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By Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Yisrael

 

Most of the Jewish people are so scattered and removed from each other that they hardly ever find a common language, or even any language that makes sense to them as Jews. This is what is called assimilation, which is basically the loss of their common heritage. We therefore have to try to reach some deeper levels of the soul, many of them bordering on the unconscious, to help us get back to talking together, to having some kind of a common language.

 

Jews can hardly be categorized as a nation (even though there is now an emerging Israeli nation); we cannot be considered a religion in the ordinary sense of a religion with a message which we think should become general, which we want to sell to others. Altogether, we are a very different sort of entity.

 

To clarify what we are, we may start by saying that we are a family. Just a family -- a large one, not entirely a biological one, but basically a family. Now a family tie, sociologically speaking, is a far more basic tie than either that of a nation or a religion. To be sure, the family tie is a very primitive way of binding people, but it is probably the most stable one, and the most resistant to outside change and influence.

 

The concept of the Jews as a family defines us, not only sociologically, but also, in a manner of speaking, theologically. In fact, we do not only behave like a family -- feeling like a family, and incidentally fighting and hating each other within the family -- its even dangerous for a stranger to intervene. Because any outside pressure only reinforces the unity and the feeling of the family. We can be separated and estranged from each other, but at a certain level, we come together again as a family; that is, we feel the unity in just the way we conduct ourselves, in the way that even when we do deceive ourselves about the meaning of it, we continue to behave in a certain manner.

 

Although at times we may think that we have nothing in common, as happens in every normal family, we still have all kinds of ties and links that are enormously hard for us to explain. What is more, we somehow find ourselves at ease with each other, comfortable within our own family. Understandably, too, we feel a certain amount of safety in being together and we find it easier to make connections within the family. But of course, brothers and sisters tend to grow estranged. They move to different countries, adopt different accents, ways of life, ways of behavior. Nevertheless there is this united element, very primitive, very hard to define, but undeniably very much in existence.

 

One can go so far as to say that Judaism, as a religion, is in many ways simply the ways of our particular family. It is the way we do certain things. We walk and talk with G‑d and man, like everyone else. But we have our own way of doing it. And, as in any other family, we try sometimes, when we are young, to run away, to fight our parents. Later on, we find ourselves resembling them more and more.

 

This particular way, which is called Judaism, is in many respects, the way that we as a family move together, pray, dress, eat, do a variety of things. We have our own approach to all sorts of matters. For example, in our family we dont eat certain things. This doesnt mean that we have a special claim of any kind, saying we are the best family there is. But as in any group of people, we may have this feeling, and nobody can blame us. Telling myself that my father is different, my brother is different, is still a very human preference.

 

At a much deeper level, the notion that our people are really our family, brothers, sisters, connected by kin as well as lifestyle, is called in the Bible The House of Jacob, or The House of Israel. It has the flavor of a family or tribe, very much enlarged, but still a tribe, with common goals, and somehow united even if the unity is obscured by a great variety of individual expression. The connections are so deep that we are usually unconscious of them, but they are there, and sometimes it is as though we feel that the clan is calling and then to our surprise, we join.

 

This family feeling is possibly one of the main reasons why Judaism as a religion was never very active in proselytizing -- just as a family would never go out into the streets to grab people to join the family. It doesnt mean that Jews feel superior or inferior. Its simply that from the very beginning, it had its own pattern and way of living. Even when members of such a family are out of the family house, when they are wandering far away, they follow the life style, theologically, sociologically, behaviorally. Of course, members of the family can be severely chastised and rifts can occur between individuals and groups, but there is really no way of leaving the family. You can even hate it, but you cannot be separated from it. After some time, people, younger or older, come to the conclusion that in fact, they cant get away from it. And therefore, it is far better that they try to find the ways in which they are connected. Because the connection is beyond choice. It is a matter of being born with it. And it is far better to get to know where you came from and who you are.

 

For some of our people its almost like the story of the duckling who was hatched by a hen. Often enough, our ducklings grow up in a different atmosphere. They are taught to think and act in ways which are entirely alien. Jews have adopted a lot of other cultures, national identities and sometimes religions. Sometimes there is a very wonderful recognition and return. Frequently, it comes as a very unpleasant discovery that I am somehow different, that my medium is a different medium. When I do indeed find water, I will swim in it, even though those that raised me taught me not to. Altogether, finding somehow ones family is a familiar theme in literature, and in life. Knowingly or unknowingly, each person begins to discover it. If the discovery comes soon enough, the person is not only able to acknowledge the fact that he belongs somewhere, but also to make his life, in a way, more sensible. Paradoxically, freedom comes with the acceptance of a definite framework from which one cannot move away.

 

To be sure, a family is usually a biological unit; the Jewish family is and isnt a biological unit. We speak about ourselves as being the children of Abraham, or the children of Jacob. But in fact, our real legacy isnt a biological one at all. Our tribe is a very different kind of tribe. To quote an old source, when we speak about the father of our family, the mother of our family, we say that the father of our family is G‑d, that the mother of our family is that which is called the communal spirit of Israel. This is not just a mystical-theological statement. This is the way our family is constructed, it determines how the family behaves and feels.

 

When we speak about G‑d our father, it is not just an image, it is a feeling of integral belonging to the source of the family. This makes for a stronger family of course, but nevertheless, we continue to behave like an ordinary family. Like all children, we pass through periods of admiring father and periods of fighting with father, even hating father. We can never come to the point at which we deny the existence of a father, our father. Of course, some children may express this denial as a mark of revolt and various members of the family may react in different ways. Sometimes, members of the family are very angry at such blasphemy. Sometimes, they just wait for the young blood to boil down a little. But always, whether one hates or loves, whether one is an ardent believer or a convinced heretic, one remains his fathers child.

 

This basic connection is what is called the Jewish religion; being a member of that family. We have our own history, but that is not the most important part of it. Most central is our relationship to the father and mother of the tribal entity to which all of us belong in one away or another. This is what makes sense to those who have remained.

 

There are widely dissimilar parts, a great variety of members in our rather large, distressed and sometimes not so glorious family. How much are we aware of each others existence? We often try, and some of us keep trying very hard, to ignore, to deny, and even to throw out of ourselves any kind of belonging to this family. On the other hand, there are many of our people who are consciously reentering into the family fold. And not necessarily is it a seeking for G‑d. It is often a result of long wandering and far reaching explorations, and the feeling that we cannot always describe, of coming home.

 

One can point to more beautiful mansions and more exciting sites. But they cannot very much duplicate the home. For like any personal roaming and wandering of individuals separated from their family, the desperate attempt to be independent only leads to a discovery that somewhere one must try to come back and find the truth of being home.

 

The real point of a Jewish person, then, is the recognition of, I do belong whether I want to or not. It is the deepest and most important part of my being, and one that I cant cover over with opinions about language, culture, nation or religion. Ultimately, I do belong to the family. The deeper I go within myself, the more important the past becomes. I can reject this past and I can even cut it off from myself entirely, playing roles and trying to imitate others, but that does not change what I am. And, then, if I ever want to find out more about it, I follow the long way home. It is not an easy way, but it has its compensations and its own truth.

 

When animals brought up in a zoo are released, they sometimes do not even know whether they are wolves or deer. They have to find out who they are, what they are. Its a great discovery to learn, I am that, and to explore the right way of behavior of ones own kind. Such is the destiny of a Jewish person who has been estranged. He may find helpers or he may not. He may almost instinctively move into his natural habitat or he may have all kinds of strange resistances that will interfere forever with his normal behavior, so that it can possibly be only corrected in a later generation. Whatever happens, he is at least coming to grips with the problem.

 

Basically, it is the situation of the person who wakes up and finds out that even though he grew up somewhere in young Midwest America, he really belongs to this very old family, with these strange parents, these sometimes lovely, sometimes ugly, brothers and sisters. He has to get accustomed to this idea, and then find out what to do about it.

 

 

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