Let My People Know

"To clarify what we are, we may start by saying that we are a family"


Jews can hardly be categorized as a nation.

We cannot even be considered a religion in the ordinary sense of a religion with a message that we think should become general, that 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 that of either 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 behave just like the members of a family, feeling like a family and, incidentally, fighting and hating each other as within the family, sometimes at great length.
It's even dangerous for a stranger to intervene, because any outside pressure only reinforces the unity and the feeling of the family. 

We can easily be separated and estranged from one another, but at a certain level, we come together again as a family, that is, we feel the unity in 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.

Even though 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; despite the occasional infighting, we are 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 get estranged. 

They move to different countries, adopt different accents, ways of life, ways of behavior. 

Nevertheless, this uniting element remains, very primitive, very hard to define, but undeniably there.

One can go so far as to say that Judaism, as a religion, is simply the way of our particular family. 

It is the way we do certain things. 

We walk and talk with God 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 don't eat certain things. 

This doesn't mean that we make 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 very human.

At a much deeper level, the notion that our people are really our family, our brothers and sisters, connected by kinship as well as lifestyle, is substantiated in the Bible, which refers to the "House of Jacob" and "The House of Israel." 

Judaism has the flavor of a family or a tribe, very much enlarged, but still a tribe, sharing common goals and somehow united, even if the unity is obscured by a great variety of individual expression. 

The connections run so very deep that we usually are not aware of them consciously, but they awaken, and sometimes it is as though we feel that the clan is calling. 

And then to our own 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 doesn't mean that Jews feel superior or inferior. 

It's simply that from the very beginning it had its own rhythm and way of living. 

Even when members of such a family are out of the family house, when they are wandering far away, they continue the lifestyle, theologically, sociologically, behavioristically. 

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 can't get away from it, and therefore that it is far better to try to find the ways in which they are connected—because the connection is beyond choice. 

It's a matter of being born with it.

And since you are stuck with it, it is far better to get to know where you came from and who you are.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From “Homecoming.” In On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz