Sunday, September 19, 2010

Judaism, Jewry, and Jews

The statement “Judaism is a people, not (just) a religion” seems like an important truth, but it is not even logically coherent. “Jewry is a people” is true and coherent, but banal. Here is how to capture both the truth and the importance without losing coherence.

GS on his blog OrthoModerndox posted an entry today with a title well calcluated to attract my interest: “Judaism as a nation, not [just] a religion” (the square brackets are part of the title). In this piece, GS offers some thoughts provoked by his reading The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel by Michael Wyschogrod. “One of his main themes,” he says of Wyschogrod, “is that Judaism is a people / nation rather than [just] a religion” (the square brackets are, again, in the original text). This is a topic on which I have written on this blog before (in “Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish” and “Reply to Comment on Jewish Identity”), and I’m not sure that there is anything new in what I have to say about it here. But that one sentence raised some thoughts in my mind of which I make an occasion for reviving my own blog. The new year (5771) seems like as good a time as any for doing such a thing.

Now, I don’t doubt that GS, like most bloggers, and in sharp contrast to me, writes quickly, without spending a lot of time recomposing his sentences, as I invariably do. The typing error in his first sentence (“intersting” for “interesting”) is sufficient evidence of that. Nonetheless, I am going to pick on the statement that I quoted from him, for the following reasons.

First, it is a very difficult matter to state the relation among the concepts of Judaism, religion, and peoplehood. One can’t just make an incoherent statement on that point and then say, “Well, you know what I mean.” If you can’t say what you mean, then you can’t assume that your audience knows what you mean, because you have not shown that you know what you mean.

Second, the statement “Judaism is a people,” given the now current meaning of the word “Judaism” (more on that qualification in a moment), is not a coherent one. The predicate term “people” and the subject term “Judaism” do not belong to the same logical category. Of course Judaism is a religion: that is what we have the word “Judaism” for, as contrasted with terms like “Jew,” “Jewry,” and “Jewish people” (as a singular or plural noun). To say “Judaism is a people” is as senseless as saying “Five is a color.”

Now I have to admit one qualification here. I recently learned from the Oxford English Dictionary that the term “Judaism” was at one time used in a sense corresponding to that of judaismus in medieval Latin, namely to mean “Jewry.” Thus, a source from 1884 (the latest example of this usage provided) says: “The revenue of the Judaism, as it was termed, was managed by a separate branch of the exchequer, termed the exchequer of the Jews.”

If GS meant the term in this sense, then his statement is not logically incoherent at all. It was much as if he had written: “Jewry is a people,” “The Jewish people is a people.” But, for one thing, I find it unlikely that he had in mind any such rare and antiquated sense of the word “Judaism.” For another, if he did mean this, then his statement is banal and uninteresting. I prefer to assume that he was trying to say something both true and interesting.

I think that what GS was trying to say can be most exactly expressed thus: “The status of being a Jew is essentially a matter of belonging to the Jewish people rather than one of professing or practicing the Jewish religion.” This, I think, is an interesting statement, and a true one as well (subject, of course, to questions about the meaning of the crucial adverb “essentially”: more on that in a moment).

But the statement contains at least the suggestion of a falsehood. For it suggests that the connection of being a Jew with the Jewish religion is accidental: as if “Judaism” were the name of a religion that just happened to be practiced by a large portion of the Jewish population—as, e.g., Armenian Orthodox Christianity is practiced by a large portion of the world’s Armenians, but is not what defines them as Armenians.

As a matter of history, such a suggestion (concerning the Jewish people) is obviously false. The Jewish people have, through most of their history, defined themselves as the people of the Torah. In some sense, we still are so defined: that is, we are definable as the descendants of the people of the Torah, even if we are not all practitioners or believers of the Torah. Such a definition, whatever exactly it means, clearly depends religious terms.

The slippage between “Jew” and “adherent (by profession or observance) of Judaism” comes about because, according to the Torah that defines the Jewish people collectively, the individual Jew is defined as such by his or her birth. In terms of the category of “religion,” this means that it is a religious practice that defines that status, though it defines it in terms of birth rather than in terms of belief or observance.

So those who consider themselves Jews in something more than a purely ethnic sense but who cannot accept Jewish (or any) religious beliefs have the problem that their self-identification as Jews presupposes a religious practice whose fundamental beliefs they cannot accept. They are—that is, we are—in an inherently uncomfortable position.

This discomfort does not arise merely for those who are, like GS, “Orthoprax,” that is, observant of the ritual practices of Orthodox Judaism while rejecting most of the beliefs that support that practice (such as “TMS,” the doctrine that the whole Torah, oral and written, was given to the Israelites through Moses at Mount Sinai). It arises even for the “three-day-a-year” Jew, whose observances do not extend beyond partaking of a seder at Passover and going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (something that I have bound myself to do every year by accepting a paid gig in the choir of a Reform temple), as long as he or she does so under some sense, however vague and unformulated, of an obligation other than an immediate social one. It applies to the unbelieving Jew who refrains from eating pork and shellfish for reasons that cannot be attributed to personal distaste or matters of health (false rationalizations notwithstanding). The unbelieving Jew who considers himself or herself under so much as one obligation—one mitzvah—merely because he or she is a Jew has this problem.


  1. I like this post, Miles, and I'd be happy to see more.

    I've also got a question. You argue that "those who consider themselves Jews in something more than a purely ethnic sense but who cannot accept Jewish (or any) religious beliefs have the problem that their self-identification as Jews presupposes a religious practice whose fundamental beliefs they cannot accept." I wonder how many Jewish religious beliefs (and which) a Jew would have to accept to avoid this problem. I also wonder why inquiring into such beliefs is not sufficient: why does Jewish religious practice presuppose accepting certain beliefs rather than, say, entertaining them?

  2. I disagree; I don't think anyone can stop identifying as Jewish no matter what their religious belief.

    They can, however, refrain from passing it one to the next generation by converting and/or intermarrying.

    Ultimately that's how I'd alter your sentence. Without the belief, they are still unproblematically jewish- themselves. The issue is about passing it on.

  3. Corrected version of comment previously posted (this site does not allow me to edit comments but only to delete them):

    Eric, I am late in replying partly because I have no good reply to offer. Of course, the relation between religious observance and religious belief, in Judaism and out of it, is not a one-to-one or a many-to-one correlation. But I don't think it can be many-to-nothing. So I guess it's one-to-many: one observance may be supported by diverse beliefs on the part of different observants. But attempts to ground mitzvot in self-fulfillment, communal benefits, or other purely secular rationales seem to me to deprive them of their character as mitzvot—as religious duties.

    Kisarita, when you say you disagree, I cannot tell on which point you disagree with me. I was not addressing the question of whether anyone can “stop identifying as Jewish,” but the question whether a born Jew who does not accept Jewish religious beliefs can without incoherence acknowledge any Jewish religious obligations. “Identifying as Jewish” is comparatively unproblematic: it implies no more than the acknowledgment of a certain ethnic and religious origin. It is the practice of Judaism, in however attenuated a form—such as, to use your example, feeling an obligation not to marry a non-Jew—that requires a Jew to confront questions of religious belief.