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Who is a Jew and if so, what is Judaism?

Author: Eli Ehrman, Adar 5767/Feb 2007

To mark the thirtieth Yahrzeit of Rabbi Dr A Zvi Ehrman, z.l., his son Eli gave a talk on the problematic connection between being a Jew and the term Judaism.

There are various understandings of what is meant by being a Jew. Some come from within the Jewish religion and some are external and/or secular. You could say that a Jew is a member of a race defined by blood lines, racial and physically measurable characteristics. You could say that a Jew is a member of a nation or culture group. In that case a Jew is defined by language, absorbed cultural assets or attitudes and perhaps national characteristics such as being greedy, ambitious or benevolent. You could say that a Jew is defined as a person who adheres to specific beliefs. In that case if you could define the set of Jewish beliefs, anybody who adheres to these or at least most of these would be defined as a Jew. A Jew would thus be a category similar to Liberal, Communist or Pacifist. Some would define Christians or Muslims in that way but the defining set of beliefs for these is easier to specify than with Jews. Confusingly, historical Jewish sources and indeed Halachah might be interpreted as giving support to elements of all three of these perspectives.

Your definition of Judaism will be closely related to your definition of a Jew. If Jews are a race, Judaism is anything any Jew does, writes or says. If Jews are a nation, then anything culturally rooted in Jewish sources, religious or secular is Judaism. If Jews are defined by belief, Judaism is the defining set of beliefs. Why is it so important to determine what Judaism is? Because one of the most powerful forces acting upon the soul of the individual is the drive to belong, to be loyal to your tribe and to support and defend that which you represent. This is particularly true for a Jew who is aware of unbroken chains of generations going back thousands of years, many of whom had to sacrifice everything to propagate the chain. The weight of that task makes it critical to answer the question: what exactly is the chain; what is Judaism? The intense struggles that try to de-legitimize alternative definitions of Judaism are a battle for the flag of Jewish identity. Everybody wants to defend and support Judaism. If 'my' definition is correct then everybody's energy will be devoted to 'my' cause.

I propose an alternative definition for being a Jew. There is a contract between God and the Jewish people. The Jews are those people bound by that covenant. Anybody born of Jewish mother is bound by that covenant and so is anybody who chooses to join the Jewish people and commits himself/herself through the accepted initiation rituals. A Jew is not someone who just believes that there is such a contract or that he/she is bound by it. It is a fact-based definition similar to "all people born in this locale". In legal terms there is no difficulty in defining the set of people defined by a specific contract. The perceived difficulty only arises because the fact of the contract is itself in dispute. Nevertheless the definition stands, for if there was never a contract, by this definition there would simply be no Jews. Fact-based categorization takes the fact as a given.

Secondly, the search for a definition of Judaism should be totally de-emphasized. It is in a post-modern context where all beliefs are treated as relative narratives that it is important for me to believe Jewish beliefs. However, an orthodox Jew does not study the Torah or the Rambam because it is the Jewish truth. He/she sees the quest as one for truth, not for Judaism. We seek to understand the Torah and we seek truth in absolute and not relative terms. Our search should not be for Judaism but for the truth. The understanding being that the intellect in general and the Torah in particular provide the path towards the truth.