Remembrance Day minute silence 58.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
‘Who is a Jew?’ is a question that has plagued Israeli society since the
inception of the state, and has once again reared its ugly head – this time
threatening the crucial alliance between American Jewry and its Middle Eastern
I suggest that without a clear understanding of the covenant
between God and Abraham described in this week’s biblical reading, little light
can be shed on the raging controversy.
Maimonides in his introduction to
the Laws of Idolatry maintains that Abraham (Abram), the first Hebrew, had
already deduced the new revolutionary faith in a single, unique, noncorporeal
God before the Almighty spoke to him. At the opening of this week’s reading, God
commands Abram to leave his “country, birthplace and father’s house” and set out
for the Land of Israel. God pledges to make him the paterfamilias of “a great
nation through which all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis
After a number of peregrinations and a war against the four
tyrants of the fertile crescent which Abram miraculously wins, God enters into a
formal covenant in which He guarantees Abram innumerable direct descendants and
their eventual possession and control of the Land of Israel (Gen. 15). Clearly,
progeny and a homeland are the two fundamental ingredients of a
family-nation-state – a peoplehood, if you will.
It is important to note
that God is the proactive partner in this covenant. Moreover, from their very
first encounter, God charges Abram with becoming a source of blessing for the
entire world. In the next chapter, Abram is given a son, Ishmael, who will be
blessed and from whom will emerge 12 princes. Then, in chapter 17 God gives
Abram an ethical command to walk before Him and be whole-hearted as the
necessary condition for the covenant (17:1). He changes Abram’s name to Abraham
(father of a multitude of nations) and ratifies His covenant with Abraham’s
biological descendants (through Isaac, 17:19, 21) with the rite of circumcision
– a patently religious ritual.
All of this comes together in chapter 18
when, after again declaring that “through Abraham all the nations of the earth
shall be blessed,” God explains that He initially chose and loved Abraham “in
order that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the
Lord by acting with compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Gen.
18:18-19). Hence the very roots of our nationality and peoplehood were informed
with the God-consciousness of ethical monotheism, “whole-hearted” compassionate
and moral conduct, and male circumcision.
Abraham was given a mandate to
transmit our mission to subsequent generations in order that we may truly become
the blessing for the nations that God promised we would be.
covenantal idea is fleshed out in Exodus, when the descendants of Abraham emerge
from Egypt as a full-fledged nation.
Under the leadership of Moses, all
the children of Israel are confronted with God’s revelation of the Ten
Commandments at Sinai (Exodus 20) and then, after receiving many other civil and
ritual laws, as well as a confirmation of God’s pledge to give us the Land of
Israel, God repeats His covenant with the nation (Ex. 24). What emerges is a
nation formed from the matrix of a God Idea and Ideal – a national and a faith
community inextricably bound together.
Are we a nationality or a
religion? The truth is we are both together and each separately.
we are a nation, those who have biological roots through a Jewish mother,
although they may be atheists, are nevertheless Jews; and because we are a
religion, we managed to survive and even flourish as Jews during a 2,000-year
As a result of this unique hybrid status, we cannot simply
dichotomize between state and religion the way Americans can. Our religious
narrative and mission is also our national origin and culture.
provides for conversion, and no ancient halachic authority demanded total
compliance with “Orthodox” law as a necessary condition. The convert must be
taught “several of the more stringent and several of the more lenient laws” (the
Talmud in Yebamot 45, 46 mentions the Sabbath, parts of kashrut and the tithes
or charity), he must in principle formally accept all the commandments, and must
undergo ritual immersion in a kosher mikve. Further, all males must be
Ritual immersion symbolizes entry into the Jewish nation;
the acceptance of commandments symbolizes entry into the Jewish
For Russian citizens of Israel whose fathers were Jewish and
who serve in the IDF, there are even further leniencies, and it is certainly in
our national interest to convert these citizens.
Yes, the Rotem law would
not accept Conservative or Reform conversions in Israel; but it would open
conversions to municipal rabbis who are not haredi (ultra-Orthodox). I truly
believe it deserves universal support.
Rabbi Riskin is the founder and
chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of