Judaism: a race? a religion? a nationality?

October 11, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. How should Judaism be defined? Is it a race, religion or nationality?

A. Despite the secularists, religion is the crucial and historically validated quality of Jewishness.

1000 years ago, Saadia Gaon declared, “We are a people by virtue of the Torah”. That is, when the people of Israel accepted the Torah as their guidebook, they gained mission, purpose and identity.

But Judaism is more than religion. That too is clear.

To be a Jew is not only to be heir to a religious tradition. It is also to belong to a group, however one defines the nature of that group. Some may think it incongruous, but even an atheistic Jew remains a Jew, a member of the group.

Some people speak loosely of a “Jewish race”. There is no such thing. Race is a scientific concept and it simply does not apply to the Jews.

Are they then a nation? Not in any political sense, at least outside Israel.

Yet there is a wider definition of nationality or nationhood which has relevance. Some editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica apply the term “in a more extended sense… to denote an aggregation of persons claiming to represent a racial, territorial or some other bond of unity, though not necessarily recognised as an independent political entity… A nationality in this connexion represents a common feeling and an organised claim rather than distinct attributes.”

Phrases such as “an aggregation of persons… bond of unity… common feeling…” do have their application to the Jewish people. Of this, there is no doubt.

But the problem as I see it is not a straight-out one of saying, are the Jews a religion or an ethnic group?

This kind of choice hardly ever presents itself. On the whole, Jews know that both elements are part of their make-up and that they have, as Eugene B. Borowitz puts it, an “intimate fusion of peoplehood and religion”.

Thus within Jewish communal life, there are times and places where the religion is stressed, notably of course in the synagogue; and are places and occasions when it is the group aspect which unites us.

Look for instance at the Jewish newspapers, and you see that they report what Jews are doing just as much as what is doing in Judaism.

The real problem is that of deciding what image to give to the wider community.

We are generally regarded as a religious denomination. Religion does not by itself cover all of Jewishness, but historically it was the religious pattern which made the Jew distinctive; and even today, whatever one’s private angle on Jewish life, the vast majority of Jews maintain some religious associations and observances, and they would agree that it is Judaism which is the most Jewish of Jewish ideologies.


Q. In your opinion, what is the best time of the year?

A. It can’t be winter, because I don’t enjoy the cold or the driving rain, even though some people say that your mind works best in cool weather (they argue that that’s why the summery Pacific Islands have not produced many great thinkers).

It can’t be summer, even though I like the sunshine and the warmth.

I don’t have a very high opinion of autumn, because I don’t like seeing the days get shorter and the environment look increasingly gloomier.

This doesn’t leave me with much choice. By a process of elimination, I have no option but to say I like the spring.

But actually, I do like springtime, because it’s the time of year that is full of hope, promise and potential, and because that’s when nature’s at its best.

I think that’s a Jewish as well as a personal answer. I know the sages say (Mishnah Avot 3:9) that you shouldn’t break off your studies to remark on the beauties of nature, but they didn’t take their own advice seriously.

Rashi says (on Ex. 13:4) that it was kind of God to redeem the Children of Israel in spring when it is pleasant weather, and we can add that redemption and springtime both symbolise a new beginning.

The Talmud says (Shab. 88b) that when the Torah was given, the world was filled with springtime perfume. Shir HaShirim too praises the time of year when nature is fragrant (5:13).

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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