Commentary Magazine

Who Is a Jew

Forty years—the length of time which the biblical children of Israel spent in the wilderness—is a long period; for the state of Israel, now celebrating its fortieth birthday, this is therefore rightly an occasion for celebration and thanksgiving. It is also a period long enough to enable one to stand back and take stock, to reflect on the difference which the existence of the state has made for Jewish self-understanding, and on the new problems which it has brought forth or emphasized.

One of the issues which the existence of the state has created is that of who is a Jew. The issue arose directly out of the Law of Return, enacted shortly after independence, whereby Jews from all over the world could enter Israel and acquire citizenship there as of right. The issue is a legal one, involving a conflict, or lack of correspondence, between the norms and definitions of Halakhah—Jewish religious law—and those adopted by the Israeli legislature. But the issue of who is a Jew goes far beyond narrow legal considerations. It is an existential issue in the widest sense, which concerns anyone who is a Jew—whether he accepts or ignores or rejects such an identification or appelation.

In earlier times, among Jews still untouched by modernity, living within relatively self-sufficient communities, there was nothing problematic about the matter of who was a Jew; the question indeed would have been considered pointless. Such, for example, was, and still is, the case among Jews living in the shadow of Islam, or who, while no longer living in Muslim countries, still retain the ethos and outlook of their native lands. Jewish identity is unproblematic for them because Muslim law and institutions have defined those living under Muslim rule according to religious criteria, and have set a recognized place in the body social for Jews (as for Christians).

By contrast, the issue of who, or what, is a Jew became problematic in modern times when countries of European civilization abandoned or rejected the religious criterion in citizenship, and for it substituted birth, domicile, or membership in a nation, however that last term was defined. Where this happened, both Jews and the non-Jews among whom they lived became unsure of Jewish identity, of how such an identity came to be constituted, or what its essential characteristics were.

Various theories on this matter came to be propounded. Understandably, given the political power and the intellectual prestige of the non-Jewish world in which Jews were now trying to make a place for themselves, the theories advanced by non-Jews came to have great resonance and currency, not least among Jews themselves—those Jews, that is, who were open to modern European currents of thought and who, as I have noted, were unsure of what they were and where they stood.

One such influential theory, of rather recent vintage, is that invented by Arnold J. Toynbee and deployed in the ten volumes of his A Study of History, of which the first volume was published in 1934 and the tenth twenty years later. In Toynbee’s scheme, once upon a time there was a Syriac civilization of which the ancient Jews formed a part. In due course this civilization lost its creativity, was overwhelmed, and finally became extinct. The Jews survived the shipwreck of this civilization, but their survival was a kind of life-in-death. They were, in Toynbee’s terminology, which he borrowed from the science of paleontology, a fossil—an inexplicable survival, living but barely living, devoid of any creativity or vitality, carriers of an exclusive intolerance and a persecuting spirit inherited from the zealotry and narrowness of their ancestors.

It is clear that Toynbee’s talk of fossils is a transposition, into a modish scientific vocabulary, of the ancient claim by Christian theologians that the Jews, having seen the light and rejected it, were in turn rejected by God and doomed to a life of wandering outcasts, their continued wretched existence being one of the proofs and evidences of the divine truth of the Christian religion. Judaism, in this reading, became petrified into a rigid legalism in which only the minutiae of religious observances counted—minutiae performed punctiliously, mechanically, meaninglessly.

Toynbee’s particular account of Judaism and the Jews aroused great protest, but there can be no doubt that the theological view from which it ultimately derives made great inroads into the Jewish self-view in modern Europe, and accounts for the depreciation of rabbinic Judaism among wide Jewish circles, for the impatient dismissal of the rabbis, their universe of discourse, and their methods of argument as hidebound, absurd, meaningless logic-chopping.



Another modern answer to the question of who is a Jew is found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay, Reflections on the Jewish Question. This book appeared in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and of the Vichy years when French Jews were frozen out of the body politic and the French police hunted down Jews (French and foreign) in order to deliver them up for dispatch to the extermination camps. Though Sartre does not discuss these events, they constitute the penumbra which surrounds his philosophical argument.

According to Sartre, in modern times and even earlier, in fact ever since the destruction of the ancient Jewish polity by the Romans, the community of the Jews has been “emptied” of any concrete historical character, whether national or religious. It is, says Sartre, the least historical of all societies, because its only memory is that of a long martyrdom, “that is to say, a long passivity.” What unites the Jews is neither their religion, nor their past, nor their land. It is rather that they share “a common situation.”

This common situation which Jews share, according to Sartre, is the “hostile contempt” of the surrounding society. A Jew in himself is nothing—he is a Jew because other people consider him such. Some Jews refuse to look their situation in the face; they try to pretend that being Jewish is a mere detail, that they are primarily Frenchmen or Germans, or simply members of the human race, and that the characteristics they share with their fellow human beings are much more important than their own specific qualities. But by so seeking to escape their fate, Jews flee into inauthenticity. What Jews on the contrary have to do, in Sartre’s judgment, is to assume the risks and responsibilities of their common situation, to refuse to disguise the situation or to flee from it. Only then will they be leading a life of authenticity, freely confronting their fate with lucidity and truthfulness.

What characterizes the approach of both Toynbee and Sartre is a profound ignorance of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the triumph of Christianity—ignorance of the vitality of Jewish experience in the Diaspora, of its continuity, and of the uninterrupted awareness on the part of individual Jews, generation after generation, of that continuity. The historical evidence for continuity and the consciousness of it is both abundant and incontrovertible. But in spite of that evidence, the sorts of ideas propounded by Sartre, as by Toynbee, have had their echoes and counterparts among many modern Jews who have believed that Jewish life is, to use the Sartrean term, a burden of inauthenticity, and who have urgently sought, one way or another, to cast off this burden.

One way to cast off the burden is to recognize the long centuries of “inauthenticity” for what they have been, and to disappear, collectively and individually, freely choosing and assuming a new and wholly non-Jewish identity. This is, for instance, what Arthur Koestler proposed for Diaspora Jewry following the establishment of the state of Israel, and what was signaled in the title of Georges Friedmann’s book, The End of the Jewish People? (1969). For Jews who have followed this course, the “unnatural” condition of death-in-life has been changed into a natural and comprehensible one, namely, death.

Another way to bring an end to the ghostliness of death-in-life is through a kind of resurrection, in which the authenticity the ancient Hebrews enjoyed on their land is resumed and assumed by modern Hebrews. Such a way of putting it points toward the Zionist ideal, here formulated in an extreme version. This point of view was articulated with a cutting clarity by those figures in Palestine and Israel who formed what is known as the Canaanite movement. Thus the poet Uriel Halperin, better known by his pen-name Yonatan Ratosh, in a manifesto of 1944: “The Jew and the Hebrew can never be identical. Whoever is a Hebrew cannot be a Jew, and whoever is a Jew cannot be a Hebrew. . . .” And in another manifesto of the previous year addressed to “Hebrew Youth”: “You are a Hebrew because the homeland is for you a real, actual, existing homeland—neither a dream nor something yearned for, nor something legendary. . . . For you the Hebrew language is your real, actual, practical language, a mother tongue, and a language of culture and a language of the soul . . . the landscape of your soul is the landscape of the homeland, and your past is the past of the homeland only.”1

Yet equally with Toynbee and Sartre the Canaanites do violence to the Jewish past and the Jewish present. For this Hebrew man, so categorically distinguished from the Jew, and so lyrically celebrated, where does he come from? For all his hard and shining authenticity, the Hebrew is, must be, a Jew and a descendant of Jews. That being so, we are back to where we started, and with no answer to the question of who or what is a Jew.



In an abridgement of his Study of History published in 1972, Toynbee turned a somersault. Having for over twenty years described living Jews as fossils of a dead civilization, he now—inexplicably, in terms of his scheme—celebrated them as the wave of the future. The reason had to do with another doctrine of Toynbee’s, namely, that in the world of modern communications and modern economic arrangements, the best form of social and economic organization was that of groups dispersed over wide areas but related by language, culture, or some other tie—in other words, diasporas. Since the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple had become purely a diaspora people, and had survived as such to the present day, they were an example and a model for the future.

Whether or not Toynbee was correct in his social and economic analysis, there is no doubt that at the end of a long life (he died in 1975) he had at last grasped a central truth about Jewish history. The aged Toynbee had reason to be impressed with his new discovery. For what the Jewish Diaspora signified was that a group devoid of political power and deprived of a territory it could call its own had nevertheless succeeded in maintaining its own cohesiveness and its own communal organization for something like two millennia, under a variety of regimes and in different cultures and civilizations, scattered in many countries and over many continents, and laboring under severe disabilities and sometimes murderous persecution.

Twice in their history in antiquity the Jews had to cope with military catastrophe and political defeat—marked by the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., and of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. In themselves such events were nothing uncommon. But on other peoples the effect of defeat was far more serious and drastic, for in the religions of antiquity there was a very tight connection between a group and its god, and a defeat of the people meant a defeat of their tutelary god. For the followers of a pagan cult, there were thus no inner defenses against the vicissitudes of politics and war. What distinguished the Jews from their neighbors was the certainty that God was infinitely greater than any particular polity, and that all political action was perpetually under judgment. It is with this, we may think, that an explanation has to begin which can account for the extraordinary survival of this group under painful and extreme conditions of exile and dispersion.

Those who had charge of this exiled, dispersed, and powerless community were the rabbis, the expounders of the Law, both written and oral, as (in the traditional formulation) it was received by Moses on Sinai and transmitted to Joshua, and from Joshua to the elders, from the elders to the Prophets, from the Prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue, and from them to the rabbis in their successive generations. It is this chain of transmission and that which it transmitted, and in the process developed and enriched, that accounts for the character of Judaism as it has come down to us, and for Jews as we know them. It is here that we find the answer to the question of who or what is a Jew.

Far from being a fossil or from representing the mechanical repetition of formulas the meaning of which has been long forgotten, rabbinical Judaism after the catastrophe of 70 C.E. found in itself resources to organize and articulate a way of life in which there would be no denial or rejection of ordinary human desires and aspirations but rather their acceptance, regulation, and sanctification. This is obvious in relation to sex and marriage: at a wedding ceremony God is blessed, among other things, for having created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, and for making the bridegroom to rejoice in the bride. Similarly, there is no disdaining of the world of work, and of the prosperity which work can bring. As is declared in the Sayings of the Fathers: no bread, no Torah. Nor are the rich denounced simply on account of their being rich. On the contrary, great care is taken to emphasize that, in legal judgments, for example, being rich or poor should make no difference: “Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty” (Leviticus, 19:15).

There is a great contrast to be noted here with the negative judgment against the possession (and thus the creation) of wealth shown in the thought of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 19:23-24 (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”). One is reminded in this connection of what the daughter and biographer of the third Marquess of Salisbury wrote about that devout Christian, namely, that “while he had never known what it was to doubt the truth of Christian doctrine, he had all his life found a difficulty in accepting the moral teaching of the Gospels.” What Salisbury found difficult to accept was the rigorism of the Christian ethic, which sometimes made it a less than reliable or helpful guide in the problems which confront us in our daily life. The Jews, by contrast, guided by an ethic anchored in the world and its predicaments, and which does not reject the world as irredeemable, have been enabled to cope with, and to be at home in, the world.

The network of communities which made up the Diaspora also managed to be in fruitful communication and intercourse with the great variety of cultures and societies within which they had to live. Here the contrast is with Islam. When Muslims became a great power in the world, they came into contact with civilizations—Hellenic, Sassasnid, and Indian—which were incomparably more complex and sophisticated than their own. Pretty quickly the Muslims assimilated a great deal of what these civilizations had to offer. But in the intellectual history of Islam, this first burst of creative borrowing was also the last. Islam has had great difficulty, both as a body of religious thought and as a way of life, in coming to some accommodation with, and in understanding the mainsprings of, modern civilization, and today it gives the disconcerting impression of a culture functioning according to the political, social, and economic norms of antiquity, now locked in apparently sterile conflict and struggle with the no less powerful norms of modernity.

This kind of struggle, Judaism and the Jews have not had to wage. Jewish society, operating with a cast of mind developed in a Diaspora where intellectual attitudes and assumptions were those which rabbinic Judaism inculcated, has found modern civilization not a threat but an invigorating challenge.



It is crystal-clear, then, that there can be no Jews without Judaism, and that Judaism is what the rabbis have made, and will make, of it. Yet if Jewish religious thought is thus of central importance to the Jews, it must also be acknowledged as a problematic inheritance. In the premodern period, the intellectual unity-in-diversity of traditional rabbinical thought, which was the product of many centuries of discussion and debate, stemmed from the fact that each man of learning who joined the debate took for granted the authority of the Torah, written and oral, and couched his argument by appeal to, and analogy from, precedent (very much in the manner of the practitioners of English common law). This world has now disappeared. Though there is now synagogal organization of a kind and extent unknown before very recent times, the rabbinical universe of discourse has lost much of its traditional coherence, its customary parameters, and its familiar points of reference.

The loss has occurred in a modern world whose dominant characteristic is secularity. This signifies, among other things, a society made up of individuals who are aware of themselves as such, with their own distinct wishes and tastes, and a desire so to act and so to live as to satisfy their own standards of what is fit and right—in other words, a society far removed from the traditional society where there was an unquestioned consensus about modes of living and rules of behavior.

Can rabbinical thought deal with, and speak to, this novel situation, and do so unaided by the social pressures which operate in a small traditional society? Is there enough inventiveness to fashion a religious discourse which will satisfy the spiritual needs of a disparate multitude, and establish a free consensus about what is fit and proper? If not, then there will come about a definite separation—uncharacteristic of traditional Judaism—between the sacred and secular. The secular world will become an utterly alienated arena from which meaning has departed, and the sacred will be ineffectual, powerless, and empty, since its field of action will be, as it were, only the Sabbath, and not the other six days of doing and making.

This divorce between, as we may call it, Torah and life is already evident in that sector of Orthodox Jewry that styles itself “Torah-true” and that others style ultra-Orthodoxy. It is characterized by a refusal to treat with the modern world, which it dismisses as a place sunk in shallow materialism. Those who adhere to such an outlook deem it desirable to escape from the life of doing, of working, of innovating and into a life of pure spirituality. The outcome, however, is the same sort of rigorism which made Salisbury unable to accept the Christian ethic. The retreat from the practical life is dangerous and paradoxical—dangerous to those few who adopt it as an actual mode of life, and to those many of their followers who look to them as guides and exemplars; and paradoxical in that a life of pure, passive spirituality is in the end unsustainable, since spiritual men have to have food, clothing, and shelter, and thus have to encounter the predicaments and pursue the accommodations which mere living requires.



Religious thought has had to face another unprecedented situation, namely, the existence of a Jewish state and all the issues of ethics and politics which it raises. These are issues which, by and large, rabbinic thought had not had to face in the last two millennia. Now suddenly questions have to be formulated and answers found. Are ethics and politics mutually exclusive, or should they be? Prima facie, they cannot be, since politics means attending to the security and welfare of a particular group, and attending to such a common concern involves responsibility. For the political leader or statesman who has to carry such a responsibility, his is clearly an ethical burden.

In the long centuries when a Jewish political authority did not exist, the rabbis had little occasion to consider the wide range of ethical issues involved in the exercise of power and responsibility (except of course as these applied to the administration of the internal affairs of the Jewish community). But the Bible, which does refer to a period of Jewish political authority, is hardly lacking in episodes that point up the burden of ethical responsibility lying on a leader’s shoulders. Thus we are told in Exodus 32 that when Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people worshipping the golden calf which they had made, he stood at the gate of the camp and called on all those who were on the Lord’s side to join him. When the sons of Levi did so, he ordered them into the camp, with their swords at their side, to “slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor,” and “there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.” Then there is the episode recounted in I Kings, when Solomon orders the death of Adonijah his half-brother, who had previously claimed to be David’s rightful successor and whom Solomon now suspected of working to revive that claim and thus open the door to contention and civil war.

The moral judgment suitable to such cases cannot be the automatic application of a simple categorical rule. Figures like Moses or Solomon who carry public responsibilities are, of course, as much under judgment as private persons with private responsibilities, but judgment in their case has to take into account, and weigh in the balance, the public interest which they must defend against the private interest on which they may encroach in the process. Such judgment must scrutinize circumstances and probabilities and weigh the possible risks of alternative courses of action, all of them perhaps in some measure or another undesirable, fraught with danger, and feared in themselves or in their consequences.

In the modern world, and particularly in the Western world, an idiom and a manner of speaking about politics have gained much popularity, and there has been a tendency to adopt this idiom in Jewish religious comment about politics as well. One variant of the idiom is based on the well-known saying of Jesus which enjoins rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Whatever was originally meant or intended by this saying, it has been widely taken to imply that Caesar’s realm is irredeemably separated from God’s; that politics is hopelessly immoral, or at any rate amoral; and that those who would seek the kingdom of God must have nothing to do with earthly kingdoms. Here ethics inhabits an independent realm and imposes its vetoes, its condemnations and excommunications, from the outside. But high-minded as such fulminations are, they invariably turn out to be unconvincing and ineffectual.

Another variant of the popular Western political idiom derives from Immanuel Kant, who argued that, to be good, all action must exemplify universal maxims of morality which are themselves the dictates and promptings of the conscience. But to make individual conscience the arbiter does nothing to guarantee that actions will always and by definition be good. Adolf Eichmann, we may remember, justified his deeds as the conscientious following of his duty. It is also by no means the case that the dictates of conscience, whatever they may be, will be automatically or readily translatable into beneficial action; good intentions do not always result in good actions, and good actions can have evil consequences. There is great peril in thinking that politics can be the application of general ethical rules, and that judgments about political actions can be made simply on the basis of universal maxims.



Although discourse about politics and its predicaments and pitfalls is not prominent in rabbinical writings, we may be sure that traditional rabbinical thought would not have acquiesced in the separation of ethics and politics, and would not have made the individual conscience, proceeding on its own, and unaided by the resources of the written and the oral Law, the judge and arbiter of politics.

In a little book entitled Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law (1965), the scholar David Daube considered the manner in which, during the early centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis dealt with the grim issue of how to respond when non-Jewish authorities demanded that a Jew be handed over to be killed. To read Daube’s skillful account of the manner in which rabbis, sifting the circumstances, citing texts and precedents, and arguing from analogy, debated among themselves whether such an action was lawful and under what circumstances; to see how changes in rulings were effected from case to case; to follow Daube’s patient unraveling of different points of view in debate and the specific reasons given for them, is to be given a precious glimpse into the possibilities of an ethico-political discourse for today. Such a discourse, drawing on the resources of traditional rabbinic literature, might formulate a derekh erets, a moral-halakhic jurisprudence, offering guidance as to what is decent and prudent in political conduct. Given the requirements and predicaments of the modern world, the undertaking would be very difficult. But if Jews are Jews because of Judaism, and will remain Jews because of Judaism, then an undertaking of this kind is mandatory.

Such an undertaking would have to be sober, open-eyed, and firmly anchored in the realities of political life. Not the least of its difficulties would be that the Jewish state, whose political problems it would have to address, is a secular state, something which rabbinic thought did not have to consider. The temptation would be very strong, therefore, to retreat or to take flight into another world where somehow, as if by magic, secular reality, and the predicaments of living within a society of states, would vanish.

The flight from reality may take many forms. It may be a flight into utopianism—a utopianism which, indeed, infects so much of modern political thought, and which was present at the origins of Zionism, and of socialist Zionism in particular. The belief here was that a society of self-determining nations, or of nations from which inequality and exploitation had been eradicated, would be one in which all conflict would disappear.

Or the flight may take the form, equally utopian, of confusing the existing state of Israel with that ideal state which will, in the fullness of time, be ruled by the Anointed One, the Son of David. “Out of Zion shall come forth the Law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” is a prayer recited in synagogue services; but the Zion and the Jerusalem of which the blessing speaks cannot be the present state of Israel and its capital. Unfortunately, in some religious circles in Israel the wish to see the two as one has issued, particularly since the 1967 war, in a messianism which has sought warrant in ancient prophecies, and searched for signs of their coming fulfillment.

These two forms of utopianism are far from being novel or particularly modern temptations. With regard to the latter in particular, the rabbis long ago taught that the restoration of the House of David will happen in God’s own good time, that neither must it be hastened by human action, nor its advent computed and foretold. Firmly to lay hold of this injunction and all that it implies is the sure foundation of any Jewish political discourse rooted in reality, and adequate to the demands of the time.




1 I am indebted for these quotations to Yaacov Shavit, The New Hebrew Nation (1987).

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