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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.

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

There is something automatically disturbing about any linkage of the words “Jews” and “race,” as Hart knows full well. Along with Africans, Jews are the group that suffered most from the Western obsession with race and racism. Reading any specimen of 19th- and early 20th-century “race science” fills the Jewish reader with dread, knowing that this kind of thinking culminated in the Nazi fetish for racial hygiene, in the Nuremberg laws and the death camps.

Yet Hart reminds us that during the very period Batnitzky identifies as the seedbed of “modern Jewish thought,” racism—or, if we want to avoid the pejorative connotations of that word, race-ology—was a staple of intellectual discourse. In retrospect, it is easy to see that race-ology was a classic pseudoscience, based on prejudice and assumption, making unfalsifiable claims, and shot through with chauvinism and bigotry. But at the time, most people sincerely believed in the existence and importance of human races, and intellectuals devoted a good deal of effort to identifying, analyzing, and ranking races. And this included many Jews.

In Jews and Race, published as part of Brandeis’ exciting new Library of Modern Jewish Thought, Hart has gathered 36 original documents—studies, scientific articles, and popular essays. It would have been easy to fill such a book with anti-Semitic writings, convinced of Jews’ racial inferiority, but that is not Hart’s mandate. On the contrary, almost all of the pieces in the book were written by Jews, and their approach ranges from the “objective” to the frankly apologetic. The goal of these writers was to use race science to answer the very question that Batnitzky’s philosophers posed: What remains of Jewish identity in the modern world?

Race seemed to offer a convenient answer to this question. In an era when science was becoming, as it remains today, the supreme authority, the definer of what is really real, it was tempting to forge an alliance between science and Jewishness. After all, if Jewishness was a biological identity, rather than a religious or cultural one, then there was no need to worry about authenticity or assimilation: One’s “germ plasm” could not convert to Christianity. Klal Yisrael may have been fracturing, but race offered a still deeper kind of Jewish unity.

But as Jews and Race demonstrates, there were two major problems with redefining Jewishness as a race. The first was the deeply unscientific nature of race science: This was a field in which terms had no fixed meaning and data were haphazard or nonexistent. The unempirical nature of the whole enterprise can be seen by the general agreement among the contributors to Jews and Race that marriages between a Jew and a Gentile tend to be infertile—a patently absurd “finding” that is clearly based in racial ideology, not fact. And it gets worse: Ignaz Zollschan, an Austrian physician, was of the opinion that “half-breeds who are the offspring of widely different races have a bad reputation in respect to character.”

If such pernicious absurdities are accepted as obvious truths, it is no wonder that race theorists couldn’t agree on even the most basic terminology. Are Jews a race? Are they a “pure” race, or a mixture of Semitic, Hittite, and other stocks? What about the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews—does this constitute a racial distinction in itself? One apparently “scientific” way of approaching the question is by measurement—of noses, skulls, lips. Thus the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901, under the heading “anthropology,” notes: “The nose is generally considered the characteristic feature of the Jews, who have, on the average, the longest (77 mm) and narrowest (34 mm). … The lips of Jews are also characteristic, as large a proportion as 48 percent being thick. These features are the elements that go to make the marked Jewish type, which has been defined as ‘Semitic features with ghetto expression.’ ”

But if this is the racial type, why do so many Jews look different? Is it because many Eastern European Jews are actually descended from the Khazars, a Crimean people who converted to Judaism in the dark ages? The poor Khazars are made to do a lot of explanatory work in Jews and Race, as are the biblical Amorites; both are posited as possible sources of blond hair and fair skin among the Jews.

Behind the rhetoric of scientific objectivity, however, it is clear that the Jewish writers represented in Jews and Race are jealous of the honor of their people. Knowing that much racial discourse was profoundly anti-Semitic, they are united in their refusal to grant that any “negative” Jewish trait is racial—and thus, it would follow, unalterable. If epidemiology suggests that Jews are more prone to hemorrhoids and diabetes, various contributors write, that is because of their sedentary professions, not genetics. If, as the psychiatrist Abraham Myerson insists, there can be “no difference of opinion about the liability of the Jews to psychoneuroses,” that is a result of persecution and cramped living quarters, not mental frailty. When it comes to positive Jewish traits, on the other hand, the race can take credit: Jews are said to be immune to syphilis and alcoholism, and naturally long-lived, with what one writer calls “unprecedented tenacity of life.”

The hidden logic of these debates is the principle Zollschan laid down in 1909: “It becomes a question of which of these possible deficiencies are ephemeral and which a product of the immutability of race, inherited in the blood, and inseparable from the blood. That is a question of immense significance. If it were to emerge that Jewish racial blood is inferior, then the disappearance of the race would be desirable.” Zollschan, who was an ardent Zionist, was convinced that “Jewish racial blood” was actually superior and needed to be guarded against contamination. But as time would show, this way of thinking proved to be a disastrously losing proposition for the Jews.

Race, in the all-encompassing sense that these writers used it, is not a biological fact but a moral-social-intellectual construction, heavily freighted with value judgments. In any given society, those with the power to define race inevitably used it to their own advantage. In Nazi Germany, every positive racial attribute was assigned to Aryans and every negative one to Jews—with the corollary that, just as Zollschan wrote, “the disappearance of the race would be desirable.” It is no wonder that post-Holocaust Jewry, especially in America, would become leading opponents of racism and of the very notion that peoples can be ranked according to their worthiness to live. That every individual and every group has the right to life, that each makes an irreplaceable contribution to the world, is a central conviction of liberal thought today.

In the end, neither the thinkers Batnitzky writes about nor the “thinkers” Hart has collected seem to match our current intuitions about what Jewishness is. It is not simply a religion—as we acknowledge every time we describe someone as a “nonobservant Jew.” And it is not an ethnicity, since we now strongly reject the idea that a biological fact has any ethical or political relevance. Yet both religion and ethnicity somehow do play a role in defining peoplehood, which may come closest to describing what Jewishness means today. 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. For such a person, both of these books offer fascinating and challenging reading.

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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.


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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.

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