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It Is an Age-Old Question: Who Is a Jew?

Culture: The answer enfolds the overlapping entities of religion, ethnicity and politics.

September 29, 1997|JACOB NEUSNER | Jacob Neusner is a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and a professor of religion at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y

All hell broke loose last spring when the Union of Orthodox Rabbis celebrated the Jewish festival of Purim by declaring the bulk of American Jewry "not Jewish." But the group soon clarified matters. All they meant was, their Judaism or no Judaism.

But the brouhaha dramatized the confusion between religion, ethnicity and nationality that has overtaken Jews. Are they a religious group? An ethnic culture? A nation-state with overseas dependents?

People say Jews are just like everybody else only more so. Why the ongoing confusion?

Judaism, the religion, bears intimate relations with a particular nation--the state of Israel--on the one side and a trans- national ethnic group--the Jewish people--on the other. Why do people confuse national, ethnic and political matters with religious ones? The reason is that there are three distinct social groupings that overlap each other. There's the Judaic, those who practice the religion of Judaism; the Jewish, those who regard themselves as part of a secular ethnic group; and the Israeli, those who are citizens of the state of Israel of Jewish origin (Nuremberg Jews, that is, those qualified by having at least one Jewish grandparent, so defined by the Nuremberg laws of Hitler's Germany in 1935 that the state of Israel adopted in its law of return).

In concrete terms, there are Jews who worship God whom they know in the Torah; there are Jews who have framed a distinctively Jewish lifestyle and there are Jews who are citizens of the state of Israel: religious, ethnic, national.

These categories complicate the definition of who is a Jew.

Specifically, we have to determine what data describe Judaism--the religion--and what do not. Not all practitioners of the religion are citizens of Israel; not all members of the ethnic group practice Judaism or any religion. In its holy books, theology and liturgy, Judaism calls its community "Israel," and speaks for, asks God's blessing upon, Israel--meaning, the holy community of the faithful. That is not to be confused with today's state of Israel, even though within the modern Israel a vast proportion of the population practices Judaism. Opinions held by Jews--the ethnic group--may or may not represent Judaism, the religion. Positions taken by Israeli political parties do not constitute statements of either religious or ethnic conviction. And statements of Judaism do not necessarily recapitulate views broadly held by a given population of Jews, wherever located.

Some contrast Judaism, the religion, with Jewishness, the traits of culture or sentiment that characterize the Jews, an ethnic group. But it is not possible to rigidly distinguish between Judaism and the Jews, even though not all Jews practice Judaism, or any religion at all. Differentiating between the Jews and Judaism presents a difficulty because, by the definition of the law of Judaism, the child of a Jewish woman automatically is deemed part of holy Israel, that is, a member of the community of Judaism. Matters are still more complicated by definition in Israel's law of return.

Clearly, the border between Judaism and the secular, ethnic group--the Jews--or between that religion and the state of Israel, cannot be drawn with much precision. But because of its intimate tie to the Jews as individuals and the Jewish people, an ethnic group, Judaism also helps define the secular culture of Jews wherever they live, whether they practice the religion, Judaism, no religion, or some other religion altogether.

But, when you think about it, the ethnic and the religious and the transnational and the national turn out to take the measure of everyone in one way or another. That's why we Jews are not alone in obsessing about who we are.

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