Esor Ben-Sorek
Esor Ben-Sorek

What Is A Jew? (written by Count Leo Tolstoy, 1891)

One of the Russian Empire’s greatest and most prolific novelists was Count Leo Tolstoy, son of an aristocratic Russian family. He is best remembered for WAR AND PEACE, ANNA KARENINA, and THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH. In a period of anti-Semitic pogroms and persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire, Tolstoy penned these impressive words in 1891. They should be reread by all who profess tolerance and love.


This question is not as strange as it may seem at first glance. Let’s examine this free creature that was insulated and oppressed, trampled on and pursued, burned and drowned by all the rulers and the nations, but is nevertheless living and thriving in spite of the whole world.

What is a Jew that did not succumb to any worldly temptations offered by his oppressors and persecutors so that he would renounce his religion and abandon the faith of his fathers?

A Jew is a sacred being who procured an eternal fire from the heavens and with it illuminated the earth and those who live on it. He is the spring and the source from which the rest of the nations drew their religions and beliefs.

A Jew is a pioneer of culture. From time immemorial, ignorance was impossible in the Holy Land, even more so than nowadays in civilized Europe. Moreover, at the time when the life and death of a human being was worth nothing, Rabbi Akiva spoke against the death penalty which is now considered to be an acceptable punishment in the most civilized countries.

A Jew is a pioneer of freedom. Back in primitive times, when the nation was divided into two classes, masters and slaves, Moses’ teaching forbid holding a person as a slave for more than six years.

A Jew is a symbol of civil and religious tolerance. ‘So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”. These words were uttered during distant, barbarian times when it was commonly acceptable among the nations to enslave each other.

In terms of tolerance, the Jewish religion is far from recruiting adherents. Quite the opposite, the Talmud prescribes that if a non-Jew wants to convert to the Jewish faith, then it has to be explained to him how difficult it is to be a Jew and that the righteous of other religions also inherit the heavenly kingdom. A Jew is a symbol of eternity.

The nation which neither slaughter nor torture could exterminate, which neither fire nor sword of civilizations were able to erase from the face of the earth, the nation which first proclaimed the word of the Lord, the nation which preserved the prophecy for so long and passed it on to the rest of humanity, such a nation cannot vanish.

A Jew is eternal; he is an embodiment of eternity.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1891
St. Petersburg, Russia

I have always found these words deeply moving and have kept them on my desk for many years. In an era when anti-Semitism, pogroms, and discrimination against Jews in the Czarist empire were so common, Leo Tolstoy’s tribute to our people and history shines as a beacon of light for humanity. At this holiday season of Jews and Christians world-wide, it is good to remember his inspiring words. I am pleased to share them with my readers.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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