Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Who is Jewish? A comment on the national Jewish population survey

 


If one would ask a member of any ethnic group who he or she is, the answer would be “I am Italian,” “I am French,” and so on. That person would be surprised if the follow-up question was, “What makes you Italian or French?”

When a Jewish person is asked the same question, the answer is, “I am Jewish.” Strangely enough, the follow-up question, “What makes you Jewish?” is considered legitimate, and always concerns two subjects: religion and ethnicity.

The following arguments are an attempt to show that being Jewish is first and foremost an ethnicity and only secondarily a religion.

A thought about ethnicity

The attributes of an ethnic group are shared social experience, common ancestry, history, and language, a typical physical appearance, and yes, a shared religion.

Similarity in appearance results from marriage within the same group of people and corresponds to some commonality in the DNA of the group’s members. For most of the world’s nations, ethnicity has developed as an outcome of living together on a common piece of land.

The Jewish people as an ethnic group

The Jewish people became an ethnic group and single nation while living together in Egypt before they were given the Torah, as our tradition teaches, or before they themselves created the Torah, as a modern approach might suggest, based on the understanding—given to them by God—that there is but one God.

In ancient times, when we had our first kingdom (and later kingdoms), our ethnic unity was secured primarily by common statehood, residing on the same piece of land, marrying within our ethnic group, and, secondarily, by religion.

During the time of the Diaspora, religion served as a unifying force, together with the unfortunate condition of the Jewish people being separated from the ruling non-Jewish majority, especially when we were forced to live in ghettos and often persecuted.

For thousands of years, conversion to Judaism was a capital offense, while conversion to Christianity or Islam was encouraged and often forced on us. This prevented an influx of “foreign blood” into our ethnic group (except for the times when women suffered from rape during crusades and pogroms).

In modern times, almost half of all Jewish people live in Israel, on our common Holy Land. Living together is the main factor in maintaining a common ethnicity. For the Diaspora Jews, Israel, the source of our pride and center of Jewish culture and language, provides big incentives for remembering our ethnicity.

Along with the above, our sense of nationhood and oneness is reinforced by the following list of factors: Our history, ancestry, traditions, Jewish family institutions, moral values, feeling of belonging to the Jewish Nation, and realization of our intellectual capacity (one of many indicators of which is the large percentage of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish). Most individuals who consider themselves Jewish also possess some commonality in their DNA. Of course, Jewish institutions—religious and secular—play an active role in uniting us as one people.

Judaism, as a religion, is a strong unifying factor, but Jewish people who consider themselves atheists are still members of our ethnic group; they are still Jewish. Indeed, Jewish institutions create policy based on this assertion. For example, young people living in the former Soviet Union are eligible to attend a free Birthright trip to Israel as long as one of their grandparents was Jewish—regardless of other factors.

A great Jewish nation

Despite being spread all over the world (because of our difficult history) and our relatively small numbers, we constitute a worldwide Jewish Nation. Moreover, considering what we were able to accomplish notwithstanding our small numbers, and despite constant persecution, we constitute a Great Nation.

Since we live in different parts of the world, there are some differences between us, but many more commonalities.

For some Jewish people, using the term “Jewish Nation” brings up bad memories because the Nazis killed us, no matter where we lived, simply for belonging to our nation. But let us not allow the Nazi past and present to deprive us of the pride of belonging to the Jewish Nation.

Conversions to and from Judaism

When a Jewish person converts to another religion, he joins a different ethnic group and, after a few generations, his descendants lose DNA and other indicators of their Jewishness. Instead, they take on the ethnic indicators of the group their ancestor joined.

When a non-Jewish person converts to Judaism, he joins the Jewish ethnic group and, after a few generations, his descendants, if they stay within this group, acquire the indicators of Jewish ethnicity. This would happen even if they, while staying in the Jewish ethnic group, become atheists.

Yitzhak Navon, a former president of Israel of Sephardic descent, made a documentary of today’s descendants of forcefully-converted Spanish Jews. One individual he interviewed on the island of Majorca stated, “By my heart and blood I am Jewish, but by religion I am Christian.” To what extent is this statement debatable?

Religion versus ethnicity

In general, religion and ethnicity are not the same. For example, if an Arab converts to Catholicism and moves to Italy, does he become ethnically Italian? He is still ethnically Arab, but after a few generations of intermarrying with Italians, his ancestors will become ethnically Italian.

Indeed, there are Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs, but they still belong to the same ethnic group. Of course, the difficult Jewish history and Judaism itself are unique, which causes different opinions and discussions about the relationship between ethnicity and religion.

The trend of young people distancing themselves from religion

While believing very strongly in God, I must make a comment about the concern that many young people are moving away from religion. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a young individual who is familiar with modern science—who watches space flights and other marvels of technology during the week—to attend synagogue on Saturday. At synagogue, he is presented not only with the belief in God, which, in my opinion, is not debatable, and historical information from the Torah, but also with legends created three or four thousand years ago, at a time when the “sun still rotated around the earth.” These legends were heavily influenced by the traditions, customs, and beliefs of ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean societies. He is also presented with commandments, some of which are not acceptable by today’s morality.

According to Maimonides, the Torah is immutable, but the interpretation of the Torah must reflect the knowledge and morality of our times. This can reverse the trend.

As for the people who distance themselves from the synagogue, they still remain Jewish and most of them still believe in God, though sometimes subconsciously.

Conclusion

Being Jewish is first and foremost an ethnicity, for even if a particular Jewish person is not religious, he or she is still Jewish. Secondarily, according to our tradition, one who converts to Judaism from a different ethnic group is Jewish. His descendants will continue to be Jewish if they stay within the Jewish ethnic group and take on the attributes of the Jewish People—even if they eventually become atheists.

To strengthen our sense of belonging to the Jewish Nation, we must assert our belief in God, teach Jewish history, strengthen our connection to Israel, and modernize our interpretation of the Torah to reflect today’s moral norms and scientific knowledge.

 

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