Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 16 October 2010 / 7 Heshvan 5771

The First Jew

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From Holly:

Who were the first Jews? Adam and Eve?

Dear Holly,
This is a very insightful and interesting question.

Adam and Eve were not Jewish. They were mankind in its inception and they were given the right and responsibility to use all their spiritual powers to effect their own perfection by cleaving to G-d and following His ways. G-d instructed them to uphold six basic commandments alluded to in the Torah verses. If they had been done correctly, they would have acquired for themselves and their progeny the desired, elevated and universal perfection of humanity.

After Adam and Eve rebelled against G-d, humanity gradually plummeted to a very low spiritual state where theft, immorality, murder and idolatry became commonplace. These events are described in the Torah, culminating in the Flood. Noah preserved the potential for perfection in man and received a seventh commandment that completed G-d’s code for mankind, and thereby came to be known as the Noahide Laws. Unfortunately, Noah’s descendents also fell short of the mark and continued the antediluvian decadence after the Flood.

Nevertheless, the Torah delineates righteous individuals throughout the generations after the Flood. While they were not Jewish per se, they did pursue G-d’s mission for man by cleaving to G-d and following His ways as mandated to Adam and Noah. One such couple was Abraham and Sarah, who despite coming from non-Jewish, idolatrous families, nevertheless made great efforts to break through the prevailing climate of impurity to regain the pre-sin purity of Adam and Eve.

Although ancient Jewish sources posit that through their great spiritual effort and intuition Abraham and Sarah each gained foreknowledge of the Torah before it was given, they did not formally convert and were therefore not formally Jewish. However, they did re-acquire for themselves and their progeny a unique potential to attain G-d’s initial intention for humanity.

While Ishmael benefited by being fathered by Abraham, born of the marginal maidservant Hagar, he and his descendents became marginal to these developments. In addition, as described in the Torah, both Ishmael and Esau excluded themselves from the process by rejecting the righteous ways of the patriarchs and matriarchs, their parents and grandparents. Therefore only Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob (Israel) and his wives and then the sons of Jacob and their wives continued the dynamic of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah.

But still no Jews. So how and when did the Jews become Jewish?

According to Torah law, a person becomes Jewish by: 1] declaring willingness to keep all the commandments, 2] by immersing oneself in a specifically defined body of water (mikveh), and 3] for men, this is preceded by circumcision. When the Children of Israel left Egypt and received the Torah at Mount Sinai these criteria were met. All males who left Egypt were circumcised, having kept this command given by G-d to Abraham for his descendents.

The Torah verses then describe the Israelites’ commitment to keep the Torah and subsequent immersion (Exodus 19): “In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai...Moses ascended to G-d, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, 'So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel...‘And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.’ Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, 'All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!'...So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he sanctified the people [by having them immerse in the mikveh and temporarily refrain from marital contact].” The verses then go on to describe the awesome experience of the revelation of Torah at Sinai.

This event marked the mass, formal conversion of the descendants of the patriarchs and matriarchs to Judaism. Ancient sources associate it with the termination of the impurity of the original sin from off the Jewish people, which elevated them to the level of Adam and Eve before the sin. By choosing G-d, they became the Chosen People, whose mission was to be a light unto the nations, leading all of humanity back to G-d’s initial, universal plan: that all mankind should be as one nation under G-d, indivisible, with spirituality and righteousness for all.

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