What is a Jew?
by Zalman Velvel
Good evening and thank you for coming tonight and showing your support for Chabad of Southwest Florida.
As I look out from up here, I see some new people with familiar looks of pain and fear. For those of you that are new to Chabad, let me calm your fear – you’re not having a heart attack … sometimes this heavy food just takes longer to digest. I assure you, the heartburn will go away … around midnight … 2 days from now.
By the way, if you really are having a heart attack, don’t worry. We have enough doctors to seat at least one at every table. And if, God-forbid, a doctor should make a mistake, there’s a lawyer on each side of them.
Tonight I would like to conclude with a question that has rattled around in my head for a half a century. I first heard it when I was 8 years old – it was 1956, Elvis Presley was the king of rock n’ roll, and it was the year my parents changed synagogues. This was a very difficult decision for them – the dues were higher at the new synagogue – but they just hired a Rabbi that was supposed to be funny.
I was looking forward to this funny new Rabbi, because, to me, at eight years old, the height of comedy was knock-knock jokes. For those of you who didn’t grow up with knock knock jokes, we baby-boomers will illustrate. Knock knock – Come on – Knock Knock … Who’s there? – Thea. Thea who? Thea later alligator. Let’s try another. Knock knock. Who’s there? Sheila. Sheila who? Sheila be comin’ ’round the mountain when she comes.
Hey look, this was before video games and IPODS and we were desperate for entertainment.
So there I was, on Saturday morning, sitting with my family in the new synagogue, waiting for the jokes to begin. When it was time for his sermon, the funny new Rabbi stood at the podium, cleared his throat, and asked: "What is a Jew?"
Then the Rabbi looked up to Heaven, and answered in this big deep voice: "A Jew follows the laws in My Torah."
I was amazed! The Rabbi was actually answering for God. I was too young then to know that Rabbis have always liked to do that.
Then the Rabbi looked up again to Heaven and pleaded: "But God, every Jew makes mistakes … even Rabbis. Is someone still Jewish even after they break some of our laws in the Torah?"
"Yes, my child. If you make mistakes, you are still Jewish. I did not make you perfect."
The Rabbi smiled and looked up again. "So God, how many mistakes are we allowed? Is there a number – like 10?"
"Yes, 10 mistakes could be allowed."
Then the Rabbi asked, "How about 20?
"Yes, in certain cases, 20 could also be allowed."
The Rabbi began to hondel with God, like Abraham, only in reverse. He asked for permission to make a 100 mistakes, then a thousand. A lady sitting up front objected strenuously. "A thousand sins! Rabbi, that’s way too many!"
"And what’s so big about a thousand?" the Rabbi argued back. "If you only make one mistake each week, with fifty-two weeks a year, by the time you are in your twenties, you would have already have made more than a thousand mistakes. And who do we know that makes only one mistake a week? Who among us lasts even a day without at least one "little" lie, without coveting someone with more than us, or slandering someone with gossip?"
Then the Rabbi continued, "Perhaps you’re thinking, if we are allowed a thousand sins, why bother following the Torah in the first place?"
All around me people were nodding their heads. Before we could throw out our Bibles, the Rabbi quickly threw out a second definition:
"A Jew believes in one God." the Rabbi said. "That much I know … "
Then he disagreed with himself.
"NO!" he said. "That is not enough. There are other religions that believe in one God, but still don’t have anything approximating Jewish guilt."
This got a laugh. He waited, and then posed a third answer:
"Perhaps the best answer is, a Jew is someone with a Jewish soul."
Then, like a good Rabbi, he responded with another question.
"What is a Jewish soul and how can you tell if you have one? Does it mean if you yearn for an onion bagel with cream cheese and lox, but you’re a Buddhist, there is a Jewish soul lurking inside you trying to get out?"
The congregation was confused, and the Rabbi knew it. "Maybe you’re wondering," he asked. "If we can’t settle on a simple definition of what a Jew is, what are we doing sitting here in this fancy synagogue on Saturday morning?
"Yeah," I thought, "what am I doing here? There hasn’t been one good knock knock joke.
"Because," the Rabbi answered, " a Jew is someone who goes around asking, ‘What is a Jew?’ "
It was a great finish. The congregation loved it and gave the Rabbi a standing ovation. My parents were glad they changed synagogues.
Me, I wasn’t impressed with his answer. I wondered around for 40 years, like our ancestors in the dessert, obsessed with the question – What is a Jew, and not finding any better answers.
Then I heard a knock on our office door. "Knock Knock – come on – knock knock … Who’s There? … Hasidim. … Hasidim who? …Hasidim, but I don’t believe ‘em!"
He had a black hat, a black beard, a black suit, and black shoes. He said his name was Rabbi Itchie, and as his father likes to joke, we thought he missed the Miami Beach exit on I-95, and wound up in Fort Myers by mistake.
When I got to know the man in black better, I asked:
"Rabbi, what is a Jew?"
He stroked his beard, and then he said: "Zalman, a Jew is someone with a Jewish soul."
"But Rabbi," I asked. "How can you tell if someone has a Jewish soul?"
He said, "That’s easy. If they like to eat onion bagels with cream cheese and lox …"
No, that was not his answer. He said, "Only God can tell who has a Jewish soul."
I was sure God could tell, but he wasn’t telling anyone I knew, so after my long search for an answer, I did not find that explanation satisfying.
Then my wife put in her two cents. She listened to me prepare this speech, and then she said, sweetly:
"Honey, you’re such a dummy. The answer is right in the Torah."
By the way, she never called me a dummy until she started studying Torah. And she swears to me there is a commandment for a Jewish woman to shop, and her friend Marlene Price will back her up on that.
My wife got out our Bible and showed me where it said: "The Jewish people should be a light unto the world."
A Jew should be a light unto the world? Hmmmmm … how do you do that?
That brought me around to an answer to my question that I would like to share with you now.
What is a Jew? A Jew is all the things that funny Rabbi discussed, not just one. Jews are made up of Torah observance, belief in one God, and a special soul, each with his or her own composition of the three.
And if you want to see Jews who bring light into the world, look at Chabad. We are all here tonight because of the light this organization has brought to our lives. They show us how to become better people, in spite of the thousands of mistakes we make – how to worship one God, in spite of our Jewish guilt – and they provide nourishment for our Jewish souls, even though sometimes that nourishment gives us heartburn until we learn how to digest it.
I would like to ask for all the Chabad Rabbis and their Rebbetzins in the audience to stand up … Let’s have a hand for the Chabad of Southwest Florida.
And you’ve been a great audience tonight. Give yourselves a hand!
Thank you, drive safely, and good night.
How did you feel about the story? Please send me your thoughts, feedback and comments. Also, would you like me to give this presentation to your audience? Please let me know as well … Thank you!
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Copyright 2002-2009 by Zalman Velvel, Inc.