Who’s a Jew? This question is a little disingenuous. We know that the halakhic definition of a Jew has been fixed for centuries: the child of a Jewish mother; and for centuries, the rabbinic arbiters of the halakhah have been deciding who belongs to the club and who doesn’t. And we know that ever since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when ‘religious’ matters were handed over by the government to the Orthodox authorities, halakhic definitions of who is a Jew have reigned supreme. In recent years, the campaigning work, of the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism and the Israel Religious Action Centre, on behalf, for example, of progressive converts making aliyah, has meant that these definitions have been increasingly challenged. But, perhaps, alongside these challenges, there is a need to confront the very logic of biological definitions of Jewish status, by reminding ourselves of our own story about the formation of the Jewish people.
As we read parashat ha-shavu’a, the weekly Torah portion, Jews, the world over, in Israel and in the diaspora recall the tale of am Yisraeil, the people Israel. This week’s parashah, the first portion of the Book of Sh’mot/Exodus provides the first instalment of our foundational narrative, as it relates how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and became slaves. Parashat Sh’mot opens: V’eileh sh’mot b’ney Yisra’eil – ‘Now these are the names of the sons of Israel’ (Exodus 1:1). B’ney Yisraeil: literally, ‘the sons of Israel.’ The one daughter of Israel/Jacob – Dinah – is not mentioned in the list that follows. ‘The sons of Israel’, ‘every man with his household’, but not Israel/Jacob’s only daughter and ‘her household’.
So, Sh’mot: the portion of ‘names’; of the named and the nameless. Significantly, the Divine is one of the nameless, so the females are in good company. When Moses is apprehended achar ha-midbar, ‘behind the wilderness’ (Exodus 3:1ff.), by a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames, and addressed by a mysterious voice, he wants to know who it is that is speaking him? The answer Moses receives is not very satisfying: the barely consonantal words, as indistinct as breath, declare: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh: ‘I am who I am’ – or, ‘I will be who I will be’ (Exodus 3:14). The ineffable Eternal cannot be captured in a name. The Eternal is nameless by definition.
The nameless Eternal, stands with all the females of the family of Israel, whose names are not mentioned. And yet, interestingly, it is the females, who take centre stage in this first portion of Sh’mot/Exodus and push the narrative forward – and some of them are given their names. It is the midwives, Shiphrah and Pu’ah, who defy Pharaoh’s genocidal decree, and save the lives of the Hebrew baby boys (Exodus 1:15-21). It is the unnamed ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ of the baby, named, Moses, by the unnamed daughter Pharaoh, who ensure that he survives to grow up and become a leader of his people (Exodus 2:1-10). And later on, when Moses is on his way back to Egypt charged by the Eternal with the mission of persuading Pharaoh to free the slaves, it is his Midianite wife, Tzipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian, who circumcises his sons (Exodus 4:24-26). For a parashah that begins by relating the names of ‘the sons of Israel’, Sh’mot includes more females playing more active roles than any other portion in the entire book.
But the issue of ‘names’, of the named and of the nameless, in parashat Sh’mot and in the subsequent parashiyyot of the Book of Sh’mot/Exodus is not simply a matter of patriarchal male gender bias. The narrative that centres on the liberation of the slaves and begins with the words, V’eileh sh’mot b’ney Yisra’eil – ‘Now these are the names of the sons of Israel’ (Exodus 1:1), is not, exclusively, a story about the biological descendants of Jacob/Israel. We read in parashat Bo, which relates the concluding instalments of the narrative (Exodus 12:37-38):
The sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkot, about 600,000 men on foot [ragli ha-g’varim], besides little ones. / And a mixed multitude [erev rav] went up also with them…
So: no mention of any women; but, evidently, erev rav, a ‘mixed multitude’ of other slaves made the dash to freedom with the 600,000 ‘sons of Israel’. Further on in the narrative, the ‘mixed multitude’ are blamed for the bad behaviour of the disgruntled ex-slaves (B’ha’a lot’cha, in B’midbar/Numbers 11:4). Nevertheless, at Sinai the entire rabble of all the ex-slaves – the sons and the daughters of Israel and the ‘mixed multitude’ – became a people, when they assented to the covenant with the words, na’aseh v’nishma – ‘we will do when we will listen’ (Mishpatim, Sh’mot/Exodus 24:7). ‘The sons of Israel’ may have been the male biological descendants of Jacob/Israel, but their biological status did not make them a people. The people Israel were forged when all who were present at Mount Sinai entered into a covenant with the Eternal. Equally important, it was not a one-off moment. According to the narrative in D’varim/Deuteronomy, 40 years later, the descendants of the slaves also entered into the covenant with the Eternal (Nitzavim, D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:13-14). The covenant with the Eternal includes all those who make the decision to enter into it, at any time.
Needless to say, I’m providing a progressive reading of the Torah. But that is exactly what is needed: for progressive Jews to claim the Torah for ourselves, and interpret it in the context of our lives and understandings so that it is not the exclusive property of the orthodox and ultraorthodox with their excluding definitions. So, who’s a Jew? May it be that before too long, we may answer this question in an old/new way: a Jew is anyone, regardless of biological lineage, who, at any time in their lives, makes the conscious choice to commit themselves to Jewish life.