from the heart of jerusalem

With our free will, can we stop being Jewish?


The banging on the door was a shock, but everyone knew what it meant. The summer of 1938 was not an auspicious time to be Jewish in Berlin, yet Hans was not Jewish, or at least he was not Jewish anymore. He had been named Joseph at birth, but had long since forgotten the Jewish grandfather after whom he had been named. His mother had been Jewish but married a Christian German businessman and eventually converted to his faith; Joseph, married to a non-Jewish woman, never considered himself Jewish. The Nazis didn’t see it that way. 

Someone had informed the authorities that he had been born of a Jewish mother, and his presence was requested at police headquarters. He was told he need not bring any belongings, it was simply an invitation for routine questioning. But there was no mistaking the nature of this invitation; he was not being asked, he was being ordered. And 70 years later, his daughter still remembers the fear in his eyes and the tremble in his voice when he gave her a hug and told her to go back to sleep.

They never saw him again. From eyewitness accounts after the war, they learned that he was taken to Gestapo headquarters and beaten and tortured for two days, though it is unclear what they wanted of him. On the third day he was sent to Dachau where he eventually died of exposure when a Nazi guard forced him to run and jump naked in the snow for an entire afternoon.

Fast forward 70 years. Again, it’s the middle of the night. Surrounded by Arabs in the ancient city of Shechem (Nablus), a small group of Jews arrived to pray at the ancient gravesite of … Joseph. Although it is dangerous for Jews to enter the Arab city of Shechem deep in the heart of the Palestinian Authority, the army allows it under certain circumstances, once a month, in the middle of the night, when there are presumably no Arabs on the streets.

Joseph, Yaakov’s beloved son, has come to represent the Jew in exile, both for his ability to maintain his Jewish identity as a lone Jewish slave in the heart of ancient pagan Egypt, and for the fact that his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, were the first Jews born in exile. And this night, no one was afraid, for a very special group of people had come to the gravesite. Known as the B’nei Menashe, they hail from India and Nepal, and believe they are descended of the lost tribe of Menashe, son of Joseph.

Dispersed as part of the great exile of the ten tribes 2,700 years ago, when Assyria conquered Northern Israel, they are fulfilling a 2,700 year old dream. This night they are reuniting with their ancestor Joseph after nearly three millennium of dreaming.

What makes us Jewish? If it is a shared system of beliefs, what if someone chooses not to adhere to those beliefs? Can a person decide not to be Jewish?

Maimonides makes it clear (Hilchot Teshuva chap. 5) that one of the essential principals of Judaism is free will. Despite G-d’s Omnipotence, we were created with the freedom to choose. Yet it appears that we cannot choose not to be Jewish. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a) makes it clear that no matter what mistakes a Jew makes and whatever his transgressions he or she remains a Jew. 

This week, our parsha, Nitzavim, references this question. Moshe, in sharing his final words with the Jewish people, reminds them of the Covenant they accepted at Sinai, renewing it for all time and for all Jews forever: “It is not with you alone that I am making this Covenant, but with whoever is standing here today, and with whoever is not here with us today.” (Devarim 29:13-14)

And every entire Jewish person at the time was present, the sages conclude it was a covenant made for every Jew who will ever be born! But how can we be held responsible for a promise made by our ancestors before we were born?

Jewish tradition suggests that we were all at Sinai. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 28:6) tells us that the souls of every Jew yet to be born was present at Sinai, thus, we actually did accept the covenant out of choice when we said (Exodus chap. 24) “Na’aseh ve’nishma” (“We will do and we will understand”).

But what does this actually mean? 

There are two parts to who we are. There is the body, the physical reality we each occupy in this world; and there is the soul, our spiritual reality. The definition of all things physical is that they are limited. Hence, as Maimonides suggests, G-d cannot be physical, because G-d has no limits. Everything physical eventually ends, hence the body will eventually fail us and will return to the ground from whence we were created, the phenomenon we call death.

Yet, there is also a spiritual essence to who we are, and those are things which have no limits: the capacity to love and to give, to care and to share. There is no reason to assume this nonphysical part of our selves has to end.

Most people who share this belief think of this idea in terms of each person having a soul. But a person does not have a soul, a person is a soul. The essence of a soul is our will, or ratzon, and this will, cultivated properly, is what allows us to be who we are meant to be. And it is the soul that we are that drives the physical aspect of ourselves to make a difference in this world.

Perhaps there are two aspects to being a Jew. There is the system of beliefs and behaviors every individual Jew is responsible to uphold. But there is also the driving force that represents the wellspring of the Jewish people and the essence of our ability to change the world and this, suggests Jewish tradition, will never cease. Because the world needs this to become the place it was always meant to be.

A Jew can choose not to behave as a Jew and mask the physical role they play so that they are barely recognizable as a Jew. But no Jew will ever cease to be a Jew, any more than a person can cease to be artistic, or musical, or a child born in France. Indeed, this is at the heart of the days of awe that will soon be upon us.

Maimonides (Hilchot Tshuva 1:1) suggests that the central Mitzvah of teshuva is vidui: to be modeh before Hashem. But the word modeh also means to be thankful. Sometimes people have a hard time saying thank you, because they do not want to be beholden.

But in truth we all are in debt. We owe all those who have given so much that we might live the lives we live, and we owe our creator the life we have been given. Which also means we owe ourselves; we owe the selves Hashem has created us to be.

May Hashem bless us all to live up to our selves so that this year can be filled with the peace and joy, love and harmony we all yearn for.

Wishing you all a sweet happy and healthy new year. Best wishes for a ktivah vechatimah tovah.