I'm Jewish. It is one of my identities. I say one of because I am an American and a half. Quarter Jewish (Ashkenazi from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire which also makes me Central European ancestors from around Vienna), Quarter Irish, Quarter English, and a quarter mixed bag. Last ¼ is probably eastern European, Slavic perhaps, with some more English perhaps.
So, why am I Jewish? Well, because I was raised to think I was. But culturally and not religiously. In fact I am a terrible Jew. Every few years my mother (half Jewish) would get the bright idea that we should celebrate Yom Kippur or Hanukkah or something. Mostly we were secular. We celebrated Christmas and Easter (but no Jesus in either, especially Easter as my mother was forced to watch “Passion” videos in school as a child and found the Jesus part of Easter to be barbaric and disgusting). I often tell people I was raised as a non-practicing Unitarian.
So, what is Judaism? That question can be difficult or near impossible to answer. But, since I have had to argue with some folks on the internet over it, we shall try. Over the past two decades, the number of American Jews who define themselves as secular has nearly doubled; in Israel, a country founded on secular and nationalistic notions of Judaism, the religious population has risen dramatically. Fifty-eight percent of Israeli Jews now consider themselves either traditional or religious, while almost half say they’re secular. Over four of ten Israeli Jews say they are secular Jews.
But all these self-definitions fail to convey what Judaism truly is. Its religious aspects can be no more easily separated from its cultural or national dimensions than secular notions of Jewishness can be divorced from their religious origins. Still, a common assumption today is that Judaism began as a religion and only gradually grew into something more broad — and that is completely wrong.
The strange thing is that this is exactly backwards: the very idea that Judaism is a religion is a distinctly modern invention. Prior to Jewish modernity — most clearly defined as the acquisition of citizenship rights for Jews, a long process that began in Europe in the late-18th century — Judaism was neither solely a religion, nor simply a matter of culture or nationality. Rather, Judaism and Jewishness were all of these at once: religion, culture and nationality. Indivisible.
The basic framework of organized Jewish life in the medieval and early modern periods was the local Jewish community. While a Jewish community’s existence depended on the whim of others (usually the nobility or royalty), pre-modern Jewish communities were unique in that they had a tremendous amount of political autonomy. Communities within communities.
Each community had its own set of bylaws administered by laypersons who, among other things, elected a rabbi for the community. Rabbis in turn had jurisdiction over ritual law and also gave credence to the laws of the community as a whole.
Each community also had its own courts, as well as its own educational, health, economic and social services systems. Outside rulers gave the Jewish community responsibility to maintain law and order, and the right to punish its members in a variety of ways, including exacting fines, imprisonment and corporal punishment.
For all these reasons, it simply was not possible in a pre-modern context to conceive of Jewish religion, nationality, and what we now call culture as distinct from one another. A Jew’s religious life was defined by, though not limited to, Jewish law, which was simultaneously religious, political and cultural in nature.
It was only in the modern period that the corporate Jewish community dissolved, and with that, political agency shifted to the individual Jew, giving him the freedom to define his identity for himself. Sort of an infusion of the Protestant idea of a “Personal Relationship” with the divine.
So where did the idea that Judaism was only a religion come from? Moses Mendelssohn.
The German Jewish philosopher, born in 1729, essentially invented it. Known as the “German Socrates,” and “the father of Reform Judaism.” Mendelssohn thrived in both Jewish and German Enlightenment circles. Yet despite his fame, Mendelssohn, like all other Jews, had no civil rights.
When he was publicly challenged to explain why the Jews shouldn’t convert to Christianity, he argued that Judaism was wholly compatible with German Enlightenment values. But he stressed Judaism’s religious components over its corporate structure, thus giving birth to the idea that Judaism was a religion alone.
He vehemently opposed the idea that the Jewish community should retain its autonomy in matters of civil law, stressing that Jews should receive civil rights as individuals and not as a corporate entity. And he especially rejected the Jewish community’s claim, still maintained in his day, to the right to excommunicate.
It is not surprising that a century after Mendelssohn’s peak of fame, and after Jews had been granted some though not all civil rights, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the Reform movement’s founding father, would affirm what he called Judaism’s “religious-universal” element. Though he reacted against Mendelssohn’s insistence that Jews maintain religious practices, Rabbi Geiger argued that Judaism consisted only of “spiritual achievements” because “it is precisely to its independence from political status that Judaism owes its survival.”
What is perhaps surprising is that what we today call “Orthodoxy” has as much, if not more, in common with Mendelssohn’s conception of Jewish religion than do pre-modern forms of Judaism. Despite the perception of it being ancient, Orthodox Judaism is, in other words, essentially modern. Orthodoxy’s founder was Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi of what came to be called neo-Orthodoxy, and who stressed that a “unity of religious outlook,” and not political life, linked Jewish communal life throughout the ages.
Rabbi Hirsch never denied that non-Orthodox Jews were Jewish, but he parted company with his rabbinic predecessors in distinguishing between being Jewish and “the genuine Jew” who belonged to what he called “the true Jewish congregation.” For this reason, Rabbi Hirsch, despite his vehement criticism of liberal Judaism, made Judaism more like the Christianity of his times, much the same way Reform Judaism did.
The idea that Judaism was a secular, cultural identity was born further east, in the late-19th century. Rabbis Hirsch and Geiger’s ideas of Judaism as a religion made little sense in Eastern Europe, where Jews still, for the most part, did not possess individual rights. The cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, born in 1856 in Kiev, rejected the idea that Judaism was a religion, arguing that Jews had attempted to eliminate their communal identity for the false promise of full equality in a modern state.
As he put it in a well-known and aptly titled essay, “Slavery in Freedom”:
“Do I envy these fellow Jews of mine their emancipation? I answer in all truth and sincerity: No! A thousand times No. ... I have at least not sold my soul for emancipation...” Instead, he believed Jews should revive their own homeland in Palestine, and one founded on a rich Hebrew culture.”
Yet while Ahad Ha’am is today often treated as a “secularist,” there can be no denying that, somewhat paradoxically, he understood religion and theology as the vital element of what he regarded as the future of Hebrew culture. Put another way, the notion of Jewish culture, or Jewish secularism, relied on religious sources. Particularly telling is how Ha’am drew inspiration from the Hebrew prophets, contending that the ethical imperative was the true meaning of prophecy and the unique contribution of Judaism to all of humanity.
So, what is Judaism?
Is Judaism a Religion?
Clearly, there is a religion called Judaism, a set of ideas about the world and the way we should live our lives that is called "Judaism."
However, many people who call themselves Jews do not believe in that religion at all! Almost half of all Jews in Israel today call themselves "secular," and don't believe in God or any of the religious beliefs of Judaism. Half of all Jews in the United States don't belong to any synagogue. They may practice some of the rituals of Judaism and celebrate some of the holidays, but they don't always think of these actions as religious activities.
Clearly, then, there is more to being Jewish than just a religion.
Are Jews a Race?
In the 1980s, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Jews are a race, at least for purposes of certain anti-discrimination laws. Their reasoning: at the time these laws were passed, people routinely spoke of the "Jewish race" or the "Italian race" as well as the "Negro race," so that is what the legislators intended to protect.
Common ancestry is not required to be a Jew. Many Jews worldwide share common ancestry, as shown by genetic research; however, you can be a Jew without sharing this common ancestry, for example, by converting. Thus, although I could never become black or Asian, blacks and Asians have become Jews (Sammy Davis Jr. and Connie Chung are good examples).
Is It a Culture or Ethnic Group?
Most secular American Jews think of their Jewishness as a matter of culture or ethnicity. When they think of Jewish culture, they think of the food, of the Yiddish language, of some limited holiday observances, and of cultural values like the emphasis on education.
Those secular American Jews would probably be surprised to learn that much of what they think of as Jewish culture is really just Ashkenazic Jewish culture, those were descendants of immigrants originating in the Israelite tribes of the Middle East who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire (pre-Germany and central Europe) around the turn of the first millennium. Jews have lived in many parts of the world and have developed many different traditions.
As Sephardic Jews (a Sephardi Jew is a Jew descended from the Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century) remind us, Yiddish is not part of his culture, nor are bagels and lox, chopped liver, latkes, gefilte fish or matzah ball soup. His idea of Jewish cooking includes bourekas, phyllo dough pastries filled with cheese or spinach. Their ancestors probably wouldn't know what to do with a dreidel.
There are certainly cultural traits and behaviors that are shared by many Jews that might make us feel more comfortable with each other as Jews. Jews in many parts of the world share many of those cultural aspects. However, that culture is not shared by all Jews all over the world, and people who do not share that culture are no less Jews because of it. Thus, Judaism must be something more than a culture or an ethnic group.
Are the Jews a Nation like Nigerians from Nigeria? Jews from Judea?
The traditional explanation, and the one given in the Torah, is that the Jews are a nation. The Hebrew word, believe it or not, is "goy." The Torah and the rabbis used this term not in the modern sense meaning a territorial and political entity, but in the ancient sense meaning a group of people with a common history, a common destiny, and a sense that we are all connected to one another.
Unfortunately, in modern times, the term "nation" has become too contaminated by other interpretations and definitions. Jingoistic and political. Because of this notion of "nationhood," Jews have often falsely accused of being disloyal to their own country in favor of their loyalty to the Jewish "nation," of being more loyal to Israel than to their home country. Some have gone so far as to use this distorted interpretation of "nationhood" to prove that Jews do, or seek to, control the world.
It is clear from this discussion that there is a certain amount of truth in the claims that it is a religion, a race, or an ethnic group, none of these descriptions is entirely adequate to describe what connects Jews to other Jews. And yet, almost all Jews feel a sense of connectedness to each other that many find hard to explain, define, or even understand. Traditionally, this interconnectedness was understood as "nationhood" or "peoplehood," but those terms have become so distorted over time that they are no longer accurate.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has suggested a better analogy for the Jewish people: We are a family. This is certainly not a new concept: throughout the Bible and Jewish literature, the Jewish people are referred to as "the Children of Israel," a reference to the fact that we are all the physical or spiritual descendants of the Patriarch Jacob, who was later called Israel. In other words, we are part of his extended family.
When a member of the "family" does something illegal, immoral or shameful, we all feel the shame, and we all feel that it reflects on us. Many Jews were embarrassed by the scandals of Monica Lewinsky, Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff, because they are Jews and their actions reflect on us all, even though we disapprove. The Madoff scandal was all the more embarrassing, because so many of his victims were Jews and Jewish charities: a Jew robbing from our own "family"! We were shocked when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was killed by a Jew, unable to believe that one Jew would ever kill another member of the "family."
And when a member of the "family" accomplishes something significant, we all feel proud. A perfect example of Jews (even completely secular ones) delighting in the accomplishments of our fellow Jews is the perennial popularity of Adam Sandler's Chanukkah songs, listing famous people who are Jewish. We all take pride in scientists like Albert Einstein or political leaders like Joe Lieberman (we don't all agree with his politics or his religious views, but we were all proud to see him on a national ticket).
Jews are many things. But, as an atheist I am deeply offended when someone says that being Jewish means practicing the religion of Judaism.