Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?

This week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews, alongside other students of race, color or national origin on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. No comment). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

This is a debate even among Jews: Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? The question is particularly poignant because whatever Jews are, they keep popping up on the stage of history for over 3500 years.

There is a document that defines the essence of Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang we call Jews, if you will. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that this document originates from God explains the transcendent power and persistence of Jewish identity, even among Jews who reject it. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds. The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Jews are also so persistently reviled and persecuted among other nations.

The Origin of the Hebrew Species by Selection of Transcendent Traits

This definition of identity sews together the entire Five Books of Moses, which in part reads as the story of how the Hebrews emerge, flee slavery in Egypt, get the Torah, evolve into Jews, and conquer Israel. The unifying theme is how they protect the purity of that identity, even if it’s an ineffable, hard-to-define one, and it infuses virtually every scene, every verse, and some would say every word and letter in the Hebrew Bible. Even if we pick just one section of Genesis (the weekly reading about Jacob called Vayishlach) we can see dramas of how the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs protect this essence, sometimes racially, sometimes culturally, sometimes through family inheritances, and sometimes with the help of divine intervention. Together, these show that their idea of themselves transcends any of the usual definitions.

  • Sometimes diplomacy keeps the Jews from interbreeding and assimilation

The Hebrews often protect their transcendent self-definition by delicately negotiating their relations with the tribes that surround them to avoid interbreeding while still remaining peaceful.

The Book of Genesis describes an elaborate kabuki between Jacob and his twin Esau. Jacob is returning home after twenty years working for his uncle Laban, where he amassed a huge tribe including wives Leah and Rachel, concubines, children, goats and sheep. He wrestles with an angel, who re-names him Israel. He left home because he cheated his twin Esau out of their father’s blessing, Esau threatened to kill him, and Jacob dreads their confrontation. Sure enough, a scout tells him, Esau is coming with an army of 400 men. Jacob takes all possible precautions: he prepares for war, splits his wives and possessions to minimize damage, sends elaborate gifts and emissaries ahead, and prays for deliverance from his brother. As he approaches, Jacob bows and scrapes in an elaborate ceremony of submission and apology.

His preparations, gifts, and obsequious approach seem to work. The twins kiss and weep on each others’ shoulders. Esau offers to have his tribe accompany Jacob on their journey back.  Jacob politely declines.  Esau then offers to provide some men to escort Jacob’s caravan and even promises to go “at his own pace.” Jacob begs off again, and promises to meet him down by Seir. They part ways and Jacob seems in no hurry for their next reunion.

Obviously, Jacob is worried that his brother still might get revenge along the way. But Jacob’s pretext actually betrays his deepest concern:

“’My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir’.” (Gen 33:13-14)

Jacob’s reaction – “if they are driven hard a single day all the flocks will die” – at first seems overdramatic, but it expresses his deeper fear: the complete extermination, or at least absorption, of his legacy, livestock, and children. Though they are twins, Esau and Jacob have completely inimical spiritual characteristics and the harder one threatens to obliterate the gentler. (This is also prophetic of Jewish history: Esau’s tribe and nation, in Jewish tradition, is collectively known by his nickname, Edom: ‘red’, or ‘bloody’. According to the parallel mystical genealogy of nations, he is the progenitor of Rome and by extension, the Catholic Church, Christianity, and the West which are all called “Edom.”)

  • Sometimes it takes total annihilation of the threat to their identity

Sometimes the Hebrews did what they had to do by whatever means necessary, even if it means with violence and subterfuge. All is fair in love and war, and the next scene has both.

Leaving Esau, Jacob moseys on down the road to the city-state of Shechem. He buys land from the king there, Chamor. Chamor’s son, also named Shechem, sees something he wants and, as spoiled princes are wont to do, just grabs it; he abducts Jacob’s young daughter Dinah and rapes her.

After raping her, Shechem has fallen in love with Dinah, and wants to marry her. Dinah’s brothers are incensed and seek revenge. But they propose a deal that seems to resolve the crisis by merging their two tribes, which might on the face of it also condone and make legal Shechem’s violation of Dinah. Jacob’s sons agree, but on one condition: all the men of Shechem have to be circumcised. The solution also has a nice symmetry about it: Shechem raped Dinah when he was uncircumcised. By getting circumcised, he adopts the Hebrews’ irrevocable sign of purity – now that’s commitment! – so he and the whole of Shechem might rectify the crime on some cosmic scale of karma. Maybe. The irony and symbolism of the fact that the entire people and their rapacious prince share a name is not lost on us.

Chamor and Shechem, eager for the deal, ask their townsfolk to go along with this painful M &A by appealing to their greed:

[The Hebrews’] cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.” (Gen 34:23)

In the calculus of these things it seems like it will eventually work out: the pagan tribe will absorb the Hebrews who not only are wealthy, but have a proven record of prospering. As Canaanite pagans, what is another religious ritual, however strange and painful? It won’t change their characters, and ultimately they’ll just settle and assimilate the nomadic, weaker, but attractive Hebrews and avoid war.

But the goal of both Shechem and the city-state of the same name is explicitly to absorb and nullify the Hebrews. The violation of Dinah by the putrescent Shechem is metonymy for the larger intention of the city to assimilate Jacob’s tribe. It can only be rectified by sterilizing the contamination thoroughly. If anything, circumcision mocks the idea that a physical act of contrition will compensate for the transcendent crime of violating and polluting Jacob’s line. And as the Jews have learned again and again all through history, assimilation is just conquest by a slower means than war, a recipe for slow annihilation and dissolution. It is the sub-text of the scene between Jacob and Esau we just read: if Esau doesn’t eliminate Jacob’s brood by force he will do it by companionship.

So Shimon and Levi, sons of Jacob, are really plotting revenge. On the third day, when the men of Shechem are most debilitated by the pain of their recent surgery, they attack the city and annihilate it. 

It’s one of the most troubling episodes in the Bible. But we can understand it in the context of the Hebrews’ self-definition and the broader arc of the Torah narrative. This is a pre-emptive war, a war of self-defense against an existential threat.

  • The Bible shows the Jews ARE a genetic race created through selective breeding

The Bible is like a sequence of billboards on a highway about this. One of Noah’s sons becomes father of the Semites, Shem. Another of the Canaanites. Abraham carefully selects Isaac’s mate from his own family by sending Eliezer on a mission far away to identify a bride from the offspring of his brother, Nahor. Eliezer discerns the kindness, generosity and virtue of Rebekah that qualifies her to be Isaac’s wife. Isaac sends Jacob to uncle Laban to find a wife for himself, even though Laban is an idolator and a crook. The genetic purity of the Hebrew essence has to be preserved over marriage to the children of even righteous Canaanites.

  • The Jews are NOT a race: Sometimes the Jew is defined through selective transmission of the contractual heritage against all norms

But much more frequently in the Bible, Jews preserve their essence by selective transmission of the contract they’ve made with God.

In virtually all tribes and nations through history both before and after the events of Genesis, even into the 19th century in England, custom or law mandated that the eldest son gets the father’s inheritance even if he was a scoundrel. This is called succession through (patrilineal) primogeniture. And in the rough wider world for most of human history, selecting for gentleness and domesticity probably wasn’t a winning game plan.

But the Hebrews perceive some transcendent trait in their offspring that is expressed through the favored wife-mothers Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. Sometimes this inheritance – this whatever it is – is delivered over the protest, inclination, or even knowledge of the fathers even as they do it. In some instances, the mothers wrestle primogeniture away from the men in favor of matrilineal selection of invisible subtleties of superior “fitness” (as Darwin would put it), traits of character, disposition, inclination, soul. Though the Jews are fierce warriors when they need to be, Judaism is matrilineal in its essence. Clearly, at least at face value, the favored son is the gentler and more domesticated one.

Sarah casts out Ishmael to ensure her son Isaac will be the one who continues Abrahams’s heritage and the Divine blessings and promises that came with it. Rebekah chooses the grown, studious Jacob over his rough hunter twin Esau. She tricks, or perhaps secretly colludes, with Isaac to switch them in order to make the Hebrew destiny work out.

Later, the Jacob-Esau dialectic shows both this bias for domestication and also shows that the Jews are not a race. After all, Jacob and Esau are twins, undeniably of the same genetic heritage and race. And yet they represent opposing idea of what humanity is meant to be according to be.  One has this ineffable essence; the other doesn’t. And we don’t need to delve here how many Jews, even in the Bible, are converts, drawn from completely different genetic stock and races. Yet, to take just the most obvious instance, King David, from whose lineage the Messiah will spring, is a an heir of Ruth, a convert.

And here’s a clincher: if Dinah had children from her rape by Shechem and had they been raised by Jacob’s tribe, they would be Jews, or at this point at least, Hebrews. In fact, later Jewish tradition says that the Hebrew Shaul (listed in Gen 46:10), offspring of a “Canaanitish” mother, is really Dinah’s son fathered by Shechem.

In the next generation, Jacob then favors Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin, especially Joseph, over the ten brothers from Leah and her concubine.

Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt and brings his brothers to settle there during a famine. When he asks his aged father Jacob to bless his sons, Jacob, recapitulating his own sibling drama, switches his hands over Joseph’s protests to select the younger Ephraim over the elder Menashe who become tribes of Israel.

  • The Jews ARE a Nation called Israel

The brood of Abraham and his selected descendants have a deal with G-d: Keep My Torah, He says, and you will be a great nation [and also] get a land to call your own, Israel.  Despite many ups and downs, the deal defines their destiny. The Israelites are liberated from Egypt, get the Torah, wander the desert, and then conquer the Promised Land and give their name to it. The fifth book, Deuteronomy, is largely Moses’s reiteration of this pact with details of how the nation must conduct itself in order to be a utopian and Divine society in the Promised Land. They and their land are mystically conjoined and inter-fertilizing.

This is an essential and unusual three-way relationship between a geographical entity, the ancient and transcendent document that promises it to them and tells them how to live there, and Jews. The eternal (though not universal) longing by Jews for Zion is a desire to live there and a desire for the utopian values which it represents and Jews are supposed to manifest in their behavior wherever they live. Israel is THE Jewish State. The UN’s equation between Judaism and Zionism – and anti-Zionism with anti-Judaism – recognizes this. When Israel is singled out for double standards of judgment or condemnation for actions that other nations commit, or Jewish students on campus are accused of being part of that State (whether they are or not) that is an equation for anti-Semitism. As much as anything, this Zionism, both national and supra-national, defines the essence of the Jews.

  • The Jews are NOT a nation

Yet, both by definition and by historical fact, this identity between Jews and Zion also paradoxically shows clearly they are not a nation in any conventional sense. They were a whatever they are before they entered the geographic sliver of land called Israel, and they remained Jews when they lost their land and entered their Diaspora in Babylon (586 BCE). They were  Jews when they re-entered fifty years later, and also remained Jews when they were scattered across the globe by the Roman conquest of Israel (70CE – present). And they are still Jews today even as they live both inside the borders of their own nation, Israel, and outside of it in America and 100+ other nations.

  • Sometimes it takes Divine Intervention to protect the Jews’ identity

When all else fails, G-d Himself intervenes dramatically and violently to purge those humans, and then Hebrews, and then Jews, who pollute the transcendent identity He is trying to bring into the world.

He sends a Flood to wipe away generalized abomination from humanity, preserving only the righteous Noah and his family. He eradicates Sodom and Gomorrah. He winks Aaron’s priestly sons out of existence just because they offered sacrifices in some way only He saw was wrong. He opens up the earth to swallow Korach and his rebels. He sends plagues and snakes and fire, especially when Jews break the contract, like when they consort with the Midianite women sent by Bilaam. Some tribes wander off. Feckless spies are purged. The herd is being culled for fitness by a divine hand.

Torah’s Darwinian Project

Once we see it, the entire Torah appears to be a pursuit of this experiment to select a group of people and evolve their metaphysical “fitness” in the world. The selection principle exists even before they arrived on the scene with Abraham. A fundamental principle of the universe, what philosophers would call its metaphysics, manifests in Jewish essence: make distinctions between this and that with often invisible, inexplicable, or ineffable differences, like pork from cow or clean from unclean, in order to achieve a higher sometimes indefinable purpose in G-d’s mind.

The opening scene of the Bible announces this theme as thunderingly as Beethoven’s Fifth: G-d separates heaven from earth, light from dark, sky from water, water from land, plants from land, animals from plants, man from beasts, woman from man, paradise from pedestrian reality. Then He selects a son or daughter from a nearly identical sibling in every generation, distinguishing between brothers and sisters, even twins, to carry the mysterious trait or traits that enable Him to evolve the Hebrews towards some transcendent goal.

The evolutionary theme in Genesis swells through the rest of the Five Books into the separation and redemption – the selection – of this group of people. Eugenics is a dirty word after the Nazi horrors, but it literally means “good breeding” by artificial selection.  The Torah is the manual of divine eugenics.

When the Hebrews get their constitutional charter, it is filled with commandments for them to imitate G-d’s distinction-making: You must distinguish clean from unclean in your own body and in the bodies of others, in animals, in clothing, homes, utensils and in what you eat. In your private lives you must separate life from death, kosher from unkosher, work from rest, holy from unholy, sacred time from the mundane. You must acknowledge the difference between the physical and the spiritual and recognize it in yourself and every other human.

Anah’s Mule and the Transcendent Abhorrence of Mixing Species

Dividing good from bad during Creation is the essence of the “good” that G-d pronounces in satisfaction. Humans, made in His image, are to emulate this good by separating good species from bad, and they are definitely not to try to create new species by mixing them. The species in the natural world, like the Jews, are much more than expressions of genes and physical attributes, Rather they represent foundational, immutable categories in G-d’s mind.

One of the next scenes in this section of the Bible illustrates the principle: While Jacob dawdles in fulfilling his promise to re-join Esau, Esau’s tribe has had the time to interbreed with the tribe of Seir down there not far from where Sodom and Gomorrah used to be.  The Bible, like many ancient epics, gives an extended genealogy of these two families. It tries to untangle a thornbush of Esau’s progeny that have interbred, often through incest. It also lists the eight kings of what now is called the kingdom of Edom (Esau) and their offspring, a seemingly anti-climactic end to an otherwise dramatic portion of the Bible

However, in the middle of the dry account of begats and sires, one comment sticks out:

“The sons of Zibeon were these: Aiah and Anah—that was the Anah who first found mules in the wilderness while pasturing the asses of his father Zibeon.” (Gen 36:24)

Nobody else is singled out for an achievement of any kind. No heroic acts or territorial conquests or deaths in battle are mentioned. The remark adds nothing to advance the narrative. And there’s nothing about mules in the rest of the Five Books of Moses.

So why mention Anah and his mules?

Maybe the Torah is calling out Anah because he was a kind of mad scientist, winner of the Nobel prize of his age. In a nomadic culture, finding out how to breed mules would be like inventing the automobile in an era of horse and buggies. But there’s something transgressive about it, too. It’s unnatural, disruptive. A mere human tampers with God’s handiwork, and succeeds in creating a new species (albeit one we know, like all other hybrid animals, is sterile)! Why would the Bible single out this contradiction to its own fundamental sense of cosmic order?

The Talmud explains that Anah is one of the only characters in the Bible whose name is mentioned twice in the same sentence. Why? Because Anah has a dual identity. He is the bastard offspring of an incestuous relationship between a son (Zibeon) and his own mother.  Zibeon is both Anah’s father and his brother; Anah is his own uncle. The sages get to the essence of the matter by putting the two strange items, mules and Anah’s bastard status, together:

“He [Anah] mated a donkey with a mare, and it gave birth to a mule. He was illegitimate, and he brought illegitimate offspring into the world.

Why were they called יֵמִם (signifying “dreaded beings”)? Because their dread (אֵימָתָן) was cast upon people.

What is the source of this dread? Far from being a fabulous innovation in nature, Anah’s mule violates a fundamental law against crossbreeding any species.

The charge the Children of Israel receive on Sinai mandates that they must abhor interspeciation: grafting trees, yoking oxen to donkeys, crossbreeding animals, or even hybridizing seeds (kilayim – כלאים). They’re forbidden to wear clothing of two fabrics, wool and cotton (shatnes). Vineyards must be planted with no other species in-between the rows of vines to avoid cross-pollination. And violating these incomprehensible rules is punishable by death. Further, it’s called a chok, a statute, only partly, if at all, comprehensible ­- as opposed to a more commonsense law, like “Do not commit adultery.” The rationale for a chok transcends human understanding, yet it is essential to order in the Jewish cosmos.

So what is this essence of the Jews?

The Torah’s horror of the mixture of species is the negative pole of its positive gravity. Hybridization, intermarriage, abominable crossbreeding, dissolving boundaries between this and that, us and them, is the Torah’s counter-theme, its anathema.

The story of Anah’s mule and the tale of Jacob and then Jacob’s sons protecting the purity of their tribe seem completely disconnected, but they are essentially connected.

Must be something in the water down there by the Dead Sea. Anah’s abomination is a symbol for the entire land of Seir where Esau chooses to dwell and wants Jacob to “meet” him. Jacob’s evasion of Esau after their reconciliation may look like personal cowardice, but Jacob fears for the physical and metaphysical survival of his heritage and future mission.

The brothers’ deceit of Shechem and Chamor and their annihilation of the city may come from outrage at the prince’s violent assault on their sister, but even more so defends against the transcendent contamination, the pollution, of their descendants and the dissolution of their spiritual mission into paganism. If the Hebrews don’t protect their purity, they will go down in Seir and suffer the sterility of hybrids.

The definition of the Jewish species is a categorical ideal in G-d’s mind.

Eugenicists and cattle breeders select for physical traits like strength or size or appearance, and Nazis may have surrounded their quest for Aryan racial purity with all sorts of mystical Nordic nonsense, but their primary obsession was with the outer signs of racial purity: blonde hair, height, etc.

By contrast, the Hebrews seem fixated on completely invisible traits that have nothing to do with race or genetics, or even something invisible but measurable like IQ. Their methodology for strengthening their stock is opaque and mysterious, occult. The defining features of their species is a categorical ideal in G-d’s mind.

As the narrative of Genesis proceeds, it’s clear the generations-long project of careful breeding  protects their character, their gentleness, their domestication. Genesis is a manual for creating a brood that will fulfill the ethical and spiritual destiny that God has planned for Abraham’s progeny: evolve a set of behaviors in stark contract to the muscular, warlike aggression of their neighbors and kin.

This seems a slim and abstract premise for family planning, and the pillow talk between the matriarchs and patriarchs must have been pretty delicate, but the project is deliberate and sustained for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The sages, in commenting on the incident of Anah, tells this cosmic story: Rabbi Yosei says:

“The thoughts of two phenomena arose in God’s mind on Shabbat eve [the last night of Creation], but were not actually created until the conclusion of Shabbat. At the conclusion of Shabbat, the Holy One, Blessed be He, granted Adam, the first man, creative knowledge similar to divine knowledge, and he brought two rocks and rubbed them against each other, and the first fire emerged from them. Adam also brought two animals, a female horse and a male donkey, and mated them with each other, and the resultant offspring that emerged from them was a mule.”

But another rabbi demurs: mules didn’t come until much later until that Edomite bastard Anah, roaming the wasteland, brought the abominable hybrid into being. They place the idea of the mule in Creation, and then reject it for the abomination. The message is clear: species are immutable, transcendent categories. The species of people (not racial or genetic but cultural) we call Jews is one of these categories. Their immutability is protected then and still protected and preserved today by individual human choices in the face of complex relations with others.

The Torah is both the story of how the Jews preserve their essence while they pick their way across the seething landscape of history, an instruction manual for doing so, and a transcendent vision of how that essence is connected to the Divine idea of the cosmos itself. Whether or not you believe G-d wrote this definition, it has the same force, the same persistent efficacy and has sustained the Jews inexplicably just as if it had in fact sprung from the mind of an omniscient, universal Being.

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