It’s the Torah, Stupid

Friday, 1 September, 2023 - 7:29 am

At a meeting this week, a law enforcement officer inquired how to define someone as being Jewish. There are many responses to this question. In fact, there are many facets to the question itself. For law enforcement, whose role is to serve and protect, it might mean one thing – and subsequently require a fitting response.

But, what does it mean to us Jews ourselves?

There are the obvious technical responses – one born to a Jewish mother or one who has undergone a halachic conversion to Judaism.

Yet, historians, scholars, and anthropologists still cannot agree on Jewish peoplehood and identity.

For some Jews, our common history is most prominent. For others, it is the shared homeland, Israel. Jewish culture and cuisine might top someone else’s list. Others may point to DNA.

Instead of listening to what others have to say about Jewish peoplehood, why don’t we turn to our own faith and history to develop a response?


In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo, we read “This day, you have become a people to the Lord, your God.” 

Historians may argue about when the Jewish people became a nation, but the Torah is clear about it.  Moshe made this declaration while the Jews were wandering in a wilderness without a place to call home. Gefilte fish had not yet been invented. The words Ashkenazi and Sephardi did not exist. Modern Hebrew, as we know it today, was still millennia away from being established. Ancient Hebrew, of course, was the real Mama Lashon, with Yiddish over 2000 years away. Converts – with a different set of DNA – were part of Moshe’s audience.

The remarkable implication of this statement is that there is something beyond a shared land (which they did not yet have), a shared heritage, diet, or lingo (which they already had previously), or a political movement (which Jews still can’t agree on) – that determines the nationhood of our people.

Moshe spells it out in the next verse, “You shall therefore obey the L-rd, your G-d, and fulfill His commandments and His statutes, which I command you this day.”

Indeed, we are a unique nation. Unlike others, our peoplehood was forged by virtue of our commitment to uphold the Torah, not by developing a common culture.  It is our covenant with our Creator that distinguishes us as we have traversed centuries of diverse languages, lands, tyrants, and menus.

So the debate may continue about how law enforcement and politicians view the Jewish people.  But the debate amongst the Jews themselves can be put to rest.

If Moshe were around today, his rejoinder may have sounded something like, “It’s the Torah, stupid.”

Comments on: It’s the Torah, Stupid

dave wrote...

This was all in the context of entering the land. That fulfilled God's Covenant. That is why the statement: "“You shall therefore obey the L-rd,..." has the word "therefore". God has provided the land, THEREFORE we obey the commandments.

Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz wrote...

Thank you for your comment.
It may be argued that the entire book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) was recited prior to the entry into the Land of Israel. It may also be argued that many mitzvot are dependent upon the Land of Israel. Therefore, much of the Torah is connected with the Land of Israel.
However, the Covenant that G-d made with the Jewish people was decidedly performed OUTSIDE the Land of Israel. As the Torah tells it, G-d specifically chose to give the Torah to the Jewish people in a desolate desert, rather than waiting for them to enter the Land of Israel. And, the reaffirmation of that Covenant (in this parsha) again occurs outside of Israel. These are strong statements of the people's nationhood without a land.
In fact, your reading of the verse is simply a faulty translation. The word "therefore" does not actually occur in the verse. It is the liberal, poetic license of the translator. The Hebrew reads: ושמעת בקול ה' אלקיך ועשית את מצותו ואת חקיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום. Plus, there is no indication in the immediate verses of any connection to the Land of Israel. In fact, the text of the Torah separates these two verses from both the previous and following verses by putting them in their own paragraph.
Finally, this parsha is a reaffirmation of the verses in Exodus Chapters 19 and 20, in which G-d establishes the Jewish people as a treasured nation. There is no mention of the Land of Israel at all in those chapters.
To conclude, the Land of Israel is central to the Jewish people. It is inseparable. But, through thousands of years of exile, the Jews have thrived. This is because our peoplehood is tied to something deeper as well. It is tied to the performance of the miztvot of the Torah.