WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT VA-YECHI: 2010/5771
WHO IS A JEW?
Judah, as for you, your brothers will praise you [yodukhah]. Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies, and the sons of your father will bow down to you (Gen 49:8).
Most English translations of our text render the word yodukhah “will praise you”. Both the King James and Jewish Publication Society of America translations render it in this way. Rashbam agrees, but elaborates. He renders yodukhah “they will ascribe to you the glory [hod] of majesty.” He cites a cognate of yodukhah to support his explanation: “Nations will bestow glory upon you [yehodukhah]” (Psalm 45:18). Saadia Gaon suggests that yodukhah implies acknowledgement: “You will be lord [adon] unto your brothers, and they shall bow down to you, “ associating the word adon [lord] with a cognate of the verb yodukhah (odonukhah). Ibn Ezra has a similar take on our text, declaring: “When [your brothers] see that ‘your hand is on the neck of your enemies, the sons of your father will bow down to you’”.
The common thread of these classical rabbinical commentaries on our text is the laudatory acknowledgement by his brothers that Judah is to be sovereign over them. The tribes will accept his authority simply because he subdues their enemies. In a word: Power empowers. This is clearly the contextual meaning of Jacob’s blessing.
Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, a classical Aramaic rendering of the Torah, has a radically different understanding of the meaning of the word yodukhah: “Judah, you took public responsibility [odita} for your immoral encounter with Tamar, when you declared: ‘She is more righteous than I’ (Gen. 38:26). For this reason, your brethren, the Jews, shall be called Yehudim, taking on your name as their identity.” According to Targum Yonatan, Judah’s preeminence rests not on his power but on his humble integrity. His preparedness to accept ownership of his reprehensible behavior makes him the progenitor of the Jews. Leadership consists, not in conquest, but in ethical living. True majesty is a function of integrity and the courage to be publicly in the wrong rather than in the false, superficial trappings of royalty. This, according to Targum Yonatan, is what defines Jewishness.
Who is a Jew? In recent years the definition of Jewishness has been the topic of bitter and painful debate. All segments of the Jewish people recognize conversion as a legitimate pathway to Judaism. In addition, the Reform movement defines Jewishness both by paternal and maternal descent. As long as one has either a Jewish father or a Jewish mother, or is a convert to Judaism, one is regarded as a Jew. The traditional biological aspect of Jewish identity is, in contrast, exclusively maternal.
To be sure, the pathway into the Jewish community through conversion is, itself, the source of extremely painful disagreement. Not all processes of conversion are deemed equally valid. The orthodox generally reject non-orthodox conversions, and, lately, even conversions supervised by those orthodox rabbis of whom they disapprove.
Tragically, disagreements about the halakhic definition of Jewishness increasingly splinter the Jewish people. Marriages between people from different streams of Judaism are no longer always possible. The State of Israel, which is on the way to becoming home to the majority of Jews, rejects the non-orthodox conversions of people who wish to marry there. And even most orthodox rabbis who do conversions are held in open contempt by a small but very influential and politically powerful group of orthodox spiritual leaders. Needless to say, their contempt translates into painful identity crises for those whom the delegitimized rabbis have welcomed into the fold.
I am committed to the traditional halakhic pathway to conversion and to the traditional maternal biological component of Jewish identity. It has accounted for the unity of the Jewish people through the millennia. But I am deeply appalled and embarrassed by the ugly judgementalism of orthodox rabbis who so easily insult and disparage the authority of other rabbis.
Happily, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel defines an additional aspect of Jewish identity about which there can be no possible disagreement: the fundamental characteristic of Jewishness, according to Targum Yonatan’s exposition of our text, is the ethical behavior of those who wish to be known as Yehudim, the descendants of Judah [Yehudah]. Judah was blessed by his father Israel for his uncompromising self-awareness and integrity--even when it might be to his disadvantage, even when it might be embarrassing and shameful.
The Targum’s ethical definition of who is a Jew is completely in line with another famous Talmudic dictum: “There are three characteristics of this people. They are merciful, meek and perform acts of loving- kindness (Yevamot 79a).
Who is a Jew? These rabbinic definitions challenge those who disparage other Jews to consider whether they themselves are Jewish according to the ethical definitions we have shared.