanya,” chapter 2). This is every Jew’s inheritance, forever, no exceptions. There are no quasi-Jews, only those who are full-fledged.

What does one do with a Patriarchal, G-dly inheritance? Should the inheritance be ignored, stored away in a safe deposit box?

Ignoring is in fact a real option, but the inheritance exists regardless as to whether or not you pay attention to it. By acknowledging the presence of our Patriarchs inside yourself for its own sake, an awe of G-d will be aroused.

Why should the Jew act upon his G-dly soul? There are many spiritual worlds that exist beyond and above the physical world where we live, and all of these worlds exist on a higher spiritual plane than our own.

A higher spiritual plane refers to a greater perceived revelation of G-dliness, a higher perceptibility of G-d’s radiance. For example, as a result of living in these upper worlds, angels can feel G-d’s radiance more tangibly than can we.

Our world belongs to the lowest spiritual rung, where we perceive physicality and ourselves as having a completely independent existence apart from G-d. In other words, G-dliness is concealed most heavily where we live.

Yet it is in this lowly world where the creation of the universe finds its purpose, and this purpose is realized by acting upon our G-dly soul.

What is the purpose of Creation and how does one act upon a G-dly soul? The purpose of Creation is to make a dwelling place for G-dliness, for spirituality, here in the lowest realm.

As humans, we perceive most of what we see as void of G-dliness, when in actuality nothing is void of G-d’s presence.

For example, to the human mind an esrog (citron) seems mundane, apart from G-dliness, objectively no different than any other fruit. During Sukkot, why not combine a lulav with a lemon instead of an esrog? Both fruits are, after all, shaped and colored similarly.

By waving the esrog and lulav specifically, the purpose of that esrog was bound into holiness as was our G-dly soul. Yet our G-dly soul could not have connected to holiness without the action, the mitzvah. Therefore, we act upon our G-dly soul by performing mitzvots.

Every Jew can connect to G-dliness through mitzvots, from a chief rabbi to you and I. The correct definition of Jew or Jewish is “a person vested with the living Patriarchs whose G-dly soul can connect to G-dliness through actions.”

Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer.