The Meaning of Being Jewish
I received an email from a man who converted to Judaism in a Reform synagogue in Arizona, U.S. To his dismay, he discovered that his conversion was not recognized by Conservative and Orthodox denominations. As a result, he started looking into the meaning of being Jewish and asked me what the wisdom of Kabbalah and The Book of Zohar say about it.
To begin with, the wisdom of Kabbalah does not relate to a person’s body or to one’s material actions whatsoever. It speaks of and relates only to the desires in one’s heart, and how to help us unite with each other and with the power of unity, the Creator. As a result, the wisdom of Kabbalah does not relate to one’s formal religion, but only to one’s spiritual state. In other words, a person can be Jewish and a member of the Israeli nation at one moment, and a gentile (non-Jew) the next. At the same time, one can be born into a different religion altogether, yet be regarded as a member of the people of Israel in the spiritual sense. I hope my explanation below will clarify what I mean by these statements, which I know will surprise many people.
The Hebrew word for “Jewish” is Yehudi, from the word yechudi [unique or united]. Unity is the heart and soul of Judaism, and particularly unity above differences and divisions. King Solomon said (Proverbs 10:12), “Hate stirs up strife, and love will cover all crimes.” The Book of Zohar (portion Aharei Mot) describes the relation between uniting precisely above hatred, and what it means for the whole world: “‘How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to also dwell together.’ These are the friends, as they sit together inseparably. At first, they seem like people at war, wishing to kill one another. Then they return to being in brotherly love. …And you, the friends who are here, as you were in fondness and love before, you will not part henceforth … and by your merit there will be peace in the world.”
The ancestors of the people of Israel united so deeply that they became as one, or as the great commentator RASHI described it, “as one man with one heart.” Only once they achieved that profound unity, they were proclaimed a nation, having united with the power of bestowal that we refer to as the Creator, and with each other. Once they achieved that unity, they were commanded to lead the world to unity, as Prophet Isaiah (42:6-7) described it: “I will appoint you as … a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”
Indeed, if we examine the ancestry of the founders of the Israeli nation, we will find that the greatest among them had non-Jewish roots. They achieved greatness because they united the people, not because of some ancestral privilege. Abraham, the founder of our nation, was not born Jewish; the nation did not exist before his time. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, led the women of the people of Israel along with Moses’ sister, Miriam, after they came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage after Moses, whose disciples wrote The Book of Zohar and the Mishnah (the basis of Judaism), was born to parents who were not born Jewish. Another one of Rabbi Akiva’s greatest disciples, Rabbi Meir, who is the third most frequently mentioned sage in the Mishnah, and whose wife Bruriah is cited in the Gemara, descended from the Roman Emperor Nero. And last in this list, but certainly not the least, Ruth the Moabite, the heroine of the Biblical story, was the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, King David, and whose dynasty were the kings of the people of Israel for centuries, during Israel’s greatest times.
We therefore see why the wisdom of Kabbalah pays no attention to one’s physical ancestry. If a person believes that unity of all people is the ultimate value, that everything else is secondary to it, and strives to unite all the people “as one man with one heart,” in the spiritual sense, that person is regarded as a member of the people of Israel.
From the spiritual perspective, as the wisdom of Kabbalah sees it, being Jewish has nothing to do with one’s color or creed. The only “test” is whether one strives for unity or for self-centeredness. As long as one chooses unity, one is Israel. If you ever watched one of my lessons, you will see that I have students from all over the world and from every ethnicity and background. The one thing that unites all of us is our aspiration to unite above all differences. This is the spiritual people of Israel.