Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Jew and Judaist, Ethnic and Religious: How They Mix in America

Rabbi Jacob Neusner
Spring 2002

The Ethnic and the Jewish  

The Jews in Western democracies, especially in the USA and Canada, form an ethnic group, and in the State of Israel they constitute a nation. They share a common history and memory, seeing themselves as a community of fate, not of faith. For instance, certain food in certain places is regarded as “Jewish,” meaning, a Jewish ethnic specialty. At one time bagels were a Jewish food, so Jews were called “bagel-eaters,” just as in ancient times, they called themselves “garlic eaters.” But if we know how to bake bagels, we do not necessarily know anything about how Judaism, the religion, views God or virtue or salvation.  

Religion and Ethnicity  

Judaism is a religion, with normative beliefs and practices. Jews who practice Judaism always belong to the ethnic group, the Jews. But matters are not so simple. Thus, by converting to Judaism, the religion, a gentile becomes not only a Judaist - one who practices Judaism - but a Jew. Such a one is then part of the Jewish community as much as of the community of Judaism.  

So in the Jewish framework religion and ethnicity are difficult to separate. In the USA and Canada, Western Europe and Hispanic America, the Jews form an ethnic group, part of which also practices the religion, Judaism. In the State of Israel, the Jews form the vast majority of the population of a nation, only part of which also practices the religion, Judaism. There Judaism is not the culture of an ethnic group, nor is it the nationalism of a nation-state, even though it is nourished by, and helps to define, both.  

What is required to sort out the ethnic and the religious in the Jewish context is first to distinguish the religious and the ethnic. For the sake of analysis they are to be treated as though they represented components of a community’s life and culture that can be differentiated. Then we have, second, to show how, in reality, Jews actually combine the religious faith with ethnic culture and sentiment, the sacred with the secular. The reality shows a community of Jews who are mostly Judaists, practitioners of Judaism - but on their own, ethnic terms. In much of contemporary American Judaism, the religion serves as a medium of ethnic identification.  

The Religious and the Ethnic in Contemporary Judaism  

The ethnic group and the religion shape the life of one another, but the fate of Judaism as a religion is not the same as the fate of the Jews as a group. If the Jews as a group grow few in numbers, the life of the religion, Judaism, may yet flourish among those that practice it. And if the Jews as a group grow numerous and influential, but do not practice the religion, Judaism (or any other religion), or practice a religion other than Judaism. then the religion, Judaism, will lose its voice, even while the Jews as a group flourish. The upshot is simple. A book (that is, a set of religious ideas, divorced from a social entity) is not a Judaism, but the opinions on any given subject of every individual Jew also do not add up to a Judaism.  

To have a Judaism we require [1] a group of Jews who together set forth [2] a way of life, [3] a world view, and [4] a theory of who and what they are. Many of the great debates among Judaisms over history have focused upon the definition of the word, “Israel,” meaning not the nation-state, the State of Israel of our own day, but the people, Israel, of which Scripture speaks. That is not a question of the here and now but an issue of what it means to form the people descended from the saints and prophets of that “kingdom of priests and holy people” that God calls into being at Sinai, that defines itself within the Torah. So, once more, we see how the ethnic shades over into the religion, as much as the religious nourishes ethnic identification.  

The Paradox of Ethnicity in Judaism  

Here then is a religion that addresses all humanity with a message of what God wants of all creation but is identified with a particular ethnic group, the Jews. The universality of its focus, the religion’s concern for the entire history and destiny of the human race and its message of salvation, these are framed in terms that involve a specific group of people. In the time that everyone that belonged to that people believed in God and practiced Judaism, then that “people” corresponded, in Judaism, to “the Church, the mystical body of Christ,” in Christianity, that is to say, “people” stood for “holy community,” a religious group. Then, everyone understood, to form “Israel” was not the same thing as to form a nation or an ethnic, secular community. It meant, to form a holy community. But in modern times some Jews gave up the practice of Judaism without adopting any other religion. Furthermore, these people remained part of the group, which, consequently, lost its clear-cut character as a religious community and came to be seen as an ethnic group. The group defined itself by common traits of ethnicity, for instance, customs and ceremonies, rather than by a common religion involving divine commandments and sacred rites. But within the group, many continue to practice Judaism. Not only so, but as we shall see, people convert to the religion, Judaism, and as a matter of common practice, that conversion admits them also to the ethnic group. And Jews who give up Judaism for another religion are regarded as having left the ethnic group. Clearly, matters are complicated.  

The Universal Religion of an Ethnic Group  

Then, when it comes to the Jews, we see a fine case of the mixture of secularity and religiosity, ethnicity and faith. Jews form an ethnic group but Judaism is a universal religion. The puzzle comes about because only some of the Jews practice Judaism, but all of them regard all those who practice Judaism as not only “Judaists” (“people who observe the Judaic religion”) but also as “Jews” (members of the ethnic community).  

Public Religion versus Plural Ethnicity  

No one confuses the Catholic faith with the ethnic culture of Italians, Poles, Austrians, Spaniards, Germans, or Brazilians, Catholics all. To be a Lutheran is not necessarily also to be a Finn, Dane, Swede, Norwegian, or German. Everyone understands that there is a Catholic or a Lutheran faith that is distinct from the various ethnic cultures that take shape in dialogue with that faith, that transcends the particularities of circumstance. Brazilian and American Pentecostals know the difference between nationality and religion. So too Judaism is not an ethnic religion, and the opinions of an ethnic group cannot serve to define that religion. Practice of the singular faith takes diverse forms in different circumstances, so that the national culture of the State of Israel, infused though it is with Judaism, is not the same thing as Judaism, nor is the ethnic culture of American Jews.  

Some Jews may declare themselves atheists. But Judaism teaches that one, unique God created the world and gave the Torah. Other Jews may not believe in the resurrection of the dead. But Judaic worship, whether Orthodox or Reform affirms that God raises the dead and “keeps faith with those that sleep in the dust.” A public opinion poll might produce broad Jewish consensus in favor of abortion. Judaism, the religion, in its classical formulation condemns abortion from the ninetieth day after conception. (Some contemporary Judaic formulations do not concur.)  

Many Jews regard “Judaism” as the foundation for liberal opinion, even quoting verses of Scripture to prove their point. But among the faithful, that is, among those who practice a Judaism of one kind or another - considerable debate takes place on whether Judaism is conservative or liberal, or even whether these contemporary political categories apply at all. Because of these simple facts, the confusion of the ethnic and the religious must be addressed head on. Otherwise, the representation of Judaism in these pages, based as it is on the classical sources of Judaism and contemporary practice of Judaism in synagogues by the faithful, will conflict with the impressions we gain from everyday life.  

How come personal opinion takes the place of public religious doctrine? The reason is that Judaism, the religion, in North America, Europe, Latin America, the South Pacific and South Africa, finds itself wrapped around by Jewishness, the ethnic identity of persons who derive from Jewish parents and deem “being Jewish” to bear meaning in their familial and social life and cultural world. In considering the facts of Judaism that the world about presents, therefore, we have always to remember that the Jews form a community, only part of which practices Judaism. Some may even join synagogues and attend public worship mainly to be with other Jews, not to engage in public worship. They may wish to utilize the synagogue to raise their children “as Jews,” while in their homes they practice no form of Judaism. A key institution of Judaism, the Sabbath, is praised by a secular thinker in these words: “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” That is, the Sabbath is treated as instrumental, Israel the secular group as principal. But in Judaism, the Sabbath is a holy day, sanctified by Israel, the holy people, and not a means for some ethnic goal of self-preservation.  

Israel: Location or Holy Community  

To explain the mixture of ethnic and religious, a simple case serves for illustration. The word “Israel” today generally refers to the overseas political nation, the State of Israel. When people say, “I am going to Israel,” they mean a trip to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, and when they speak of Israeli policy or issues, they assume they refer to a nation-state. But the word “Israel” in Scripture and in the canonical writings of the religion, Judaism, speaks of the holy community that God has called forth through Abraham and Sarah, to which God has given the Torah (“teaching”) at Mount Sinai, of which the Psalmist speaks when he says, “The One who keeps Israel does not slumber or sleep”(Ps. 121). The Psalmists and the Prophets, the sages of Judaism in all ages, the prayers that Judaism teaches, all use the word “Israel” to mean “the holy community.” “Israel” in Judaism forms the counterpart to “the Church, the mystical body of Christ” in Christianity. Among most Judaisms, to be “Israel” means to model life in the image, after the likeness, of God, who is made manifest in the Torah. Today “Israel” in synagogue worship speaks of that holy community, but “Israel” in Jewish community affairs means “the State of Israel.”  

That example of the confusion of this-worldly nation with holy community by no means ends matters. In the Jewish world outside of the State of Israel, Jews form a community, and some Jews (also) practice Judaism. To enter the Jewish community, which is secular and ethnic, a gentile adopts the religion, Judaism; his or her children are then accepted as native-born Jews, without distinction, and are able to marry other Jews without conversion. So the ethnic community opens its doors not by reason of outsiders’ adopting the markers of ethnicity - the food or the association or the music - but by reason of adopting what is not ethnic but religion. And to leave the Jewish community that is ethnic, one takes the door of faith. Here comes a further, but not important, complication. While not all Jews practice Judaism, in the iron-consensus among contemporary Jews, Jews who practice Christianity cease to be part of the ethnic Jewish community, while those who practice Buddhism remain within. Buddhism, not a monotheism (not even theistic) is viewed as a philosophy, not a competing religion. Christianity, monotheist as is Judaism, reaching back to the same Scriptures, viewing the history of humanity within the same structures, sharing much in traditions of ethics, is a competing religion; for Jews and the diverse Judaisms, moreover, the long and bloody record of Christian antipathy to the Jews and Judaism, the massacres and pogroms and “Christ-killer” epithets, the annual Passion narratives with their dreadful portrayal of “the Jews” - these serve to place Christianity outside the range of commitments that the Jewish ethnic community can tolerate. And, as to those that practice Judaism, to adopt any other religion is to apostatize, pure and simple.  

The Books Describe Judaism the People Practice Jewishness (Ethnicity)  

The holy books of Judaism speak to people who are always and only Jews. Not only so, but they are Jews by God’s choice, subject to an eternal covenant between God and Israel, which they cannot abrogate but may only violate. But the social platform of American and Canadian Jews rests on the principle that Jews are (also) Americans or Canadians, integrated by choice, not segregated by choice. And in addition, within the American or Canadian populations, they form an ethnic group - three things: Americans by nationality, Jews by ethnicity, Judaists by religion. They suffer no obligations except those they voluntarily accept; and a votive obligation is an oxymoron. “Israel” (the holy community of the Torah) is Israel because a person feels like it, wants it, affirms it, always voluntarily; never coerced by God, on the one side, or by a hostile society, on the other (or even. by a friendly and welcoming society for that matter). And at that point, the books become simply implausible: they speak of an “Israel” no one knows, or wants to comprise: the Israel of Sinai, the “we” of “we shall act and we shall obey” without equivocation, without negotiation.  

To people who may choose to be Jews or not, may decide to live only among Jews or to live with gentiles as well, books that speak only of holy Israel, a people that dwells apart, deliver a puzzling message, one to be negotiated, affirmed but also interpreted.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.