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.
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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
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.