In 1998, when Israel was celebrating its 50th year, Rabbi Steinsaltz gave a talk in which he said:
” Thirty years ago, I taught a class on the issue of who is a Jew.
We said then that a real Jew is one who would choose to sanctify God’s Name, even die for the choice, rather than worship idols.
Jewish history is replete with thousands of examples – not only of righteous people, but also of simple Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s Name.
In a sense, the Jewish people is just as proud of its thieves and prostitutes who died on the sanctification of God’s Name as it is of its rabbis and righteous ones.
It is the thieves and prostitutes who attest most to the existence of that inner core – independent of tradition or erudition – which is the very essence of being a Jew.
One of the people in the class then asked me: This was surely true in the past, but do you think it is still valid?
At that point, I did not know what to reply, and the question was left hanging.
The next day, I flew to a kibbutz near Eilat and spoke there. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that I managed to make my listeners furious.
At some point one man, who could no longer contain himself, got up and screamed: “I am a secular Jew, and so were my father and grandfather; but I am telling you: if someone would force me to worship idols, I would die rather than do it.”
This was almost like a voice from Heaven:
I received the answer some 24 hours after having been asked the question, and not from someone who heard it, but rather from someone who innocently, at a moment of rage, answered exactly the question that I had asked.”
From “Israel at 50” –a speech delivered at the Aleph Society Dinner in Jerusalem, October 13, 1998