Jewish Nationhood – Parshat Shemot 5773

Parashat Shmot

In the book of Exodus, Shmot, the development of the descendants of Jacob from a family into a nation is documented. I have been asked numerous times is Judaism a religion or a peoplehood? 

Most classic religions do not limit themselves to a particular nation. A religion is a system of belief and a system of action, a system of thought and of ethics without, generally, a nationalistic component.

Judaism is, however, quite different. In Judaism there is a strong national component and as Rav Kook says, you cannot divorce the national component from the spiritual component. They really are bound up together. The people to whom G-d revealed the Torah, were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who went through certain common experiences; the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus from Egypt, the sojourn in the desert, and the revelation at Mount Sinai.  So the Torah is given to a nation and the nation is designated as the people who are chosen to keep the Torah.

However, the matter is a little more complex. Clearly, it is not totally genealogical because otherwise conversion would not be an option; but we know that in Jewish tradition conversion is certainly possible. You cannot become Japanese, you cannot become an Arian, you cannot become German, but you can become Jewish, even though you do not have the shared experiences of the Jewish nation and even though you are not a genealogical descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

On the other hand Judaism is not purely ideological, because someone born to a Jewish mother is automatically Jewish, even if that person does not keep or believe in Judaism. I think that the explanation is there is really only one way to become Jewish and that is through the revelation at Mount Sinai. The souls of the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah and that is how they and their descendants became Jewish. Therefore if you were born to a Jewish mother you automatically have within your soul the Sinai revelation experience.

When a Gentile wants to become Jewish he must also experience Mt. Sinai. In fact, every conversion is a mini-Mount Sinai experience. The Talmud, and later Maimonides, actually derive all the laws of conversion from what the Jews experienced at Mount Sinai. The convert must accept the Torah unconditionally, as the Jews did at Mount Sinai when they said, “We will do and we will listen.” The male convert must also be circumcised as did the Israelite men before the revelation.  Every convert must purify himself or herself in a mikveh, as the Jews purified themselves at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were brought into the covenant with G-d by Moses, and every convert must be brought into the covenant by the representatives of Moses, a qualified Jewish court, Beit Din.

Once the convert goes through this quasi-Sinaitic experience, Maimonides points out, that he or she may say in their prayers, “My forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” because just as born Jews are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so is the convert now a “child” of Abraham. Maimonides writes, in a letter to an Arab who had converted to Judaism, Ovadiah, “Don’t let your genealogy be insignificant in your eyes. Although we trace our descent to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you trace your descent back to “He who spoke and created the world.”

So what we see here is that Judaism is a bit of both a religion and also a nation. It is a nation that an outsider can join by going through a similar experience to the native members of that nation – the unconditional acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

An interesting aspect of the nationhood component of Judaism is found in Maimonides’ code in the third chapter of the Laws of Repentance. Maimonides writes that “A Jew who does not transgress any sins and who observes the commandments, but does so by himself.  He does not mourn when the Jewish community mourns” and he does not rejoice when the nation rejoices. He lives apart, in isolation from the nation of Israel, and does not participate in its communal life. Maimonides rules that such a person is considered an apostate, as though he has abandoned Judaism and accepted a different religion.  Even though this man has technically not transgressed any sins and is indeed keeping the commandments, the very fact that he is not part of the Jewish community means that he is not part of Judaism. Being a good Jew does not only mean keeping the commandments, but includes being part of the Jewish community. Feeling pain when the Jewish people feel pain, rejoicing when the Jewish people rejoice, fasting when the Jews fast.  

One of the essential components of the Jews accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai was a unity of the Jewish people.  No one individual can keep all 613 commandments. The only way the entire Torah can be fulfilled is if the entire Jewish people do it together. There are commandments that only pertain to a Cohen; some only to men, some only to women. There are Commandments that only pertain to the King, to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Court and so on and so forth. Torah cannot be fulfilled by an individual; it can only be fulfilled by a nation.

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