Parashat Lech Lecha: A nationality or a religion?

The truth is we are both together and each separately. Our religious narrative and mission is also our national origin and culture.

‘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 motherland.
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 12: 2-3).
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.
This 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.
Because 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 exile.
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.
Jewish law 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 circumcised.
Ritual immersion symbolizes entry into the Jewish nation; the acceptance of commandments symbolizes entry into the Jewish religion.
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 Efrat.