Q&A: Is Judaism a Race or Religion?

post by Jessica

A friend of mine, who isn’t Jewish asked me a question recently in an email:

I say that Judaism is a race, because of the common ancestry, Abraham. My son says it’s a religion because you can go through conversion and become Jewish. I know you can, but if you are BORN Jewish and you are Jewish through ancestry, aren’t you part of an ethnic group?

What do Jewish people think? We tried to Google it, but everything was as clear as mud.

First, I’m not surprised that you had a hard time figuring out what’s what. Jews are famous for having more opinions than people. It was an interesting question, and not one that I had given much thought to. Race? Religion? Ethnic group?

One of the first things that comes to mind is the use of “race” as applied to Judaism always makes Jews nervous. Much of Hitler’s understanding of the Jewish community was based on the idea of the Jews as an inferior race. But, is there something to be said for the idea of Judaism as a race in general?

Jews aren’t the only ones to claim Abraham. Muslims do this as well, although they claim Ishmael rather than Isaac as a forefather, so the claim of Abraham doesn’t make Judaism unique and doesn’t seem to point to Judaism being a race any more than it points to Islam being a race.  Jews also live all over the world, and especially during the Middle Ages, there were many distinct groups of Jews, although they can principally be divided into Ashkenazi (those of Eastern European origin) and Sephardi (of North African or Western European descent). These groups display the diversity of Judaism in both appearance and practice, and seem to strengthen the idea that Jews aren’t a race, but rather a religion. I think this is particularly true in the case of converts – they are the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah according to the Hebrew names given to them at conversion, but spiritually, we also say they were standing with the Jewish people at Sinai, when we received the commandments.

However, there is probably something to be said for the idea of Judaism as an ethnic group, especially in America. There are American Jewish foods, attitudes and ideas about family, and I think they bear a lot of the signs of being an ethnic group. A lot of the Jews I know felt as though they could 100% identify with the storyline of My Big Fat Greek Wedding – which really could have been called “My Big Fat Ethnic Wedding.”  But even as an ethnic group, we’re wrapped in religious garb – our understanding of Jewish culture is influenced by our religious outlook as well.

Is Judaism unique in the way that it is expressed in American life? I’m probably not well versed enough to know, but I can totally understand why the Google articles would have been less than clear about it.

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6 thoughts on “Q&A: Is Judaism a Race or Religion?

  1. But doesn’t a lot of the “American Jewish” stuff come from Eastern Europe so it definitely is ethnic, it’s just not the only ethnicity within the Jewish people. I think probably the fact that one can still check off Judaism as an ethnicity probably confuses people about the race issue. Oh well.

    • I agree. Most of the “American Jewish” stuff is just Eastern European Jewish stuff so it’s definitely ethnic. That’s why America lists it as both a religion and an ethnicity in so many documents. Of course, they don’t understand that within Judaism there are many other ethnicities and races as well.

      One of the most common thing college students here is that Judaism is racist because we’re supposed to marry other Jews but I always remind them that Judaism isn’t a race and Judaism is full of people from every race.

  2. I like to say that Judaism is a peoplehood with both religious and ethnic components. We always refer to ourselves as Am Yisrael or Knesset Yisrael, not Dat Yisrael.

    I think the key to remember is that we’re a relic from the ancient Near East, when religion and ethnicity were one and the same. We speak of the Egyptian or Babylonian religions and ethnicities as if they are inseparable, and I think the same is true of Judaism.

    • And if I were so inclined, I could go on a diatribe about the separation between church and state, but I think you can imagine what I’d say. Just make sure that you include some Calvinistic theocratic political thought in there.

      The fact is that converts, Ashkenazim, and Sephardim all feel as if they are part of one peoplehood, albeit with some subdivisions therein.

  3. I believe that neither race nor ethnicity really describe Judaism.
    Race describes biological descent. Jews are of many races. Although many think only of Ashkenzai/Eastern Europeans, the diversity of Jews even within the US is pretty wide.

    Ethnicity describes cultural heritage. Again, while many North American Jews think of a particular Jewish “foods, attitudes and ideas about family” this is very limited. The totality of Jewish “ethnicity” and culture includes foods, attitudes, and ideas which are also Brazilian, Argentinian, Venezualian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Indian, Pakastani, Iraqui, Ethiopian, Ugandan, and many others.

    This is not to say that we are not all of one “people” but it’s more of a sense of peoplehood based on the shared religion (including holidays and related cultural traditional)’, rather than shared race or ethnic similarities.

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