To Be Jewish is very much about behavior
“Jacob and Rachel,” Jacopo Amiconi (1682-1752). Wikimedia Commons
As Jacob finds himself at his mother’s brother’s home in Mesopotamia, he falls in love with Rachel, his youngest daughter. Laban, his uncle, promises to give her as his wife, but when the wedding night arrives, he switches Rachel for his oldest daughter Leah.
And so we read in Genesis chapter 29, verse 25:
Jewish tradition hasn’t been kind to Laban, labeling him “the Deceiver,” which is hard to argue against. However, in marrying his oldest daughter first, Laban acts according to his people’s norms.
Aside from his deceit, he acts generously. For example, he still gives Jacob his youngest daughter, Rachel, after he has married Leah together with no small gifts.
Laban is out to teach Jacob two important lessons. The first one is that he who deceives others can expect to be himself deceived by others.
The second one is Laban’s response to Jacob’s complaint:
Jacob, so far, has made little of traditions ignoring that they enshrine a community’s ethics; they define who are the people of that community.
The lesson, however, is learned and integrated by Jacob’s descendants:
Tamar- king’s David daughter- reproaches her half-brother Amnon’s moral turpitude with the words:
In fact, for generations, parents have taught what Judaism stands for with the simple: “A Jew does not do this.”
Defining what Judaism is and what it does, is not complicated. As the late prominent Jewish-American scholar Arthur Hertzberg said:
If Judaism, in the end, is what Jews have learned from their experiences through history, then the way Jews behave is what is called “Jewish ethics.”
Traditionally Jews have been highly conscious of their behavior as a group, as “am Israel,” as the people of Israel. Unity and solidarity have been distinctive aspects of that behavior.
If the idea of “Jews don’t do this” doesn’t keep on coming up every time Jews misbehave among themselves and toward others, Erich Fromm’s rumination that we still have an ethical heritage, but it will soon be spent could become true.
Rabbi Moshe Pitchon