Let’s put the ‘Judah’ back in Judaism
Did you ever stop and think about why we are called “Jews” and our religion is “Judaism”?
File this one under the category of things I took for granted until I decided to explore beyond the name. Somewhere along the way, I had learned that “Jew” ultimately derives from “Judah,” but had I never truly considered why we are named after Judah in the first place? There are historic reasons, traced back to the original Israelite kingdom, along with robust debate about the etymology of the word “Jew” (as well as its evolution to connoting the people of a particular ethnic origin).
For today, let’s leave the history lesson to the historians and focus on the spiritual — why should we embrace the name Judah? And what meaning does it convey when we refer to ourselves as “Jews”?
Get The Jewish Standard Newsletter by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up
But first, let’s consider the other candidates.
We are blessed to boast an impressive field of potential namesakes for our Chosen People, yet the choice that prevails is Judah. Apologies in advance for being lighthearted when briefly discussing the enormous merits of our patriarchs (and matriarchs), whose holiness paved the way for our people.
Abraham. The first Jew, the O.G. Abraham Avinu was the original Hebrew (“Ivri”). Avraham Avinu blazed the path for each of us to connect to God in our own way. In many ways, he is like Classic Coke — nothing beats it, but frequently it is taken for granted.
Isaac. Contrary to popular belief, Yitzhak was not a young boy when Abraham brought him to be sacrificed to God. Rather, according to various rabbinic interpretations, Isaac was aware of his perilous circumstances but willingly got with the program — an unbelievable display of courage and faith.
Jacob. Yakov is the father of the 12 tribes that effectively gave rise to the People of Israel. He took on the name Israel (“wrestling with God”) after grappling with an angel. The name Israel teaches us that it’s acceptable to struggle with our Judaism, to ask questions and fumble in the dark during our respective religious journeys. This alone is worthy of its own article, but for today, we note that Jacob is another worthy contender (and in some ways the winner by virtue of the Jewish homeland being named Israel).
Joseph. Yosef was the ultimate dreamer, and his captivating story takes up valuable real estate in the Torah as it weaves together lessons of family dynamics along with teachings about the importance of imagination. Joseph’s journey lays the groundwork for the Israelites’ arrival to, and Exodus from, Egypt — effectively serving as the birth of our nation.
Moses. As we recite in the Yigdal prayer, there will never be another like Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher. Moses is the only Jew to have experienced God “face to face” and is considered to have transmitted the Torah to each of our souls at Mount Sinai. His stature is unrivaled, yet there are intriguing instances of Moses being diminished (perhaps to teach that despite his lofty stature, he was not to be mistaken with Hashem). As examples, Moses famously is precluded from entering the Land of Israel, and our Passover Haggadah tellingly omits reference to Moses, despite his starring role in the Exodus story.
There are many other worthy candidates receiving votes, including, of course, our matriarchs (whose merit is often overlooked — look for a shout-out below to Leah). With this context, the question becomes even more powerful: “Why Judah?” Was Judah more important than our patriarchs? Somehow greater than Moses?
Judah the Man. Who was Judah? For starters, he was Jacob’s fourth son, and by all accounts he was a complicated biblical character; the complications range from his role in Joseph’s story and his complex relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar to his claim-to-fame as King David’s ancestor. Despite being “only” the fourth son, without an innate birthright, Judah claimed a leadership role among his brothers due to his strength and purposeful actions. In Parashat Vayechi Jacob blesses each of his sons, jubilantly praising Judah more than his first-born son, Reuben.
Judah was named by his mother, Leah — Jacob’s second-favorite wife. Leah had suffered indignities by virtue of being the elder sister married to a man who preferred her younger sister, Jacob’s beloved Rachel. Nonetheless, Leah named her firstborn son Judah, meaning “giving thanks to God,” to show appreciation for her divine blessing. There is a valuable lesson to be learned from Leah’s strength: despite our travails and personal disappointments, we always must have gratitude. Naming her son Judah was the ultimate expression of gratitude, and one we should strive to emulate. This alone may end the inquiry as to why ours is the religion of Judaism.
When we are introduced to Judah as a man, it isn’t exactly his finest moment. He plays a key role in the sale of Joseph to traders, speaking up to ensure Joseph isn’t killed but having blood on his hands for allowing this episode to happen at all. Later, Judah passionately protects Benjamin and shows deep reverence for Jacob. Eventually, Judah becomes the father of the tribe that led in the conquest of the Promised Land.
Finally, we should not devote an article to Judah without mentioning his association with lions (especially considering my own name). The emblem of the tribe of Judah is a lion, and the lion eventually became the symbol of City of David — along with our modern-day capital, Jerusalem. Like the lion, Judah grows to be resolute in his approach to bravely protecting his people.
Lessons Learned — Chicken Soup. As with many things with our people, it comes down to food — namely chicken soup. Chicken soup requires a balance of ingredients, ranging from salty to sweet. We don’t want any one ingredient to be too strong or too weak, and we are aware that there are countless opinions on the best recipe. (I’ll give a shout-out to my wife’s excellent rendering of her Bubbie’s version.) As Jews, we should incorporate the characteristics of each of our forebearers into our lives.
So, what do we learn from Judah, and how should we put the “Judah” back in Judaism? Perhaps we should combine Leah’s attitude of gratitude and Judah’s lionesque defense of his people into a potent soup. As Jews, we should remain deeply committed to a sense of appreciation for everything Hashem has bestowed upon us. And we should couple that commitment with a ferocity of spirit toward each other — our brothers and sisters.
We should be fierce like lions in our defense of Israel and Jews around the world. Whether advocating for the Jewish state or combating antisemitism, we should ensure that our chicken soup has some punch to it. Today is not a time for a bland, watery broth — this moment requires a muscular approach to rallying our people.
While our soup should incorporate Abraham’s infinite faith in God, Isaac’s trust in God’s intentions, Jacob’s (aka Israel) strength to struggle with an angel, and Moses’ humble approach to nation-building, let’s not forget to add a dash of Judah.
Let’s remember to roar like lions in the face of adversity, fearlessly roam the jungles of a dangerous world, and majestically honor the one true King.
Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel.