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.


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