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Jewish Faith Definition Essay

The case for a new, fuller understanding of what defines Judaism.

As any Jew knows, trying to define what it means to be Jewish is difficult, if not impossible. Yet still we 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 just 42 percent say they’re secular.

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 it’s flat wrong.

The idea was most recently given voice in the international bestseller “The Invention of the Jewish People,” by the Israeli historian and anti-Zionist Shlomo Sand, in which he argued that the idea of Jewish peoplehood was a modern invention in the service of the Zionist cause. Or as Tom Segev succinctly summarized Sand’s argument: “There was never a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion.”

The strange thing is that this has it 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.

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.

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.

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,” 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 he 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 deeply hidebound, 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 as 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.

But his younger contemporary Michah Josef Berdichevsky took things further, posing a critical challenge to Jewish secularism. Without God, he wondered, from where does this ethical imperative arise? And if not from God, then who has the authority to define the parameters of a culture when the sole source of the traditions on which it is built has been undermined? Thus, we see that the category of Jewish culture, like the categories of Jewish nationality and Jewish religion, is not without its own tensions and internal contradictions.

So what is the answer to that very modern question: Is Judaism a religion, a secular culture or a national identity? The answer, I think, is none and all of the above. This may not be entirely satisfying, but complex questions rarely allow for simple answers. The truth, as they say, is often inconvenient.

Leora Batnitzky is a professor and chair of the department of religion at Princeton University. She is author of the forthcoming book “How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought,” to be published by Princeton University Press later this month. This essay is adapted from the book.

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What Is Judaism?

Level: Basic

  • 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 Connie Chung).

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 dreidel.

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 people.

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, We Jews: 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 PatriarchJacob, 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 unfair criticism.

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 "family."

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 Yom Kippur?


© Copyright 5761-5771 (2001-2011), Tracey R Rich
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