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)

In the following chapters, Batnitzky takes up the efforts of later Jewish thinkers to square this circle. Abraham Geiger, the founder of the Reform movement, would double down on the idea of Judaism as a “religion,” a private ethical creed, and would jettison almost all of traditional Jewish practice. In response, Samson Raphael Hirsch would insist on the continuing urgency of Jewish law—“To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life”—and thereby found the Orthodox movement. Batnitzky usefully reminds us that Orthodoxy itself, as we now understand it, is a modern phenomenon, a response to exactly the same cultural fissures that produced Reform and Conservative Judaism. Later thinkers, including Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, would find their own, often idiosyncratic solutions to the problem of what remains of Judaism once it is reduced to a religion.

In the second half of How Judaism Became a Religion, Batnitzky leaves behind the rather rarefied precincts of German Jewish philosophy and theology and turns to the experience of modern Eastern European Jews. German Jewry tends to loom large in modern Jewish history, because it was in many ways the laboratory for Jewish assimilation and because it produced a sophisticated, highly self-conscious literary and intellectual response to assimilation’s problems. (Its tragic end, of course, only heightens the ironic power of those responses.)

But in numerical terms, the Jews of Eastern Europe vastly outweighed the Jews of Western Europe; and their situation was much different from that faced by Mendelssohn’s heirs. In the West, the problem was how to maintain a Jewish identity in the face of the temptation to assimilate. In the East, the problem was how to survive in an environment of increasing poverty and persecution. Historically, the two great answers to that question were Zionism and emigration to the United States. Those were the only solutions that survived the Holocaust, which annihilated the Jewish heartland in Eastern Europe.

But Batnitzky is more interested in the solutions that emerged in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust—experiments in Jewish identity that never permanently succeeded or failed, because they were violently cut short. What these solutions have in common is suggested by the heading of the second part of her book: “Detaching Judaism from Religion.” By this, she means detaching it from the narrow, Protestant definition of religion that predominated in Germany—not rejecting religious belief and practice altogether. On the contrary, Batnitzky devotes one chapter to 19th-century Jewish revival movements like Hasidism and the ethically strenuous Mussar school. Though these movements were historical antagonists, Batnitzky argues that they had in common a new emphasis on the individual. They attempted to enrich the believer’s experience of Jewishness in ways that were foreign to traditional rabbinical Judaism.

For other Eastern European Jews, the way forward led not through religion but through culture. In a chapter on modern Yiddish literature, Batnitzky shows how writers like Mendele Mokher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem tried to create a new, essentially secular Jewish culture on the foundation of traditional Judaism: “Modern Yiddish literature both creatively described eastern European Jewish life as its denizens experienced it and … transforms what had formerly been theological categories into cultural ones.” Yiddishism often went hand in hand with militant socialism and atheism, and Batnitzky raises the question of whether a Jewish culture could have long survived after being cut off from its religious roots. But the experiment was a brave one, and it left behind a major body of imaginative literature that is practically all that survives of Eastern European Jewish life.

Finally, and most momentously, there was Zionism. Zionism can be seen as a response to the failure of both Western and Eastern European attempts to adjust Judaism to modernity. In the West, the promise of assimilation had proved a false one, as anti-Semitism seemed to grow, rather than shrink, with time. Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist who became the unlikely founder of the Zionist movement, was radicalized by his experience reporting on the Dreyfus Affair in France. After seeing mobs of Parisians shouting “death to the Jews”—this in the city that was the capital of the European Enlightenment, in the country that was the first to emancipate the Jews—Herzl decided that the only solution for Jews in Europe was to escape and start over in Palestine. Meanwhile, the increasing pressure on Russian Jews after 1881, as the tsar ramped up economic and political persecution, led to both a mass emigration to America and an increasing enthusiasm for Zionism.

Batnitzky treats all this in a chapter titled “The Rejection of Jewish Religion and the Birth of Jewish Nationalism.” This rather combative title points to an ambiguity at the heart of Zionism, which she formulates simply: “What is Jewish about the Jewish state?” To Herzl, who was completely assimilated and knew next to nothing about Judaism, Zionism was a national liberation movement in the 19th-century style, not a return to the Holy Land or a renaissance of Jewish culture. To Ahad Ha’am, the great theorist of cultural Zionism, it was the reverse: The achievement of Jewish statehood meant less to him than a revival of Jewish spirit and mind. Yet even Ahad Ha’am was a post-religious thinker, and he wrestled with the problem of how to relate Jewish culture to Jewish religion. Zionism, no less than Reform Judaism and Yiddish culture, was an attempt to give Jewishness a new meaning in a world where its old, comprehensive, unproblematic meaning had collapsed.


All of the figures we meet in How Judaism Became a Religion are philosophers, writers, and political theorists. Yet as Mitchell B. Hart points out in the introduction to Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference, 1880-1940 (Brandeis), to define “modern Jewish thought” in this way is to omit a great deal. “Are philosophy and theology necessarily more important and of more lasting interest and value than anthropological, biological, or social scientific thought?” Hart asks. When modern Jews thought about Jewishness, were they always thinking in terms of religion and culture—or were they thinking, often enough, about race?

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.