Parasha VaYigash: “Jewish American — Or American Jew?”

Are you an American Jew – or a Jewish American?

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, the writer Mark Oppenheimer notes that Presidents from Reagan to Trump have assiduously avoided the use of the noun “Jew” and instead have used the adjective, “Jewish” when referring to members of our community. In his last Passover message, for example, President Obama referred to “Jewish families” twice, but never once used the word “Jew”. In closing his joint message for Passover and Easter this year, President Trump said he prayed for the day when “good people of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu, can follow their hearts and worship according to their conscience.” A worthy  sentiment.  But notice that “Christians”, “Muslims” and “Hindus” are all nouns used to describe people – “Jewish” is the only adjective. To be grammatically correct, he should have referred to “Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus”.  But, like his predecessors in the Oval Office, he chose to use the word “Jewish” and avoided the word “Jew”.

When I was growing up, we referred to ourselves as “American Jews”. I have noticed that this has changed in the passing years. We more often now refer to ourselves as “Jewish Americans”. I think the change reflects the fact that being a Jew has become less central to our identity. Referring to ourselves as “American Jews” sets us apart from other Americans.  Understanding  ourselves as “Jewish Americans” feels more inclusive, less starkly different.  An “American Jew” is a Jewish person who happens to be American. A “Jewish American” is an American who happens to be Jewish too.  In preferring the term “Jewish American” we assert that we are just as American as our Catholic or Protestant neighbor.  We are just a different flavor of “American”, so to speak.  In the op-ed I cited above, Mark Oppenheimer advocates for the return of the word “Jew” to our vocabulary. He notes that there is something prouder, more confident and more assertive in describing oneself as “a Jew” than there is in describing oneself as “Jewish”.    Think “I am a Jew” versus “I am Jewish”.

It may come as a surprise to many of us that the Hebrew word for “Jew” – “Yehudi” — is not found in the Torah. We are called Hebrews, we are called “Bnai Israel”, we are called “Yeshurun”, we are called “Yaakov”, and we are called “Ephraim” when the Bible refers to the Jewish people. The first use of the word “Yehudi” in Hebrew Scriptures comes rather late in our history. In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai is referred to as an “ish yehudi” – which means either “a Jewish man” or “a man from Yehud”—“Yehud” being the Persian word for the Jewish homeland.  That means it took over a thousand years between Abraham and Mordechai for the term “Yehudi” to appear in writing. Still, we do not know whether this refers to a place or to a religion. It wasn’t until 1275 CE that the word “Jew” makes its appearance in English. It is spelled “G-Y-U”. It isn’t until 1775 that we find its first English spelling as “J-E-W”. Perhaps this explains why the letter written by the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island” (pointedly, not the “Jewish Congregation of RI”) to George Washington, only 15 years later in 1790, refers to the members of that community as “the stock of Abraham”.  President George Washington uses the same phrase in his letter in response.

Think:  “I am of the stock of Abraham” versus “I am Jewish”.

The word “Jew” has its origins in the Tribe of Judah, the largest of the tribes of ancient Israel. This tribe is named after Judah, the fourth son of Jacob by his wife Leah. The Torah itself says that this means “to give thanks”. Thus, a Jew is one who gives thanks to G-d. The Talmud derives the name Yehudah from the word “Hoda’ah” which means “to acknowledge”. Thus a Jew is someone who affirms that G-d is One and who submits to G-d’s authority through the practice of mitzvoth.

Judah, the person, figures prominently in our Torah portion this week, and indeed, throughout the story of Joseph. So much so that Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik has proposed that the story of Joseph might better be called the story of Judah. For although we may admire Joseph, writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, he is too flawless to serve as a model for us. He succeeds in everything he does. He never falters. He resists the temptations of Potiphar’s wife and forgives his brothers who have wronged him. Joseph survives every situation he encounters and comes out smelling like roses.

Judah, on the other hand, betrays Joseph by selling him into slavery, then redeems himself through his offer to go into slavery in place of his brother Benjamin. Judah gets angry at his daughter-in-law, but has the courage to admit that he has wronged her. Judah gives in to temptation, then acknowledges that he did wrong. Judah sins, and Judah shows remorse and Judah asks forgiveness.

Judaism, writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, is really “Judah-ism”. In our faith we are asked to put ourselves in Judah’s place. Joseph is a static figure, perfect and pure from the beginning of the story to the end. Judah is flawed, like we all are, but Judah grows, like we are asked to do. Judah struggles to do the right thing, as our religion, Judaism, teaches us to do. In the end, Judah overcomes his limitations. Judah is an imperfect namesake who can serve as an inspiration to us all.

That is what it means to be a Jew.

Shabbat Shalom