What is Judaism?

Last week, I was interviewing for a job at a pluralistic Jewish institution and was asked the following question: “About 10-15% of our students are not technically Jewish, so would you feel comfortable teaching them as if they were Jewish?”

My immediate answer in the interview was a strong “yes,” followed by a short comment about how upset I am at the notion that others may answer “no” to this question. This question has stuck with me over the past week, and I have spent much time thinking about the concept of “being Jewish” or “Jewishness,” and I have decided to spend my next two articles tackling this question. The subject of “who is a Jew” is an important and contentious one, and I do not naively hope to solve this question over the course of two articles. I am hoping, however, to add a new voice to the conversation and spark some deeper discussion.

Before tackling the question of “who is a Jew,” I think that we need to take a step back and attempt to answer an even more basic question; namely, what is Judaism? This more basic and fundamental question will be the subject of this article, and I will save the former question for my next article. Judaism is a difficult matter to describe. It has been called an ethnicity, religion, ethno-religion and culture. It seems to me that the difficulty in defining Judaism stems from a couple of different factors that I hope to elucidate below.

There are some who want to define Judaism as a pure religion. These people are most likely using the Eurocentric definition of religion that focuses on dogma or belief being the main factor in a religion. While this notion of religion has been under attack in academic circles, this critique has not yet caught on in the general public, and it is still the primary way in which people define religion. However, it is extremely difficult, and even downright incorrect, to apply this Christian-centric definition of religion to Judaism. While there are obviously certain ideas and beliefs that have been prevalent throughout Jewish history, they are extremely ill-defined and nearly impossible to classify. Judaism has never been, and never will be, based on certain dogmas or set beliefs.

Thus, unlike our sister religions of Christianity and Islam, we cannot say that a Jew or Judaism is defined by the acceptance or belief in X and Y ideas. Furthermore and, again, uniquely, one does not stop being a Jew if he rejects certain ideas. This idea is perhaps best summed up by the Talmud and subsequent medieval commentary on the statement that “A Jew, even though he has sinned, remains a Jew” (Sanhedrin 44a). While this statement can be interpreted in many different ways, the great Talmudic commentator, Rashi, adds: “Even though a Jew may sin, even convert, he remains a Jew” (Rashi ibid.).

Once we move past trying to apply classical conceptions of religion to Judaism, we can begin to look to the genetic component of Judaism. According to post-rabbinic Judaism, one is Jewish if his mother is Jewish. However, pre-rabbinic or biblical Judaism — if we can even apply the term Judaism to biblical times — is a much more ambiguous issue, and one that I hope to discuss in more detail in my next article. Either way, it is clear that in classical Judaism [1], genetics played a large role in understanding Judaism.

However, when speaking about a genetic definition of Judaism, we must be very careful. In post-rabbinic/pre-enlightenment Judaism, having a Jewish mother was a sufficient, but not necessary, requirement to be Jewish. In other words, having a Jewish mother guaranteed one’s Jewishness, but the lack of being born to a Jewish mother would not stop someone who wanted to be Jewish.

Now this is where matters get complicated and the idea of conversion must be discussed. First and foremost, it is crucial to understand that the idea of conversion, in general, is largely a rabbinical idea. As I will discuss in the next article, the Bible never speaks about conversion and the notion of being Jewish [2] or non-Jewish does not seem to be binary. There were obviously some debates in biblical times about the degree to which we can accept outsiders — such as the sentiment toward foreigners in Ezra/Nehemiah vs. Ruth — but the lines between the Israelites and other nations were quite blurry. In post-rabbinic times, to convert, a person must accept certain dogmas upon himself. The acceptance of these dogmas have classically been absolutely necessary for an individual to convert. Thus, the Talmud tells us that if a non-Jew questions or rejects even one small rabbinical commandment, their conversation is nullified (Talmud Bekorot 30b).

At this point, it is not hard to see where the confusion arises. Different people have different standards of what makes them Jews and, therefore, Judaism is, technically, different matters for different people. This should strike anyone as extremely weird and potentially disastrous for any sort of public policy making. If my mom is Jewish but I do not believe in God, I can be a Jewish atheist and that is actually not a contradiction, given that my Jewishness arises from my birth. If my mom is not Jewish, however, I must actually believe in a whole list of dogmas to be accepted, effectively making Judaism a pure religion — which is exactly what Judaism is not.

At this point, I think it would be most reasonable to take a page out of the Rambam’s playbook and begin to define Judaism by what it is not [3]. As stated a few times above, Judaism is definitely not a pure religion. Furthermore, Judaism cannot be a pure ethnicity, given that virtually anyone can become Jewish. Finally, calling Judaism a culture would be a difficult case to make, given that Judaism is and always has been made up of a range of different cultures. When it comes to giving an actual definition to Judaism, we can get all fancy and start combining a few of the terms listed above, like ethno-religion. In my opinion, however, this actually defeats the purpose, given that the average person will have no idea what that actually means.

It seems, therefore, that the best-fitting definition for Judaism is a civilization. This description, borrowed from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, is able to fully encapsulate all of these multifaceted, diverse, and even inherently contradictory definitions. According to most classical definitions, a civilization is a fundamentally complex society that contains unique communication symbols, rules, social stratification and micro-communities that have different views and visions for these aforementioned aspects. Pluralism is inherent to this idea, given that it is nearly impossible for any of these micro-groups to prove or demonstrate that their interpretations or worldview are objectively better than another’s (for more on this idea click here).

Defining Judaism as a civilization has multiple benefits. First, it does not try to force any definitions that clearly fall short. Second, it allows for a more reasonable approach to converts, which is especially important when dealing with Israel and intermarriage — I will develop this idea more in my next article. And, finally, it allows for the inherent complexities and the polymorphic nature of Judaism to thrive without different micro-communities thinking that they are involved in a zero-sum game for the rules of Judaism.

[1] The academic side of me is quietly crying at my use of terms such as “classical Judaism,” as this is a meaningless term when discussing Jewish history-given that there is no such thing as “classical Judaism.” What I mean here is the general accepted trend or idea accepted by different Jewish communities across the board and throughout history.

[2] It is generally incorrect to use the term “Jewish” when describing biblical times. I use the term here for the sake of simplicity.

[3] The Rambam famously writes that the only things we can say about God are in terms of what he is not.

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