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What is “Jewish?” 1. Is it a religion?

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  • AMI
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    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 5, 2011
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      “Jewish Identity,” “Who is a Jew?” “What is Jewish?” are all related to our definition of “Jew.” Writing about this topic is a thankless task. It will bore most people, mystify many non-Jews, and evoke the most dogmatic invective from others, no matter what is written. It is a vast topic, and I cannot hope to cover all the various aspects in one or a even a few articles.

      The problem of defining “Jew” lurks behind every discussion of Zionism and every discussion of Jewish demography in the U.S.A. (see What is Zionism?, What is not Zionism?? and How many Jews in America and does it matter?).

      The problem is somewhat different in Israel and in the European and American Diasporas, because of the obvious situational differences and because of a trivial and confusing language difference. In the United States, the word most often use to describe the Jewish collective is “Judaism.” “Judaism” almost invariably refers to a religion or religious denomination such as “Reform Judaism” or “Conservative Judaism.” In Hebrew, the word most often used is “Yahadut.” “Yahadut” is inaccurately translated as “Judaism,” but may refer to a religion or a non-religious culture and identification. The Hebrew word is probably a translation of the German word “Judentum.”

      The German edition of Wikipedia defines “Judentum” as follows:

      By [under] “Judentum,” one understands the totality of culture, history, religion and tradition of self identity of the people of Israel (Hebrew Yisrael, Bnei Yisrael) designating the Jewish people. The term can also target the Jewish religion or, as a group both a people and a faith community representing Jews (Hebrew jehudim) are addressed.

      That definition, which is remarkably thoughtful and accurate, illustrates the dimensions of the problem rather than providing a solution. Are “Jews” a culture? A people? A religion? It is not just a language difference. In Britain the term most used is probably “Jewry” and not “Judaism.” When Richard Wagner railed against “Das Judenthum in Der Muzik” he was not concerned exclusively with religious Jews, and neither were Hitler and his associates concerned with religious matters.

      The other night I watched a documentary on Israeli TV, in which a young man said that he wants to bring a new content to “Yahadut” that is not based on religion. Many in the U.S. would insist that this is an impossible project, a bit like making cold fire or dry water. Another interviewee stated that “Yahadut” is whatever Jews produce. But who are Jews? Christianity was produced by Jews. Most people would argue that it is not Jewish.

      There several alternative definitions of “Jew,” “Jewry” (Judentum) and Yahadut, each of which is found wanting upon examination. The first definition states that “Yahadut” or Jewishness refers to religion only. Orthodox Jews especially cling clamorously to this definition. They would have us believe that Theodor Herzl and the founders of Zionism had a theocracy in mind when they envisioned a “Jewish State.” This is unlikely, since most of the early Zionists were not Orthodox Jews and were probably atheists or agnostics.

      In ancient times, Jews almost never called themselves “Yehudim” – the Bible and other Jewish traditions refer almost exclusively to “Am Yisrael” (people of Israel) and “daht moshe veyisrael” – the religion of Moses and Israel.

      This is not a just an idle semantic argument. In Israel, futures of individuals are at stake because of the definition of “Who is a Jew?” in religious and state law. In the United States, the entire future of the Jewish people or religion or community (however defined) may be at stake.

      The arguments advanced in favor of “Jewishness” as a “religious” identification are unity, continuity and cultural content. None of them are compelling.

      Four generations of my family are steeped in what anyone would call “Jewish culture,” including Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzva ceremonies, observance of Passover and Hanukkah, activities in the American Jewish community, Zionist and Jewish community activities, leadership in Hebrew education and even fasting on Yom Kippur in some cases. The same is true of most of the American and Israeli “Jews” that I know. Religious beliefs do not enter into or motivate any of these activities. You probably have the same impression. The statistics bear out the impressions. The 2001 AJIS survey found over 1.1 million “Jews of No Religion” in the “core population” of about 4 million adults. The authors wrote:

      These numbers suggest that of the total core or effective Jewish adult population, 27% have no religion. While most of these people undoubtedly consider themselves Jewish(as there is very little denial of Jewish ancestry among contemporary American Jewish adults), their Jewishness is apt to be more ascriptive than achieved.

      The numbers are all the more striking in that the survey began with the assumption that “Jew” denotes a religious category. Even among those Jews who described themselves as “religious,” only 94% professed a belief in God, and only 90% reported that God hears prayers. Even among Jews who reported themselves as “Orthodox” only 56% described themselves as religious. Paradoxically, 12% of the “Orthodox” Jews reported that they are “secular.” The authors remarked:

      Inconsistent as it may seem, there are people who say they have no religion, yet might nevertheless identify with one or another of these branches of Judaism, possibly for reasons that have nothing to do with religion… people are prone to considerable ambiguity and inconsistency.

      The AJIS study concluded that Judaism is unique among American religion, since it has the highest percentage of adherents who do not believe in God. That finding has been replicated many times (here for example, where it as found that most American “Jews” do not believe in God. What sort of “religion” is that?). The findings of the AJIS are replicated and extended by those of the Saxe group at Brandeis. About 60% of Jews reported themselves as “secular” or “just Jewish” rather than as members of a denomination, only about 5% belonged to the Orthodox group, 17% reported themselves as reform, 13% as conservative and 5% as “other.”

      Measures of religious practice may be even more revealing than professed belief. According to the Saxe data, about 78% of “Jewish” males and 46% of Jewish females reported having a bar- or bat- mitzvah, but much smaller percentages belonged to a synagogue or participated in a Jewish “life cycle” event (Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Shiva call, wedding, Brit).

      Similar findings would no doubt hold true in Israel, where about 44% of the adult Jewish population are estimated to be “secular” (“Hiloni”). In Israel there are no “secular religious” (Dahti Hiloni) as the terms are mutually exclusive categories, and there could not be secular Orthodox Jews.

      The definition of “Jewish” as related to religious practices is contradicted by common sense experience Baruch d’Espinosa and Albert Einstein were Jews beyond doubt. Nobody would argue that they professed any version of the Orthodox Jewish religion.

      Some of these anomalies and contradictions are no doubt due to the vagaries of polling design and the inconsistencies of human behavior. However, if many of the adherents of a supposed religion do not believe in God or maintain any religious practices, if many of them declare that they are secular, then one begins to suspect it is not a religion. Empirically, we have to conclude that Jewish identity is not related to religion necessarily.

      The arguments for unity and continuity are not borne out by reality either. The Jewish religion, whatever its role in the past, is a source of division and strife today. Religious family members rarely meet non-religious members. Haredi Jews do not recognize the slaughter and Kashruth regimes of other Haredi (very ultra-orthodox) Jews, generating frantic pronouncements about the fate of those who eat the wrong sort of kosher food and a proliferation of Kashruth organizations.Orthodox rabbis in Israel disagree with each other as to the requirements of Jewish conversion.

      Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist streams, the majority in the U.S.A., are not recognized in Israel. Before he achieved notoriety in a different field, former Israel President Moshe Katsav created a furor when he explained that he does not consider American reform rabbi Eric Yoffe, a noted community leader, to be a rabbi. Katsav was giving an interview on Israel’s Channel 1, and reportedly:

      He responded that he was raised to call a rabbi “Rabbi” only when he “observes the lifestyle I observe,” meaning, the Orthodox lifestyle. “As soon as Israel, the Knesset, decides to recognize a reform rabbi as a rabbi, then the president of the state will also have to. But as long as Israel does not recognize him, I won’t be the first to do so.”

      Perhaps only Katsav was stupid and boorish enough to say it, but he spoke the plain truth.

      The gentleman on your right in the photo below is undoubtedly Jewish and a rabbi conforming in every way to the strict moral and other requirements of Moshe Katsav and the Orthodox rabbinate.

      The Jew in the picture is Rabbi Hirsh of the Neturei Karteh. There is no doubt he is a genuine Jew. Below is a picture (at your left) of another genuine Jew, Rabbi Weiss of the Neturei Karteh.

      Rabbi Weiss

      Both rabbis would score very high on any survey measure of “Jewishness,” and would undoubtedly pass every test of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. However, most Jews have very little in common with their culture, religion and political beliefs. Here is a summary of Rabbi Weiss’s ideas about so-called “Judaism”:

      Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta International would argue that those so-called “religious Jews” are the ones with an identity crisis. For Rabbi Weiss, such Jews “cannot represent Judaism or the Torah” because they support Israel, “which is a rebellion against the Almighty”. The New York rabbi is clear: “According to the Torah, Jews are in exile and are forbidden to have a state of their own…”

      Small wonder that surveys produce bizarre results, if they are designed to count Jews like Rabbi Hirsh and Rabbi Weiss.

      The Reconstructionist rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote about the two faces of God, Adonoi and Elohim. Since everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words, Schulweis obligingly gives us a picture of the Adonoi fellow. “Here are thy gods O Israel” (Kings I 12:28) (“Hineh elohecha Yisrael”). Images of God are, of course, considered an abomination in most versions of the Jewish religion and culture, as are speculations about the multiple natures of God.

      Except for the writing, Schulweis’s Adonoi looks to me quite a bit like Sol Invictus (the unconquered Sun) , the God of the Emperor Constantine before he adopted Christianity. Perhaps Elohim bears a resemblance to the Moon god. Adonoi certainly doesn’t look anything like the Christian god on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

      So much for “unity.” If there is to be no Judaism or Jewishness without “religious content,” should we accept Rabbi Hirsh’s version of the Jewish religion, Rabbi Schulweis’s two-faced God, or Rabbi Yoffe’s or Moshe Katsav’s religion? Is the above portrait of God presented by a rabbi to be considered “Jewish content?” While Sephardic and Ashkenasic Judaism usually agree on the dry law, Sephardic Orthodoxy generally had a much more relaxed and open ambiance than European orthodoxy. Which do we accept as “Jewish tradition?” Perhaps we can put all of them in a room and let them fight it out.

      The arguments for “continuity” are enticing, dangerous and based on an illusion. We are told that Jewish customs, the “customs of our ancestors,” represent a 3,000 year-old tradition that must not be broken.These arguments prey on that universal emotion, filial guilt, which is thought by each people to be its own invention.

      Surely, it is a pity to give up the wonderful customs and traditions for which the Jews suffered so terribly, we are told. Strangely, we accept or acquiesce in this type of argument, though we would not accept that the auto da fe should be continued because of the sacrifices of Catholic martyrs. The argument is dangerous, because it is invariably a excuse for reaction. It is illusory, because there are few Jewish traditions that are 3,000 years old.

      The “talit kattan” is a universal requirement of Orthodox Judaism. It is usually a woolen undergarment invented by Orthodox Eastern European Jews about the thirteenth century. It is unsuited to the climate of Israel. The Passover Hagadah was composed by accretion long after the fall of the second temple. King David was undoubtedly a Jew. It is unlikely that he underwent a Bar Mitzvah ceremony (he certainly did not read from the Haftorah about King David) and never wore a shtrayml- a hat made from the fur of Eastern European cold-climate animals. David’s ancestor, by Jewish tradition, was Ruth the Moabite, who never underwent a rabbinically approved conversion, as far as is known. Moses, not usually considered an apostate, married the daughter of Jethro the priest of the Midianites, and took an African (“Kushit”) as a second wife. It is not recorded that either of the ladies underwent any conversion ceremony, nor did they keep two sinks or shave their heads.

      The matrilineal calculation of Jewish descent, the cause of so much grief and a bedrock of Jewish Orthodoxy, was first recorded in the Mishnah, less than 2,000 years ago. Other lines of descent seem to have remained patrilineal. The names of the fathers, but not the mothers, of the Talmudic and Mishnaic sages and of great rabbis are invariably given for identification. If Rabbi Ben Zoma’s (“son of Zoma” of the Passover Hagadah) mother was Bridget O’Brien we will never know it. Who was the mother of Maimonides? (Moshe, son of Maimon). Was she Jewish?

      Most of the accepted regulations of the Jewish Halachah, the supposed “age-old Jewish traditions,” were codified in a document written by the Sephardic Rabbi Joseph Caro in the 16th century and modified slightly by the Ashkenasi rabbi Moses Isserles, the Shulchan Aruch.

      Whatever “Jew” is, the concept is clearly not definable in terms of religion. There is no version of the Jewish religion that can stake an exclusive claim of authenticity and many who identify themselves as Jews do not identify themselves as religious. The different varieties of the Jewish religion can make neither claims of unity nor claims of continuity, and do not necessarily provide bona fide “Jewish content” that is superior in any way to the offerings of their rivals or to non-religious Jewish content. The writings of Dan Ben Amotz and Aleph Bet Yehoshua and the Hebrew slang of Israeli young people are not less “Jewish” than the Adonoi picture and the two-faced God of Rabbi Schulweis or the self-proclaimed “True Torah Judaism” of Rabbis Hirsh and Weiss.

      Ami Isseroff 

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