What Are Jews?

A review of Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, by Aaron Koller

Are Jews followers of a religion, members of a tribe, a family, a people, an ethnic group, a nation, a race?  What are we?  I used to have a glib answer to this question. We have been around a long time.  We have been Jews before people invented so many different ways of classifying groups.  Once upon a time, people of certain tribe probably belonged in the religion of that tribe, and had blood relations to most of the other people in their group, and so on.  In antiquity, the group amounted to most of these categories rolled together.  The definitions did not create much of a problem.

I used to have a glib thought about the unity of the Hebrew Bible.  I was not so naïve as to call it a book; I understood it as more like a library or an anthology.  Still, I thought the collection of different books, in different styles, still added up to a kind a consilience.  The ancient rabbis generally used verses from anywhere across the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKH) to explain the meaning of words anywhere else in TaNaKH, as if all the books agree about everything.  Only on rare occasions do they let on that the different books may provide different answers to the same question (Yerushalmi Makkot 31d).

Then I started to read Aaron Koller’s book, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Koller, a Professor of Jewish and Near Eastern Studies at Yeshiva University (my alma mater), reads biblical and other texts of antiquity with great care, and that goes where that reading leads him.  He begins with the most basic technique of reading comprehension, understanding the words by what they say, and not by what we expect them to say, or what they should say.

Doing so leads him to the observation that, some 24 centuries ago, at the height of the Persian Empire, Jews prospered as a minority in the wealthy capital and in the provinces of Persia.  Then, as now, Jews disagreed about how to deal with that situation.  One faction recommended returning to Israel, building the Temple, and, ultimately, restoring King David’s monarchy.  Another faction recommended staying the in capital, and working with the Persians as much as possible, while proudly proclaiming our differences from the Persians.  If observing the rituals of Judaism set us apart from the Persians, we should do so. God ensure that the Persians respect us in our separate ways.  Or, if the Persians rule that we transgress Persian laws of customs, God will intervene to save us. Another faction recommended blending in with Persians as much as possible, keeping our Jewishness as private as possible.

Different biblical books support the political and religious stances of the different factions.

  • Ezra and Nehemiah present the triumphs of those who returned to Israel, fought against intermarriage, insisted on using the sacred Hebrew language, and rebuilt the Temple.
  • Daniel presents the triumphs of its hero, who stays in Persia, but defies Persian laws and customs to obey the dictates of Judaism. God intervenes to save Daniel and his companions.
  • Esther presents the triumph of a group that lives in the capital among the Persians, and conceals its connection to Jewishness. When capricious Persian laws endanger the Jews, these Jews skillfully fight against their enemies in the bureaucracy, and succeed in averting the disaster.  At the end, Persian Jews survive, but with no guarantees about the next crisis.

Koller then deepens that reading with sophisticated insights into literary techniques, including intertextuality, and reception history. All these readings support the observations derived from plain reading: The Hebrew Bible records the conflicting recommendations of Jews who disagreed about how to react at a critical time in our history.   Books that qualify for inclusion in the sacred canon do not point to any unified consilience, any compromise that includes all factions.  As history played out, many Jews remained in Persia for the ensuing 24 centuries; many other Jews traveled to Israel, and from there to edges of the known world.   Neither pattern became the exclusive vehicle for Jewish survival.

The disagreements among Jews in the ancient world map, not precisely, on how to answer the question: “Are Jews followers of a religion, or members of a tribe, a family, a people, an ethnic group, a nation, a race?”

Should we, a Jewish minority far from Israel, keep our Jewishness a private matter, but otherwise look and act exactly  like the dominant group?  If so, when we run into trouble, we can rely on nothing but adroit use of what powers we possess as a minority.

Or should we keep our Jewishness as public as possible, generally relying on the philo-semitism of the rulers, but ultimately on God’s providential intervention?

Or should we abandon our position as a minority and return to Israel?  There, perhaps we should work to rebuilt the Temple and to restore the Davidic monarchy.

It turns out the “modern” question divided our ancestors in antiquity, and still divides us now.  Even the answers seem not to have changed that radically.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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