What is a Jew? (short)

Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews on campuses that receive federal funding, alongside other students of race, color or national origin. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies for the price of one. 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). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

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? Jews themselves debate it.

There is a document that defines Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang. 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. For now, call it an essence.

A Jew is someone who knows that God gave Jews this contract. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that the Hebrew Bible originates from a Divine author has good explanatory power for the persistence of Jews. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds, even as it singles them out for persecution, which is also beyond all rational explanation (though we all have our own favorite rational explanation). The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Trump’s move is both so fulfilling and right and troubling and dangerous at the same time.

But here are the rules of the contract that makes a Jew a Jew:

  • You don’t get to sign the contract at birth. If your parents signed the contract, you are a Jew. It’s your birthright. Technically, only your mother has to be Jewish.
  • Whether or not you want to live up to your end of the deal or how much you do is all on you. But you’re still a Jew no matter what. Almost all Jews sort of know that what they are supposed to believe in. Almost all Jews sort of know the Torah is the source of the beliefs and contractual clauses. However, some, maybe most, have never read it cover to cover especially in the 21st century. Others build their lives around it intensely, reading it and following its advice.
  • There isn’t a Jew who perfectly fulfills his or her end of the Torah’s bargain. Some fall very, very short. A few may have entirely lost the knowledge that there is a contract. Many were never given the chance to read it. Others are unable to appreciate it if they do. Some don’t want to be part of the contract at all and walk away from it. Some are even actively hostile to it. All these Jews, except the few technical heretics, are still Jews.

However, history shows that the descendants of Jews who don’t claim their inheritance more than likely will not be Jews within a few generations. We know it in our bones, even if we want to deny history. The 2013 Pew Study proved it again for our generation:

 “Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.”

Intermarriage is higher among Jews who already have a weak religious identity.

  • At the same time, the Jew club is open. If you’re not born into it, you can become a full-on Jew by showing you’ve read, understand, and signed the contract. It doesn’t make a difference what your ethnic, racial, national or religious heritage was. Furthermore, if you choose Judaism, you will probably know a lot more about it than most born Jews.
  • The “nationality” of the Jew is indeed a part, but not all, of the contract. The nation of Israel was promised to Jews by God. Call it Zionism 0.0. A lot of the Torah is a utopian design for the nation of Israel, explaining how to behave as citizens in a society where everyone is utterly responsible for everyone else. Even when Jews don’t own the land of Israel as their Jewish nation, or Jews live outside it, the vision of Israel as this Divinely ordered utopia gives Jews a national identity and that they have hereditary rights to it.

This is why the equation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism holds water. The identification of the Jew with Israel the real geographic nation is intimate and inseparable, even if an individual Jew isn’t a Zionist or is an anti-Zionist, or rejects the equation between being a Jew and being pro-Israel or fights against it actively or deeply, sincerely questions how it translates into political reality or how it accommodates other people who live there. But when critiques of Israel single it out for special condemnation or critique because it is a Jewish State, they only reinforce the equation.

  • And finally, even if you don’t believe that God is the Party of the First Part, what has kept the Jews going is to debate the proposition that the contract has divine absolute authority. That’s why what has preoccupied the Jews forever is arguing over how to apply the contract in our world and our times. Case law.

The terms of the Torah’s deal inform virtually every scene, every verse, and some would say every word and letter of the original document. When it’s not explaining the do’s and don’t’s of the bargain, it is dramatizing how to transmit it and enforce its terms. Abraham and Sarah choose Isaac over the elder Ishmael, breaking tribal convention. Abraham carefully ensures Isaac’s mate comes from his own family.  Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the Hebrew inheritance – this abstruse idealism of the future Jews and the promise God made to Abraham – rather than his own twin, Esau, proving that the Jew thing is not genetic. Isaac sends Jacob to uncle Laban to find a wife, even though Laban is an idolator and a crook. Jacob’s sons annihilate Shechem after tricking them into circumcision in order to avoid polluting their breeding program after their prince, also named Shechem, rapes their sister, Dinah. It ain’t pretty, but it is necessary. The genetic purity of the Hebrew essence has to be preserved, even at the expense of honor.

We can summarize these stories on one foot: the Hebrew species evolves through the selection of transcendent traits of fitness. The narrative clearly is telling us that God is evolving a Jewish essence, a Jewish soul.

The Torah is filled with the stories of failed human beings who carried the mission from God forward nonetheless. So the point is to fail forward and continue to strive to fulfill the mission defined in the contract. 

One scene (among hundreds) helps define this. Jacob has married Leah and Rachel and grown a vast tribe while serving Laban for twenty years. He is returning home and has reunited and apparently reconciled with Esau, though he grievously cheated him in order to ensure the integrity of the Torah’s breeding program and continuity of its mission. Esau offers to accompany Jacob’s tribe down to Seir. But Jacob begs off:

 “’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 …’.” (Gen 33:13-14)

When else in history do people let the children set the pace, especially as they pass through hostile territories? The Hebrews are fierce warriors (see Shechem, above) when they need to be, yet they tenderly nurture the gentler, invisible traits of character, disposition, inclination, soul.

In the rough tribal world of the second millennium BCE, maybe during most of the rest of history, selecting for gentleness and domesticity probably hasn’t been an obvious winning strategy for survival. It may even arouse violence in others by signaling weakness. Though Jews sometimes barely cling to survival, they survive nonetheless. The transmission of their civilizing, domesticating program to the rest of the world suggests they’re doing something that works. It has required allegiance to a deal with God that has always been massively unfashionable in a materialistic world. If you’re uncomfortable calling it holiness, then call this the essence, the very definition of the Jew: once you sign the contract, your soul has special obligations defined by the Torah.

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