Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Whole in One

Two recent books consider whether Jewishness is a religion, a culture, a race, or some combination of the three. The answer may be none of the above.

Print Email
Jewish marriage ceremony in Nuremberg, Germany, c. 1726. (New York Public Library)

Fantasies of lost wholeness are one of the symptoms of modernity. The 19th century saw the rise of an epidemic of nostalgia, in which the dislocations of the modern world—capitalism, industrialism, secularism, urbanization—produced a longing to return to a vanished moment when there were no divisions, when society and human life were still whole. Many different pasts seized the imagination of the homesick present. For the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it was the state of nature, before civilization even began; for the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, it was ancient Greece, whose art spoke of a lost simplicity and calm; for the English reformer John Ruskin, it was the Middle Ages, whose Gothic cathedrals were monuments to a time when labor was unalienated. The details mattered less than the belief that sometime, somewhere in the past, human beings were happier and more complete than they are today.

Modern Jews are not immune to this kind of nostalgia; but as so often happens, the Jewish case is different and more complicated. At the beginning of her superb and thought-provoking new book, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton), Leora Batnitzky explains that modern definitions of Jewishness are inescapably divided and partial. She begins: “Is Judaism a religion? Is Jewishness a matter of culture? Are the Jews a nation? These are modern questions.” But there was a time, “prior to modernity,” she continues, when “Judaism and Jewishness were all these at once: religion, culture and nationality.” Until the 18th century, the question of how to define Jewishness never arose, because Jews lived in a wholly Jewish world. A Jewish community was made up exclusively of Jews, lived by Jewish law, prayed according to Jewish ritual, and even had a large degree of political autonomy—it could levy its own taxes, appoint its own officials, and punish lawbreakers. Each community, Batnitzky writes, enjoyed this wholeness, and together they formed an even larger whole: “Premodern Jews imagined themselves as one united people, as klal Yisrael, ‘the collective people of Israel.’ ”

For Batnitzky, too, modernity is the age of fracture, when this ostensible wholeness and unity began to come apart. This began in Western Europe with the French Revolution, which introduced the principle that Jews should not be viewed as members of an autonomous community but as individual citizens in a secular nation-state. As one French statesman put it: “One must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation but one must give them everything as individuals.” This principle spread with Napoleon’s rule to Germany, where the substantial Jewish population became a test case for the possibility of true emancipation in an anti-Semitic society.

For these German Jews, who make up the focus of the first half of Batnitzky’s book, the age of lost wholeness was too close to be the source of comfortable nostalgia. It was too close in time—the most assimilated German Jewish families were only a generation or two removed from the ghetto—and too close in space: Just over the German border to the east lay Poland and Russia, the Jewish heartland, where millions of Jews lived traditional lives and labored under bitter government persecution. The only way out, for these emancipated Jews, was forward. But if Jewishness was no longer an all-encompassing identity, no longer the name of a world, what could it be?

Batnitzky’s answer is given in her title. Judaism became a religion, she argues, when it stopped being a civic and political identity. Religion was the name of the shrunken sphere of life that Jewishness was allowed to occupy in the modern world. In particular, Batnitzky argues, German Jews began to think about Judaism in terms borrowed from Protestantism, as a private faith whose most important dimensions were emotional and ethical.

The problem, of course, is that this understanding of religion manifestly clashes with rabbinic Judaism as it had evolved over the centuries. Rabbinic Judaism, as expressed in the Talmud and many later commentaries and codes of law, was above all a religion of practice, of public and communal life. Every area of a Jewish life was regulated Jewishly, from sexual relations to diet to tort law. Yet these were exactly the things that, in the modern world, were meant to be governed by the nation-state and by a common, secular culture. How could Judaism’s all-encompassing legacy be squeezed into the small compartment designated for religion?

The first four chapters of How Judaism Became a Religion are devoted to the ways major German Jewish thinkers tried—and, in Batnitzky’s view, largely failed—to answer that question. She begins, inevitably, with Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century philosopher who is remembered as the first modern Jew, in large part because he was accepted as an equal by Gentile thinkers such as Lessing and Kant. In his 1783 book Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism, Mendelssohn, an Orthodox Jew, argued that—in Batnitzky’s words—“Judaism … is not concerned with power and therefore does not conflict with the possibility of the Jewish integration into the modern nation state.” Equally important, as Batnitzky writes of Mendelssohn’s case, Judaism does not possess a creed to which every believer must adhere, the way Christianity does. Instead, it possesses “divine legislation—laws, commandments, ordinances, rules of life,” which the Jew can follow without prejudice to his citizenship in the German state.

There is, however, a fairly obvious contradiction between the two premises of Mendelssohn’s argument. If Judaism is a religion of legislation, of behavior rather than belief, how could it not conflict with the legislation and custom of the wider Christian society? Or, to put the question another way: What compels the Jew to keep practicing Jewish law, living a Jewish life, once the possibility of assimilation opens up? “Mendelssohn offers no philosophical or theological justification for why Jews should obey the [Jewish] law,” Batnitzky writes. Personally, he would find it possible to be at the same time an enlightened philosopher and an observant Jew; but all of his grandchildren would end up converting to Christianity.

1 2 3View as single page
Print Email

I must say that I find these discussions about Judaism being a race really funny. Come to Israel and look at all the Jews with different colors and shapes and you’ll see that there is no such thing as a Jewish race. The Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab lands (the majority of Israelis) look like Arabs, the Ethiopians look like Africans and the Ashekanizm look like Europeans.

All three categories – religion, ethnicity (race) and culture define Jewish identity. However, if you decide to separate them and look at each one individually the ethnicity(race) takes priority over other two. This could be seen in common views (you constantly hear such expressions like “secular Jews” but never “Slavic Jews”), in religion itself (Jew is defined as someone whose mother is Jewish; there is no one word about his or her religion; could be any) and from the historical perspective as well. Both, religious and cultural, approaches had been tried and failed, first one – in Germany and the second – in Russia (Soviet Union). The only one which survived was ethnical approach: creation and establishment of the Jewish state, in which Jew is defined as a member of a certain ethnical group (according to the ethnicity of his or her parents). In United States, which did not experience neither nazism nor communism, the religious and cultural approaches are still alive and popular, due to the widespread filling of self-righteousness and general ignorance among many of American Jews.

MonkFish says:

Excellent essay. Thank you.

One approach that, in my opinion, is the most intellectually coherent is the definition of Judaism as flexible, socially-adaptive and ever-evolving complex matrix of theologically undergirded rituals which encompass every aspect of life, from the individual and personal/familial to the collective and political. The mistake of the moderns was to try to set these rituals in amber (to transform them into a closed system) and extract from them an ethical essence that could exist appart from practice. Such an explicit, rational/intellectual approach caused ethics to wilt and die since the ethical aspect of Judaism is inherent in, an produced by, ritual practice. Jews would do well to read Hubert Fingarette’s wonderful book on Confucius’ understanding of rite “The Secular as Sacred” as it yields a picture of controlled gesture and ceremony (Li) as the nexus of society and humane inter-personal relations which could renew modern Halakha.

jacob arnon says:


FreeMind says:

“The only one which survived was ethnical approach: creation and establishment of the Jewish state, in which Jew is defined as a member of a certain ethnical group (according to the ethnicity of his or her parents).”

Yes, but it is very religion-based. If an Israeli or a Jewish immigrant there officialy changes his religion (doesn’t happen much, but still), he is not considered to be Jewish anymore, by anyone.

“More practically, the most reliable way of defining a Jew in the 21st century is that he is someone who worries about what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.”

I’d prefer some gender-neutral pronouns.

Anyways, it was recently discovered, about a year ago, that perhaps only black Africans are “pure” homo sapiens; whites, Asians and other ethnicities have a fair amount of Neanderthal ancestry.

Richard says:

Wow, terrific review Adam. Not only provided my Hanukkah gift choice, but a couple of ideas you brought up here just sparked some of the best conversation about what it is to be a Jew with my almost-Bar Mitzvah son we’ve ever had. Thanks

FreeMind says: “Yes, but it is very religion-based. If an Israeli or a Jewish immigrant there officialy changes his religion (doesn’t happen much, but still), he is not considered to be Jewish anymore, by anyone.”

Yes, adopting a different religion thus not make one Jewish. However, if being non religious would still make you a Jew especially if your culture remains Jewish.

Friedrich Lersch says:

This was an outstanding essay and a pleasure to read, thank you very much.

Christopher Orev says:

A terrific essay, as usual, Mr. Kirsch. Thank you for it!

I’m a convert to Judaism (in the Conservative/Masorti stream). Naturally, then, I give a lot of thought to the question of Jewishness. For some fellow Jews, my conversion is meaningless and I am not a “real” Jew, either because they don’t accept the rabbis/sect I am affiliated with or because they don’t believe a person can truly convert (i.e., it’s a race). Those folks would rather point to my 1/8 Hungarian Jewish genetic makeup as the only truly Jewish component of my identity. Different strokes (and standards) for different folks, I guess.

Jewish identity is central to my life and will be to my family; not surprisingly, I appreciate the “definition” of Jewishness that Kirsch closes with: “someone who worries about what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.”

MonkFish says:

@Christopher Orev

It’s shocking, and somewhat terrifying considering history, how many Jews still cling to a racial/genetic definition of Jewishness. An Jewish acquaintance of mine who converted to Quakerism exclaimed, upon discovering that I had completed my conversion, “but he doesn’t have the blood!”

Stanley Shimke Levine says:

Excellent article. A shame however that the two “surviving” ideologies, those of emigration – either to Israel or America and the West – are allowed to drown out to a certain degree the third complex of ideologies based on building a modern Judaism in Eastern Europe. As the author points out, this third strain in pre-holocaust Jewish thought was decimated by the Nazi annihilation of the East European Jews. The author does allude to the creation of an autonomous and modern Jewish literature in Yiddish, but is completely silent on the political aspect which is inseparable from it, i.e. the dynamic complex of political parties and trends that were also based on life in Eastern Europe. The dominant one, the Bund (officially, the Jewish Labor Bund of Poland, Russia and Lithuania if memory serves me right) is not mentioned, nor are the myriad smaller movements such as Frayland (the ‘territorialists’) and many many others. Thus although this article, and presumably the book, gives a much fuller account of Jewish life than is usual, it is nonetheless still very incomplete having a big empty hole at the center, where Jewish life was lived at its most intense, a premonition of the physical void created by the Holocaust in destroying what had been the numerical and spiritual, and perhaps intellectual, center of Jewish life.

Mr. Orev, the true definition of Jew is “someone chosen by G-d”. (Chosen for what – that is a different story). No rabbi or even thousands of them of any denomination could make a person a Jew. Only G-d can. The question then is this: how do we know who is a Jew? Could a person become a Jew after the conversion procedure in conservative synagogue? Certainly can. How about without any conversion? Yes, it is also possible. (As an example look at the Ethiopian Jews. I am sure that most of them became Jews without any, approved by the rabbinical body, procedure) Only time will tell. However, judging by the history, orthodox conversions worked very well and most likely every “naturally born Jew” has a converted ancestor. Particularly it is important for the woman since she is responsible not only for herself but for her children and grandchildren. They all will be Jews, disregarding of their own will (with all the consequences), because the woman has decided to convert.

lukelea says:

And it is not an ethnicity, since we now strongly reject the idea that a biological fact has any ethical or political relevance.

Comments are probably closed but I think it might be more useful here if instead of talking about “Jews” one were to talk about Ashkenazis, who most definitely have been and to a certain extent remain an ethnic group as a consequence of centuries of endogamy. According to modern neo-darwinian thinking in the field of population genetics and of gene-cultural co-evolution this is most definitely a fact of considerable ethical and political relevance, which needs to be more dispassionately explored, not denied, in everyone’s interest. In my opinion.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Whole in One

Two recent books consider whether Jewishness is a religion, a culture, a race, or some combination of the three. The answer may be none of the above.