Hebrew vs. Jewish

By Philologos

Published July 25, 2007, issue of July 27, 2007.
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Bert Horwitz from Asheville, N.C., writes:

“Recently, while listening to Prokofiev’s ‘Overture on Hebrew Themes,’ which is music with decidedly Yiddish refrains, it struck me that the difference between ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Jewish’ needs illuminating. Can the intellectual de-legitimization of Israel be due to the mistaken notion that, because a Jew is a follower of Judaism, the determination to establish a ‘Jewish’ state is really a desire to establish a theocracy? The word ‘Jew’ automatically suggests a religious component that can only be ruled out by saying ‘secular Jew,’ whereas there is no need to say ‘secular Hebrew,’ because ‘Hebrew’ is not a religious term to begin with. Wouldn’t calling Israel a Hebrew state emphasize its secular nature more? Separating the two branches of ‘Jewish,’ religious and secular, by two distinct words could clarify the difference.”

It would take at least a book to deal seriously with the issues that Horwitz raises, all of which ultimately touch on that vexing question, “What [or who] is a Jew?” However vexing, though, I doubt whether it would become less so if we started using, as Horwitz suggests, “Hebrew” as a general term for all Jews and “Jew” as a term for religious or ritually observant Hebrews, so that we would then have “Jewish Hebrews” and “non-Jewish Hebrews,” and sentences like, “Both her parents are Hebrews, and she’s recently become Jewish,” or “I stopped being Jewish when my Hebrew boyfriend convinced me it was silly.” Can anyone really think life would be less confusing if we talked that way?

Actually, Horwitz’s proposal to replace “Jew” or “Jewish” as an overall term with “Hebrew” is far from a new idea. Not only, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was “Hebrew” vigorously promoted as a substitute for “Jew” in a number of countries, but in some of them it actually carried the day, as well. This was the case in Russia and Italy, where yevrei and ebreo became the standard words for “Jew.” The same thing wasn’t that far from happening in English, either. One only has to think of such American Jewish institutions as Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Free Loan Society, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and so on to be reminded of how many Jews 100 years ago preferred being called “Hebrews” by Christian America.

Strictly speaking, the distinction these Jews wished to make was different from Horwitz’s. “Hebrew” vs. “Jew” seemed to them a question not of a religious vs. a secular identity but of a genteel and respectable nativeness vs. a scruffily suspicious foreignness. A “Hebrew” was for them an American Jew who spoke or aspired to speak a proper English, to adopt American ways and to be outwardly no different from his Christian neighbors; since these neighbors went to church Sunday, there was nothing “un-Hebrew” about going to synagogue Saturday. The same held true of such countries as Russia and Italy. A yevrei or ebreo was a Russian or Italian in good standing, fully accepted in liberal Russian or Italian society; a zhid or a giudeo was a looked down-upon outsider. And yet inasmuch as the Hebrew, yevrei or ebreo was definitely a non-Orthodox Jew who did not make too much of his religion, there was a decided element of “secularity” in the term, after all.

Curiously, one finds a similar phenomenon in Hebrew in the early years of the State of Israel. The intellectual and literary movement known as “Canaanism,” which conceived of homo Israelicus as a proud new creature, the very opposite of the meek Diaspora Jew, also preferred to speak of Israelis as ivrim, “Hebrews,” and of Israel as a medina ivrit, a “Hebrew state,” rather than use the word yehudi, “Jew” or “Jewish.” By the 1960s, however, Canaanism and its ideology were things of the past.

Indeed, the “Hebrew”/“Jewish” dichotomy does not have much of a basis in Jewish history or tradition. It is true that ivri, “Hebrew,” in the Bible refers to an ethnic group rather than to a religion; but yehudi, “Jew,” whose original meaning is “Judean,” occurs in the Bible only once, in the Book of Esther, and was hardly ever used in later rabbinical literature, where the accepted term for “Jew” was yisra’el, “Israelite.” If words like “Jew” and “Jewish” are ambiguous today, and can mean different things to different people, this is not because they are insufficiently precise from a linguistic point of view, but because the ambiguities are real ones that are part of being Jewish in the modern world and do not exist merely in the pages of the dictionary. Saying “Hebrew” instead of “Jew” or “Jewish” would not eliminate them; it would simply create a whole new set of arguments about which “Hebrews” should be called “Jewish” and which should not be. Does Horwitz think that, were his proposal adopted, a Hasid in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and a Reform Jew in San Francisco could agree on which Hebrews are Jews and which aren’t any more than they can agree on who is a Jew now? Let’s stick with the headaches we have rather than ask for new ones that would only be worse.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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