By Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
What is a Jew? What does it mean to identify oneself as Jewish?
As a rabbi – someone who is, one might say, a Jew by profession – I have given a fair amount of thought to this issue.
The most obvious first answer, I believe, is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as it might seem. There is no basic set of meaningful principles to which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.
Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.
Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit. Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official “shared” language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.
What we are – I propose – is a family.
We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel. We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another. We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family. We are all proud when one of us does good and embarrassed when one of us does bad. And, as much as we may argue among ourselves, we are always there to defend or assist one another.
The sense of family is an integral part of all Jewish holidays, but it is even stronger during the festival of Passover. The central ceremony of Passover is the Seder, which takes place in the home, not in the synagogue. And the key element of the Seder is in telling the story of our (physical and spiritual) enslavement, our (physical) liberation, and the attainment of our (spiritual) destiny at Mount Sinai – that is, the reaffirmation of our identity as the House of Israel.
Next Saturday night, Jewish families throughout the world will come together and read from the Haggada, the text of the Seder. They will begin to tell the story by pointing to the matzah, the unleavened bread, and declaring, “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.”
As we look at the matzah and remember our history – when we were hungry and needy, yes, but also when we were all together – we realize that part of the family is missing. There are empty chairs in the house, where a son or a daughter or a cousin ought to be.
We issue the invitation and we open the door, but some of them are so far away – from us and from Judaism – that they don’t hear our invitation or see the light from the open door. If every Jew who cares about the members of the Jewish family will issue the invitation and open the door, many of these estranged Jews will hear or see, and drop in for a visit – if not to his own house, then to the house of a long-lost cousin.
Let us welcome them back.