THE BLOG
05/28/2013 06:17 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013

Are Gentiles Cool?

As a rabbi, I am intrigued by how people translate terms from the Old Testament. Written in ancient Hebrew, the Torah is replete with words that have multiple meanings, layers and messages often lost in translation from ancient script to contemporary dialect. One of these terms is "gentile" or "non-Jew." I have heard this term being used by many different groups and even as it appears in publications, essays and articles. Perhaps I am being overly analytical, but I believe this translation is a massive and subtle misrepresentation.

When I hear the word "non-Jew," all I know about them is that the person in reference is not of the Jewish faith or culture. They could be of any other religious or cultural background, but this expression strips their identity down into one faceless lump of "gentile." Is this a spiritually mature way of speaking about other people? As a "non-entity"?

If you read the "Word of God," you will see that not once does God use the term "non-Jew" in the Torah. Throughout the entire Bible, the Creator of heaven and earth describes people who aren't Jewish not as "non-Jews" but as "other families" or "nations of the earth" (Genesis 28:14). This illustrates that the Torah view of Jewish people in society is "us with them" and not "us against them." This may be why Judaism is not a religion that believes you must convert to her in order to obtain divine salvation. On the contrary, Judaism actively discourages converts from converting and instead highlights the "righteous men and women" of the Bible who attained epic spiritual heights without the need to convert (Talmud Sanhedrin 58b).

As well, when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he specifically asked God to heed the prayer of all people who would come to the Temple (1-Kings 8:41-43). The service in the Holy Temple during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot featured a total of 70 separate ceremonies specifically praying for the success and happiness of the 70 nations of the world (Talmud Sukkah 55b).

While historians wiser than me can focus on researching the reasons the terms "non-Jew" and "gentile" popped up in historic vernacular, I will speak about humankind the way the Creator of the universe does. As many different families and heritages living together under one sun. The love of diversity is seen in all areas of God's creation whether its biological mutation and evolution, the sheer awesomeness of color, sound and smell in the world, or all of our countless dreams. The Kabbalah explains that the Creator loves creating a world of diversity in which man and woman can proceed to create unity from His diversity, thereby truly becoming "created in the image of God" (Tanya, Gate of Unity, 3).

If diversity is so central to the Jewish theology, what's the deal with having a "chosen people" among all the "people of the earth"? What type of parent would encourage equality and accepting diversity just to go ahead and pick one of their children to be their "favorite"?

For that, I turn once again to the actual wording in the Torah. The "other nations" are referred to as goyim ("nations") whereas the Jews are also called goy, just that they are the goy kadosh or "holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). So does being "holy" mean being the "favorite"? The word kadosh ("holy") literally translates as "separated" (Leviticus 11:44). Specifically, an act of separation that connotes an intentionality (Rashi commentary on Leviticus 19:2). In other words, one separates something to do something, not just to be something. So the Jewish people were separated for a purpose, not to carry a higher rank or be a "favorite." This purpose is to tell the world that they are also "chosen to do good," as Isaiah says it, "to be a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 49:6). Judaism understands that the purpose of being "chosen" is to model an enlightened society and to be "teachers of light" who share the Torah with the rest of the world. That is what they are "chosen" for. Not to lead or rule, but to share and teach.

Hence, the Jewish people were divided into 12 tribes (Deuteronomy 32). It may have been theologically more palatable if if the mother of three monotheistic religions would believe in one God, learn from one Torah and have one all-inclusive tribe. Yet, 12 tribes is the set-up in Judaism, and I venture to say that this is so the Jewish people remember their mission even unto themselves. To unite diversity under the canopy of the Torah. To remember that conformity is not the goal and that diversity is loved by the Creator. So, a diverse 12-tribe nation shares a diversely layered Torah to a world of diverse cultures, heritages and souls.

That's the type of religious "goy" I want to be: a person that can share and not force. That can connect and not isolate. That can respect and learn that we are all cool.