5 Ways of Understanding What it Means to be a Jew

As we begin to look at Judaism, one of the firs things to recognize is the there is a lot of discussion and disagreement among Jews on what it means to be Jewish. You could fill a whole bookshelf with books whose titles are variations on the question “Who/what is a Jew?” We will look at five ways Jews answer this question, and through the rest of our course section on Judaism, we will relate these to various stories of the OT and developments in the history of the people of Israel.

Jews as an ethnic group
For many Jews, the most important definition of what is means to be a Jew is that they are part of the ethnic group that counts themselves as descendants of Jacob. For such Jews, the religious element of Judaism is secondary or even unimportant. They may count it as part of the historic heritage of the Jewish people but not defining for who they are as Jews. Among such people are Jews who are deeply agnostic or even atheist but still count themselves as Jewish. They may participate in holidays or other religious ritual or festivals as an expression of their ethnic identity and history as much or more than as an expression of their religious commitments or faith.

Jews as worshippers of YHWH
One way in which Jews have historically defined themselves is as worshippers or adherents of one particular god—the god sometimes called “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and also the God who revealed himself to Moses with the name of YHWH. Through the various rituals and festival of the Jewish religion and through prayer and synagogue participation, Jews live out their loyalty to this God and only this God. In the early history of the Israelite/Jewish people, this was a particularly important distinctive since they were surrounded by cultures that were polytheistic or worshipped other gods, and there seems to have been a constant temptation to participate in the worship of other deities or idols. The admonition to worship and trust in YHWH only is a consistent feature in the Hebrew Bible from the Torah through the later prophets.

Jews as covenant people
One of the significant ways in which many Jews understand themselves is as the covenant people of God, that is, that they have been chosen particularly to be God’s people. The most basic form of the covenant is the statement made often in the OT by God: “I shall be their God and they shall be my people.” While there is certainly overlap with the understanding of “Jews as worshippers of YHWH,” the emphasis here is on God’s choosing of the people of Israel and his commitment to them rather than their choice to be faithful in worshipping YHWH only. Yet the covenantal relationship involves commitment by both parties. In this perspective, the community is very important as a way of connecting you to who you are, and the ritual of Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah is important as a marker of young person’s inclusion in the covenant community. This perspective is dominant in the book of Deuteronomy in the OT, and its emphasis on the people’s commitment to obey and God’s reciprocal commitment to protect and provide for the people of Israel has connections to our last two ways of understanding what it means to be a Jew.

Jews as adherents of the Law
Part of being the covenant people of God is being obedient to the Law. While not all who focus on covenant are scrupulous about following the Law, some are. For such Jews, being a Jew is as much about living in a certain way as it is in believing certain things or being part of a historical tradition and part of a community. The Law is the means by which right relationship is maintained among people and between people and God, and it is the way of repairing that relationship when it is damaged. Jewish groups with the title “conservative” or “orthodox” often have this perspective. They often dress in particular ways, keep kosher, and are very careful about observing the Sabbath.

Jews as citizens of Israel
One of the main promises that God makes in the book of Deuteronomy is that, as long as the people are faithful, God will give them the Promised Land and will protect them in it and cause them to flourish and prosper. Many Jews feel that living in the land that God promised them (now, the country of Israel) is an important way of living out their Jewish identity. Many other Jews, however, do not feel this way and believe that “Israel” as a nation is a people spread throughout the world, and that their status as a people (“Israel” in a spiritual or communal sense) does not depend on being gathered in one place under one government. Others feel that the current state of Israel is even opposed to being a true Jew since it was the creation of human political choices rather than the work of God. The place that Jewish nationhood has for Jews’ sense of who they are has fluctuated greatly throughout history and is certainly the most controversial aspect of Jewish identity.

6 things you probably didn’t know about the OT and ancient Jews

Whether you grew up in the church going to Sunday school or whether you mostly learned about God and the characters of the Old Testament by watching movies and TV shows, chances are there are some things about the Old Testament and the ancient Jews (or what we usually call “Israelites” during that time period) that weren’t really passed on very clearly. Here, we clear up some misconceptions and fill in some blanks.*

  1. Most of the main characters of the OT were not saints.

Despite what you learned when you were small, most of the characters in the Old Testament were far from the “heroes of the faith” that they are portrayed to be in Sunday school. At least if by “heroes of faith” you mean good role models. Abraham lied and passed off his wife, Sarah, as his sister TWICE in order (he hoped) to save his own skin.  Noah, after saving humanity and the land animals from drowning in the flood, planted a grape vine and got drunk on its produce. Jacob deceived his brother, Esau, to get his father’s blessing. His son Judah had sex with what he thought was a prostitute but it turned out to be his daughter in law. Judah’s brothers sold their brother Joseph into slavery and lied to their father, Jacob, that Joseph had been killed, thereby breaking Jacob’s heart at the loss of his beloved son. And this is just the book of Genesis.  Even a brief glance at the actual text of the OT stories reveals characters who were flawed and sinful, not perfect models of godly behavior.


  1. They didn’t believe in hell and heaven.

Let me clarify: they didn’t believe in heaven and hell the way most people now think about them. Ancient Jews did not believe that after death bad (or faithless) people would experience eternal punishment nor that good (or faithful) people would receive a reward or some sort of bliss in the afterlife. It seems that at least some ancient Israelites had a conception rather like that of ancient Greeks—that the souls of the dead went to the underworld, which they called Sheol, which was much like the Greek idea of Hades. It was not “hell” in the sense of a place of punishment but was simply the place of the dead. (See the story of the Medium of Endor in 1 Samuel 28.) For the most part, however, Sheol seems to have meant the place of the dead as in “the grave”—that is, when you died, you were dead. You had no afterlife whatsoever, not even as a “shade” in the underworld. In either case, Sheol was nothing like our common idea of Hell. The ancient Israelites did think that there was heaven where God resided, but people did not go there after death. The idea of an afterlife and a final judgment that would send some to punishment and others to eternal bliss in the presence of God was an idea that didn’t seem to develop among Jews until after they returned from the Babylonian exile, maybe around 300 b.c.e—after most of the stories of the OT had developed forms close to what we have in our Bibles now.


  1. They didn’t believe in Satan.

This is another one where we need a qualification: the Hebrew word satan means “adversary,” and it is used in a number of contexts. Not surprisingly, given its literal meaning, it can be and is often used to mean a military opponent (see 1 Sam 29:4 and 2 Sam 19:22) but it can be applied in other ways such as a context of accusation or a courtroom (Psalm 109:4-7). It can even be used of God when God acts as an adversary. (Yes, in this case God is a “satan.”) The accusatory function seems to be behind one of the most famous OT uses of the word: the story of Job where “Satan” asserts that Job is only faithful to God because God blesses him. Other names for the devil—or whatever you call the embodiment of evil and opposition to God—show up in a few very late OT texts (especially Daniel), ones that were completed about the same time the idea of “heaven and hell” were developing (not surprising since both rely on a dualistic idea of Good vs. Evil). In most OT texts—including the story of Adam and Eve—people do wrong because they choose to give in to the temptation that is inherent in the world (the snake is just creature, but the craftiest one), not because there is an evil spiritual force making them disobey. That idea develops later.


  1. They were not monotheists.

Again this requires clarification: monotheism is generally understood as the belief that there is only one God, although this one God can be called by various names. This is usually opposed to polytheism, the belief in many gods. Ancient Israelites did believe that there were a variety of gods—Baal, Molech, Dagon, Ra, etc.—each of whom was the patron of the particular ethnic group or tribe that worshipped him (or less often, her). Most ancient Mediterranean peoples—especially notably the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans—thought that it was fine to worship many gods, even gods who were traditionally associated with other cultures. It was generally thought a good idea to cover as many bases as possible by worshipping and appeasing as many gods as could potentially influence your world. In contrast to this, Jews believed that, while there were other gods, they were not worthy of worship. Only Yahweh (the name of the God of the Jews that was revealed to Moses, though it is usually written as “the Lord”) had proven to be faithful to his promises and more powerful than the gods of other peoples. Further, Yahweh had commanded in the first of the Ten Commandments that, as Yahweh’s people, the Jews must not worship other gods: “I am Yahweh your God. You shall have no other gods besides me.” It was only later (700-500 b.c.e., as opposed to the time of the 10 Commandments which was maybe 1400 b.c.e.) that the prophets of Israel and Judah began to preach against idolatry in ways that asserted that other gods were not just less powerful than Yahweh, but were in fact “vain”—that is, empty, nothing, a vapor of air. Eventually that became the dominant idea, but it was a long time developing.


  1. They didn’t have a problem with God getting angry or changing God’s mind.

In fact, they didn’t have a problem with God being very human like (“anthropomorphic”) in a variety of ways. We have inherited, after many centuries of philosophical theology being done, a lot of rather abstract ideas about God: God is unchanging (“immutable”—including not changing his mind), God needs nothing and does not have emotions (impassive and/or apathetic) except love, God is all-knowing (omniscient), God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and controls everything (sovereign) and knows in advance everything that will happen (prescient, a part of being omniscient). In general, these ideas were not the backbone of people’s thinking in ancient times—except for the idea that God controlled everything; that seems to be pretty evident. They don’t seem to have thought about God in abstractions the way we tend to. They explored their understanding of God by telling stories of what God had done, and sometimes the way they expressed their experience of God was in ways that we find a little shocking: people died because God was angry with them; things were going one way but then they went another because God changed God’s mind. It may seem problematic to us, but it did save them from getting into the philosophical conundrums that our approach causes like “If God is all powerful  and all knowing and all good, why is there evil in the world?” To such a question, an ancient Jew probably would have responded, “Ah, let me tell you a story…”


  1. OT laws were fairly progressive.

Most people, when they read the laws of the OT, find them to be extremely restrictive—there are lots of foods people are not supposed to eat, many animals and things that are considered “unclean” and should be avoided, and there are even restrictions on what kinds of fabric you should wear. But this overlooks the many ways in which OT laws were actually progressive for their time. The famous saying governing retribution “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was not meant to be barbaric, it was meant to limit the amount of retribution one could take: if someone caused you to lose your eye, you couldn’t kill them for it. The most you could do was take their eye in return. It was much like our principle of “let the punishment fit the crime.” If you steal sheep, you should return the same amount plus some “interest” (extra sheep). Israel also had laws to protect women (very progressive by the standards of ancient patriarchies) and provide protection for refugees (“the sojourner in your land”), orphans, the poor, prisoners of war, and slaves. And compared to the number and complexity of our laws today, these were nothing!


*If you are a Bible scholar, historian, religious studies expert or other super-smart person, please excuse the oversimplifications contained herein. This is mainly for undergrads (especially first-years), and we all have to start somewhere. Endless qualifications are good for grad students, but confusing and overwhelming for most others. We start with milk here.