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We Asked 23 Rabbis: What Are Jews, Exactly?

As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “What are Jews? — a race, a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, a nation….?” Here are their responses:

Image by Anya Ulinich

Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: Jews are a family at their core made up of many diverse cultures, races, religious observances, ethnicities and languages. The rabbis of the midrash called anyone who exhibits loving compassion towards their fellow a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The rabbis of the Talmud declared that anyone who despises idol worship is called a Jew. Jews or Israelites are understood to be “God wrestlers.” Jews challenge authority even as they honor law, they value debate and dialogue and understand all who walk this earth to have been created in the image of the Divine. They are charged to love the stranger, the convert, the orphan, the widow and most vulnerable in society. This is because they — we — have experienced slavery, persecution, degradation and violence at its most abhorrent levels. Jews, because they have been and in some cares are the other in society, are empowered to be its most vocal advocates.

Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: Yes. We share a history and a destiny as a people who grapple seriously with the questions of how to live collectively with a sense of purpose, in awe of the mystery of creation and with a sense of responsibility to life around us. We’ve harnessed the powers of human expression to offer answers that are theological, ritual, political, ethical, intellectual, musical, literary, artistic, even gastronomic. As Jews become increasingly secular and our families more diverse, the untethering of Jewish peoplehood from Judaism challenges both to become ever more expansive and inclusive.

Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: There are Jews of many races and ethnicities, so Judaism must be more than race or ethnicity. Jews are a “nation” in the sense of being “a people,” though we’re not a nation in the sense of modern nation-state, because Jews live in many nation-states around the globe. Judaism is undoubtedly a religion — though in our Christian-informed Western paradigm, it’s easy to mistake “religion” for “belief system,” and classical Judaism privileges praxis over belief. Judaism is a way of life, and Jews are its practitioners and inheritors.

Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: In the Bible, we became a people, joined to each other, even before we entered into a collective covenant with G-d. So peoplehood, nationhood, may be the best way to go. There are two pillars, however, to maintaining a sense of peoplehood. One is the classic statement of Saadia Gaon in the 10th century: “Our nation is only a nation because of its Torah”. The other is modern and sobering, and argues that a Jew is someone who identifies with the Jewish past and present, and also expects that his/her grandchildren will identify with the Jewish future.

Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA: Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan wrote that Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. We are a “people” with a shared, but not homogeneous, history and practice that informs all aspects of our civilization. This is inextricably religious because of its roots in a system of thought and practice designed to understand and fulfill our relationship to the Divine. In other words, yes, we are a religion, culture, ethnicity, nation, civilization, people… But we should not use the term race. Historically, the concept of a racial Jew has led to some of the most traumatic events in our shared experience. From its introduction in the 19th century, the concept of race has been a spurious classification system, designed to create hierarchies and justify oppression. Because of our legacy with that system, we, of all people, should be among the first to let it go.

Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: I don’t know what the Jews are any more. In the not so distant past, I would have included religion and ethnicity within my definition. But given the increasingly secular world in which we live, and the mere “dotted lines” that set us apart from society at large, I cannot say with any certainty what we are. I can only affirm that the Jews are an ancient people that have been around for 4000 years and, God willing, despite our meager numbers, we have a resilience and a will to survive that will sustain us, perhaps in forms that we cannot even imagine today, let alone describe.

Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: Judaism is a purpose. We exist as a means to something greater than ourselves. The mandate that the Almighty has given us, is to be a “light unto the nations,” which empowers us to spread Godliness wherever we go. The need for Tikkun Olam, repairing a broken world, is perhaps more evident today than ever before. The way in which we carry out this purpose is not merely in rhetoric, but by walking the walk and proudly demonstrating to our children, communities, and the world around us, a fidelity to the traditions of our ancestors. We achieve our purpose in the world, not by knocking on doors and trying to convince others to adopt our way of life, but by studying, practicing, and humbly modeling the values of Torah. When we look around us and see those demonstrating incredible acts of philanthropy and kindness, it becomes a symbol of what Jews are really about — and by extension, what God is about.

Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: Judaism is so old that it doesn’t fit any of these categories neatly. When we came into the world, all of these categories were inextricable! “Nation” meant people of a certain ethnicity who shared a religion and therefore a culture. Only moderns divide them up. If we’re going to call ourselves anything, we’ve got to say that we’re a people with a covenant. Those two things capture both sides of the Jewish equation. We’re not (just) a religion, and without pointing at our sense of family, it’s not a true definition. But “peoplehood” isn’t enough, either; we’re equally defined by our spiritual heritage. It’s got to be both together.

Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah: Jews are a people. The tongue-in-cheek term “Member of the Tribe” may actually be the most accurate. As a tribe, we have a history, ritual practices, a land, civil laws, and cultural practices. It is a mistake to suggest that Judaism is simply a religion, parallel to Christianity (or to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition) — that erases much of who we are. A major component of anti-Semitism has long been the difficulty for most of the world of figuring out who Jews are. The desire to put us into the “religion” box leads to confusion and anger when we refuse to stay in that box, but rather to self-define, and to live our full selves in the world.

Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Falasha, Secular Humanistic, Reform, Orthodox, Israeli, “Diaspora,” in-married, intermarried — what do you call a group with widely different beliefs, lifestyles and practices that claims the same identity? “Tribe” is too tribal, “ethnicity” is too exclusive and “religion” is just one dimension of Jewish identity, more often in the breach than the observance. Maybe the most appropriate is “family.” Families share culture, history, holidays, claimed and actual descent, and are open to those who marry or are adopted in. Families disagree on religion, diet, politics, values, and sometimes even on who is accepted into the family. I can celebrate extended family traditions my parents didn’t, and I can create new family traditions. The Jews are a family.

Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: Perhaps the best explanation of what we are is Mordechai Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as a religious civilization. It is reflected in the system of the 613 mitzvot, many of which are not intrinsically religious. Laws dealing with zoning, compassion to animals, treatment of the elderly, health, agriculture, diet, morality…I tell folks that if Jews and the 613 commandments were dropped into the Sahara Desert, an entire civilization could be created independent of anything else. The umbrella of membership is wide and inclusive. A secular Jew who helps the poor is fulfilling a mitzvah. A secular Israeli tilling the land on a nonreligious kibbutz is doing God’s will. We are a vast system, and the religious component is central, though not essential, for affiliation. I explain to the curious that when we define one as an Italian Catholic or an Irish Catholic it takes two words to define the culture and the faith. We do it in one word: Jew.

Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, New Israel Fund, NY: Jews are a people, a religion and a culture. Certainly some Jews identify more with one or another aspect; that is the complexity and beauty of Judaism. The multi-layered nature of Jewishness is is at the root of the history of Jewish survival in the face of anti-Semitism, adversity and oppression as well as the instinct to continue to explore and create, even in difficult times. This spectrum of peoplehood has strengthened Jews to resist the instinct to turn their backs on the world and demonize the other, and the tradition of learning from those with whom we disagree.

Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: We’re an ethnic people. And we’re a religion. These two understandings contradict. You don’t have to do anything to be a part of the people — you’re simply born a Jew. But you have to do a lot to be a part of the religion — a religion without any demands is empty. There are downsides to either path. Ethnic Judaism excludes converts. Religious Judaism excludes non-followers. No surprise that this rabbi leans more toward religious Judaism — Judaism without religion can provide belonging but no substance. But religious Judaism must be relevant and meaningful, not extrinsically motivated and arbitrary.

Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: Jews are all of the above: a race, religion, culture, ethnicity and a nation. All of these parts of identity are interwoven in the Jewish people and hard to take apart. This is challenging in a world where people like to clearly define things as one thing or another. Yet Judaism has survived because we are all of these strands, a religion, a culture, and a people. This diversity allows different people to find a place within the peoplehood. It has made us as a collective stronger. There is a place for both secular and religious people.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: Jews are all these things, but also none of them. Through the lens of postmodernity, we understand that Jews are an evolving entity with a basic foundation of Torah as an ethical locus. Yet, we also embrace the notion that “peoplehood” makes little sense if it is mere history and culture. While we should take a pluralistic approach to religion, without the Torah, and our everlasting covenant with God, the Jewish people lose their raison d’etre and are left without our inherited spiritual foundation. And without the singular event at Mt. Sinai, the very basis of our identity, survival, and mission in this universe becomes hollow.

Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: Yes. We are all those things. We are people with a noble history. We can’t be defined in neat little sociological boxes. We are a people in covenant with our God that spans history. Our historical roots are in the land of Israel and because of war and expulsion through the millennia we have come to live in many nations of the world. Our customs and traditions and culture span millennia and geographical locations making for a rich and varied textures.

Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: This is an age-old question. I prefer the approach that we’re a nation, as Jews have many cultures that have been quite different (think Yemen vs Poland) and we come from various ethnicities and races. And while we have a system of spirituality, obviously one can disagree about what it is or even reject it outright and still be a Jew.

Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of Jews are a family. Today, family structures are changing. Adulthood is delayed, as twenty- and thirty-somethings find their grounding. People marry later, if at all, and have fewer children, if any. Men and women decide their roles, leaving many struggling to find the right balance. All these changes confuse family life but offer us an opportunity to appreciate the complexity of the Jewish family. We all have our roles in the Jewish family, but we don’t always understand or appreciate the unique religious contributions we make to the community. We love each other, but don’t know how to live with each other. We sometimes resent the elders, but learn from their collective wisdom. And when push comes to shove, we stick with family.

Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: There is very little on which I agree with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, but I think he answered this question well. Judaism is a religious civilization. There is more to Judaism than religion. There is Jewish thought, Jewish humor, Jewish music, Jewish art, and yes, Jewish food. The list could go on and on. But these are the spokes of the wheel. At the hub is the Jewish religion. Without that hub, the spokes are worthless, and I choose that word carefully. We have not survived for millennia to give the world Allan Sherman and Leonard Bernstein. Far more important is that we gave the world Abraham Joshua Heschel, and more important still, we gave the world a moral code that is still the best one ever put forth.

Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: Jews are not a race because there are white jews, black jews, and everything in between. We are absolutely a religion, but definitely not just a religion because there are plenty of atheist Jews and secular Jews, who are just as Jewish as Moses. Everyone born of a Jewish mother and anyone who has had a Jewish law based conversion is absolutely Jewish. I prefer to think of us as a nation and a family with an eternal faith that defines us and binds us.

Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: Jews are certainly not a race, at least not in the common understanding of the term, because, thank God, we have Jews of all colors and all ethnicities. Jews come in all shapes and sizes! Jews are a family open to welcoming new members and fiercely protective of all those within, wherever they may be. In addition to being a family, we are a nation which, in our best moments, celebrates the diverse cultures and ethnicities from which we are made.

Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: The answer is YES … but not a race. We are many things, but perhaps the one word that encompasses all that we are is: FAMILY. The wise and learned Rabbi Aiden Steinsaltz points out that in the Torah the Jewish people are referred to as “the children of Israel.” That’s true of all of us – physically or spiritually! Despite all of our differences, what we must never forget is: WE ARE FAMILY.

Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim:A religion, a culture, a people. We are much too diverse to be an ethnicity or race.

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