By Rabbi Tuvia Teldon
Once at a lecture, when the speech was completed, an attendee stood and said, “I strongly object to how you address us as being Jewish!” The speaker, somewhat taken aback, clarified that he thought he was speaking to a Jewish crowd. The response was, “I am not Jewish—I am a Jew. Something is ‘ish’ if it is watered down a bit, like blue-ish or soft-ish. I am a Jew, without the ‘ish’.”
The story is cute-ish, but it does have a message.
Perhaps the greatest blow to Juda“ism” was created by those who present it as a religion—an “ism” just like any other major world religion. The shul is the Jewish parallel of the church, Chanukah of Christmas, rabbi of the priest, and the Torah of the Bible. If you follow a particular way of thinking, you become an adherent of that “religion” because you choose to believe and practice your life in such a way. However, if you wake up one day and decide that you no longer believe in that “religion,” then you are no longer part of it. As a result, you follow its edicts as long as you believe in it.
Unfortunately for those who would like an easy way out, Judaism is not just a religion. Yes, we do have a belief system, a language, a homeland, culinary customs, a type of dress, a culture, and much more, but that is not what makes us Jews. We are Jews because our mothers were Jews going back to Sarah our Matriarch, or because we converted according to halachah. Being a Jew is like being of a certain lineage. Once born a Jew, you will be that way the rest of your life, whether you like it or not and whether you observe it or not. We cannot change our race or who our parents are. These are facts that are part of our essence whether we like it or not.
So if Judaism is not a religion, what is it? The Torah answers this question clearly. It is a covenant, a binding commitment from G-d to the children of Abraham and from the children of Abraham to G-d. It is being part of a people with a purpose that will last through the eons of time, creating a relationship both with the world and G-d in a balanced way that joins Heaven and Earth. Whether one adheres to the principles and beliefs is a matter of personal choice, but it does not affect the reality of one’s lineage.
The column that starts this week will deal with a variety of subjects that I hope will strengthen your connection to this covenant. I call it “back to basics” because I think that many of us, of all affiliations, have experienced a certain disconnect from our core mission as the people of the Covenant. Surely, most of the 5TJT readers observe the Torah to one degree or another, but do we do so b’simcha? Do we feel that G-d and the Torah relate to us on a very personal level? Do we feel that Torah is relevant to the details of our lives and to today’s society? Having spent 40 years explaining the Torah to Jews of all stripes throughout Long Island, I may have some answers—and a unique approach—which I hope you will enjoy reading.
The previous Chabad Rebbe was once asked by a talmid chacham what Chassidic teachings add to Jewish thought. He answered the question with a question: “Did you ever notice how beautiful that intricate design on the ceiling is?” The rabbi thought the Rebbe was trying to change the subject and started to walk away. The Rebbe stopped him and explained that Chassidic thought does not add to the Torah, but it does help us to see beautiful parts of the Torah that we sometimes overlook.
I hope that during this year of weekly articles there will be many “new” ideas shared that will help each and every one of you, whatever your level of religiosity, to have a greater appreciation of the beauty of Torah, the joy of being a Jew, and the privilege of having this covenant.
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon is the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Long Island.