Home December 2014 What is Jewish?

What is Jewish?

1214whatisjewishSeveral years ago on a train from Antwerp to Amsterdam, I entered a compartment where a distinguished-looking gentleman was engrossed in reading a book. As I glanced at the book, I noticed it was in Hebrew and said, “ Oh, Hebrew.” He looked up, smiled and asked me if I knew Hebrew. When I demurred, he closed the book and we talked all the way to Amsterdam. We had identified ourselves as members of the same tribe!

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 God or any of the religious beliefs of Judaism. In Orange County, where almost 80 percent of Jews are not connected to traditional organizations, most of them still answer “Jewish” when asked their religion, but often follow up with, “but I’m not religious” or “I’m not very Jewish.”

So what is Judaism? And what is Jewish? Is Judaism a nation, a religion, an ethnicity, a race? Throughout the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century, most of the European world agreed that Jews constituted a distinct nation. While a nation was defined as any distinct group of people with a common language and culture, it was only in the nineteenth century that one assumed each nation would have its own distinct government, and the diaspora made that impossible.

And the reality is that Jews defy all conventional definitions of a “people” or “nation” because we lack a common race, culture or historical experience. Though we may share eternal rights to the Land of Israel, for most of the last 4,000 years, the overwhelming majority of Jews have not lived in or even visited the Jewish homeland.

Of course, Judaism is a religion, and it is this religion that forms the central element of what we call the Jewish culture: whether our food is kosher or no and the calendar of Jewish feast and fast days. And regardless of one’s level of observance, it is religion that most people associate with the word “Jewish.”

Is Judaism an ethnicity? Not any more. Although Judaism arose out of a single ethnicity in the Middle East, there have always been conversions into and out of the religion. So while many have been ethnically part of the original group who are no longer part of Judaism, there are those of other ethnic groups who have converted into Judaism. Once converted, people are considered the same as if they were born Jewish. This is not true for a race.

You can’t change your race; it’s in your DNA. Common ancestry is not required to be a Jew. While many Jews throughout the world do share common ancestry, it isn’t necessary. Though one could never become black or Asian, blacks and Asians have become Jews.

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 and social justice. Yet, what most of those secular American Jews think of as Jewish culture is really just Ashkenazi Jewish culture—the culture of Jews whose ancestors come from one part of the world. Because Jews have lived in many parts of the world, they have developed many different traditions. Yiddish is not part of a Sephardi’s culture, nor are bagels and lox, chopped liver, latkes, gefilte fish or matzah ball soup. And Ashkenazi charoses is quite different from Sephardi charoses.

While a number of cultural traits and behaviors are indeed shared by Jews in many parts of the world, those 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.

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 seem to have become distorted over time and no longer seem to resonate.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, defined Judaism as a civilization encompassing religion, language, all forms of culture and tradition. As such, Jews may express their Judaism in a variety of ways. But as with all topics under discussion by Jews, everyone has a different opinion.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has suggested yet another and perhaps better analogy for the Jewish people: We are a family. Like a family, we don’t always agree with each other. We often argue with 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 unfair criticism.

When members of our “family” suffer or are persecuted, we all feel their pain. In the 1980s, when Africa was suffering from droughts and famines, many Jews around the world learned about Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia. Though their race and culture are quite different, they were like distant cousins we had never met, and Jews from around the world helped them to immigrate to Israel.

When a member of our “family” does something illegal, immoral or shameful, we all feel the shame. When Donald Sterling’s remarks were made public, we asked, “Is he Jewish?” We were embarrassed by the scandals of Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff, and totally shocked when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was killed by a Jew—a member of the “family.”

But when a member of our “family” accomplishes something significant, we are proud. Who doesn’t love Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, listing famous Jews? We all take pride in the number of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish, in scientists like Albert Einstein or political leaders like Joe Lieberman, even if we don’t all agree with his politics or his religious views. And what Jew didn’t feel a sense of pride in 1965 when Sandy Koufax declined to pitch in a World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur?

Orange County is home to Jews who have come from different parts of the country and the world, bringing their own ideas of Jewishness. As members of such an extensive family, how do we define our Jewish identity and strengthen the sense of family here in Orange County? Though my travel companion on the ride to Amsterdam was undoubtedly from a different cultural background and national origin, it took less than a minute for us to recognize each other as members of the same family.

Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004 and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.

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