Judaism, Identity and Ethics: Knowing Who and Whose You Are

If someone tells you that Judaism is X or Y, you should never believe them. Judaism is such a complex civilisation: it is made up of religion and culture, language and land, and a particular kind of people-hood. In every context different aspects of Judaism have been lived out in countless different ways. Judaism is not only complex, but also filled with contradictory opinions, so that any single view will – by definition – fail to offer a full sense of all the possibilities. (This, I admit, is what I most love about being Jewish!)


Yet, in our current reality of increasing identity politics and ethical complexities it is ever more urgent to define who we are and what, at our core, we are about as Jews. What is it that makes us who we are? Do we, in fact, know (as Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and others have framed it) who and Whose we are?

Despite all our complexities and all the vehement reductionist discourse, however, I still believe we can say something very clear about who we are. And for those of us who are religious, about Whose we are, an am kadosh, a “people consecrated to the Eternal your God,” a “holy people” (Deut. 14:2). I believe that at its core Judaism primarily strives to achieve two particular goals: the ethical development of human beings and the establishment of an ethical society. For the Torah, the descendants of Abraham are a people with whom to make a sacred covenant and attempt to achieve those goals. The Israelites’ preparations both to enter the Land (where they will be able to  live out these visions) and to create an ideal society are central motifs of Deuteronomy, and a particular focus of the extensive Parashat R’eih, (Deut. 11:26-16:17). In fact, at the center of the Mishnah, the six-book, first collection of Jewish law, is Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of Our Ancestors,” the quintessential Jewish tractate about interpersonal ethics.

For the Deuteronomist, who you are – for much of this section of the Torah – is defined by what you do. If you are God’s sacred people, you observe particular ways of being in the world. If you want to create an ethical society, you take care of the needy (Deut. 15:7-11). While in the vision of the Deuteronomist the ideal society will have no needy, the authors also know that any human society will always have those who are in need. And thus we need to be very clear, as the commentator Rashi emphasizes, that we must open our hands and hearts, and give whatever is needed. (Rashi on Deut. 15:8, 15:12). All of this, of course is based on who we are as well: “Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 15:15).

Our relationship with God – “Whose we are” – is in the repetition of stating that we know because of Whom we were redeemed and by Whose Torah we seek to live. So the Deuteronomist insists we show that we love God through particular ethical and ritual practices by resisting other practices, and only engaging in practices of a sacred existence expressed in how we consume food, how we take care of others, how we protect the Land, and how we remember our blessings.

This section of the Torah covers an incredibly wide range of behaviors that serve to create and maintain identity. From understanding the blessings of making the right choices about living in the Promised Land to vigilantly choosing to worship the one God to partaking of food of the earth and eating of the animal kingdom with limitations to taking care of the needy, this section of Deuteronomy is laser-focused on the behaviors that will ensure that the Israelites will maintain a particular identity in order to achieve the larger goals. To be God’s people means to find ways in everyday behaviors of eating, walking, sleeping, teaching, and ploughing the fields that acknowledge with humility whose we are through what we do, which is who we are.

Choosing the good over and over again, as this section repeats like a chorus, defines each of us as being of this particular Israelite nation. Other nations have their particular ways of being, and we have ours, lived out through mitzvot of how we treat other people, how we treat the earth, how we treat animals, and how we respond to God. What often is framed – according to Judaism through the lenses of Deuteronomy – as a tension between the particular and the universal is resolved, because the particular and the universal are in fact unified. It is in our particularity that our universal values are lived out. In being particular, we are in fact being universal. Judaism in all its complexity is – above and beyond all – about being good, about knowing that we have freewill and at every moment can engage in choosing life and that which is good; choosing that which sustains human society. There is always the possibility of blessing and curse.

Much of what happens, however, is actually because of what we choose. Identity is not only made up of the family and tribe into which we were born, but also shaped by the ethical choices we make as individuals. Collective identity, however, is determined by the ritual and ethical practices we engage in as a community, which, in turn, establish who – and Whose – we are in the greater scheme of history.

At the climax of the portion, is the final way in which we reconfirm our identity: Three specific times a year, on the three pilgrimage holidays, we ascend toward a specific place, bearing gifts of the Land and our endless gratitude, remembering and celebrating who and Whose we are (Deut. 5:2; 6-7) and reminding ourselves of who we want to be in the months and years ahead.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President’s Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.


Mt Horeb
Mount Horeb – place of encounter between G-d and Israel


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