What Makes a Jew Jewish?
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the status of a child born from a Gentile father and Jewish mother. The child is not a halakhic mamzer but is seen to be of inferior lineage and cannot marry into the priestly families.
This would seem to be contradicted by the following verse in Vayikra (24:10):
וַיֵּצֵא֙ בֶּן־אִשָׁ֣ה יִשְׂרְאֵלִ֔ית וְהוּא֙ בֶּן־אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיִּנָּצוּ֙ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה בֶּ֚ן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִ֔ית וְאִ֖ישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִֽ׃
There came out among the Israelites a man whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that Son of the Jewess and a Jewish Man.
The son of the Jewish woman is not referred to as a Jewish person, while his Jewish opponent is directly called a Jewish Man. This implies that this son from an Egyptian man was not considered fully Jewish. Even more puzzling, Ramban (ibid) also quotes a Toras Cohanim that says he converted. Therefore, Ramban holds that this was not an issue of him being technically Jewish but rather a subtler matter of status. His lineage was not pure; he had no share in the Land of Israel because that comes from the father, and his father was Egyptian. Thus, the verse is describing a man who wanted to be part of the Jewish people, even “converted,” not in the halakhic sense but in the sense of committing to mitzvos. Unfortunately, he became disillusioned, because he did not feel that he was treated as Jewish in that he would not have a birthright in the Promised Land.
The Chokhmei Tzarfas (brought down in Ramban ibid) argue and say that he did have to convert for real,because prior to the covenant at Mount Sinai, all Jews had a halakhic status of a gentile. Now regarding lineage of two gentiles who have a child, we follow the father, and so the child was not really Jewish at all until he converted, because even the mother did not yet have a fully Jewish status prior to Mount Sinai. Ramban objects strongly to this, stating that Avraham was the first convert, and his children had the status of Jews. This is, even to the extent that Esau was considered Jewish (albeit an apostate, but still Jewish. See Kiddushin 18a).
What is the underlying principle that is in dispute between the Chokhmei Tzarfas and Ramban? We can frame it as being about what makes Jewishness. It would seem the Chokhmei Tzarfas hold that without the covenant at Mount Sinai, Jewishness does not exist. No Torah, no Jews. According to Ramban, Mount Sinai and the mitzvos are additional covenantal obligations, but Jewishness began with Abraham. What is the nature of this Jewishness according to Ramban? Gentiles also could have been monotheistic in Avraham’s time, and for that matter, in ours. It seems, the fact of being chosen and entering the initial covenant of the Bris Milah makes Avraham and his descendants Jewish. I don’t know if there is a practical difference between these two opinions, but metaphysically it is significant. According to Ramban, the Torah is something Jews agreed to do, but they are Jews independent of that via the Bris Milah covenant. According to the Chokhmei Tzarfas, the Torah IS being Jewish, not just a feature of Jewishness.
Balanced Spiritual Diet
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us that the Bais HaMikdash is the highest spot in the Land of Israel, and Israel is the highest land in the world.
The Maharal (Be’er Hagolah 6) explains that this height is not referring to a physical height but rather a balance point. Maharal explains that a circle actually has no top or bottom, and since the earth is round, it’s absurd to discuss a highest point. Rather, just as the top of a slope represents the median of two ends, the Land of Israel and the Beis HaMikdash represent an optimal blend of all the various climates and spiritual powers and vantage points. This is not a mathematical average but rather a state of optimum balance. To illustrate, a person should have balanced traits or Middos. He should know when to be angry and when to be flexible, when to be compassionate and when to be cruel. But it’s not a mathematical balance of 50/50 any more than a cake is a mathematical balance of sugar and salt. It’s balanced in the sense of a healthy functional proportion. (See Rambam Hilchos Deos, chs. 1-2.)
Similarly, he says the seven different species of foods that Israel is known for also represent a proper balance of spicy, sweet, hot, cold etc. Even the patriarch Yaakov, is a balance and healthy blend of Avraham’s Chesed (kindness) and Yitschok’s Din (letter of the law), which morphs into Emes. The Hebrew Emes is not by definition truth. It is a borrowed term used to refer to truth, but in Hebrew the connotation is more about appropriate, correct, and balanced. It is similar to the GRA’s visual representation of Emes in Hebrew in comparison to Sheker. All three Hebrew letters that form Sheker (ש-ק-ר) all have pointy bases, while the Hebrew letters for Emes (א-מ-ת) all have solid grounded feet. Thus, Emes is balance.
One of my greatest therapy “teachers” and role models, Freida Fromm Reichman, who was famous for the respect she showed all people, even to and especially toward delusional, psychotic, and violent patients. She would adamantly scold her colleagues and students, “The difference between mentally healthy people and those suffering from mental illness is merely a matter of degree.” In other words, humans all share maladaptive traits, fears, defenses, aggressions, compulsions, and delusions, certainly in regard to initial internal impulses. The difference is how we balance all parts of ourselves in order to be whole.
The Land of Israel and the Bais HaMikdash, especially in a Messianic sense, will be the proper blending and balancing of the various human qualities and powers, to bring about an optimum human condition, leading to an spiritual recovery and redemption for the world.
The Ego Defense of Projection
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph states an aphorism from Shmuel, which also has halakhic ramifications as it might cause us to doubt somebody’s lineage:
“If one habitually claims that others are flawed, he disqualifies himself with his own flaw. The flaw he accuses them of having, is in fact, the one that HE has.”
This psychological and spiritual process is one of the ego defenses that Freud identified. Briefly, an ego defense is an unconscious psychological mechanism that protects the personality and sense of self from ideas, thoughts, or feelings that are too dangerous or threatening. In this case, the inadequacy and guilt that the person feels about himself needs some type of discharge. (It is an observed idea about human nature already known to the ancients, that thoughts and feelings represent a form of energy that builds up in the person. This makes sense scientifically as well, as thoughts and feelings are transmitted electrically through the nervous system, and one feels tension building up.) However, since the person does not want to admit to himself that he has this deficiency, he has to contend with this urge to correct it in some way. Partially repressing it causes it to come out by pointing out other people’s flaws. And it is even more likely to be activated when he sees his own flaw in somebody else because it relieves the sense of inadequacy and guilt and puts it upon another.
Baalei Musar, mystics, and Chasidim have also written about this human process, and I will quote a few insights that are particularly insightful.
Orchos Tzaddikim (25) cautions that often our strongest urges to engage in l’shon hara stem from this dynamic. There is something we see in the other person that irritates us greatly. However, what really irritates us is that what we see in this person reminds us of ourselves. We can check that urge to slander and criticize by asking ourselves, “Whom are we really angry at?”
The Baal Shem Tov (Bereishis 126) cleverly re-words a Rabbinic teaching, which was already reworded once before. The original teaching comes from Mishna Negayim (2:5):
כָּל הַנְּגָעִים אָדָם רוֹאֶה, חוּץ מִנִּגְעֵי עַצְמוֹ.
“All negaim (lesions or blemishes) may be examined by a person, except his own.”
Originally, this was merely a legal statement. A Cohen who is normally empowered to rule about skin lesions, if they are considered tzoraas or not, is not authorized to do so for a lesion that is on his own body or possessions.
The popular Rabbinic quip is to read the statement here in a non-legal sense. Meaning to say, “A person sees everyone else’s blemishes (and shortcomings), save for their own.” Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s clever twist on this is that we read it as follows: “All blemishes and imperfections one sees in outsiders (חוּץ means except, but also outside) are really his own. Everything he sees and criticizes are a product of his inner imperfections.
Finally, Rav Tzaddok (Takanas Hashavin 10:1) offers a spiritual-psychological explanation for how this works but different from the Freudian ego defense. According to Rav Tzaddok, this is a matter of perception and confirmation bias. We automatically look to confirm and compare the unfamiliar with the already familiar. Thus, when in doubt, we tend to judge the motives and behaviors of others in accordance with patterns of thoughts and feelings indigenous to our personalities. If one steals, one will obviously be mistrustful and therefore accuse others of stealing. On the other hand, if one is kind, generous, and honest, he will interpret behavior, thoughts, and motivations along those positive and pro-social lines.