I was shocked, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I was not shocked for myself as my spiritual skin has grown too thick for that, but for the sheer audacity of hearing someone make a claim that so palpably couldn’t be and wasn’t true. I was told by a representative of an organisation that works with farmers on the ‘West Bank’ that ‘unless I had been to the West Bank I was not a Jew’. Not a ‘real’ one at least… After all, a ‘real’ Jew would have connections with the soil, the ‘earth’ of Ha’aretz, the ‘Biblical’ heartland of our inheritance. Leaving aside for one moment the obvious romanticism of such a statement, a romanticism that motivates many to behave in interesting ways in Israel, it did make me consider just what categories we do use to ‘sub-group’ each other. I suppose we could go on and add many more categories to the above one: you’re not a Jew unless you visit Jerusalem, place a prayer into the Western Wall, eat kosher (according to this or that community’s ruling), wear clothing from a this or that historic time period in Eastern Europe, adhere to various modesty standards, light the Shabbat candles in a certain way, stand (or sit) for Shema and so on. The list is truly inexhaustible. And we as Jews are very good at self-defining according to multiple and complicated variations on a theme.
Of course, there is one category that we CAN use to help clarify an otherwise muddled situation. Instead of applying our own human definitions according to our own likes and dislikes, personal preferences and tastes, maybe we should listen to what G-d Himself says about this. In a startling, yet not unsurprising statement, Rav Shaul declares that ‘not all Israel is Israel’. Not unsurprising because this would not have caused an eyebrow to be raised when it was written nearly 2000 years ago. Everyone was attempting to define the almost impossible, answer the elusive question that has dogged Jewish minds for what seems an eternity: ‘who is a Jew’? In the context of election and promise that is the backbone of Israeli, Jewish history, Rav Shaul summarises that a Jew is one ‘who is a Jew inwardly’. Far from declaring that the external forms of righteousness and mitzvot are meaningless, he radically draws our attention back to what actually counts: the inner world of Jewish values and a changed heart. It is not enough, nor acceptable, to have an external form of Judaism alone, nor even in the above context to have Jewish soil under your fingernails if at the same time life-giving and life-changing Jewish values are absent from your instinctive, motivational, and internal life. To have a circumcised heart, to believe in and accept the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua, IS the most Jewish thing in the world to do and be: a Jew inwardly.