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.