JEWISH PEOPLE . This entry discusses the sociological dimension of Judaism, in particular "Israel" in the historical sense of ʿam Yisraʾel (the "people of Israel," the Israelites). The article seeks to describe the factors shaping the transformation of Jewish peoplehood from the biblical period to modern times.
The Jews constitute a fellowship mandated and sustained by the Jewish religious tradition, a fellowship viewed in modern times as a social entity in its own right. In what sense Jewry is to be considered a nation or ethnic group depends on how these terms are defined. The Hebrew terms for nation, goi, leʿum, and above all ʿam, were applied to the collectivity in the Bible, where Israel is said to be "like all the nations" (1 Sam. 8:5) yet "a people dwelling alone and not reckoning itself among the nations" (Num. 23:9). This conceptual duality reappears in later eras.
Historical circumstances periodically intruded on the parameters of membership in the Jewish people. From time to time, uncertainty and even conflict have occurred as to who is a Jew (and who is not) according to Jewish law and more informal mores, the criteria for inclusion, the theological significance of Jewish survival, and exactly which religious actions or principles of faith were required of a Jew. Affected by changes in the historical context and worldly status of Jewry in its homeland and in the Diaspora, religious thinkers have interpreted the nature and destiny of Israel in various ways. This article seeks to explore the evolving conception of that fellowship, real and ideal, with special attention to the relationship of Jewish peoplehood to other faith communities that have emerged from the Israelite religious matrix and to modern concepts of ethnicity.
The Jewish religious fellowship can be illuminated by comparative considerations. Cultural variation between the various branches of Jewry for many centuries was virtually as great as that of the various branches of Christendom and Islam. A similar congruence of peoplehood and religion is found in some national forms of Christianity (e.g., the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopic Churches). The boundary between Judaism and Christianity has remained firm, however, unlike the aforementioned instances of subgroups within the Christian church. The centrality of salvation through Christ, along with related creedal and doctrinal formulations, facilitated a theology of the universal church that was different from the bonds sustaining the Jewish people. Most important, Judaism resisted definition by creedal formulation. In its emphasis on the centrality of religious law rather than salvation through faith in a messiah and sacramental grace, Judaism has a closer structural affinity to Islam. The "nation of Islam" is both a subject of religious law (four distinct systems of them) and conveys a sense of being a multinational corporate body, even though in Islam's early history it was in fact a religion of the Arabs and only afterwards became the religion of Persians, Turks, and subsequently many other peoples. Judaism never became the ruling religion of an empire or a congeries of states as did Islam, but Judaism is a "world religion" in its geographical and cultural diversity—and its impact in world history.
One major reason for the unique character of the Jewish communal bond was the quite different historical and political situation of Judaism and the Jews from that of Christendom and Islam. The origins of the Jewish people in ancient times predated the development of many of the central ideas and eventual customary practices of its religion. A considerable portion of the Hebrew Bible is the story of how the core of Israelite religion came into being. The mature religious tradition maintained the people's identity even when the Jews, in antiquity and later, were a small percentage of the population of the lands of their residence. At least since the last century before the common era, the Jews had become to a great extent a Diaspora population. Other peoples and religions have had diasporas, but the Jewish Diaspora is remarkable for its geographical dispersion and its ability to survive under many circumstances. (Indeed the term diaspora was first used in Jewish history.) After the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom of Judea in the first centuries bce, except for the short-lived conversion of two medieval ruling elites to Judaism, there was no sovereign Jewish state until 1948, a duration of almost nineteen centuries. The political factor in these centuries of Jewish history involved semiautonomous communal institutions of various types, buttressed by the Gentile state and under the leadership of Jewish figures accorded authority in matters of legal exegesis and the right to issue authoritative interpretations. Therefore, during the long course of Jewish history in the Diaspora, common destiny and cohesiveness were maintained by a usual set of forces internal and external to the Jewish community working in tandem to facilitate the continuity of the Jewish tradition.
The principle of living in a condition of exile (galut ) and awaiting ultimate redemption was a key subjective element in the self-identity inculcated by the tradition and constantly reinforced by the Jewish liturgy. At the same time, however, there has been the conspicuous presence of the Jewish people in the primary narratives of Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament the Jewish people are depicted as having spurned Jesus as the Messiah, even though he and his disciples were Jews. In the Qurʾān the Jews are depicted as having rejected Muḥammad as the "seal of the prophets," even though he acknowledged the divine source of their sacred book and certain features of Jewish belief and worship.
Acknowledgment by Christianity and Islam that the Jewish people have played an extraordinary role in the history of salvation, even when accompanied by doctrines that God had subsequently bestowed grace on another elect people, expressed the ambivalent attitudes toward Jewry of Christian and Muslim religious authorities: confirmation of Jewish specialness together with the scandal, if not outright anger, that the "stiff-necked" Jews denied self-evident (Christian or Muslim) truths. Conviction of possessing that truth and resulting disdain or even anger facilitated the imposition of social and legal restrictions on Jewish status and helped to rationalize periodic anti-Jewish persecutions. However, the peculiar conspicuousness of the Jewish people in the formative Christian and Muslim stories indirectly served to confirm the continued singularity of the Jewish people. In some sense (although not the Jewish sense), Israel was central to God's plan for history in both Christianity and Islam. The specialness of this role is a cardinal element of the Jewish tradition itself, and therefore a crucial reason for Jewish survival.
Another issue sometimes raised in connection with Jewish peoplehood is whether Judaism should be characterized as universalistic or particularistic. Judaism—more properly, Torah in its broad sense as divine "instruction"—holy teaching and action, is both. Gaining ultimate authority from the conviction that it is derived from revelation, Torah includes sacred literature and venerable religious practices (the key rabbinic terms are mitsvot, or commandments; halakhah, the correct way or religious law; and minhag, or custom). The values inculcated by rabbinic legal rulings and preaching as these unfold in time, as well as the understanding of the human condition expressed in Jewish religious teachings, are also Torah. Torah articulates concepts about God in relation to nature and history: that deity is one, eternal, creative, transcendent as well as immanent, revelatory, and personal—although Jewish religious thought has brought forth a variety of sometimes quite complex theological explications of these and other fundamental beliefs.
At the same time the rabbinic idea of Torah as instruction requires that there be a certain people among the nations of the world that exists to study and practice Torah as the raison d'être of its existence (and even of the existence of the universe, in rabbinic thought). The notion of a people elected by God to receive the complete set of his commandments hallows the people and locates their special role in the context of world history. Judaism conceives of this election not as a preordained, passive reception of revelation but as an active electing by the people to accept the "yoke" of Torah and the commandments. Thus, Jewish religious thought interprets the mundane factuality of the people's existence as expressing a joyful, voluntarily assumed obligation and responsibility. These introductory remarks indicate some of the complexities of Jewish peoplehood as fact and ideal, which will be dealt with separately in the following.
Names for the Jews and Judaism
In the Jewish tradition, the Jewish people as a socioreligious entity is designated ʿam Yisraʾel (the people of Israel), benei Yisraʾel (children of Israel, Israelites), beit Yisraʾel (house of Israel), keneset Yisraʾel (assembly of Israel, in rabbinic literature), or simply as Yisraʾel (Israel). In the Hebrew Bible the patriarch Jacob, renamed Israel after wrestling with a divine being in Genesis 32:28, is the eponymous ancestor of the people of Israel through his progeny, the founders of the Israelite tribes. In contrast, a native of the modern state of Israel (medinat Yisraʾel), which possesses Christian and Muslim as well as Jewish citizens, is usually rendered by the modern Hebrew adjective Israeli (Yisraʾeli ). The term Jew (Hebrew, Yehudi ) is etymologically derived from Judah (Yehudah ), the eponym of the tribe of Judah.
According to the biblical account, around 922 bce the ten northern tribes rejected Solomon's son as ruler and formed the "kingdom of Israel" (mamlekhet Yisraʾel). Only the tribal territories of Judah and Benjamin and the Davidic capital of Jerusalem remained loyal to the dynasty founded by Solomon's father, David, early in the tenth century, thus becoming the separate, southern kingdom of Judah (mamlekhet Yehudah ). When the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria in 722 bce, its population was deported and apparently assimilated, except for those who took refuge in Judah. The southern kingdom was destroyed by Babylonia in 586 bce, but the Aramaic cognate Yahud remained the name for the region around Jerusalem in the Persian Empire. In Esther 2:5 the term Jew refers to a member of the whole people, even someone of the tribe of Benjamin; in Esther 8:17 and 9:27 the term refers to the act of Gentiles joining the Jews in some unspecified way. The Greek form Ioudaia was used in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms and for the independent Jewish commonwealth established by the Hasmoneans in the second century bce. The Latinized form was Judaea.
By Hellenistic times the term Jew (Greek, Ioudaios ; Hebrew, Yehudi ) had become a name not only for subjects of the Hasmonean state but throughout the Diaspora for those who were adherents of its religious tradition. The term Judaism for the distinctive religion of the Judeans used in Hellenistic times is first found in 2 Maccabees 2:21 and 14:38. While accepting the term Yehudi, Jewish religious literature continued to prefer Yisraʾel, benei Yisraʾel, and so forth. (In the context of the traditional synagogue service, an "Israelite" is a Jew called to the reading of Scripture who is not a descendant of the priests or the Levites.)
Yet another relevant term is ʿIvri (Hebrew), which probably referred at first in the Hebrew Bible to a social status rather than to ethnic or Gentilic identification (this primary usage of Hebrew —as, for example, in Ex. 21:2—may have had a philological relationship to the second-millennium social category called in Akkadian the habiru ). Several biblical instances when Hebrew can be construed as referring to an Israelite or to the ancestor of an Israelite (Jon. 1:8; Gen. 4:13) and as recalling Eber, a descendant of Noah's son Shem (Gen. 10:21, 11:14) may have led to its eventually becoming a synonym for the Israelites, and therefore their language. In the nineteenth century in some European countries, Hebrew became a polite equivalent for Jew, which had acquired negative connotations; in the twentieth century the positive force of Jew was regained in English, German, and other languages (but not in Russian).
Collective Existence in Ancient Israelite Religion
A main theme of the Pentateuch is how, against the background of world history in the first part of Genesis, ʿam Yisraʾel came into being: a chain of narratives sets the stage for the enumeration of Israel's corporate duties to its God, YHVH (probably vocalized as Yahveh ), after the Exodus during its wanderings in the wilderness. Accordingly, the ancestors of the children of Israel had lived in the land of Canaan as clans for several generations until they settled in Egypt, were enslaved, and after Moses' confrontation with the pharaoh, were redeemed by YHVH, who brought them to the wilderness of Sinai. There they entered a binding agreement with their God—a covenant that included a strict prohibition against worshiping other gods (Ex. 20:2–6). The theme of liberation from exile and return to Zion becomes a principal biblical model for future hopes of redemption. (Other biblical themes that served as paradigms for the Jewish people's traditional understanding of its history later included repeated cycles of sin followed by repentance and experiences of persecution followed by salvation.)
The Hebrew Scriptures represent a selection of the literature produced by and for the people of Israel mainly in the Land of Israel and over as many as eight to ten centuries. Modern historiography on the origins of the people in the context of the nations and social movements of the second millennium bce involves considerable uncertainty as to the exact relationship of the direct ancestors of the Israelites to such ancient groups as the Amorites and the Hyksos, whether the proto-Israelites worshiped YHVH before the Exodus (compare Ex. 6:3 with Gen. 4:26), and the extent to which large numbers of Canaanites joined an Israelite tribal association in the thirteenth or twelfth centuries bce, accepted its deity, and were absorbed in the Israelite people.
The exclusive divine authority of YHVH in relation to the collective existence of Israel is reflected in various and fundamental aspects of ancient Israelite religion. For example, Israelite tradition went to considerable lengths to disassociate ownership of the land of Canaan from the right of conquest. Israelite settlement was said to have been made possible by YHVH as Israel's supreme ruler; the Land of Israel was a territory on which the people could become a nation akin to other nations but devoted to carrying out its covenantal duties. The corporate aspect of landownership can be seen in the provision that land sold by individuals was to be returned periodically to the family to whom it was "originally" allocated (Lev. 25:2, 25:23).
Not only the framework, but a substantial portion of the covenantal duties preserved in the Pentateuch refer to Israel as a collective entity. Moral and legal obligations included many stipulations that regulated relations between sectors of Israelite society in addition to individual behavior. Besides offerings expressing personal thanksgiving or contrition, sacrifices are presented to God by the priests on behalf of the people to express collective gratitude or to expiate collective sin (e.g., Num. 28:2; Lev. 16:30). Ethical duties on the Israelites individually and as members of families are complemented by responsibilities to the "widow, orphan, and stranger," for which Israel as a whole is responsible (Exod. 22:21–22). The demand to create an equitable and just society figures prominently in the classical prophets.
Throughout the history of the Israelite kingdoms, prophetic messengers warned the people that if these collective obligations were not fulfilled, YHVH could take away the land he had given them and force them into exile (e.g., Amos 3:2, 7:11). This belief is reinforced by natural and military disasters affecting the people as a whole. The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 bce was interpreted in this manner by the so-called Deuteronomic movement, which probably acquired the opportunity to carry out an extensive program of religious reforms in the kingdom of Judah in the 620s (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). The heart of the Book of Deuteronomy very likely reflects the position of this group, which emphasized that the corporate responsibility of Israel accepted at Sinai was binding on all their descendants, which was said to include (almost) all of the population of the late-seventh-century kingdom of Judah: to love YHVH, obey his commandments, avoid any taint of idolatry, worship him in the place—that is, Jerusalem—where he would "cause his name to dwell," where his only house and sacrificial altar were to be constructed (e.g., Deut. 6:4–5, 12:1–14).
When Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 bce, the explanation offered was that the idolatry of the past, especially the later kings subservient to Assyria, such as Manasseh, had condemned the people to exile but that God continued to love them and held out a sure promise of redemption (2 Kings 24:3–4; Jer. 29). The experience of exile in Babylon brought to the fore the prophetic theme of the eternal nature of the covenant between YHVH and Israel. The religiosity of the exilic community was marked by an acceptance of the divine causation for the people's exile, a pervasive regret for the sins of the ancestors, and a heightening of the idealized role of the people in world history. While sustaining the concepts of a specific holy mountain (e.g., Joel 4:1), holy city (Isa. 2:3), and land of YHVH (Isa. 10:24)—all of which can be referred to poetically as Zion—exilic prophecy justified autonomous Israelite survival outside the precincts of these sacred spaces. (Contrast David's much earlier complaint that Saul banished him so that he could no longer serve YHVH, 1 Sam. 26:19.) The exilic prophecies in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah portray the people as God's servant, a "light to the nations" that God's salvation be known to the ends of the earth (Isa. 49:6), anticipating that all Gentiles will eventually worship YHVH, who "makes weal and creates woe" (Isa. 45:7), bringing about universal peace and justice. (See relevant prophecies concerning a universal "End of Days" in Isa. 2:1–4; Mic. 4:1–4; Isa. 45:14, 45:22–24, 56:3–8; Zech. 8:20–23.)
The decisive difference between the historical development of Israelite religion and those of other ancient Near Eastern peoples was Israel's monotheistic elevation of its God to the status of the only deity, the sole creator of heaven and earth, supreme ruler of the world, and judge of all history—presumably a development that grew out of the unique combination of elements and features that comprised the early history of the Israelite people. Pre-Mosaic sources of the Israelite cult of YHVH are uncertain. Unlike other Near Eastern deities (Sin, Adad, Ishtar, Dagan, and so forth), YHVH did not have temples and shrines dedicated to him in various widely scattered localities around the Near East. YHVH was not incorporated into any other pantheon, confirming the attitude of the biblical authors that YHVH's name and reputation in the world depended solely on Israel. The dating of a full-fledged biblical monotheism has been a matter of long-standing scholarly controversy. For our purposes, determining when in Israelite history "other gods" came to be viewed as nondivine (in the biblical terminology, "idols," "the work of men's hands") is less important than the fact of the eventual emergence, in the course of the intellectual development of ancient Israel, of an explicit, sweeping, and radical demotion of other deities and elevation of one God, an action unprecedented in the history of ancient religion (Isa. 45:5–7). This transformation was accompanied by the reinterpretation of traditions concerning the human and Israelite past, rather than a dismissal of those traditions, from a monotheistic perspective.
The last redaction of the traditional material concerning human origins and the formative eras of Israelite history from the standpoint of radical monotheism may not have occurred until the postexilic period. The return to Zion of a portion (but not all) of the Babylonian exiles in the late sixth century and again in the midfifth century bce laid the groundwork for the revival of Jerusalem, its Temple, and the land of Judaea in late Persian and Hellenistic times. By then Judaism had become a religion centered on a Scripture that defined the Jews as God's treasured possession, "a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Ex. 19:4–6), necessary for his universal plan and goals.
From Biblical Israel to the Christian and Rabbinic Israels
The corporate and the individual dimensions of Israelite faith were further developed in succeeding centuries. Closely associated with the corporate aspect of salvation is the messianic idea (buttressed by various scriptural verses and prophecies concerning the end of days, the permanence of the Davidic dynasty, and the kingship of God) that there would arise a completely just, God-inspired king to rule Israel and establish everlasting peace and harmony in the world.
The individualistic dimension of postscriptural Judaism took the form of each person's accountability to carry out the mitsvot, including some that had primarily been the duty of the priesthood earlier. Individual immortality became a widely accepted doctrine of Judaism perhaps in the second century bce (a late biblical allusion to the resurrection of the dead is Dan. 12:2, most likely dating from the Maccabean revolt; compare 2 Macc. 7:9, 7:14, 9:29). Personal immortality was soon absorbed into most branches of Judaism (except the Sadducees) and was made binding in the second of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh ʿEsreh, the ʿAmidah ) that Jewish males were to recite three times daily. Jewish eschatological teachings of the last centuries bce and the first century ce, for all their flux and uncertainty, emphasized the crucial significance of Israel ("And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High," Dan. 7:27) and the transcendent value of membership in it. (The classical formulation came to be that, with some notable exceptions, "All Israel has a share in the world to come," San. 10.1) In what became the traditional formula, "this world" (ha-ʿolam ha-zeh ) of history will be climaxed by the coming of the King-Messiah and a utopian messianic age. And this world is transcended by another realm, "the world to come" (ha-ʿolam ha-baʾ ), where the guilty will be consigned to a merited punishment for their sins and the righteous of all generations will be eternally rewarded with the radiance of the divine presence. In addition, control of the religious calendar designating when crucial holy days occur seems to have been an issue (as it was at times in the later history of Judaism as well) seriously threatening the unity of Israel.
Membership in the people of Israel was drastically transformed during the last centuries bce and the first century ce with the emergence of formal procedures for conversion. By the time of the Jewish revolt of 66–70 ce against the Romans in Judaea, a majority of Jews were probably residing in the Diaspora, either in Persia under the Parthians (the Jewish community of Babylonia, dating from the exile of the sixth century bce) or in the Hellenistic kingdoms and, later, the Roman Empire (Antioch, the cities of Asia Minor and European Greece, Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt, as well as Rome and other locations around the Mediterranean). These new communities had been founded by Jewish settlers who had left Judaea for a variety of political and economic reasons but were significantly augmented by conversions to Judaism in the Diaspora, which occurred in Judea as well (including episodes of forced conversions by two Hasmonean kings).
Formal conversion to Judaism was a new phenomenon in Jewish life. Previously, non-Israelites had been accepted into Israel on an individual basis (the Book of Ruth, which may date from postexilic times, contains one such account). A contrary instance is depicted in accounts in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah demanding that the Judahites of their time separate themselves from their non-Israelite wives (Neh. 9:2, 13:3). At that time there was also a rejection of the inhabitants of Samaria (the heartland of the former northern kingdom of Israel) who worshiped YHVH but were considered not of the seed of preexilic Israel but rather foreign settlers brought in by Assyria almost three centuries earlier (2 Kings 17:29–34). (The Samaritans became the first religious tradition that stemmed from the biblical matrix but was separate from the Jewish people.) At the beginning of the common era, however, proselytism seems to have become a common occurrence (see, for example, Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:5; and B.T., Shab. 31a). In addition to formal conversion, which probably entailed circumcision for males, immersion, and the offering of a special Temple sacrifice, there is mention of pagans, referred to in ancient inscriptions as "God-fearers," who followed one or another element of the Jewish tradition, such as the Sabbath (Josephus, Against Apion 2.39; Tacitus, Histories 5.5).
The last two centuries bce and the first century ce were a period of intense religious ferment, when new Jewish schools of thought and new elites competed with each other: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, early Judeo-Christians, apocalyptic visionaries in Judaea, and Hellenized philosophies (such as that of Philo of Alexandria) in the Diaspora. (There is no convincing evidence that Jewish religious authorities in the late Second Temple period condemned dissident groups for "blasphemy" or persecuted them for anything like heresy.) By the end of the first century ce, or at least by the late second century, after the last of the Jewish revolts against the Romans, rabbinic Judaism crystallized out of the Pharisaic movement, while Christianity became fully separated from the Jewish people.
After the Samaritans, Christianity was the second religious tradition that remained loyal to the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures but came to constitute a distinct community of faith. Christian writings held that the Jews ignored the Messiah and were collectively responsible for his death (Matt. 13:57, 27:25). Crucial elements in the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity were the former's rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and Christianity's rejection (after a few years of uncertainty) of Jewish law. In what became the dominant Christian formulation, apparently articulated first by Paul of Tarsus, Torah law was held to have been divinely inspired but superseded by the atoning death of Jesus, the Christ (Greek for anointed, the root meaning of the Hebrew mashiʾah ), who made available a full salvation that had been prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures and that was not possible under "the law" (Gal. 3–4). By the end of the first century ce, to the basic Jewish prayers was added a benediction against sectarians (birkat ha-minim ), which some historians believe was devised to exclude Christians from the synagogue.
By then most Christians were not of Jewish descent but were pagans converted directly to Christianity. This principled negation of Jewish law, especially ritual law, ceremonial practice, and kashrut, meant that experiencing the presence of Jesus as the Christ, accompanied by baptism, was the portal into the Christian people, now defined as the "new Israel" of the spirit (e.g., Acts 10; Rom. 9–11). In particular, the Jewish requirement of circumcision was rejected and baptismal immersion redefined as one's spiritual rebirth as a Christian. (According to rabbinic law, conversion is also a rebirth; the convert to Judaism terminates former family ties and is considered in the category of a newborn child. See Gerim 2.6.) In the New Testament, Christianity viewed the Hebrew Scripture through the concept of its fulfillment in Christ. For rabbinic Judaism, the Torah as divine law was a permanent feature of creation, a dynamic and ongoing process of articulating the tasks of God's people in history. Judaism viewed the written law of the Hebrew Scriptures as part of a comprehensive Torah that included the oral tradition as well—an oral law that was partly redacted in the Mishnah, God's "mystery" given only to Israel around 200 ce (Pesiqtaʾ Rabbati 14b).
Eventually, the church did not reject the idea of religious law as such (it developed its own to regulate creeds, holy days, family status, religious hierarchies, and so forth), but the Christian theological rejection of the eternally binding character of Torah law meant the sharp separation of ʿam Yisraʾel by the Jewish self-definition and the "new Israel" according to the Christian viewpoint. The two conceptions of holy peoplehood thus reflect the two contrasting modes of relating to the Hebrew Scripture as holy; Christianity in late antiquity pushed much further than Judaism the figural, allegoric, and symbolic interpretation of Old Testament figures, institutions, and prophecies.
Peoplehood in Rabbinic Judaism and Medieval Jewish Thought
According to rabbinic Judaism, Israel comprised the direct, physical descendants of the remnant of the preexilic people, augmented by those non-Jews who had accepted the yoke of the commandments and were adopted into the Jewish people through the conversion rituals required by Torah as interpreted by the rabbis. The biblical term ger (stranger, resident alien, sojourner) was understood to refer to a proselyte—a ger tsedeq in contrast to a ger toshav —who had rejected idolatry but not accepted the full burden of the mitsvot.
Even though most Jews were (and still are) Jews by birth, conversion is unquestionably a legitimate mode, in Jewish religious law, of acquiring the status of being a full member of the people of Israel. There are traditions that some of the most eminent rabbis were proselytes or their descendants and that God had special love for gerim. To be sure, a few sages are quoted as expressing suspicion of the motives and behavior of proselytes as conditions in the Roman Empire deteriorated. The prevailing position was that prospective converts should be warned that "this people was debased, oppressed, and degraded more than all other peoples." If they persisted, they were to be accepted with joy: "To whom are you cleaving? Happy are you! To him who spoke and the world came into being" (Gerim 1.1–5).
From the early fourth century ce on, however, Jewish proselytizing was anathema to the Christianized or Islamicized state; the Roman emperor Constantine made conversion to Judaism punishable by death, and a similar prohibition was part of the so-called Pact of Omar defining the status of Christians and Jews under Islam.
Certainly external obstacles were usually determinative in discouraging more than a trickle of conversions to Judaism from the early Middle Ages until the twentieth century. There were also, however, internal factors. Christianity viewed proselytism as its mission with a far greater intensity than did Judaism, and the church fathers insisted with far more rigor that there was no salvation outside the church. Rabbinic doctrine held that only the Jewish people had knowledge of and were bound by the full complement of divine commandments, but that there were seven Noahic laws binding on all humanity (usually enumerated as the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, and eating a limb of a living animal, together with a positive commandment to establish a legal system; B.T., San. 56a). On the salvation of non-Jews, the normative Jewish doctrine became the opinion of Yehoshuʿa that the "righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Tosefta, San. 13.2).
Who was Jewish according to rabbinic law? Since the second century ce the child of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is a Jew, but the child of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father is a Gentile. This matrilineal principle is alluded to in the Mishnah (Qid. 3.12), which deals with marriages valid and invalid according to halakhah and the status of the offspring thereof. The relevant Talmudic ruling (addressed to the male) was Yonatan's that "your son by an Israelite woman is called your son, but your son by a heathen woman is not called your son but her son" (B.T., Qid. 68b); the later commentators emphasize the positive conclusion that the offspring of a Jewish woman is a Jew (see Moses Maimonides's Code of Law, Forbidden Intercourse 12.7). Various explanations, sociological and historical, have been offered for the adoption of the principle of matrilineal descent, including the influence of Roman law and the impossibility of confirming paternity. However, in premodern times the regulation was not of widespread practical consequence, since it was unlikely that many Jewish men would marry non-Jewish women who did not formally convert but would rear their children as members of the people of Israel.
In halakhah, Jews who converted to another religion were still considered Jews, although there are differences of opinion among the authorities over their specific halakhic rights. The relevant Talmudic principle was that such a person was a sinful Jew: "An Israelite, even though he sinned, remains an Israelite" (B.T., San. 44a). Thus the Jewish community accepted the return of Jews who had been forcibly baptized during the First Crusade in Europe, but acts of penitence and rituals of purification were required.
Impossible as it was in theory to leave the Jewish people, it was not so in fact. Although there might be psychological costs in apostasy, there could be tangible advantages to leaving a group that was of subordinate legal status and subject to periodic persecution. Individual Jewish converts were welcomed by Christian and Muslim authorities. Only in certain situations when large numbers of Jews were pressed into converting, such as in the Iberian Peninsula in the 1390s and again in the 1490s, did problems arise on the Christian side. In Spain there occurred a brutal "Old Christian" backlash against "New Christian" or converso (sometimes labeled marrano [Spanish for pig]) families, whose Christian faith was for many centuries considered suspect merely because of their Jewish bloodline. Procedures for readmitting to the status of Jews descendants of conversos several generations later was a halakhic problem that concerned rabbis in Jewish communities in North Africa, Ottoman Turkey, Amsterdam, and elsewhere.
Supplementing the halakhic problem of who was and who was not a Jew was the aggadic problem of why there was a people of Israel. Idealization of the chosenness of the Jewish people is evident in Jewish religious literature as epitomized in the benediction recited in the synagogue before the reading of the Torah: "Blessed art thou, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah." The givenness or factuality of being a Jew—that Jews found themselves thrown into a Jewish destiny—was acknowledged in some coolly realistic Talmudic statements. Expounding the biblical verse "And they stood at the nether part of the mount" (i.e., Israel at Mount Sinai; Ex. 19:17), Avdimi bar Ḥamaʾ bar Ḥasaʾ explained that the Holy One, blessed be he, tilted the mountain over the Israelites like a cask and said, "If you accept the Torah, well and good; and if not, there shall be your burial" (B.T., Shab. 88a). Most sages rejected this notion on the grounds that receiving the Torah under coercion could nullify the obligation to observe it. The rabbinic aggadah continues in the line of a theological idealization of the people by emphasizing the collective responsibility of all members of the people to each other and to God and the absolute centrality of Israel's collective presence in universal history. In a discussion concerning divine punishment, the principle is enunciated that "all Israel is surety one for the other" (B.T., Shav. 39a). Israel conciliates God only when it is one unity (B.T., Men. 27a).
According to rabbinic teaching, the Jewish people fulfill God's plan that his presence indwells in the world. A homily in Ruth Rabbah (1.1) ascribes to God the statement that if Israel had not accepted the Torah, the world would have reverted to void and destruction. A homily in Exodus Rabbah (47.3) attributes to God the statement that if this people had not accepted his Torah, he would not look upon them more than other idol worshipers. (The Talmudic dictum that "anyone who repudiates idolatry is called a Jew" [B.T., Meg. 13a], based on the biblical identification of Mordecai of the tribe of Benjamin as a Yehudi [Judean] in Esther 2:5, uses the term Jew in a theologically idealized, nonethnic, purely homiletic sense.) It was a merit for the Jews to have accepted the Torah, but ever since Sinai it was Israel's raison d'être to obey the 613 commandments contained in it. In contrast to the common Christian distinction of late antiquity and the Middle Ages between the "religious" and the laity, the goal of rabbinic Judaism was to raise all Israel to the level of masters of Torah, transforming the community into an academy, as it were, for the study and practice of Torah.
Despite a Diaspora stretching from the Atlantic to central Asia and eastward and from the Baltic to the Sahara and beyond to Ethiopia, medieval Judaism did not become multinational in quite the sense that Christianity or Islam did. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century ce, followed by the conversion of the Frank, Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic peoples in the Middle Ages; Islam expanded beyond the Arab purview with the conversion of Persians, Berbers, and Turks (and later of peoples in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia), often spearheaded by their rulers. There were only two medieval instances where Judaism was adopted as the religion of a state: sixth-century Yemen briefly and the Khazar kingdom on the Volga between the eighth and tenth centuries. A wide diversity of Jewish subcultures did emerge: Jewries in the Middle East that were largely the continuation of the ancient homeland and Diaspora communities; Iranian and Kurdish Jews; Jewish tribal groups in the Caucasus Mountains; the various Jewish communities of India and China; Berber Jews in the Maghreb; Provençal and Italian Jews; Sephardic Jews in the Iberian Peninsula; Ashkenazic Jews in northern France, the Rhineland, and later eastern Germany, Poland, and Lithuania; and other communities with their own distinctive customs, dialectics, liturgies, and practices. As a result, in daily life medieval Jews spoke a wide variety of languages—Greek and Aramaic; Persian and Arabic; Spanish, French, and German—and they developed distinctive Jewish dialects of these languages, such as Ladino (a Jewish form of old Spanish) and Yiddish (a Jewish form of Middle High German), Hebrew being maintained for literary and liturgical purposes.
Some branches of medieval and early modern Jewry produced sophisticated courtier and banking classes and intellectual elites trained in the natural sciences and Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophies, whereas other Jewries were predominately folk cultures overwhelmingly engaged in menial occupations. Although in certain regions the Jewish population was large, compact, and had an agricultural or village component (e.g., the Galilee and Babylonia in late antiquity), political conditions under Christian and Muslim rulers necessitated that Judaism sustain itself increasingly as the religion of an urbanized minority mostly limited to crafts and trade (the specific list of the economic roles open to Jews differed widely from land to land and from era to era). In northwestern and eastern Europe, Jewish communities were founded and enlarged by Jews invited to settle in frontier areas, where the rulers considered them economically useful. However, given the interweaving of religion and the state in the countries in which medieval and early modern Jews resided, a Jewry could maintain itself only if permitted considerable legal autonomy—although the extent to which the Jewish leadership was dependent on the Gentile rulers or derived its authority solely from the consent of local Jewish communities varied considerably.
Through all of their history, the Jewish people, therefore, were hardly characterized by cultural or economic homogeneity. A sense of Jewish unity, inculcated by the prayers and religious law and by the Hebrew Bible and other literary works, was reinforced by the common condition of being a minority: a minority with a profound, if disputed, connection to the formative narratives of the ruling (Christian or Islamic) religion; a minority enjoying a precarious social status inasmuch as it was always susceptible to persecution but for considerable stretches of time better off than the local peasants and serfs; a minority with considerable training (especially through the Babylonian Talmud) in adjusting to living under Gentile governments while preserving the continuity of Jewish law; a minority possessing a far-flung Diaspora network linked together by scholars, traders, and other Jewish travelers and a steady stream of Jewish migration, sometimes westward, sometimes eastward; and above all a minority that defined itself as central to the history of creation.
The religious self-definition of the Jewish tradition, transmitted through Scriptures, rabbinic law and lore, and the siddur, reiterated the sanctity of being Yisraʾel, ʿamkha (your people, as addressed to God who "has chosen his people Israel in love"). This God, who "because of our sins exiled us from our land," nevertheless "remembers the pious deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children's children for his name's sake." He will "gather the dispersed of your people Israel … break the enemies and humble the arrogant … rebuild Jerusalem as an everlasting building and speedily set up therein the throne of David" (from the ShemonehʿEsreh, basic to the Jewish liturgy) and "will remove the abominations from the earth, and the idols will be utterly cut off when the world will be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty and all the children of flesh will call upon your name, when you will turn unto yourself all the wicked of the earth … for the kingdom is yours and to all eternity you will reign in glory" (from the ʿAleinu prayer at the conclusion of each service).
Indicative of the bonds maintaining a sense of Jewish peoplehood until modern times is the major schism of medieval Judaism: the Karaite movement of the eighth and ninth centuries ce in the Middle East. Calling for a return to the literal meaning of the Scriptures (Hebrew, mikʾrah, from which the Karaites got their name) and denying the authority of the rabbis and the Talmud, the Karaites separated themselves from mainstream Judaism, developing their own religious law based on biblical precedents. Religious authority and the sources of divine law were the cruxes of the Karaite-Rabbinite conflict, although there may have been socioeconomic forces operating as well. Nevertheless, there were attempts, by Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/8–1204) and others, to encourage close contacts between the two religious communities. In modern times some Karaite groups have closely identified with the Jews (the Karaites in Egypt), whereas others disassociated themselves (the Karaites in the Ukraine).
Theorizing about the nature of the Jewish people was not an especially important theme in medieval Jewish philosophy but was implied in various formulations of the purpose of Jewish existence. In some streams of speculative Jewish thought, Jewish peoplehood was embedded in a theology that conceived of Judaism as an eminently rational faith, its doctrines of the oneness of God, the createdness of the universe, the rational component of prophecy, and the reasonableness of the commandments being logically justified by categories and arguments derived from ancient Greek philosophy as glossed by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian writers. For Saʿadyah Gaon, "our nation of the children of Israel is a nation only by virtue of its laws" that, because they are divine, can never be abrogated: "The Creator has stated that the Jewish nation was destined to exist as long as heaven and earth would exist, its law would, of necessity, have to endure as long as would heaven and earth" (Gaon, 1948, p. 158). Torah, as consonant with right reason and authentic revelation, provided the most reliable, expeditious, and truthful means to serve God, the raison d'être of Israel.
Maimonides presented Judaism as derived from Abraham's great insight into the divine nature:
His father and mother and the entire population worshiped idols … but his mind was busily working and reflecting until he had attained the way of truth, apprehending the correct line of thought, and knew that there is One God, that He guides the celestial Sphere and created everything.… When the people flocked to him [in the land of Canaan] and questioned him regarding his assertions, he would instruct each one according to his capacity till he had brought him to the way of truth.… And so it went on with ever increasing vigor among Jacob's children and their adherents till they became a people that knew God. (Mishneh Torah, Idolatry 1.2)
Addressing a proselyte who asked if he could pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the "God of his fathers" (the first of the Eighteen Benedictions), Maimonides wrote that "Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism" (Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte ). He or she who believes in the basic principles of the Jewish faith, as Maimonides defined them, "is then part of that 'Israel' whom we are to love, pity, and treat, as God commanded, with love and fellowship"—otherwise he or she is an atheist, heretic, and unbeliever (Introduction to Pereq Heleq [Sanhedrin 10.1]). For Maimonides, those who affirm the unity of God as the cause of causes come as close as humanly possible to grasping divinity as such.
A second tendency in medieval Jewish thought was to emphasize the supermundane nature of Israel. In the philosophical tradition the exemplary exponent of this position was Yehudah ha-Levi, who suggested that "Israel among the nations is like the heart amid the organs of the body," at once the sickest and the healthiest of entities, exposed to all sorts of diseases and yet possessing through its relationship to the "divine influence" a unique proclivity that manifested itself as the gift of prophecy (Yehudah ha-Levi, 1946, p. 109). In another of ha-Levi's images, Israel is the seed "which transforms earth and water into its own substance," carrying this substance from stage to stage until it brings forth fruit capable of bearing the divine influence, so that the nations who at least follow part of God's law pave the way for the Messiah and will become God's fruit (Yehudah ha-Levi, 1946, p. 227).
The supernatural conception of Israel reached its apogee in Qabbalah, the medieval mystical tradition that originated in southern France and northern Spain. Thus, in a discussion of the mitsvot in the basic qabbalistic text, the Zohar, circumcision is a perquisite for carrying out the surface meaning of the divine regulations (although to be circumcised only and not carry out the precepts of the Torah is to be like a heathen); the deeper mystery is to understand that Torah, God, and Israel are indissolubly linked (Zohar, Leviticus, 73b). Drawing on ancient Midrashic teachings about Israel's central role in the cosmos and on medieval Neoplatonic metaphysics, the qabbalists taught an esoteric doctrine that Israel's carrying out of the commandments has direct, puissant effects on the highest spheres of Being. Fulfillment of the commandments by Israel with the proper intention (kavvanah ) overcame forces making for cosmic disharmony, effecting unifications (yihudim ) in the realm of divinity. After the expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s, the impact of the Qabbalah spread, protecting Judaism against loss of morale and providing a solace in times of degradation. In the sixteenth-century Lurianic version of Qabbalah, the exile of Israel was paralleled by the exile of God, while the ingathering of the sparks of divinity achieved by fulfilling the mitsvot can be seen as the metaphysical analogue of the eventual ingathering of Israel at the climax of history. The implications of these qabbalistic doctrines were felt in the seventeenth-century messianic movement surrounding Shabbetai Tsevi and, in a different way, in eighteenth-century Hasidism.
The Modernization of Jewish Peoplehood
The crisis of traditional Jewish peoplehood coincided with the overwhelming transformation of modernizing societies and the drastic shift in meaning of the term nation in Western and westernized societies. Previously, in many Western languages, nation had loosely designated a community connected by ties of birth and common geographical origin. Toward the end of the eighteenth century and especially during the era of the French Revolution, nation acquired a more specific connotation in relation to political geography and the nexus of sovereignty: the nation came to apply to the citizenry as a whole, in contrast to the "political nation" of the ancien régime, which was limited to the wellborn and the elite.
Inasmuch as revolutionary France and, later, other modernizing countries forged the unity of the nation-state by dissolving the remnants of traditional estates and semiautonomous corporate entities, the extension of legal equality to all citizens had profound implications for Jewish identity. As modern nationalist movements and ideologies called for the self-determination of one nation after the other on geographical, cultural, linguistic, and historical grounds, the status of the Jews, now on the road to legal and political emancipation—and apparently to economic and social integration—appeared exceptional and problematic. The almost seamless web of sociology, halakhah, and aggadah that had supported traditional Jewish peoplehood for centuries began to unravel.
In September 1791 the French revolutionary assembly acknowledged the citizenship rights of all French Jewry—Sephardic and Ashkenazic. In 1807 Napoleon invited a body of lay leaders and rabbis to clarify the status of the Jews of his realm with respect to the accusation that they were a "nation within the nation." In defense of their rights, an Assembly of Jewish Notables (and the following year a group given the grandiloquent title of Sanhedrin) distinguished between the religious requirements of Judaism, held to be timeless and absolute, and the political dispositions of biblical society, no longer applicable "since Israel no longer forms a nation." In effect, large areas of Torah law that dealt with civil and criminal matters were inoperative, and the fiscal and semipolitical autonomies that the Jewish communities had been awarded were acknowledged as no longer feasible—all this occurring at a time when the theological assumptions in which all traditional religious faiths were grounded were slowly being undermined by forms of thought influenced directly or indirectly by modern science and technology.
The course of Jewish emancipation in one Western country after another had to overcome considerable opposition by those who held to the Christian basis of the state or who continued to insist on the cultural alienness of the Jews. During the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, Jews in central Europe tended to define Jewry as a purely religious body whose positive mission in the Diaspora was to preserve the doctrines of pure ethical monotheism. The national or ethnic component seemed to some, especially in Germany, to be obsolete. In their rejection of the traditional messianic notion of a particularistic Jewish redemption (the ingathering of the exiles to Zion, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the reinstitution of the Davidic monarchy), German Jewish Reformers preferred to eliminate these symbols from the liturgy, just as they preferred the language of the land in worship at the expense of Hebrew and otherwise sought to assure Jews and their neighbors that they were "Germans of the Jewish faith" or even "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion." To support this redefinition it was sometimes argued that nationhood had been a necessary aspect of the emergence of ethical monotheism in biblical times and had been the preservative of the truths of Judaism in the Middle Ages, but in an enlightened age, when Judaism would come into its own as a progressive, universalistic faith, it did not need an ethnic integument. Jewish unity was not of a political but of a spiritual character that in no way contravened the loyalty of Jews to their secular fatherlands.
Such ideas were echoed in almost all the trends of nineteenth-century Jewish thought in Europe and America that welcomed emancipation as a just and humane move to rectify the humiliation and segregation inflicted on Jewry for centuries and to recognize the historical role and intrinsic worth of Judaism. These conceptions of Jewish peoplehood were influenced not only by the novel political and social situation of modern Jews but also by the growth of Jewish historical scholarship that accompanied the emergence of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the modern scientific, or scholarly, study of Judaica). Having gained an appreciation of how Jewish religious institutions and ideas had undergone development in the course of time, some historians, and especially Jewish intellectuals in eastern Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century, turned to the Jewish collectivity as a social fact in its own right. Moreover, modern transportation and community facilitated the transformation of the Jewish people on a mundane level. As Lloyd P. Gartner noted, "In the middle of the nineteenth century emancipated European Jews took the first steps toward converting the intangible religious conception of 'community of Israel' (knesset Yisraʾel) into the tangible reality of international Jewish organization, bound together by newspapers, philanthropy, and new range of organizations for the defense of the Jews in dangerous parts of the Diaspora" (Gartner, 2001, p. 147).
Just as the earlier phase of modern Jewish thinking had been influenced by the struggle for emancipation, so this phase was increasingly influenced by the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the growth of nationalist movements among the peoples of eastern Europe, and the emergence of modern Zionism. The term anti-Semitism was coined in the 1870s to indicate that dislike of the Jews was supposedly not for religious reasons but was a defense against "Semitic" aliens acting as a corrupting, dominating force in the national organisms of Europe. Drawing on the medieval negative image of the Jews as Christ-killers and allies of Satan, the new anti-Semitic ideologies assumed a variety of forms, economic, political, and cultural. Racist anti-Semitism insisted that the sinister characteristics of the Jews could never be corrected through cultural or theological reform because these traits were psychobiological in origin. Some anti-Semites held that even Christianity was infected with a Jewish virus.
The period between 1881 and 1914 also saw the reappearance of physical attacks on the Jews (the pogroms in Russia), restrictive quotas in education, blood libels of a medieval type in which Jews were again accused of killing Christian children for ritual purposes, and anti-Semitic congresses and political parties. These and other elements were to be synthesized by Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis), founded in Germany after World War I, which came to power in 1933 with fatal results for the six million European Jews caught in Nazi-dominated Europe during World War II.
Zionism gained urgency from the spread of modern anti-Semitism but had roots in the Jewish tradition as well. Zionism sought to reconstitute the Jewish peoplehood in a tangible sociopolitical community rather than in the idealized versions of much previous nineteenth-century Jewish thought. From the mid-nineteenth century on, and especially after 1881, Zionist ideologues argued that one's Jewishness should not be based on a mission of Israel to convey pure ethical monotheism to the world, as some of the German Jewish reformers had proposed, but on natural pride in one's heritage and a healthy desire to identify with one's people rather than assimilating to one or another of the nationalisms of Europe.
This assertion of Jewish ethnicity in a secular rather than religious sense produced a broad continuum of movements in eastern Europe by the beginning of the twentieth century. Jewish socialism championed economic justice as well as emancipation for the Jewish working class, advocating sweeping Jewish ethnic and cultural rights. The Jewish Workers Bund of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania was sympathetic to an ideology of Diaspora Jewish nationalism that called for legally recognized rights of the Jews as a European cultural minority. Alongside Zionism, a Jewish "territorialist" organization looked for a land other than Palestine as the setting for a Jewish state. There was a growing interest in Jewish social and economic history and in the folklore of eastern European Jews and of the Sephardic communities. A literary renaissance in Hebrew and Yiddish produced a rich body of novels, drama, poetry, and prose in those languages.
Many of these secular concerns were also manifested in the world Zionist movement established in 1897 to create a modern Jewish home in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. Zionism embraced the ideas that a Jewish homeland would serve as a creative center for the revitalization of Jewish cultural values in modern form, that anti-Semitism was a symptom of the abnormality of Jewish life in the Diaspora that could only be cured with Jewish "self-emancipation" made possible by a Jewish commonwealth, and that cooperative farming communities and a vigorous labor movement in the Land of Israel was the expression of a social revolution among the Jewish masses. Religious forms of Zionism developed as well. In post–World War I Europe, and especially after the Nazis came to power in Germany, the goal of a Jewish refuge—a home that the Jews could go to by right when threatened with political persecution, economic discrimination, or physical extermination—became an increasingly urgent concern.
The thrust of modern thinking around the theme of Jewish peoplehood in the twentieth century emphasized, therefore, the notion of kelal Yisraʾel (the wholeness of the people of Israel). An influential American Jewish ideology that emphasizes cultural pluralism, Judaism as a civilization, and the centrality of Zion together with the international character of kelal Yisraʾel is that of Mordecai Kaplan, who insisted on the continued relevance of Jewish religious values but denied on principle that the Jews were the "chosen people." Other American Jewish theologians rejected Kaplan's effort to normalize the Jewish tradition by stripping Jewish peoplehood of a transcendent uniqueness. After World War II, and especially by the late 1960s, "ethnicity" (a slippery concept, difficult to define) was more easily acknowledged as a positive force in Jewry in and of itself (as it has been among other groups), while belonging to the Jewish people has been assumed a far more voluntaristic character, expressed in a wide range of ways and unusual forms. After the Holocaust came noticeable improvement in Jewish-Christian understanding. And with the greater acceptance of Judaism and the social integration of Jews came a considerable increase in the United States in the numbers of converts to Judaism.
The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 brought a new series of issues to the fore concerning Jewish membership and meaning. Will Israel, as a secular Jewish state, be fully legitimized in the international family of nations? And in what does the Jewishness of the state of Israel consist? What is to be its relation to the religious dimension of the Jewish heritage? The question of personal Jewish status has been raised several times in Israel's courts of law in connection with the law of return, which grants all Diaspora Jews immediate Israeli citizenship upon their immigration there. In the case of Oswald Rufeisen, a born Jew who became a Catholic priest, the supreme court of Israel ruled that although Rufeisen was a Jew by halakhah, his acceptance of Catholicism excluded him from the Jewish people, and therefore he was not to be granted automatic Israeli citizenship. In the 1968 Shalit case, involving children of a non-Jewish mother who were raised as nonreligious Jews, the children were not allowed, on purely secular grounds, to be registered as Jews on their identity cards.
The twenty-first-century definition of "who is a Jew" reflects a mix of halakhic principles and informal Jewish attitudes. Yet another issue involves whether the State of Israel will continue to recognize as authentically Jewish those Jews converted in the Diaspora not according to Orthodox authorities or strict halakhic procedures—that is, by Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis. This in turn directs attention to the legitimacy of religious pluralism within the Jewish people—a conspicuous fact in parts of the Diaspora but not in the State of Israel. In the United States the question of who is a Jew has been raised in connection with children of intermarriages where the non-Jewish mother does not convert to Judaism; the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, but not the Conservative and Orthodox, have argued for a recognition of patrilineal descent under certain circumstances. Underlying the question of who is a Jew is the issue of the contemporary authority of halakhah : how, to what extent, and by whom will Jewish religious law be adapted to modern times. Behind all these specifics, however, is the question of the transcendent meaning of Jewish peoplehood, which will surely remain a delicate and profound subject for Jewish theologians.
Anti-Semitism; Christianity; Conservative Judaism; Essenes; Hasidism; Holocaust, The, article on History; Israelite Religion; Judaism; Kaplan, Mordecai; Karaites; Marranos; Orthodox Judaism; Paul the Apostle; Qabbalah; Reform Judaism; Sadducees; Samaritans; Torah; Zealots; Zionism.
Three classic histories of the Jewish people are Heinrich Graetz's Geschichte der Juden von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart, 11 vols. (Leipzig, Germany, 1853–1876), translated by Bella Löwy and Philipp Bloch as History of the Jews, 6 vols. (Philadelphia, 1891–1898); Simon Dubnow's Vsemirnaia istoriia evreiskogo naroda, 10 vols. (Berlin, 1924–1939), translated by Moshe Spiegal as History of the Jews, 5 vols. (South Brunswick, N.J., 1967–1973); and Salo W. Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., 18 vols. (New York, 1952–1983, plus the index for vols. 9–18, 1993). The history of Judaism in relation to the Jewish people is covered in David Biale, ed., Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York, 2002); Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Judaism (Oxford, 2000, 2003); and Martin Goodman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (Oxford, 2002). Pertinent to the Jewish people in relation to the changing context of Judaism is S. N. Eisenstadt, Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective (Albany, N.Y., 1992). A stimulating perspective on these transformations is Efraim Shmueli, Seven Jewish Cultures: A Reinterpretation of Jewish History and Thought (Cambridge, U.K., 1990).
An overview of the historiography of the origins of the people up to and including the settlement in Canaan is George W. Ramsey's The Quest for the Historical Israel (Atlanta, 1981). The uniqueness of Israelite monotheism is defended by Yehezkel Kaufmann in The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg (Chicago, 1960). An earlier work by Kaufmann explains the primary role of religion in Jewish survival until modern times, Golah ve-nekhar, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1954). On Jewish and Christian self-definition in antiquity, see Lawrence H. Schiffman's Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Hoboken, N.J., 1985). On biblical, Jewish, and Christian uses of the name Israel, see Samuel Sandmel's The Several Israels (New York, 1971). Early halakhic aspects are treated by Shaye J. D. Cohen in "The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law," Association for Jewish Studies Review 10 (Spring 1985): 19–53. The theological views of classic rabbinic Judaism are treated in Ephraim E. Urbach's The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, 2d enl. ed., 2 vols., translated by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, 1979), see especially chapter 16.
Medieval Jewish views of Jewish identity in a Christian environment are discussed in Jacob Katz's Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (London, 1961). A history of Jewish proselytism is in Joseph R. Rosenbloom's Conversion to Judaism: From the Biblical Period to the Present (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1978). The branches of the Jewish people around the world are surveyed in Raphael Patai's Tents of Jacob: The Diaspora; Yesterday and Today (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971). Among the books on Jewish modernization are Jacob Katz's Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770–1870 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973); Calvin Goldscheider and Alan S. Zuckerman's The Transformation of the Jews (Chicago, 1984); and Simon N. Herman's Jewish Identity: A Social Psychological Perspective (Beverly Hills, Calif., 1977).
Secular approaches to Jewish nationhood are defended in Simon Dubnow's Nationalism and History: Essays on Old and New Judaism, edited by Koppel S. Pinson (Philadelphia, 1958); and Ben Halpern's The American Jew: A Zionist Analysis (New York, 1956). A gamut of Zionist views, secular and religious, are in Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader (Garden City, N.Y., 1959). Most books that treat the main aspects of Jewish faith discuss the religious significance of Jewish peoplehood, but among the few important Jewish works that have taken it as their central theme are Mordecai M. Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of Jewish-American Life (New York, 1934); and Michael Wyschogrod's The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election (New York, 1983). A scholarly account of peoplehood in twentieth-century American Jewish religious thought is Arnold M. Eisen's The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology (Bloomington, Ind., 1983). For a collection of statements on "who is a Jew" as this question has come to the fore since the establishment of the state of Israel, see Baruch Litvin, comp., Jewish Identity: Modern Responsa and Opinions on the Registration of Children of Mixed Marriages, edited by Sidney B. Hoenig (New York, 1956). A succinct treatment of Judaism in the context of the dilemmas of modernizing religions is R. J. Zwi Werblowsky's "Sacral Particularity: The Jewish Case," in his Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Changing Religions in a Changing World (London, 1976). A philosophically sensitive picture of the nature of Judaism is Leon Roth's Judaism: A Portrait (New York, 1961).
See also Saʿadyah Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, translated by Samuel Rosenblatt (New Haven, Conn., 1948); Yehudah ha-Levi, Book of Kuzari, translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld (New York, 1946); and Lloyd P. Gartner, History of the Jews in Modern Times (Oxford, 2001).
Robert M. Seltzer (1987 and 2005)