A fellow Times of Israel blogger asked the question, what is the essence of being a Jew. His novel answer: In essence, a loyal Israeli, because Jews are a Nation and Israel is its State. Then one doesn’t need to go into religion to become a Jew. That didn’t do it for me. But it did inspire me to write my own fresh answers. I’ll build them up layer after layer.
Jews Are Not a Race
And still, one primarily becomes a Jew through one’s parents. In the olden days through one’s father; nowadays through one’s mother — and if one’s father is a Jew too, he determines one’s Jewish Tribe.
This doesn’t mean that without a Jewish mother (or an Orthodox conversion) one can’t be a Jew. Rather, the Rabbis had to draw a line somewhere and that’s how they defined a Jew. But, more people may be Jews than stipulated by these conditions — the Messiah will tell us who. Meanwhile, these are the criteria. People not pleased by their non-Jewish status can request a conversion. (But carefully, check your family tree. Many have converted and later found they didn’t need to.)
And, the oppression of Jews in the Western world, typically takes the form of racism. Some (three TOI bloggers in separate posts) have even raised the question if Jews, including “White” ones, could be grouped with White Gentiles, given that White Supremacists always hate Jews.
NB: In Muslim culture, hatred for Jews is more anti-Judaic. When a Jew would become Muslim, Islamists’ problems with that person ended. Although also there, we see traces of not liking Jews as a group, thinking that they’re physically weird (have horns) or genetically morally impaired.
And still, Jews are not a racial entity. There are Jews of any skin color and cultural tradition. And one may become a Jew but not join a race.
On top of that, a culturally mixed marriage between Gentiles is nice. The kids from an Italian-German couple could have two “mother tongues,” get a tradition with pizza and cooked sausages, and learn to drink wine and beer. But Jews should not intermarry. Below, we’ll explain why this is not racism. Interracial marriage among Jews in Israel has made most racial distinction there, after two-three generations, already impossible.
What racial picture you have in mind at the word Jew also depends on whom you are used to. This US Jew who went to a Chinese synagogue. He’s received warmly and asked a million questions about his Jewish roots. Until one of the hosts can’t take the tension any longer and exclaims: But you don’t look Jewish!
Most Western art depicts the first Israelites as Caucasian. Though probably, Abraham, Sarah, Moses (or Jesus) were not light-skinned.
Jews Also Don’t Form a Religious Assembly
Usually, if you believe the Christian or Muslim tenets and want to live by their religions and in their communities, you’re warmly welcomed to join.
Not so with Judaism. And, Judaism is not only specifically for Jews; by Jewish Law, it is Gentiles forbidden to adopt it, for instance, to keep Shabbat fully. (Luckily, the laws covering Shabbat observance are so vast and intricate that it takes years of learning and practice (and making mistakes) to follow them properly. So the chance that a Gentile could keep Shabbat perfectly against the Rabbis’ wishes is practically zero.)
Judaism is by necessity very complicated. There is no need to bother everyone with this lifestyle and mindset. Jews don’t proselytize.
Any attempt to diminish or erase any People and its culture is called genocide. But attempts to exterminate all Jews, even go beyond that. Assaulting Jews is really the closest one can get to deicide. (No one can “kill G^d” but it’s been tried to kill off G^d’s closest servant and representative on Earth. To call Jews “god killers” is not unusual. Most anti-Semitic charges are the complete reverse of reality and truth.)
Jews are Also not Just an Oppressed Group
Anti-Semitism is very real, though in some place and times more blatant and sometimes more hidden. It has a lot in common with all other oppressions but also, like every oppression, its specific aspects. On the latter point, Jews are often used by the establishment as visible pawns and scapegoats, as long as they are able to manipulate the masses into blaming and attacking the Jews instead of them. Only the masses can liberate the Jews from being held hostage through rock-solid friendship and unwavering eternal solidarity. Gentiles have been slow in doing so.
Most unfortunately, for many Jews in the West, being Jewish means being oppressed, feeling unsafe. The whole glory and festivity of being a Jew, so often gets lost to them. They’re mostly Holocaust bystander Jews.
Yet, though Jew-hatred is a mean and relentless oppression, and many Jews feel especially defined by it, this isn’t a proper definition of a Jew.
If Jews aren’t a racial, religious or oppressed group, then what are they?
Jews Form a Nation
Jews are a People. And not a Nation like any other one.
Most Nations have typically a shared homeland, history, language (and with that a way to see (or not see) things), traditions and convictions (and with that a certain mentality), and pride in what they’re good at.
In some ways, Jews differ.
Even long before Palestine was emptied out of most Jews and was mostly wasteland for thousands of years, Jews were already dispersed among the Nations of the world — as we read in the Book of Esther.
But there is more than the Diaspora that sets apart Jews as a People.
At the core of Jewish culture and civilization lies religion. This possibly comes from how Jews came about. Jews didn’t rally around a common location, history, language, mentality, or pride. Rather, Jews were called upon.
Jews were invited (or rather: challenged) by an invisible G^d to morally improve themselves and after that, teach the whole of humankind.
And Jews need to pass on to their offspring the Calling — not just customs and habits. So they’d better marry Jews only.
Yet, Judaism is not a Faith. If anything, it’s a lifestyle. How is it done?
The Lifestyle That Delivers
At least for the last millennia, the main way to try to accomplish this Mission toward ethical refinement is done in three ways:
1. Prayer. Trice a day say all kinds of lofty ideas to mend your ways.
The Prayer has the form of one-way therapy with G^d. The Therapist listens but the one who should really pay attention to what s/he is saying is the one who says the prayers — like in any therapy.
2. Torah reading. To listen to and contemplate.
The yearly Torah reading cycle is G^d talking to the Jews.
3. Commandments. To execute and refrain from doing all kinds of things all day/year/life long.
It can take forever to feel a certain way. And without acting in accordance, feelings are quite shallow, fleeting, and non-committal.
The Commandments need to be followed and then contemplated and then appreciated — not the other way around. Deeds speak louder than creeds. Doing or refraining builds mentalities and mindsets.
These three things, one needs to do constantly to gain and maintain the Jewish mindset. And THAT attitude is the essence of Judaism.
The core of who is a Jew is: not someone with a certain DNA, skin color, culture, religion, knowledge, lifestyle, beliefs, vulnerability, sensitivity or awareness, but rather: someone with a certain mindset and attitude.
While acquiring another nationality can be a mere matter of handing over a certificate of good character and learning the national tongue, obtaining recognition as a Jew necessitates so much more, starting with learning covering a wide variety of subjects. This should not be confused with academic studies. Rather than the student mastering subjects, Jewish learning should be such that the subjects capture the student. This should leave one humbled (impressed by the lofty expectations) rather than arrogant (impressed at how much one knows).
How Did Jews Start and Continue?
The Sages differed in opinion why the Jews are elected for this Assignment. Some say, their character traits were already more refined morally. Some say (with great humility) that Jews have a tremendous potential but if not tamed, they’d be worse than anyone else.
The same must be true for someone who wants to join the Jewish People. There must already be this tremendous potential.
And this also explains why someone could not disavow being a Jew. Once you have this capacity, you better live up to it. And if not, one runs the risk of becoming (known as) a scandalous person.
That is also the main reason why Jews should not adopt a non-Jewish religion (or intermarry, as mentioned above). That would be watering down one’s obligations and be tantamount to taking it too easy and forgoing to live up to one’s full potential.
Meanwhile, mankind has cut off the branch it was sitting on. From all the persecutions, the Jewish remnant became stronger but its Mission to teach the Nations has been severely hampered. Christians and Muslims have been largely on their own, and the lack of Jewish corrections shows in imbalances in their tradition — and I say this with the greatest respect.
And Jews’ small numbers also dictate that we should not intermarry.
Mark Train wondered, why Jews, different from so many Nations, did not go through a process or dominating others followed by a downfall forever. Maybe, we can now understand that. Jews never strove to control anyone else — so our influence also doesn’t peak and crash.
So, basically, Jews are a Nation founded on a Calling that centers around a religious viewpoint aiming to create a specific mindset. Then, could Atheists become Jews and Atheist Jews reach their Jewish potential?
Surely they can! They only need to realize that the “G^d” that they reject, is really a primitive picture that could never be the G^d of Judaism.
Jews hold that G^d is Beyond this Universe, past an abstract concept but with practical implications. Certainly, one can talk to the Creator of the Universe — on condition that one listens to oneself. And definitely, one can be thankful to be alive — and profess that to the Universe and Beyond. And then, you’re already not an Atheist in the Jewish sense. (There are no Atheists. Only people a bit lazy in being principled.) And then they can, like all religious Jews, all the time, talk to G^d, listen to G^d, and obey His Commandments, to perfect themselves ethically.
Atheist Jews should have respect for Jews who are more into simplistic ideas about G^d. While they were having fun as Atheists, the others made the effort to keep Judaism going so that in time, they could rejoin.
The idea that G^d needs us to serve and please Him is (a remnant of) classical idol worship. Life and Judaism are a Gift to us — not a Debt.