Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jews: Religion or Race?

Jews are ancient people. Despite the lack of historical evidence for much of what appears in what the Christians refer to as the Old Testament, it is reasonable to infer that Jews are ancient people. In their genes, of course, they are no more ancient than any other human being. But in the context of modern Western life, Jews, as an organized social group, are far older than the Christian and Muslim monotheists that followed them.

Jews: are they a religion or a race? This question is often asked even by Jews, who have probably not given the whole thing much thought. And while it can be argued that Judaism is the religion of the Hebrew Race (thus answering the question in a neat package), it is not a very accurate description when removed from its modern context. The idea of defining Jewishness is so alien that Israel had to go through a laborious process to decide who had a prima facie case to be called a Jew, and could, therefore, be awarded citizenship. It came down to having a Jewish mother. Before Israel, Jews did not need to define who was a Jew because there was no political need to do so. Hitler created his own definition a decade earlier.

Jews are a social group, no different than the rest of the people around them in the ancient world. They were like the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Hittites. How would any of these people answer the same question? All of them had rules and social conventions, civilizations, and beliefs in gods of one sort or another. I do not know their creation myths, but I’m sure they had them. These rules and beliefs were part and parcel of normative Assyrian, Hittite, and Babylonian social life. There were not 7th Day Hittites, Reform Assyrians, and Babylonian Rollers. No, there were just groups with beliefs, laws, and social structures that knit them together as a people. Some believed in, or practiced, variants of the principal (orthodox) culture, but they were undoubtedly still seen as Hittites, both inside the group and outside it. They were born into the totality of Hittite life, not as non-Hittites waiting to be baptized into Hittitedom. To separate them by religion or race was simply not meaningful.

Since the Jews are, in some real sense, a transitional people, they are different than those who came before them, and misunderstood by people who came after them. Jews were, as far as we know, the first monotheists; if not the first, then the first to exist from then straight through to now. A century after the death of Jesus, Christians were busy at the task of documenting and codifying their beliefs, organizing their communities, and distancing themselves from their Jewish “parents”. It is clear that in the act of distancing themselves, they were building a wall between themselves and the Jews, and also defining the Jews as those who rejected the new covenant with god. Note that some 600 years later, the Muslims were saying precisely the same things about both the Jews and the Christians.

Christians were not a people. They were a religion. They were Greeks, Jews, Turks, Romans, and so on. They had no shared language at home. They had no shared food tradition. In other words, they were not a social group in the same sense that the Jews, Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians were. They were a heterogeneous group with a common belief system. In the 14th Century, for example, Roman Catholic Christians ruled the countries of Western Europe (e.g., Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc) and most of Eastern Europe. These were not homogeneous peoples with shared customs and language. They were different peoples with a shared adherence to Roman Catholicism and the Latin of the Church.

Jews are more like Eastern peoples. Being Chinese one thousand years ago meant pretty much what it means today. No matter what individual differences existed in ritual practices (Buddhism, Confucianism, etc), the way things were done were “Chinese”, and continue to be. India had Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Totemists, and others, but all these communities did things in an “Indian” way. The same applies to the Japanese, Laos, Vietnamese, and many others. They are homogeneous in that there is such a thing as “being Chinese” and “being Indian”, even if their religious observances are different. Likewise, there is also a sense of “being Jewish”, and even Jewish atheists feel like part of the community.

I want to hit this one more time. How can I ask the question, “Is Bantu a religion or a race,” and make it meaningful of anything modern society understands of these words? Religion of the kind Christianity ushered in was virtually nonexistent before Christianity. This question asks about race and religion in a purely post-Christian context because it does not understand the integrated nature of pre-Christian societies. Muslims use the same construction for Islam, and those who believe in Allah come in as many colors and speak as many languages as do Christians, but they all call themselves Muslims. Jews never conquered people and made religious converts, but Christians and Muslims did. Jews, Christians, and Muslims may all be the sons and daughters of Abraham, but religion does not mean the same thing to Jews as to the others. As to the question of race, only aggregated social groups, like Christians and Muslims, would speak in terms of race. Under apartheid, Polish Jews are white and Falashas are black, so what race is a Jew?

So when you ask questions of Jews like, “Are you guys a religion or a race,” don’t be surprised when the answer is that the question makes no sense in the context of Jewish history. Jews are an ancient people, like the people of India and China, and are part of a whole that cannot be parsed. Jews are a small population with a common history out of which an integrated and organic religion emerged. Christians and Muslims are an aggregation of distinct peoples whose lack of shared experience created a need for a doctrine that replaced common history as the thing that defined their unity. Religion grows out of the experience of an ancient people, it is not superimposed. Christian era religious constructs are too new for Jews.


At Sun Aug 20, 03:19:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was interesting.
Is there a way you can use a different format- the current one makes reading laborious because there are no spaces between paragraphs...


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