What Does It Mean to Be Jewish? Jewish identity is not solely religious, nor is it solely national. We have a long tradition and history as a people group that makes the Jewish an ethnicity, Yiddishkeit a culture, and Judaism a religion. Whether Jewish by birth or a convert, to be Jewish is not a simple checkmark on a survey.
I already discussed defining Jewish identity in a holistic term as a means to combat anti-Semitism and clearly define what it means to be Jewish or to be “against the Jews.” A subscriber to my Kabbalah podcast reached out, however, with questions about their own identity. After discussing the topic with the individual, I asked for, and received, permission to share an edited transcript of our conversation.
Hopefully this discussion helps others with finding their own Jewish connection. Also, when reading, please keep in mind that some of the content shared is dated material to the conversation taking place in September 2019. Lives change, and so does observance, but the core purpose of the conversation remains the same.
You know how on surveys and things they always ask race? Well, are we other? Are we Middle Eastern? Are we white?
I answer white/caucasian. This is a very generic term that means “white-skinned of European origin.” My family is Ashkenazi, which comes from the general Europe area. As I discuss in my dissertation, for every culture on earth, there is a Jewish subculture. So really, from my perspective, answer based on where you’re from. There are Hispanic Jews, European Jews, etc. Mizrahi Jews are those from the Middle East, which is part of Asian, and includes the Asian continent as a whole.
Let’s look at the Israeli thing. I do, and do not, consider myself Israeli. I am 5%-95% on the thing. I 95% do not consider myself Israeli because of how I view the term. I think of “Israeli” as one born in or a citizen of Israel. I don’t have Israeli citizenship so I don’t call myself an Israeli. One day I will. The 5% yes is because when I visited Israeli and talked to secular locals, there is no difference between Jewish and Israeli – one is religious and the other isn’t, but the terms are interchangeable to many. So not a clear answer there for you. Since I haven’t lived there, I’m not a citizen, and I don’t behave like an Israeli, I don’t view myself as one.
I also feel confused on why we’re called Jews even if it’s race and not religion based, we don’t call Irish people Catholics or anything like that. Shouldn’t we be Israeli?
Judaism is a socio-religio-ethno-cultural people group. We have a society (in Israel). We have a religion (all over the world in different forms). We have a culture (all over the world in different forms). Jewish law, halacha, specifies that one is Jewish if their mother is Jewish and did not convert to another religion. I take a more holistic view and side with how Maimonides defined it: you’re Jewish if you’re willing to call yourself Jewish. More specifically, however, you’re Jewish if you are ethnically Jewish (mother or not) or are a convert. Are you 1/4 Jewish yourself, or are one of your grandparents 1/4 Jewish? It would be a good thing to look into. For example, under halacha, if it was your mother’s grandmother that was Jewish and neither your grandmother or your mother practiced another religion (being an atheist doesn’t count as a religion), then you’re halachically 100% Jewish and have the associated obligations. Funny how it works.
If you want a perspective from a religious sense, then I’d recommend consulting your local Orthodox rabbi. The reason I say Orthodox is this: Orthodox Jews are considered Jewish by all Conservative and Reform standards. Conservative and Reform Jews are not necessarily viewed Jewish by the Orthodox, and consequently, also by the State of Israel.
If you want a perspective from a non-religious sense, maybe even just a general spiritual sense, then ask yourself: Who am I? Where do I belong? If Jewish is the answer, then there you go.
Again, I try to separate Jewish from Israeli since the two can be different. For example, one can be an Israeli Arab and not be a Jew. So, to me, Israeli is more nationalistic and less ethno-cultural.
Are we a minority?
Definitely yes. 0.02% of the population of the world is Jewish. We’re one of the most minor of minorities. Here’s a good comparison: a fair amount of the world eats gluten free. Those that clearly must are those who are celiac. Only 2% of the world is celiac. If you were to take 100 people, 2 of them are celiac and .02 of them are Jewish. That means that out of 10,000 people, 200 are celiac and 2 are Jewish. Definitely a minority in every regard.
Why aren’t we treated like a minority?
Anti-semitism, either intentional or accidental. Being antisemitic out of lack of awareness is forgivable. Knowing better and still being antisemitic isn’t. Most people don’t see Jews as a race – only as a religion. This is accidental antisemitism that can be fixed by gentle education. I think most people fall into this category. We hear about intentional hateful antisemitism every day because it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. “You don’t look Jewish” isn’t something we want to hear, because anybody can be Jewish. Some of us dress the part and some of us don’t.
Further Evidence of Ethnicity
There is an entire category of Western medicine knowledge on Ashkenazi Jews. We have a lot of issues from the early-on inbreeding. If you’re curious, you can get a genetic test to see if you’re at risk of any of the associated diseases. Here’s a complete list of them: https://jscreen.org/genetic-conditions-tested-in-expanded-panel/.
I can’t say this is a definitive component of being Jewish, but I can say that my life as an Orthodox Jew limits how well I fit in. I don’t eat out with non-Jews for the most part. I have to have a special work arrangement (holidays, other observances, etc.), and I dress different. Not everyone has the same minhag (tradition) so some fit in more than others.
Am I Jewish enough to even count?
Why else would HaShem create you, give you purpose, and have a connection to Jewish tradition? If the Creator says you count, then everyone else probably should too. That said, there are requirements to “count” as part of a minyan, etc. Don’t sweat it. I’m Jewish by my father’s side, so I still have to convert. I identify as Jewish but I don’t “count” for minyan and whatnot. It’s a difficult thing, especially if you’re part of an Orthodox community, but in the end all that matters is if you feel you count and if HaShem counts you…and both of those should be a resounding yes. Maybe you can’t be the “tenth man,” but you can still be part of a group, or even on your own, and give it your all.
The conversation was fascinating and illuminating. As we can see, it’s hard to define what it means to be “Jewish.” I’m curious – how do you define Jewish identity? I’d love to hear from you. Either drop me a line or engage us on social media!