On Being a Jew
“What does it mean that Jews are the chosen nation? Why are Jews better than anyone else?” A friend from Mayanot threw this question at me as we rode the bus back to our seminary in Jerusalem after a Shabbos we had spent together in Petach Tikvah. I could sense that this question mattered a lot to her but I honestly could not think of a non-offensive, intelligible answer. Though I did have a sense that the Jewish people are special and was comfortable with the notion in my own head, I did not have a ready response that I could articulate to someone in a different headspace than my own.
A year later, after discussing the topic extensively, the answer to her question dawned on me. Many people recoil from the notion that the Jewish people are special because it seems to put other people down. If Jews are superior, than everyone else must be mediocre, at best. As a Susan Sontag once wrote, “I cannot believe in any religion that claims the ultimate truth because it negates the humanity of everyone else.” But, in truth, being Jewish has nothing to do with a person’s humanity. Instead, being Jewish is rooted in a Jew’s profound bond with the Divine.
To explain further:
An animal would not be insulted if you called it an animal. A person, on the other hand, would most certainly be insulted if you called him or her an animal. Why? There is an unbridgeable gap between the two species hence you cannot judge one by the standard of the other. A human being has the potential to be human, and should be human. Thus, if you tell a person “your humanity is compromised, you cannot fully be who you are,” that is deeply offensive. In contrast, an animal does not have the capacity to be human. The fact that it cannot be human does not mean that it’s animalness is compromised. Being human is simply outside the scope of its existence.
The same way a person’s personness does not diminish the animalness of an animal, a Jew’s Jewishness does not, in any way, diminish the humanity of the human. When the Torah says that the Jewish people are special, it does not mean that the Jewish people are on the top of the human hierarchy and everyone else is stuck, sadly, on the bottom or the middle. That is offensive and simply not true. Jews are not better people than non-Jews. Indeed, there are plenty of non-Jews who are more developed humans than many Jews. Instead, when we say that Jews are “chosen” we speak of a unique connection to the Divine that exists on a qualitatively different plane than the human plane. Though on a human level, a Jew may be underdeveloped, he will always have a bond with the transcendent that lies outside the realm of even the most sophisticated human being.
This idea is encapsulated in something the Rebbe once told a young spiritual seeker, “The essence of a black man is to be what he is as a black man, the essence of an Indian is to be what he is as an Indian, and the essence of a Jew is tied to Hashem Yisbarach through Torah and Mitzvos.”
Now, all this does not mean that a non-Jew is not connected to G-d. On the contrary, a non-Jew can have a very close relationship with his or her Creator. But as a creation. Jews, on the other hand, are not creations at their core. Jewish souls were part of G-d way before He created anything. We were a part of Him before He created this planet, before He created stars and galaxies and angels in heaven; we were embedded in Him before He emanated the world of Atzilus, shone the light of the Kav, created space though Tzimtzum and radiated the Ohr Ein Sof shelifnei hatzimtzum.
In fact, even the Torah is not rooted in G-d as deeply as are Jewish souls. While the Torah can be traced all the way back to the essence of G-d’s light, Jewish souls, are rooted within the Luminary Himself. To use an analogy, if G-d were an artist, the Torah would be compared to His art, and the Jew to the artist’s child. Like a piece of art expresses the inner life of the artist, the Torah reveals G-d’s inner self. And like a child is a literal extension of his father, the Jew carries within him the very essence of G-d.
So, no, being Jewish does not mean that I have a connection to my Creator. Instead, being Jewish means that my self and G-d’s Self are inseparable. It means that who I am at my core is bound up with who He is at His core. It means that I cannot be me without Him, and He cannot be Him, without me. It means that there is nothing in this world (or outside this world) that is holier than you.
Points to ponder:
I am not a human being; I am a soul on a mission.
At my core, I am one with G-d Almighty Himself! I am rock solid at my core. I can do anything and nothing can stop me.
Judaism and religious practice is not a ladder that I need to climb in order to connect to G-d. I am fundamentally connected to Him. I cannot be more connected to Him than I already am. The question is how much am I revealing that inherent connection. How much am I affirming the truth of my identity? And how much am I, G-d forbid, violating the truth of my own soul?