What Are the Jews?

Martin Marty asks a rather intriguing question:  What are the Jews?  Rather, Marty points us to Jon D. Levenson, one of the foremost Jewish scholars in the country.   I got to hear Dr. Levenson speak on the question of Abrahamic religions in Santa Barbara a number of years ago.  He's a very thought provoking person.  Anyway, Marty uses a recent review by Levenson of another book on Jewish identity to point out the complexity of the question.  Oh, and note how the title of the post is phrased.  Offer your thoughts -- but a warning.  I will delete comments that are anti-Semitic or racist.  

Sightings  2/27/2012
What Are the Jews?
-- Martin E. Marty
  “What exactly are the Jews?” You’d think “we’d” know after their 350 years in America. “What are the Jews?” You’d think top Jewish scholars would know. You’d think Jews would know. No one is sure. Maybe anti-Semites think they know, but . . . . Top Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson of Harvard calls the question “baffling,” and if it baffles him, it should stump and benumb most of us.

“What exactly are the Jews?” is an important question for those of us who “sight” and comment on them. They are numerous, but small on the world scale. There are more Southern Baptists in the United States than Jews in the world, and also more Baptists (of course), Methodists, and Lutherans than Jews in the United States. They are an important force in religion, politics, culture, and need to be reported on accurately. What are they?

Levenson takes a closer look. “If we define them as adherents to a religion,” then how can so many (“most in America”) be secular? Many signs of ethnicity are among them, but “if we define the Jews as an ethnic group or race, then why all the religious practices and institutions”? A gentile, Levenson reminds, can become a Jew, but a black can’t become a white. “If building upon the importance of the State of Israel, we define the Jews essentially as a nation state,” how do we account for the fact that most don’t live there and 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish? “When it comes to the Jewish people, our convenient categories fail us.”

Levenson asked his basic question in the Catholic Commonweal while reviewing a book he largely admires by Leora Batnitzky, a foremost scholar of modern Jewish thought. He thinks she over-identifies modern Judaism with modernity itself, but admires her devotion to and explication of the giants of post-Enlightenment Judaism. They all busied themselves asking Levenson’s question, but they came up with very different, sometimes fateful (as in Germany, France, and Russia) answers.

Do we define them in relation to Jewish law, a huge concept and reality? Difficulties follow there, too, though many of his and Batnitzky’s scholars tried to use law. What is the status of such law in courts? (“Today, not coincidentally, the analogous question about Muslim law is asked throughout the West.) For Batnitzky the major modern move was made by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) with his “novel separation of Judaism from communal authority” as he “invent[ed] the idea of Jewish religion.”

For many of the titans, notably historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-91), the stress remained on the communal aspect. “Judaism,” then, “is not a religion of the individual, but of the community,” and thus is not a religion but is “rather a constitution for a body politic.” It is very mindful of its history. But when faced with anti-Semitism in the 19thcentury and after the Holocaust, these impulses sought substance. Some found it in Zionism, among “mostly secular Jews, but some religious ones too . . .” Elsewhere the impulse in American Reform Judaism correlated with theologically and politically liberal activist and “progressive causes.” This is not apolitical and may even be “hyperpolitical, for it allows a new sociopolitical vision to displace the traditional religious norms.”

“What exactly are the Jews?” Levenson decides that this cannot be decided on historical grounds, but can be addressed with a “venture into the world of constructive thought.” So: readers do not get an answer to the question, but more and better questions. Levenson, if I know him (I do know him) would welcome that.


Jon D. Levenson, “What Are They? Modernity and Jewish Self-Understanding,” Commonweal, February 14, 2012.

Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2011).


This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum is by Emanuela Zanotti Carney, on Voices of Despair and Gestures of Grief in Rituals of Mourning and Italian Marian Laments in the late Middle Ages. As devotion to Mary as the "mother of sorrows" flourished in the late Middle Ages, poetic narratives of Mary's lamentations at the foot of the cross became an important sub-genre of Marian literature.  Emanuela Zanotti Carney studies Marian laments written in the Italian vernacular, arguing that "poets and compilers ... conveyed the emotional experience of the Virgin at the cross by embodying traditional rituals of mourning performed by women (thecorrotto) into their lyrical and dramatic texts" (2-3).  Seeking an emotional reaction to Mary's grief, these laments "transformed audiences from passive recipients of a sacred story to active and engaged participants in the history of salvation" (32). Read Voices of Despair and Gestures of Grief.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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