The Exodus is the story of a small family, connected only by the ties of kin and consanguinity, that grew into a community, connected by a covenant and a creed. It is this transcendent vision of nationhood that has enabled others to join the tribe– to convert—and thereby become full-fledged Jews, the children of Abraham and Sarah.
What Does a Jew Look Like?
In 1605, Matteo Ricci, an Italian-born missionary, cartographer, astronomer, and translator, had an unusual encounter in Beijing. He had only been in the city for a few years, serving as an advisor to the Chinese Imperial Court—he was the first Westerner to ever be invited to the Forbidden City, then the seat of the Ming Dynasty—when a visitor named Ai Tien, arrived from one of the Empire’s inland provinces.
Ricci soon learned that, despite his non-European appearance, Ai Tien shared the Europeans’ monotheism. Joyously, Ricci assumed that he had at last found a Chinese Christian; the existence of such a community had been long rumored but uncorroborated. But, after a mix-up over a biblical mural that Ai Tien took to be a depiction of Jacob’s sons—in fact it was of the twelve apostles—Ricci’s joy turned to astonishment. Ai Tien was neither Christian nor Muslim, but a Chinese Jew from the city of Kaifeng.
Of course, while Ricci knew of Jews, this was the first that he, or any European, had heard of a Jewish community in China. This story, retold in The Jews of Kaifeng, China by author Xu Xin, who admits that it “sounds incredible, but is fully documented,” reads like something from a Jewish joke book, complete with set-up and punchline. But it also makes for a useful meditation on the nature of Jewish identity.
Presumed to be descended from a group of Persian Jewish merchants who arrived on the Silk Road during the eleventh century, “despite long centuries of isolation, the Kaifeng Jews kept faith with what they remembered of Judaism, including observance of the Sabbath and other holidays, the practice of circumcision, and abstaining from non-kosher foods.” Eventually, many of these practices faded away as assimilation and intermarriage did their work. But, in the early seventeenth century, it is not unreasonable to think that Matteo Ricci encountered a bona fide Jewish community. By just about any measure—geography, spoken language, physiognomy, dress, or cuisine—they were unlike any that Ricci had previously encountered. Yet, there they were, members of the tribe, in the Ming Dynasty, China.
Late last year, the Trump administration sparked a furious debate about Jewish identity when it issued an Executive Order to combat antisemitism on college campuses. In essence, the order aimed to expand the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include Jewish people in federally-supported educational institutions; the original language in Title VI of the act only refers to discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or national origin” and does not mention religious groups. According to the order, antisemitic bigotry could also be considered a form of racial or national bigotry.
The order stirred up deep-rooted anxieties about Jewish people’s place in the world and an old debate about the nature of Jewish peoplehood: ‘Does this somehow make us less American?’ people fretted. ‘Is Judaism a nation and not a religion?’
Certainly, defining Judaism as a religion and nothing else seems inadequate; once born a Jew, one does not become more or less so by the quality of their belief or frequency of synagogue attendance. At the same time, reducing Jewishness down to a few ethnic features or cultural stereotypes is clearly put to the lie by the Jews of Kaifeng, not to mention the millions of Jews who would sooner recoil from schmaltz or chopped liver than spread it on a piece of matzah. To make up for these shortcomings, a melange of metaphors have been used to try to capture just what it is to be a Red Sea pedestrian: We are a family, a club, a tribe, a citizenry, a bowling team. The list goes on and on.
If we are to interrogate the sources of Jewish identity, it is only apt that we return to the beginning of the Jewish story—especially given the imminent approach of Passover. Of course, Abraham was the first Jew, but he cut a solitary figure. The era of the Patriarchs was one of individuals; the Book of Genesis was the story of a tiny band of believers and their deeply personal encounters with the divine. It is only once we arrive at the Book of Exodus that the Torah’s narrative frame rushes out, tracking the Jewish story from a wide angle and on a historic, global scale. At some point, the sons of Jacob became the Children of Israel. From a small family, connected only by the ties of kin and consanguinity, they were transformed into a people, a teeming, thriving multitude—a nation.
Thus, we find the Exodus depicted as a story of birth, most memorably by the prophet Ezekiel. In his famous metaphor, part of which is recited each year around the Seder table, he declares:
And as for your birth, on the day you were born, your navel was not cut, neither were you washed with water for cleansing, nor were you salted, nor swaddled at all… And I passed by you and saw you downtrodden with your blood… and I covered your nakedness, and I swore to you and came into a covenant with you, says the L-rd, and you were Mine.
This shift, from Genesis to Exodus, is more than just one of scale or quantity, more than just the inevitable result of natural population growth, from 70 souls to 600,000. It was also a qualitative transformation, a break with the past, and a push towards destiny. How, then, do we account for this qualitative shift? What happened to the Jews between Egypt and Israel?
In a sense, this question is essentially a restatement of our original inquiry: What made us Jews then is what makes us Jews today. But what exactly is that?
Sinai Qua Non
Among the competing definitions of Jewish peoplehood, the one offered by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (Rasag), the great tenth-century Iraqi sage, seems to answer both our questions in a single sweep. Almost as an aside, in his monumental Emunot v’Deot, in the midst of a polemic against Christian claims regarding the obsolescence of Torah law, he argued that the Torah must be considered forever binding, and offers the following proof:
Since our Israelite nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah, and since the Creator said that His nation would endure like the heaven and the earth, then most certainly the Torah will endure like the heaven and the earth.
Our nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah. The Rasag’s oft-quoted declaration is more than just a pragmatic argument for Torah study. When once asked about the secret to the perseverance of the Jewish people by a group of college students, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s response bore unmistakable shades of those of the Rasag.
If we study Jewish history, we see that all things change: the language, the territory, the government, the clothing, the culture and the outside world. Here we speak English; in Russia the Jews speak Russian; in the land of Israel, Hebrew. The same differences existed one thousand years ago also, and the only unchanged thing in all these years is the commandments (mitzvahs), the precepts we perform in daily life.
With the Rebbe’s measured, almost scientific approach, we arrive at an answer to the question of survival, but we can take it further. If commitment to Torah observance is the single strand running through Jewish history, it must be a key constitutive element of our peoplehood, not just an explanation for our survival. That is, without the Torah, the Jewish people would never have been a people to begin with.
While it is true that some nations and nationalists prefer to define themselves by the common denominators of blood and soil, the Jewish people have never limited themselves in this way. Despite the centrality of the Holy Land in our history, our hearts, and our hopes, we became a nation before stepping foot in the land of Israel. And although the fact of being born to a Jewish mother is all one needs to be Jewish, the possibility of conversion means that Jewish identity can never be bogged down by biology or crudely racialized. Instead, what happened at Sinai ensures that we are eternally bound by something more transcendent, by a covenant and a creed that is confined by neither time nor space but by the Torah.
In truth, common blood or soil is never enough. A collection of human beings does not become a people simply by virtue of demography or geography. An outsider might have trouble telling Turks and Anatolian Greeks apart, but he’d best not mention that to either of them. Examples abound of a population sharing the same land and lineage without forming a distinct nation. So, what is it that turns a group of people into an ethnic community? As the sociologist Anthony D. Smith writes, employing the French term, “ethnies are constituted, not by lines of physical descent, but by the sense of continuity, shared memory, and collective destiny.”
For Jewish people, the Torah supplies us with a link to the past and future. The Torah provides a record of our national story, of the covenant between G-d and the Jews; it provides us with a system of values and beliefs and with a purpose in this world. The point is not whether or not an individual Jew chooses to recognize this covenant and his or her obligations in it. For the Rasag, a Jew is a Jew because he or she has been called upon by G-d and commanded by His Torah, irrespective of how closely they might hew to the Torah’s instructions. G-d’s covenant with His people—including His expectations of them—is an unbreakable one, applicable to all Jewish people, for all time. Ultimately, it is the fact that we bear a divine mission that defines us as a distinct collective unit; it is the conceptual glue binding us together.
This point finds poetic, if not tragic, resonance in one striking detail in Xu’s account of the Kaifeng Jewish community’s decline. In the 1850s, he related, a couple of Protestant missionaries visiting the city found its synagogue in ruins and managed to purchase six of the Torah scrolls that remained there. “What a change from earlier centuries,” wrote Xu. In previous encounters, “no matter what price was offered, the Kaifeng Jews refused to sell even a single Torah scroll. Earlier, they refused to even show the scrolls to Christians who had tried to convert them.” Whether because they could no longer read the Hebrew scrolls or because they needed the money to survive, “[i]n any case, there had been a fundamental change.” By this time, it was becoming difficult to articulate in what sense the Kaifeng Jews were still a distinct community.
The centrality of the Torah to the Jewish collective identity is also underscored in the biblical narrative. We see that the Jewish people became a nation proper at some point in the Exodus story, but what were the core, the cause, and the culmination of the Exodus? At the very beginning of the Redemption, when G-d first reveals Himself to Moses, while the Jews are still enslaved in Egypt, the purpose of the Exodus is made explicit: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain. Rashi, the indispensable Torah commentator, adds an explanatory note to this verse:
[Concerning] what you asked, “What merit do the Israelites have that they should go out of Egypt?” I have a great thing [dependent] on this Exodus, for at the end of three months from their Exodus from Egypt they are destined to receive the Torah on this mountain.
Then, when the process of the redemption in this story finally begins, the centrality of the Torah is emphasized once again. Speaking to Moses once again, G-d promises:
And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a G-d to you, and you will know that I am the L-rd your G-d, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
Here, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the early Spanish biblical commentary, elucidates this reference to nationhood—what it means for G-d to “take the Israelites as a people”—with illuminating economy: “And I will take you”—when you will receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. We might say that G-d not only takes us as a people, but He makes us a people. The Jewish people are what they are because G-d chose them—for reasons best known to Him—during the Exodus in Egypt, and ultimately with the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
For the Sake of Heaven
Along with Ezekiel’s metaphor of national birth, in more legalistic terms, the Exodus story can also be viewed as a process of conversion. Ever since the Exodus, the key halachic (legal) elements of conversion that arise from the biblical narrative —circumcision, immersion, and sacrificial offering—have remained the central rituals of conversion. Unsurprisingly, conversion, like the Exodus story, is traditionally conceptualized as a kind of birth.
Here too, the Torah remains a key part of the story. The Israelites’ national conversion also began in the Land of Egypt and culminated at the foot of Sinai. Again, in this process, the centrality of the Torah has important implications for how we understand conversion today. Put differently, it’s only because of the Israelite transformation from family to creedal nation, that conversion is possible. If we were still only defined by DNA and family ties, becoming a Jew would seem an even more absurd prospect than switching one’s race. However, because we are ultimately defined by the transcendental ties of the Torah and divine covenant, anyone can join—the convert not only becomes a full-fledged Jew but also a son of Abraham and a daughter of Sarah. The classic halachic terminology used to describe the conversion process reinforces this link to Sinai: The ger is referred to as “a convert who converted”— instead of the more intuitive “gentile who converted”—because conversion retroactively reveals that he or she was never quite a non-Jew; their souls were in some sense present at Sinai.
Because of this reality, our sages have insisted that conversion ought to be performed for the “sake of Heaven,” which is to say out of a sense of idealism, a conviction in one’s beliefs, and commitment to a cause. At the very least, a basic “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments” is a necessary precondition to any conversion. The prospective convert, wrote Maimonides, is questioned, “Why did you choose to convert? Don’t you know that in the present era, the Jews are afflicted, crushed, subjugated, strained, and suffering comes upon them?”
Conversely, during the height of Jewish national wealth and power—the early days of the House of David—conversion was proscribed, at least ab initio, for fear that some would be drawn to the faith for the wrong reasons. Those who wish to convert must be driven by a higher and deeper purpose. As Rabbi Maurice Lamm put it in his classic Becoming a Jew, “Those ulterior motives range from materialism to marriage, but they were all rejected as grounds for becoming a Jew. The Torah, even as G-d Himself, was not to be used as a means, only a goal.”
Undoubtedly, like the journey out of Egypt, the journeys of those who come to find shelter in the Divine Presence are rarely straightforward; they can take detours, plow through deterrence, and feel impossibly slow. Often, as Lamm wrote, one might “begin the long road of conversion for reasons of accommodation, yet, in the end, arrive at remarkably deep levels of spiritual conviction.” It is also worth mentioning that this journey continues after conversion as well. Conversion is, of course, incontrovertible, just as the original entry into the covenant was. Despite this, someone who has become Jewish may, at times, struggle to live up to the transcendent demands of their faith, just as someone who was born a Jew does. Again, to be Jewish is to be subject to the demands, even if one doesn’t always meet them.
Still, the conversion stories most feted in our tradition are those of individuals who eventually arrived at a life lived with profound conviction: Ruth, who, even after the passing of her husband, wholeheartedly threw her lot in with her people; the Roman nobleman Onkelos, who was so taken with a desire to study Torah that he abandoned a life privilege in Rome to take up with the humble inhabitants of Judea and even took a few of his compatriots with him; and the poignant story of Avraham ben Avraham, born Count Valentine Potocki, a member of the Polish aristocracy who was eventually burned at the stake in the city of Vilna for daring to convert out of the Catholic Church.
A Current Affair
Esther Tebeka, now a member of the Palo Alto, California Chabad community, grew up not far from Kaifeng, only one province over, in the city of Wuhan. In Wuhan, Esther worked as a reporter for a provincial TV station, earning a prominent journalism award over the years, and even making a few appearances on the national broadcaster, China Central Television.
Recently, she spoke to Lubavitch International about her extraordinary journey to Judaism. “In the beginning,” she said, “it was intellectual. My emotional involvement only came later.” A chance encounter, followed by a long conversation with a priest while on an educational trip to the U.S. in 2000, set Esther off on an extraordinary journey. “He told me that I was a very spiritual person but that I believed in the wrong religion and then tried to convince me to convert.” Looking back, Esther speculated that it may have been her instincts as an investigative journalist that kept her skeptical while urging her to dig deeper. “If I was going to convert I would have to know more.”
Esther quickly got her hands on a Chinese copy of the Bible, read through the entire thing, and continued to probe. Analytical at every turn, she found flaws in the explanations that the priest had offered and decided she had to go further upstream. Eventually, after rejections, setbacks, and sacrifices, Esther’s journey brought her from her native Buddhism, past Christianity, and eventually to Orthodox Judaism. Esther explained that, in time, an attachment to Judaism that went beyond the intellectual appeared, almost inexplicably.
Even after months of intensive study and immersion in Jewish life, with all its rules and prohibitions, the drive Esther felt for Torah knowledge, and for the ideas of Judaism, remained: “I loved all learning of the details—it was like the more I learned, the more I was interested.” In her final interview before her immersion, as she stood on the cusp of conversion, one of the rabbis asked her whether she felt ready. “‘How can I be ready?’ I told him. ‘There’s still so much to learn!’”
Esther is still in touch with her birth family in China, but in the years since her conversion, she began a family of her own in California. When the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan earlier this year put China-U.S. air travel into a state of near lockdown, Esther was actually back in China, visiting her hometown with one of her daughters. Fortunately, she managed to board one of the few flights made available to U.S. citizens stuck in China, and get back to the United States. It was her own mini-Exodus, a reunion with a community of people bound by a set of ideals that transcend time zones and distance—the Jewish people.