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Are Jews a Race or a Religion?

Monday, 3 December, 2018 - 7:00 pm

Question of the Week:

Are Jews a race or a religion? Or both? Or neither?

Answer:

We are all of the above. A race. A religion. Both. And neither.

We're a bit complicated. And really quite simple. Let's use some talmudic-style deduction to get to the bottom of it.

Jews are members of a religion called Judaism. We descend from spiritual trailblazers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, founders of a belief system around one G-d and moral living. Our nationhood did not start in a country, but in an idea. Our identity comes from the Torah. So being a Jew is clearly a religious thing.

But if Jewishness is a religious identity, then a Jew who is not religious, doesn't believe in G-d or follow the Torah would no longer be Jewish. And that it not the case at all. A Jew is a Jew no matter what they do. This is not so with other religions. A Catholic who never steps foot in church is no longer called Catholic. A Muslim who repudiates Islam is called an apostate. But a Jew who never goes to shul is called business as usual.

You can't be a part of a religion if you don't practice it. Yet a non-practicing Jew is still a Jew, often proudly so. Which implies that we are not a religion but a race. Being Jewish is something you are born with and it remains who you are regardless of your actions or beliefs. You can't rescind your ethnicity. So obviously being Jewish is not a religious thing but rather a racial thing.  

But if that is true, how is it that Jews are so ethnically diverse? We have pale Jews from Poland and dark Jews from Dehli, Jews who have their gefilte fish sweet, Jews who have their gefilte fish salty, and Jews who never have gefilte fish at all. What ethnic ties could possibly bind such polar opposites?

And furthermore, if being Jewish is an ethnic thing, how is it possible to convert to Judaism? There is no such thing as changing ethnicity. You can choose to become a citizen of Greece, but you can't choose to become an ethnic Greek. Yet anyone can choose to become a Jew by converting according to Jewish law.

The possibility of choosing Jewishness makes it seem like a religious identity. The impossibility of losing Jewishness makes it seem like an ethnic identity. So what is it?

It is both. And neither. Being Jewish is deeper than religion, and deeper than race.

Jewishness is in your soul. It is a soul identity.

You get a Jewish soul by being born to a Jewish mother, or converting according to Jewish law. Whether by birth or by choice, once you have the Jewish soul, it is the deepest layer of your identity. And it never goes away.

You can deny that you're Jewish, ignore it, practice another religion or no religion at all. But you are still Jewish. Because your soul is. The colour of your skin or the flavour of your gefilte fish can't change the fact. You have a Jewish soul. And every Jewish soul wants to be Jewish and live Jewishly.

On the surface a Jew may seem disconnected from Judaism. But beneath the surface the fire of their soul is always burning. Jewishness sometimes gets buried under layers of resistance, caused by pain from bad experiences, fear of persecution, or just ignorance. But when a little crack appears in those layers, the light of the soul shines through, and the Jew returns to Judaism.

Every Jewish soul eventually comes back home. It may take years. It may take generations. But we can't stay away from our Jewishness. It's not just a race we belong to, it's not just a religion we believe in, it's our soul, it's who we are.

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Moss

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