Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi “What is a Jew?’


Q. I know you must have been asked a thousand times, but what is a Jew?

A. The problem is that there is no one word which completely answers the question.

Countless attempts have been made, of course.

Religion is a crucial element, but so is peoplehood. Some call the Jews a nation, understood in a historical and cultural sense (though Theodor Herzl said rather cynically that a nation is a group of people who have a common enemy).

There is a popular habit of saying that the Jews are a race, but this view has no scientific basis.

In modern times one of the most useful approaches was that of Dr Nahum Goldmann, for many years president of the World Jewish Congress, who said,

“There is a tendency, especially in the United States, to equate the Jewish religion with others, forgetting that the Jewish people itself was never solely a religious group, but that its uniqueness expresses its combination of peoplehood, religion and the bearer of a total civilisation”.

Another modern writer, the historian Dubnow, called the Jews “a spiritual nation” based on a “creative principle” that combines “religious, moral or philosophical ideals whose exponent at all times was the Jewish people”, together with historical memories and Judaism still has contributions to make to history.


Q. Why do the night prayers speak about angels?

A. It is poetry.

God’s throne is said to be surrounded by four angels. By day His praises are sung by Israel; at night when Israel is asleep it is the angels that sing.

Rabbinic imagery said that Michael was the angel with whom Jacob wrestled, Gabriel helped Moses and Aaron enter the king’s palace and held back the waters of the Red Sea, Uriel announced the Flood and showed Noah how to build the ark, and Raphael (“the healer”) showed Noah how to extract remedies from plants, and cured Jacob’s thigh.

The angels are not independent forces or beings capable of thinking for themselves or even disobeying God (despite Milton’s references to fallen angels, an idea which has its place in Jewish folklore too but without formative status).

As their name malach indicates, they are messengers of God. The night prayers ask the angels to protect us but emphasise that “above them is God”.

What we are asking is that God should watch over us with all the forces, energies and messengers that He has.


Q. Why do most people regard the Omer period as a time of sadness?

A. Many times in Jewish history it was a time of tragedy.

The classical tragedy was during the Bar Kochba rebellion in about 135-138 CE, when an epidemic decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva, who were part of the Bar Kochba campaign.

The generally accepted statistic is that 24,000 students died, though there are other versions of the numbers involved.

Other events at this time of year range from the attack of Amalek in the wilderness to the Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe in 1648-49. No wonder that we associate this period with tragedy.

Yet there is also good reason to find reasons for gratitude at this season, ranging from the redemption from Egypt at the beginning of the Omer period to the Giving of the Torah as the seven weeks of the Omer reach their culmination.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

Check Also

Whenever I feel afraid – Rosh HaShanah

Julie Andrews made it into a famous song – the notion that whenever I feel …