Lecture 3 RLST 2600
What is Judaism?
What is Judaism? What does it mean to be a Jew? Most people, both Jewish and gentile,
would instinctively say that Judaism is a religion. And yet, there are militant atheists who
insist that they are Jews! Is Judaism a race? If you were to say so, most Jews would think
you were an antisemite! So what is Judaism?
Is Judaism a Religion?
Clearly, there is a religion called Judaism, a set of ideas about the world and the way we
should live our lives that is called "Judaism." There is a lot of flexibility about certain
aspects of those beliefs, and a lot of disagreement about specifics, but that flexibility is
built into the organized system of belief that is Judaism.
However, many people who call themselves Jews do not believe in that religion at all!
More than half of all Jews in
today call themselves "secular," and don't believe in
or any of the religious beliefs of Judaism. Half of all Jews in the United States don't
belong to any
Are Jews a Race?
In the 1980s, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Jews are a race, at least for
purposes of certain anti-discrimination laws. Their reasoning: at the time these laws were
passed, people routinely spoke of the "Jewish race" or the "Italian race" as well as the
"Negro race," so that is what the legislators intended to protect. But many Jews were
deeply offended by that decision, offended by any hint that Jews could be considered a
race. The idea of Jews as a race brings to mind nightmarish visions of Nazi Germany,
where Jews were declared to be not just a race, but an inferior race that had to be rounded
up into ghettos and exterminated like vermin.
But setting aside the emotional issues, Jews are clearly not a race. Race is a genetic
distinction, and refers to people with shared ancestry and shared genetic traits. You can't
change your race; it's in your DNA. I could never become black or Asian no matter how
much I might want to. Common ancestry is not required to be a Jew.
Is It a Culture or Ethnic Group?
Most secular American Jews think of their Jewishness as a matter of culture or ethnicity.
When they think of Jewish culture, they think of the
, of the
observances, and of cultural values like the emphasis on education.
Those secular American Jews would probably be surprised to learn that much of what
they think of as Jewish culture is really just
Jewish culture, the culture of
Jews whose ancestors come from one part of the world. Jews have lived in many parts of