Being A Jew

I have written blog postings which have referenced, either by name or inference, both Pope Francis and Donald Trump. But, while the incentive for this post came from the Pope’s reported comment about Mr. Trump, I want to avoid getting into any specifics regarding that particular debate and just focus on the words themselves as they were reported in the media.

The quotation by Pope Francis has been reported as being the following: “A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian”.

I am fascinated by that statement, not for its context but rather because of the words: “is not Christian”.

When I first heard the quotation, I thought that I had heard it reported that the Pope had said that such a person is “not A Christian” (emphasis mine). But, the official statement from the Vatican says that that person who only builds walls is “not Christian”.

I am not a Christian and can not comment on the theological or sociological impact of such a statement or any difference there may be between the two. But, hearing it from the perspective of a Jew, I do hear a difference. In Jewish life, there is a difference between saying: “He or she is not a Jew” and saying “He or she is not acting in accordance with Jewish values and ethics.”

There is a beautiful and critical teaching in Jewish tradition: Yisrael af al pee she hoteh, Yisrael hu. This means: A Jew, even though he or she sins, is still a Jew.

This is a fascinating statement and has been used in various ways in our tradition including referring to the fact that a Jew who converts to another religious faith really remains a Jew. The word “sin” in this context might be misleading and I absolutely do not mean to imply that being a member of another religious faith is “a sin”, rather that a Jew who makes that decision is willingly separating him or herself from the Jewish community. The statement means that according to strict Jewish law, a person would not need to convert back to Judaism if they changed their mind and decided to return to their original faith.

But, the larger context of this is that we do not judge people as having forfeited their right to be considered a Jew based on their behavior, no matter how repugnant.  A Jew is a Jew.

It is appropriate in certain situations to say that a person is not reflecting Jewish values in the way that he or she acts. While there may be some disagreement in certain questions of values based on one’s philosophy of life, it is clear that there are times where we could say without question that an individual’s actions do not reflect Jewish values.

The Torah teaches that one shouldn’t put a stumbling block before a blind person. I would hope we would all agree that doing so does not reflect Jewish values. I would hope we would feel the same about Jews who commit acts of senseless and arbitrary violence. I would hope we would feel the same about those who steal or murder.

But, even in those situations, a Jew who performs those actions is still a Jew.

How a given community chooses to include or exclude that individual from communal Jewish life is a decision each community must make on their own. But, as a Rabbi, while I might detest the actions an individual performs, I would recognize them as a Jew and serve their spiritual needs as best I could.

This is a very serious issue in Jewish tradition as it is in other traditions as well and each addresses it in their own way. For us, as Jews, the bottom line is that our identity as a Jew is one which always stays with us and we can never take that identity away from someone else based on their actions, no matter how repugnant we feel those actions are.

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