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Is Judaism a Religion, a Race or a Cultural Identity?

Dear JITC-

I’m confused as to whether being Jewish is a religion, a race, a cultural identity or all three. If it’s not a race, then how come Jewishness is inherited?

All the best,
Miranda

Dear Miranda-

Thanks for your question. This is a tricky topic so let’s define what things are.

A race is (presumably) a grouping of humans with shared biological distinctions. There are scientists, however, who assert that the concept of race is a construct. They maintain that there’s only one race – the human race – and that any distinctions are only significant because we’ve decided that they are. (There’s no inherent reason why skin color should be a more significant indicator or racial determinant than hair color or eye color.)

Ethnicity refers to shared cultural aspects that distinguish one group from another. Ethnic groups can share language, history, religion and/or ancestry, among other things that make them distinct from other cultures. Black vs. white is a matter of race; Spanish vs. Portuguese (for example) is a matter of ethnicity.

Religion, of course, is a belief system.

So where does Judaism fit into these categories?

Race, insofar as it exists at all, is a function of DNA. While there is a cluster of genes associated with being Jewish, non-Jewish people can possess those genes, and there are entire Jewish communities that don’t have them (presumably because these communities became isolated before those haplotype markers entered the DNA). Finally, a person can’t change his race but a person who isn’t Jewish can become Jewish. So it’s not looking good to define Judaism as a race.[1]

What about ethnicity? There is definitely such a thing as Jewish culture – imagine Yiddish theater, borscht-belt comedians, and bagels with cream cheese and lox. But these things do not truly define Jews as an ethnicity. In fact, these examples are more indicative of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, or even of American Jewish culture. The experiences of Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Yemenite Jews, Hasidic Jews, and other populations are very different from one another. These groups are all Jewish but they lack commonalities in dress, food, and 2,000 years of language and history.

So, obviously, Judaism must be a religion, right? Ehhh… it’s not that simple.

There’s certainly a religion called Judaism but not everyone who calls himself Jewish observes that religion. First of all, there are many flavors of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, et al. Some of these will tell you that what others are doing is 100% against Judaism, yet they’re all Jews. Additionally, many Jews are completely secular – they ascribe to no religious beliefs whatsoever – and yet they’re still Jewish. Finally, have you heard of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross? How about Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris? Born Edith Stein and Aaron Lustiger, respectively, these are prominent Catholics who were born Jewish. (There is also the legend of Pope Andreas, but that tale is unconfirmed.) Such people are still considered Jewish by halacha and anti-Semites alike. So one can practice widely different forms of the religion, no religion or an altogether different religion and still be Jewish.

So, if Judaism is not a race, nor an ethnicity, nor is it limited to religion, then what is it? Historically, the Jews were considered a nation, with a common history, religion and homeland. This is the way the Jews are described throughout the Bible. Consider Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This remained so even after the Jews were exiled from their land, as seen in Esther 3:8: “There is a certain nation scattered and dispersed among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom….” (An exhaustive list of Biblical references to the Jews as a nation would take up wayyyy too much space.)

That the Jews were a nation would have been the accepted definition through the Middle Ages and even into modern times. Things started to change in the 19th-century with the political ideology of nationalism. Previously, it was not taken for granted that a nation – such as the Jews – necessarily had to have its own land but the popular definitions changed. New assumptions, such as that that a nation had to have its own government, changed the way people viewed the Jews. (And let us not overlook the impact of nationalism on the modern Zionist movement, since it also assumed that a people needed a land.)

We might consider ourselves a nation but others might now have a different understanding of that term. So, if Jews are not a race, not an ethnicity, not just a religion and not a nation as others understand nations, then what the heck are we?

Again, let us turn to the Torah regarding the origins of the Jewish people:

“We are all the sons of one man…” (Genesis 42:11). “All the souls that were begat by Yaakov were 70 souls, and Yoseif was already in Egypt… And the children of Israel were fruitful; they increased abundantly and multiplied. They waxed exceeding mighty and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:5,7).

The Jews – AKA “the Hebrews” and “the Israelites” – are also known as “the Children of Israel” (a phrase that occurs more than 600 times in Tanach), Israel being another name for our forefather Yaakov. We are very literally a family, a fact that is obvious from the following halacha:

A man is not permitted to marry his paternal grandfather’s wife. This prohibition continues uninterrupted up one’s paternal line so that even the wife of our forefather Yaakov would be prohibited to one of us (Hilchos Ishus 1:6).

This halacha only makes sense because we are literally one big family, not just a family in the metaphorical sense of the world.

That Judaism is a familial relationship makes perfect sense. Many of us share common DNA markers but people can marry into the family or be adopted (i.e., convert), carrying their own unique genetic material. Many of us share similar family customs but other branches of the family may develop their own practices. And we start out in the religion of our mothers and fathers but, even if some of us abandon it or go astray, they are still our brothers and sisters.

So if you ask me, Jews have aspects of race, ethnicity and religion, but what we really are is a nation (in traditional terms), which is really just another way of saying that we’re a big extended family.

Sincerely,
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

*******************************
[1] While Judaism may not be a race, it should be noted that anti-Semitic attacks are nevertheless a form of racism. In 2018, US Magistrate Mark Hornsby of Louisiana ruled in a case brought by Joshua Bonadona. Bonadona, a convert to Christianity, was turned down for a job because of his “Jewish blood.” While the crime was motivated by anti-Semitism, this could not be considered a case of religious discrimination because Bonadona practiced Christianity. The Nazis also targeted Christians who had Jewish ancestry, such as Sister Edith Stein, discussed elsewhere in this article. Despite being a practicing Catholic Nun, Stein was sent to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber, because of her Jewish ancestry. The reality is that haters don’t care what the scientific classification of a race is and laws have to protect people from the harsh realities of hatred even if the perpetrators are acting out of ignorance.

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4 comments

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  • Catherine Schmid Murphy says on March 23, 2021

    Rabbi Abramowitz,
    A most satisfying answer to a decades long question of mine. Thank you.
    Catherine Schmid Murphy

    Reply
  • jeff says on February 2, 2022

    too bad Whoopi Goldberg didnt read this

    Reply
    • Kenneth Hanson says on February 3, 2022

      A bit more complex than that Jeff. Although Jews usually, but not always, share a common gene pool, they are not a “race”, because any non-Jew who converts to Judaism will be recognized as being Jewish by all those rabbis who share a commitment to the same denomination of Judaism as the rabbi who did the conversion.
      In the Torah, Jews are referred as ‘Am Yisrael’ – the nation of Israel or ‘Bnei Yisrael’ – the Children of Israel. So, Jews are a combination of a religion, ethnicity, a nationality and are not a “race”.
      That position should come as no surprise, for the concept of Jewish ethnic identity lies at the very hard of modern Zionism. But it is a concept fraught with danger, a lot of Israel’s founders were Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, but Ashkenazis are far from the only ethnic branch of Judaism.
      Sephardic Jews originate from Spain and North Africa; old, even ancient, Jewish groups live or have lived in Georgia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa (yes, Whoopi there are black Jews), and even some in China.
      Even in Goldberg’s domicile country, the face of Judaism is becoming ever more diverse in the United States, it is acknowledged up to 10 percent of America’s six million Jews are non-white. Non-white Jews – who would ever have believed it?
      The sad reality is that haters don’t care what the scientific classification of a “race” is, we need laws and proper domestic and international policing to protect people from the brutal realities of hatred, even when the perpetrators and evil doers are acting out of bigotry and ignorance.
      The post-Holocaust tragedy is we have not learned, the human catastrophes in Rwanda, Iraq, contemporary China, and Yemen tell us six million Jews were murdered in vain. May God help us.

      Reply
  • JIm says on February 6, 2022

    Thank you for providing a well thought out answer that includes a non judgmental reasoning to recent comments. I’d add that as a society, we as a connected internationally and can be fast to issue reprimands to opinions and conversations that have found their way into our consciousness. The challenge is to provide an informative and interesting conversation that we may all learn through.

    Reply

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