What Is Judaism?
Judaism has been described as a religion, a race, a culture, and a nation
All of these descriptions have some validity
The Jewish people are best described as an extended family
What is Judaism? What does it mean to be a Jew? Most people, both Jewish and
gentile, would instinctively say that Judaism is a religion. And yet, there are
militant atheists who insist that they are Jews! Is Judaism a race? If you were
to say so, most Jews would think you were an antisemite! 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." It is studied in
Religious Studies courses and taught to Jewish children in
Hebrew schools. See What do
Jews Believe? for details. There is a lot of flexibility about certain
aspects of those beliefs, and a lot of disagreement about specifics, but that
flexibility is built into the organized system of belief that is Judaism.
However, many people who call themselves Jews do not believe in that religion
at all! More than half of all Jews in Israel
today call themselves "secular," and don't believe in
G-d 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 think of these actions
as religious activities.
The most traditional Jews and the most liberal Jews and everyone in between
would agree that these secular people are still Jews, regardless of their
disbelief. See Who is a Jew? 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.
But many Jews were deeply offended by that decision, offended by any hint that
Jews could be considered a race. The idea of Jews as a race brings to mind
nightmarish visions of Nazi Germany, where Jews were declared to be not just a
race, but an inferior race that had to be rounded up into ghettos and
exterminated like vermin.
But setting aside the emotional issues, Jews are clearly not a race.
Race is a genetic distinction, and refers to people with shared ancestry and
shared genetic traits. You can't change your race; it's in your DNA. I could
never become black or Asian no matter how much I might want to.
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
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, the culture of
Jews whose ancestors come from one part of the world. Jews have lived in many
parts of the world and have developed many different traditions. As a
Sephardic friend likes to remind me, 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. His
ancestors probably wouldn't know what to do with a
There are certainly cultural traits and behaviors that are shared by many Jews,
that make us feel more comfortable with other 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?
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 each other.
Unfortunately, in modern times, the term "nation" has become too contaminated
by ugly, jingoistic notions of a country obsessed with its own superiority and
bent on world domination. Because of this notion of "nationhood," Jews are
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. In fact, a surprising number of
antisemitic websites and newsgroup postings linked to this page (in an earlier
form) as proof of their antisemitic delusions that Jews are nationalistic, that
Israel is a colonial power and so forth.
Because of the inaccurate connotations that have attached themselves to the
term "nation," the term can no longer be used to accurately describe the Jewish
The Jewish People are a Family
It is clear from the discussion above 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. See the third essay in his 2005 book,
Who Are We and What Should We Do. But though this is a relatively new book,
it 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
who was later called Israel. In other words, we
are part of his extended family.
Like a family, we don't always agree with each other. We often argue and
criticize each other. We hold each other to the very highest standards, knowing
that the shortcomings of any member of the family will be held against all of
us. But when someone outside of the family unfairly criticizes a family member
or the family as a whole, we are quick to join together in opposition to that
When members of our "family" suffer or are persecuted, we all feel their pain.
For example, in the 1980s, when Africa was suffering from droughts and famines,
many Jews around the world learned for the first time about the Beta Israel,
the Jews of Ethiopia. Their religion, race and culture are quite different from
ours, and we had not even known that they existed before the famine. And yet,
our hearts went out to them as our fellow Jews during this period of famine,
like distant cousins we had never met, and Jews from around the world helped
them to emigrate to Israel.
When a member of our "family" does something illegal, immoral or shameful, we
all feel the shame, and we all feel that it reflects on us. As Jews, many of us
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 embarassing, 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
And when a member of our "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).
And is there a Jew who doesn't know (or at least feel pride upon learning) that
Sandy Koufax declined to pitch in a World Series game that fell on
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