Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The book of leviticus

I'm sure I've mentioned it to everyone who knows me, and yet, I never feel like anyone knows, because in a sense, I don't even know it about myself: I am Jewish. Or am I?

See, my father was (and still is) Jewish, but my mother is not; at least not in the technical sense. For most people, this implies that I also am not in the technical sense. Yet I was raised by my father to believe that I was a Jew, and he called me one, and so I genuinely thought I was one. Anyway, a large portion of society feels that having any Jewish ancestry at all makes one a Jew.

Certainly I will always remember a moment in my freshman year of high school when I was waiting patiently behind a fellow student who was trying to negotiate another few points on his physics exam, and the instructor told him he would have to take his grade as it stood. This classmate of mine actually slapped his test on the teacher's desk and exclaimed, "I can't believe this. That's so Jewish!" This was probably the first time in my life that I lost my temper at an insult not leveled directly at me. This guy was bigger, stronger, taller, and older than me, and I saw red and gave him a shove and said, "Oh hell no! I don't know what problems you have with your grade, dude, but *I* am Jewish, and you owe my people an apology!" I don't know if I had steam coming out of my ears or what, but I've never seen someone back down from me so quickly.

But am I Jewish? I won't take anyone using a racial (or similar: sexist? homophobic?) slur around me without getting a bit ticked off anyway, but of course, this was a bit more personal. I can't help but identifying with the Jewish people to some degree, no matter what I might be told about the fact that my status as a half-Jewish, non bar mitzvah Christian puts my Jewish identity at question. Oddly, to some extent while one would expect the Torah--a document chronicling the creation of the Jewish nation and defining its laws--to give a definition of what a Jew is, really any sort of official definition has come later in extrabiblical writings.

If I stay on the originally unintentional thread of these last few musings, I suppose I would do well to mention A Jew Today by Elie Wiesel, a book of writings in which the writer explores what it means to be a Jew in 20th century America that I happened to pick up from the same used-book bin where I picked up my copy of Marx/Engels. A much larger book than the Manifesto, I haven't had time to read more than small portion of the first chapter, in which he talks about how often being a Jew means being a stranger in the gentile world, where people will always look at you as something strange and foreign. It's an uncomfortable feeling, and yet it's a feeling that the average Jew holds within themself with a great deal of pride.

A book that I did read recently that's in a very important way about being a Jew is Responsa from the Holocaust, by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry. The author details what it was like to be a Jew in Lithuania during the horror that was World War II, and how it effected the Jews of Europe. Throughout this horrible time, when the lives of European Jews were daily on the brink of total destruction, individual Jews continued to consult with their rabbis concerning how to practice their religion in the midst of persecution. If Nazis seem to be more likely to attack Jewish men with beards, should we shave them off? We only get the food that the Nazis let us have, and it's clearly not kosher meat, what can we do about that? Is it a crime to commit suicide when all indications are that you are not long for the world anyway, and the powers that be are seeing to it that every day you live is intense suffering?

It's tragic, but at the same time inspiring. These people did their best not to let their oppressors keep them from doing what they believed to be right, even seemingly little things (to a non-Jew) such as whether they should say Sabbath prayers on a Saturday when they were suffering through forced labor seven days a week. These Jews held strongly to their beliefs and identity in the face of torture and death. How many people today avoid stating their beliefs openly simply for fear of ridicule?

The thing that really struck me about these stories however, was where Oshry and his fellow rabbis allowed exceptions to general rules and where they did not. Can't find kosher food? Well, you can't starve yourself, so eat what you can. A 12-year-old boy wants to have his bar mitzvah ceremony early because he suspects he will not live to see 13? The boy seems mature and earnest in his desire, so luckily he is granted his request, and indeed he died a short time later.

But where were exceptions *not* granted? Perhaps oddly enough, in the one place that might have been the one sure-fire way to save their own lives: the rabbis never once wavered from their conviction that pretending not to be a Jew was an unacceptable compromise, although it would seem that it was for this one fact that they were being killed. Steal if it takes care of your family, kill if it's in self-defense, defy the law if you believe it unjust, and lie: lie about where you live, what you do for a living, how old you are, who's in your family, but never, NEVER lie about being a Jew.

It's a strange thing to an outsider perhaps, and it may even be strange to Jews themselves, but when all else has been stripped away, either by an evil, tyrannical government or by an individual's apathy towards the strictness of the Mosaic Law, there still remains an essential fact of identity that is central and indelible to Judaism. The Jews of Europe essentially said to the world that you could take away their beards and special clothing, take away their kosher foods and festivals, take away their temples and holy books, but you can never take away their Jewishness.

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