As many young Jews go off to college this month, they will find themselves struggling to answer an age-old question during “who are you” first conversations with non-Jewish friends. They might ask, politely, curiously, “are Jews part of a religion or more of an ethnic group?” The answer to this question – which many Jews also find confusing – is yes. One of the great identity anomalies for North American Jews today is that while so many define Judaism as their religion, most modern Jews do not follow the Jewish religion scrupulously. However, these “non-religious” Jews – in traditional terms – are deeply Jewish, because Jewish identity involves belonging to a people, nationall­y, ethnically, culturally, historically, and spiritually. The notion of the “Judeo-Christian ethic” treats Judaism as a parallel religion to Christianity. Yet, although Judaism and Christianity share many Biblical values, the Jewish peoplehood dimension has no parallel in Christianity.

Wherever you start the story of Judaism, that peoplehood dimension exists. In B’reisheit, Genesis Chapter 12, after God renames Abram “Abraham,” God’s covenant, based on Abraham leaving his “father’s house” and going to the Promised Land where “I will make of you a great nation,” does not just create a religion. The exodus from Egyptian slavery that Jews celebrate on Passover every year constitutes a great moment of both national liber­ation and spiritual redemption. In fact, the Jews became a people on leaving Egypt and only learned the basic tenets of the Jewish religion, meaning Judaism, weeks later when receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. And when Ruth the Moabite bonds with her mother-in-law Naomi, she says in1:16, “your people will be my people,” (amech ami) even before she says, “your God, will be my God.” Similarly, the Western Wall is both a sacred remnant linking us to the Holy Temple, and a national shrine, representing the Jewish people’s devastating defeat after the Temple’s destruction, followed 1,900 years later by Israel’s restoration.

For millennia, living in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, or dwelling among other nations as a “people apart” in exile, Jews built their lives around their particular religious beliefs while feeling a part of a particular people. The welcome Jews started enjoying in modern Europe, and especially in America, confused many Jews – and non-Jews – about Jews’ status. To fit into Europe as enlighten­ment and nationalism grew in the 1800s, some Jews started calling Judaism a “religion,” a concept their ancestors would have considered too limiting and alien.

By contrast, in liberal, democratic America, Jews were not just a community of faith like Christians, united only by a common theology. Jews were, and are, a people bound by a common history, traced back three thousand years with a common culture and sense of destiny, a common land in Israel, and an overall sense of interconnectedness. Even as they were born in other lands, learned other languages, and embraced other cultures outside of Israel, that sense of commonality remained – and continued to define them.

Many Jewish thinkers began celebrating Judaism’s unique “combination of religion with nationality.” Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, in his monumental 1934 book Judaism as a Civili­zation, emphasized culture and peoplehood over race or nationhood. This idea took off in the United States, as Americans began to appreciate cultural pluralism, moving beyond the melting pot to multiculturalism.

Zionists usually conceived of the Jews as a people or a nation, as did many American Jews. “Peoplehood,” which meant emphasizing a distinct ethno-cultural experience that could still be patriotic, allowed American Jews to find their own place in the American pageant. Especially after the “Black Power” movement of the 1960s, which inspired many other American groups to assert their ethnic pride, Jews felt comfortable assert­ing themselves collectively as a people, amid the other celebrations of Polish-American Power and Irish-Ameri­can Power and Italian-American Power.

This sense of peoplehood helps explains much about Jewish identity, including that intense family feeling and broad sense of solidarity connected to Jews, not just Judaism. Jewish history, Jewish culture, Jewish food, Jewish civilization, Jewish politics, all emphasize this sense of belonging to a tribe – while trying to make the tribalism transcendent by tapping into a deep, ongoing spiritual, cultural, national, and ethical tradition. During the college years – as well as before and after – this multidimensional identity, for all its confusion, also provides many ways into a rich, exciting Jewish experience.

What’s YOUR take on this?

What does belonging to the Jewish people mean to you? Do you feel more of a Jewish national or religious tie?

Add your comments below!

This post is one in a series of responses to common challenges to Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.