What Does It Mean to be Jewish?

August 27, 2021

There’s a passage in the Jewish prayer that I never liked. I don’t pronounce it in my prayer. It is the Ata Behartanu, which translates as “You, God, have chosen us as your chosen people,” which could be taken to mean that we are better than anybody else—better than the people we live with, the Gentiles.
 It always bothered me, this superiority complex. So I always skipped reading it.
 During the last Passover Seder, however, as I was reading the blessings on the wine and on the candles, I for some reason kept reading what comes after the offensive sentence. What it said was, “You . . . sanctified us with righteous obligations.” (“Behartanu ve kidshanu bemitzovteha.”)  
 Let’s analyze this whole sentence now. It says, “You have chosen us and sanctified us with righteous obligations.”
 We are the chosen people, yes. But chosen for what? To fulfill certain obligations. We are chosen to do some work.
 If you analyze the nature of the mitzvot, the righteous obligations, scattered throughout the Bible there is a common pattern: our mission in this world is Tikkun Olam, to heal the world, to fight injustice, racism, discrimination, inequality. To fight against anything that supports oppression.
 If we analyze the Jewish people, we find they usually take the side of the oppressed. Example: The Jews were among the first to support the civil rights movement in America. They are some of the most generous philanthropists. Many lead movements for justice, for taking care of the oppressed and suffering . . . Karl Marx’s grandfather was a rabbi. Trotsky, who led the Communist revolution in Russia, was Jewish. In the United States, Jews predominantly vote for the Democratic party, the party that cares for people. We care. We are very cognizant when injustice occurs. It is hardly strange that the leaders of anti-Israel demonstrations can be Jews. These Jewish leaders dislike what is happening with the Palestinians.
 We often lead movements for the better. It does not always work out, like the Communist revolution didn’t work out, but the intention is there: Improve the world, make it better for everyone. That’s what we are chosen for.
 Being born to a Jewish family, having Jewish blood, does not mean you're Jewish. Biologically, of course, you’re Jewish, but to be behaviorally Jewish, to really belong to the chosen people, you’d better do something to make the world a better one.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes