Project of IISHJ

Jewish Identity Through Jewish History

“Jewish Identity Through Jewish History” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

Before we explore the value of Jewish identity in a secular age, we need to clarify what Jewish identity is.

We need to evaluate certain words that people use to describe Jews. Religious, racial, cultural, national are common designations. They have been used frequently by both friends and enemies.

What friends and enemies think is not irrelevant. Useful labels are public creations. They belong to a world of shared meaning. Groups have boundaries. What those boundaries are for Jews is determined not only by Jews but also by those who stand on the other side of the boundary. We are not only what we say we are. We are also what others say we are.

Sometimes what we think about ourselves and what others think about us is not part of our awareness. It is unconscious and can only be detected through behavior. Our actions are always more interesting than our words. They reveal what we really believe about ourselves. If we want to understand the nature of Jewish identity, we have to watch how Jews behave, not just how they choose to present themselves to others.

Are the Jews a religious group?

Certainly, in the countries of the Western world, that designation is the most convenient. It avoids the accusation of dual nationality and identifies Jews with a community activity that is viewed as positive. In Eastern Europe, it is less convenient. Seventy-five years of Communism secularized most Jews. In Israel, a definition of the Jews as a religious denomination would subvert the reason for a Jewish state. Theological fraternities do not need countries of their own.

The truth of the matter is that while many Jews do religion, many do not. No common set of theological beliefs unites all Jews. Many have no theological beliefs. Many openly denounce religion. Many espouse atheism. But their Jewish identity remains intact. Jews are proud to claim both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as members of the tribe.

The Reformers’ attempt to define the Jews as a religious denomination—and nothing more—failed. It excluded too many people who were obviously Jews. A definition that cannot accommodate Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir is less than convincing. Even the Rejectionists, who defend rabbinic Judaism, live by the criterion that the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish and remain Jewish, no matter what they believe or do.

When the Israeli Supreme Court denied Jewish status to Brother Daniel, a bom-Jew who had become a Catholic monk, they did not behave appropriately.1 They had no difficulty giving Jewish Marxists what they had denied to him. Was the fact that Brother Daniel had suffered as a Jew in wartime Poland, despite his religious beliefs, irrelevant?

In fact, anti-Semites always ignore Jewish religious behavior. Conversions to Catholicism meant nothing to the persecutors of the Marranos. And the Nazi bullies never believed in “former” Jews. In their eyes, credal statements could neither make nor unmake a Jew.

It is quite clear that the Jewish status of a Mr. Cohen is usually determined long before anybody bothers to ask him what his religion is. In the secular age, as a Jew, he has many options—both religious and secular.

Are the Jews a racial group?

Ever since Hitler, Jews have avoided this designation. It reeks of persecution and concentration camps. Jews go to great length to prove the diversity of physical form that exists among Jews. The differences between Western and Oriental Jews, so apparent in Israel, are obvious examples.

But it is quite clear that the Jews, at the very beginning of their history, enjoyed some form of racial conformity. They were a collection of Semitic tribes. They were part of the gene pools of Western Asia. They viewed themselves as the descendants of a single ancestor called Abraham.

In the nineteenth century, the word race was loosely used to describe a group of people who shared a common origin and who behaved as a nation. But in the twentieth century, the word has been given a more precise scientific meaning. Physical characteristics, more than pedigree, are the criteria.

After twenty centuries of breeding with slaves, converts, and outsiders, the original Semitic mix has been diluted. And the new rage for intermarriage in Europe and North America will make any racial classification more difficult.

Oddly enough—or not so oddly—Rejectionists, like the Lubav- itchers, retain the racial outlook of the biblical editors who view outbreeding as religiously dangerous. They maintain that Jews have an inherited disposition to spirituality. Even if well-intentioned Gentiles want to become Jewish, their desire is a hopeless one. They lack the genetic equipment to become what they want to be. Racial theories are not confined to Nazis.

Are the Jews a national group?

The Zionists think so. The authors of the Bible think so. And the rabbinic fathers concur.

A nation, in ancient times, was a confederation of tribes who shared a common language and a common territory. Outside Judea, rabbinic Jews believed that they were in exile, that they were not part of the nations among whom they lived, and that they would return someday to their territorial homeland. Their hostile hosts agreed with them and gave them the status of aliens.

But very early, the dispersion of the Jews created subnations. Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic faded away. New territorial enclaves with unique Jewish languages emerged. Northern Europe produced Yiddish. Spain invented Ladino. Jewish Arabic united the Jews of the Near East. And Jewish Persian became the mother tongue of Jewish Central Asia.

Were the speakers of Yiddish and Jewish Arabic one nation because the Bible said so and because they shared Hebrew as their devotional language? Or were they separate nations, distinct from their neighbors and distinct from each other? The coming together of Western and Oriental Jews in modem Israel is similar to the experience of Anglo-Saxon and Italian ethnics on the streets of Boston. If there is an Israeli nation today, it is being molded by secular Hebrew, Arab hostility, and “intermarriage.”

The Jews were a single nation. They divided up into several smaller nations. And now some of them are creating a new Hebrew-speaking nation. But the majority of the Jews of the world have abandoned unique Jewish speech to adopt the language of their local environment. In America, Jews are pragmatically identified with the white subnation, those Americans who share American English and who are visibly neither black nor Chicano.

For most of their history, Jews were part of unique Jewish nations because they spoke unique Jewish languages, even though they did not possess territory of their own. Today, linguistic assimilation has undermined Jewish nationality in most parts of the world. If many Israelis did not speak English, American Jewish tourists would feel less sentimental about Israel.

Nations without territory are possible. (Look at the Yiddish nation.) But nations without either language or territory are illusions. Communities of Hebrew-speaking Jews form the only viable Jewish nation today. Israel is a Jewish nation. But not all Jews are part of that nation.

Israel is a unique phenomenon. Its roots lie in the Diaspora. It is the creation of the Diaspora. Other diasporas are the creation of their homeland. They have their roots there. They have their linguistic memories there. Israelis have to deal with their past in the same way that most Americans do. They have to think about Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have to deal with the fact that their families are recent arrivals. They have to confront the fact that their grandparents speak Hebrew less fluently than they do.

Italian-Americans look back to their homeland. Israeli Jews look back to their Diaspora. The importance of the Bible in Israel is related to this strange reversal. By emphasizing the Bible, the early Zionists wanted to negate the two thousand years of the dispersion. They wanted to create the illusion that the roots of modern Israel are in the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. But the connection is tenuous. The real connection is with that disturbing Diaspora that refuses to disappear or to come home. Jewish identity in Israel can never be “normal” in the same way that English identity is taken for granted in England because the creation of Israel was abnormal. No invading illiterate barbarian tribes invented it. Israel was the planned project of urban sophisticates with long written memories. Some Jews today are part of a Jewish nation. But it is highly unlikely that most of them ever will be.

Are the Jews a cultural group?

Many secular Jews like to refer to themselves as cultural Jews. By that description, they mean to suggest that while they no longer have any attachment to rabbinic theology, they do have a sentimental connection with Jewish holidays, Jewish music, Jewish food, and Jewish symbols. They may even enjoy Jewish literature and dance Jewish dances. They may even dabble in Jewish languages.

Cultural attachments are what survive when linguistic and religious behavior disappear. They survive on pick and choose. They can often be done in translation.

But cultural attachments are different from living cultures. Vital cultures are the merging of language with lifestyle and daily activity. They require their own unique space and exclude others. Hasidic Jews and Shiite Persians understand that reality. American Jews who eat matsa and dance the hora have Jewish cultural attachments. But they do not live in Jewish culture.

In the perspective of Jewish history, Judaism can be viewed as a civilization. There was no single Jewish national culture. There was Ashkenazic Jewish culture. There was Sephardic Jewish culture. Each culture was defined by a unique Jewish language written in Hebrew letters. A civilization is a collection of nations united by symbols and lifestyle. In that sense, Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism were also civilizations—but on a much grander scale. Yet all of these civilizations are now yielding to a new one, the emerging new civilization of western capitalism. And the urban Jew is at the center of this development.

The culture of most Jews today is Western European secular culture, which has been refined by North America and which is spreading all over the world. Modem technology and modem architecture have no real nationality. They are international in the same way that science is. World languages like English, French, and Spanish unite the educated elites of all participating nations. Even the insular Japanese patronize symphony orchestras and collect Renoirs.

Modem Israel is nationally distinct. But it is not really culturally distinct from North America. A world of shared artifacts and shared education does not breed separate cultures. Tourists today are getting less for their money. They are finding it harder to visit quaint nations and to view charming local customs. Even the natives find it demeaning to be quaint, and they are cynical enough to turn local customs into tourist traps. Jewish visitors to Israel prefer Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is where the action is.

Some Jews, Rejectionist Jews who live behind the walls of segregation, have their own culture. But most Jews, including Israeli Jews, have become part of a culture that is not uniquely Jewish. Western culture, as a consumer culture with many options, allows for cultural attachments. American Jews can choose Passover and Hebrew classes. But they can also choose Chinese food, karate, and French lessons.

Some people may deplore the disappearance of grand old cultures and the emergence of an international style with cultural options. But the old cultures will survive only as segregated islands. The wonders of the new culture are too attractive.

As for many Jews, they do not choose to indulge any of the Jewish cultural options that are available. But they still are Jews. And some of them value their Jewish identity.


It is quite obvious that Jewish identity includes religious, racial, national, and cultural behavior. But it cannot be adequately defined by any one of them. A broader and more inclusive concept is required.

What realities should this concept embrace? What are the parameters that surround all Jews, whether they choose to engage in uniquely Jewish activity or do not choose to do so, whether they value their Jewish identity or do not value it?

Jewish identity, first of all, means a sense of shared ancestry. The Jews began as a nation, an ethnic federation of tribes. Their epic literature, which has become part of the sacred scriptures of the Christian world, speaks of their common ancestors. Whether Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob were real personalities or personifications of tribal invasions is irrelevant to the issue. The Jews saw themselves (and their neighbors saw them) as a true nation, a people united by “blood” ties and family loyalty. Even in talmudic times, joining the Jews was never a mere religious conversion. It was an “adoption.” New Jews severed all connections with their old families and adopted the ancestry of Abraham and Sarah.3

The Jewish people was dispersed from its homeland and became a family of new nations. But Jews never lost their sense of kinship. No matter where they lived, no matter what language they spoke, no matter what culture they adopted, no matter what racial elements they incorporated—they believed (and their neighbors believed) that they were united by a bond of “blood.” Nineteenth century writers would not have hesitated to use the word race to describe this awareness—even the most pro-Semitic. But the dangers of that word in the twentieth century forbid its use. The more benign word kinship may be more discreet. Or the phrase family sense.

All Jews—even those who hate being Jewish—have this awareness of other Jews being their “relatives.” New Jews, those who choose to become Jewish, also sense that they are joining a family fraternity where enthusiasm may confer fewer privileges than birth. Outsiders, too, both the pros and the antis, have this view of tribal connection. The phrase member of the tribe, although offensive to some, captures the awareness of a condition that is less than national but more than ideological.

The second parameter of Jewish identity is shared memories. Kinship means family roots and family history. The story of the Jews, whether positive or negative, fills the popular culture in the Western world. Christians give the Jews center stage in their drama. Muslims assign them a more peripheral role. But both traditions force Jews—even Jews who want to run away from their history or who are indifferent to or ignorant of it—to confront their past. The Jews have a secure place in the popular memory. Announcing that you are a Jew is different from announcing that you are a Swedenborgian. Receivers of the news can fit you into their cultural memory Even the peasant folk who have “never met a Jew before” know that Jews are not novelties. Even Jews who claim that they “know nothing about Judaism” know that they have a secure place in the history of any Western culture.

The third parameter of Jewish identity is shared danger. Jews are a vulnerable family. For whatever historical reasons, we are surrounded by hostility. The potential of anti-Semitism is part of the self-awareness of all Jews. It is also part of the awareness of Gentiles who deal with Jews. The events of the twentieth century have reinforced this apprehension. The Holocaust has tied Jewish identity to such fundamental emotions as fear, anger, loyalty, and pride. Frequently, Jews and Jewish leaders complain about the overemphasis on the negative side of Jewish existence. But Jewish anxiety and Jewish behavior do not pay any attention to this warning. Most parents who seek a Jewish education for their children want their sons and daughters to feel “proud” of their Jewish connection. They are obviously afraid that someone will make them feel less than proud. Being defensive is part of the Jewish condition.

Vulnerable kinship is an imperfect classification of Jewish identity. But it is more accurate than the words religion, race, nation, or culture. The word people is a convenient designation. Yet its usefulness is its vagueness. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The word is part of public relations, not clarification. If a people can be a vulnerable international family—then fine.

Jewish identity is not an enigma. It is not a mystery. Vulnerable kinships exist elsewhere. Gypsies are an example. They are lower in the social scale than we would prefer as a parallel. But they are less than a nation and more than an economic function. And they know that when they announce themselves, they are in danger.

Apprehensive international families can provide many positive benefits. Danger—if it is not physical—can be an exciting condition. It keeps you on the alert and forces you to be very aware of your environment. It trains you in the survival skills of flight, appeasement, and confrontation. It persuades you to try cooperation and group solidarity. It makes you always envision alternatives to what you are doing presently. If anti-Semitism is not overt, Jews have one of the best training programs for survival in the modem urban world.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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