Skip to main content

Jewish Identity

JEWISH IDENTITY

Through the ages Jewish identity has been determined by two forces: the consensus of thinking or feeling within the existing Jewish community in each age and the force of outside, often anti-Jewish, pressure, which continued to define and to treat as Jewish even such groups which had in their own consciousness and that of the Jews already severed all ties with Jewry. The most enduring definition of Jewish identity has been that of the halakhah, but it was not the first definition and it was not the only one, at least in some minority opinions, even during the many centuries when it was the dominant view. Among gentiles, hatred of Jews has generally dominated from age to age among those forces which have fashioned far more inclusive definitions of Jewish identity than Jews themselves would accept.

Biblical Period

In the biblical period Jewish identity meant belonging to the Jewish community as a religio-national entity. The "stranger" (ger) would become naturalized into this community by choosing to live its life. At the very beginning of Jewish history, in the Exodus from Egypt, a substantial number of strangers chose to accompany the Jews into the desert (Ex. 12:48; Lev. 24:10). During the conquest of Canaan, remnants of the earlier inhabitants of the land of Canaan remained resident among the Jews (i Kings 9:20–21) and from time to time, some refugees from nearby peoples also came into the Land of Israel (Isa. 16:4; 24:14–15). These strangers were not treated as slaves and it was regarded as a religious obligation, oft repeated, to treat them fairly (Lev. 19:33:34; Mal. 3:5). However, they were not given land among the tribes of Israel, even though Ezekiel commanded even this (47:22). Marriage with gerim was expressly permitted, with the exception of those who descended from Ammonites and Moabites, and for three generations, those who descended from Edomites and Egyptians (Deut. 23:4–9). In ritual matters the obligations and the privileges of such resident aliens were not markedly different from those of native Jews, especially if such strangers had undergone circumcision (see Ex. 12:48 and Lev. 17:8–14). There are some counterthemes in the Bible suggesting that the stranger remained not quite fully accepted religiously (in Deut. 14:21 he is the one who is permitted to eat nevelah, i.e., the flesh of a permitted animal which is, for one reason or another, not kasher). Nonetheless the situation in the Bible is such that a worthy such as *Naaman takes back with him to his own land soil from the land of the God of Israel and proclaims his reverence for that deity, without becoming a Jew (ii Kings 5:17). It is the alien who chooses to live permanently within the Jewish polity (ger toshav) who is in the course of time assimilated into and accepted within Jewry.

The first important change in these attitudes occurred after the Babylonian Exile. The handful of Jews who returned under Zerubbabel and Ezra in the 6th and 5th centuries b.c.e. were now an embattled minority, even in the very heart of their own settlement, in Jerusalem and the land nearby. They found that those Jews who had remained during the period of the Exile had intermarried with the tribes whom the Assyrians had brought to dwell in the land. Formal religious conversion had not yet been devised, and even had it been thought of then, as there is some contemporary evidence that it was (Neh. 10:29), mass conversion could not have solved the national problem of the feared dissolution of the returning Jews into some syncretism containing elements of their own faith and culture along with foreign elements (such as the practices of the Samaritans nearby). In this situation Ezra chose the uncompromising path of ordering all of those who wanted to remain faithful as Jews to put away their foreign wives (Ezra 9–10). A minority community, which remained, even after the rebuilding of the Temple, semi-autonomous but not nationally sovereign, could not return to the biblical practice of accepting any who chose to live within it. A community becoming a theocracy had now to conceive of its identity as primarily religious and to accept within itself only those who underwent formal acts of religious assent.

Such religious assent was not yet halakhic, in large measure, of course, because the rabbinic halakhah itself was yet in the process of being created. The *Samaritans, who were being separated from the main body of Jewry in the centuries that followed immediately after their quarrel with Ezra, were indeed defined by the halakhah as very nearly Jews, for they were regarded in rabbinic law as trustworthy with respect to all the commandments which they were known to keep (Kid. 76a). What divided them from Jews was that they refused to accept the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem and thus chose a separate communal destiny, and the rabbis held that they could be received as Jews only after they renounced Mount Gerizim (Kuthim, end.). In later ages the Samaritans themselves were quite eclectic in their sense of identity. They chose to be regarded as Jews in those periods when such definition brought them practical advantage. In the course of time the leniency of the halakhah toward the Samaritans evaporated; they were regarded as the classic example of what happens to some Jews who intermarry, adopt syncretistic religious practices, and live as a separate community, but this process of divergence, despite Ezra's anathemas, took generations.

Hellenistic and Early Christian Periods

The encounter of Jews with the Hellenistic world began with the presumption that the first few individuals who were acceptably learned in Greek language and ways could be regarded as both Jews and Greeks. There is a story, probably apocryphal, told by Clearchus, the disciple of Aristotle, that his master met a pious Jew whom, after conversation, he called "a Greek man both in language and in spirit." This openness soon became problematic. Hellenistic culture necessitated involvement of all those who wished to be part of it in activities which required formal worship of the pagan gods. There was much Jewish syncretism with the prevailing culture, as is proved by the fact that the Maccabeans revolted, in the first instance, against the Hellenistic party within Judea itself. Nonetheless, most Jews were not "good citizens" in their widespread Diaspora or in their own land, when it was dominated by the foreigners. They were exempt from military service, because it interfered with the observance of the Sabbath and the festivals, and they did not take part in the liturgies, the physical service that all citizens gave in working on such tasks as road repair, and the contributions for the upkeep of the gymnasia. There continued to be Jews who wanted to be accepted as Hellenes, but even they were soon rejected. In Alexandria in 41 c.e. the local Greek community fought bitterly against the desire of some Jews to be admitted to the local gymnasium, the usual first step in attaining complete Greek citizenship. In this quarrel the Alexandrian Greeks were upheld by the Emperor Claudius, who made it clear in the text of his decree that he regarded the Jews as a separate and unique entity within his realms. By that time the attitude of the Hellenistic world had crystallized with substantial clarity: anyone who still belonged to Jewry, by any kind of religious affiliation, such as contributing to the support of the Temple in Jerusalem, even if he were culturally Hellenized, remained a Jew in the eyes of the pagan world; only complete conversion to Hellenistic paganism, the step taken by a figure such as Tiberius Alexander, the nephew of Philo, the outstanding figure of Hellenistic Jewry, could make an end of Jewish identity, as perceived by the gentiles. It was almost as completely agreed, as a number of haters of Jews had been saying for two centuries before the embittered battles between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria in the middle of the first century, that the peculiar practices and religion of the Jews represented an attack on the rest of society (see *Antisemitism).

The issues between Jews and Greeks had been sharpened by the Maccabean revolt. Greek writers had known as early as Herodotus that Jews were somewhat strange but there was no major venom in these encounters until the Maccabeans raised the standard not merely of national independence but of the need to purify the national religion. Hellenistic paganism could not be accepted on any terms for the sake of civil peace; it was idolatry which had to be destroyed. In the century before the Maccabean revolt there had appeared Jewish writers in Greek who claimed that all Greek and Egyptian wisdom had descended from Jewish biblical teachers. The inevitable angry answer was that Jews had been inferior disciples of the Egyptians. *Manetho, a Hellenized Egyptian priest who wrote, in the third pre-Christian century, the first serious attack on Jews, accused them of having been at the time of the Exodus from Egypt a group of lepers who were thrown out for the sake of the health of the country, and such attacks became frequent in the next century. In such an atmosphere sharp choices had to be made. There is some evidence that the Hellenistic party in Palestine totally left the Jewish community after the Maccabean victory. There is more convincing evidence that, at least for the next couple of centuries, Greek-speaking Jewry in the Diaspora had a very low rate of *apostasy, regardless of changing and often lessening factors of inner Jewish cohesion. Here the causative factor of Jewish cohesion was primarily external, the pressure of their enemies on Jews whose religion was becoming more and more syncretistic and ever more condemned by the rabbis.

The attitude within Jewry itself toward Jewish identity was being changed and new formulations arose because of the remarkable success that Jews were having in a variety of areas in converting others. The Hasmoneans forced Idumeans and a number of other border communities to convert to Judaism, and it is not entirely clear whether this conversion was conducted with more formality than those of the ancient biblical gerim, who were merely added to the life and fate of the Jewish polity. In the Diaspora there was an increasing number, perhaps millions by the first century, of sebomenoi (metuentes, yereim – God fearers), gentiles who had not gone the whole route toward conversion. There were some gentiles both in the Diaspora and in Ereẓ Israel who did just that, among them even some of the great figures of Pharisaic history, such as the ancestors of Shemaiah and *Avtalyon among the early leaders and the translator of the Bible into Aramaic, *Onkelos. Most half-judaized gentiles remained in that estate, and were regarded not as Jews but as sympathizers, for Jewish identity had assumed, in the minds of most Jews, halakhic definitions, certainly by Hasmonean times. The gentile world, contemplating these sebomenoi, continued to regard them, even after many of them turned Christian, as people who harbored strange, unworthy private opinions, not far different in quality from the many others who had taken up Oriental mystery religions. This did not confer upon these believers any new legal status, such as exemption on the grounds of belief from civic duties. Late Hellenistic paganism regarded the sebomenoi not as Jews or as half-Jews but as suspiciously aberrant pagans.

The forces both of Jewish acceptance and of definition by gentiles were more nearly univocal in the case of nascent *Christianity. The earliest Pauline Christians, those gentile converts to the new religion who had not first become Jews according to the Law, were not regarded by anyone as Jews. The Jewish Christians, especially the circle in Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the first century, were much more of a problem. Whatever may have been the exact beliefs of these Ebionites, their exclusion from the Jewish community did not occur primarily for halakhic reasons. By their own choice these Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and emigrated to Pella at the beginning of the war of 66–70, and they thus separated themselves from the national destiny of the Jews. Despite the fact that the Pharisaic leadership of that time was opposed to the war, this action by the Christians set the seal upon tensions which had originated in dislike of the beliefs of the new sect. Within a generation, by the end of the first century, the rabbis included a new prayer in the Amidah, "And for the minim let there be no hope" (cf. *Birkat ha-Minim). By that time the Roman Imperial authorities were recognizing Christianity officially as a new religion, because the emperor Nerva (96–98) exempted the Christians from the fiscus judaicus.

The Jewish Christian group remained nonetheless for some years in an intermediate position, but this stance ended during the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–5) and its immediate aftermath. Those who did not participate in that glorious tragedy could no longer lay any claim on being Jewish. Official Christianity was by then largely gentile and it was systematically excluding all traces of the preeminence of Jews in the new religion. The animosity between the two groups was quite pronounced by the middle of the second century, and in the next century, when Christianity was declared an illegal religion, Judaism retained its status as a religio licita. Even in a religious convulsion of the most profound kind it was not ultimately theological formulation or even halakhic norms which were decisive for the separating definitions of Jewish and Christian identity. Matters of belief might have remained a family quarrel within Jewry. What ultimately separated the two communities was the choice of the Christians to live out a separate historic destiny – and the agreement of the Romans to permit them this choice.

Middle Ages to the 19th Century

The *Karaite heresy through its various permutations from its origin 12 centuries ago was, for the most part, regarded as part of the Jewish community even though, paradoxically, the weight of halakhic opinion was that their legal practices, especially in relation to the marriage law, had excluded them from Jewry. Marriages between Karaites and Rabbanites continued well into the Middle Ages and did not cease entirely until the 15th and 16th centuries. Karaites were petitioned along with Rabbanites in Egypt, in the 11th century, and no doubt earlier and later, to help ransom captives from both communities; Karaite elders were at that time prominent in Fostat in the affairs of the largely Rabbanite community. All of this existed immediately after Saadiah's leadership in both Palestine and Egypt, with all of his anathemas against the Karaites, the practice of pronouncing an excommunication each year on the Mt. of Olives by the Rabbanites against the Karaites, and the bitter Karaite continuing counter-polemics. Under Islam, the Karaites refused to accept the authority of the geonim and the Exilarchs, who were Rabbanites. Nonetheless both groups continued to await the same national and messianic redemption; they shared the same destiny as Jews and they regarded each other as such and were so regarded by the gentile majority. All over the world, both Moslem and Christian, wherever both Rabbanites and Karaites were represented, they were treated throughout the centuries as belonging to the same community. The only exception occurred after 1795 in Czarist Russia when the legal discriminations against Jews were lifted entirely from Karaites, in the ensuing half-century, with the result that Karaites and Jews no longer regarded themselves as members of the same community.

The most complicated example of interweaving of internal and external forces was that of Marranism (see *Anusim; *Marranos). On occasion both Islam and Christianity forced Jews to apostasize, in such places as Yemen and North Africa, in the early centuries of Islam, and from late antiquity throughout the Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula, in the case of Christianity. The historic destinies of these various Marrano groups were not always the same. Under Islam forced apostates were usually allowed to return to Judaism within one generation. Those who chose not to do so usually rapidly assimilated. Under Christianity the situation was different. The majority which had forced the conversions looked upon the newcomers with suspicion for many generations. This "antisemitism" always lasted longer than any intensity of Jewish feeling or affirmation among the Marranos themselves, for, especially wherever there was some opportunity to escape, those who chose to remain Marranos had, in one or two generations, little Jewish loyalty and even less secret Jewish practice than they were suspected of harboring. Remaining Jewish loyalties were revoked into new vigor in Spain of the 16th century not so much by memories of the past as by persecution by the Inquisition. The attacks continued in the 17th and 18th centuries in the name of the doctrine of *limpieza de sangre ("purity of blood"), under which *New Christians of even partial Jewish ancestry were barred from the highest offices of state and Church; there was therefore new reason for people who had ceased to be Jewish except by accident of birth to reinvent a kind of Judaism which was really their Christian upbringing, with the subtraction of its specifically Christian elements. For such figures, e.g., Uriel da *Costa, their return to a Jewish community which was actually living normative Judaism, such as the one in Amsterdam in the 17th century, was a difficult and sometimes tragic journey into a strange and constricting world.

The Jewish community to which the escaping Marranos were returning was in theory defining its attitude toward them in terms of the halakhah. The basic view in all versions, both Franco-German and Spanish, of the legal tradition was that a Marrano, or any other kind of forced convert, remained a Jewand was to be welcomed back as such upon his return; indeed, in law, he was regarded as a Jew in a state of grave transgression. This definition was completely unproblematic so long as it was confronted either by forced apostates who threw off their apostasy at the earliest possible moment or by apostates by choice who never looked back over their shoulder at what the Jewish community might be saying about their halakhic identity. It ran into difficulties when confronted by all the ambiguities and indefiniteness of Marranism, where the apostasy as such was not always forced but rather, as in Spain in 1492, largely the choice of many of the wealthy not to leave their property and to accept Christianity in the hope that some change might soon happen. Opportunities occurred in many situations, especially in Christian Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries, to escape, but the choice was most often not taken. Nonetheless some family ties remained, and were remembered, with Jews elsewhere; some inner cohesion, if only of evaporating sentiment, was still felt; and those who did escape, often the children or grandchildren of marriages that were questionable from the Jewish point of view, laid claim to Jewish identity and to full acceptance. The rabbinic authorities who dealt with this question were divided, the most liberal, Ẓemaḥ Duran, maintaining that even if the Marranos were to be regarded as true apostates they must nonetheless be accepted as Jews on purely halakhic grounds. On the other hand, Jacob Berab, who had himself fled from Spain, took a much harder line against those who had remained and ruled that the Marranos were gentiles in every respect except for the laws of marriage and divorce.

In actual fact these halakhic definitions were not ultimately determinant of the attitude of the Jewish community toward Marranos. The overwhelming evidence is that wherever they turned up, from the 15th to the 16th centuries, be it Venice, or Bordeaux, or Hamburg, and declared themselves to be Jews, the males were soon circumcised, the marriages were resolemnized, and no barriers were put in the way of their joining the existing Jewish communities. No serious questions were asked about the validity of the marriages of their Marrano ancestors. To be sure, there was halakhic warrant for this attitude, because in talmudic law in the absence of any evidence to the contrary a Jew is believed in any declaration that he makes about his personal status, and certainly about whether he is a Jew. It is also true that these returning Marranos formally accepted upon themselves all of the commandments of rabbinic Judaism. Nonetheless the determining act was their willingness to become part of the Jewish community, and all the halakhic doubts of rabbinic authorities remained theoretical in the face of acts of return.

A more curious case was that of the *Doenmeh, those followers of the false messiah Shabbetai Ẓevi who emulated their master and converted to Islam in 1686 or 1687. Their separation from the main body of Jewry was not complete for centuries. Even the rabbis spoke of them as "Jewish sinners" and not as "people uprooted and separated from Israel, who have no part in it." Halakhic considerations were here operative, for it had long been held, at least since Maimonides, that conversion to Islam was not a denial of the unity of God or a form of idolatry. Nonetheless these were not forced converts and, what is more, they held messianic ideas which had been declared heretical in the most violent terms. On the other hand, the Doenmeh were never trusted by the Muslim majority and, at least in the early years during the persecution by the Pasha Hassan (1722), they were made to suffer as Jews. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Doenmeh studied Talmud with Jewish scholars and they discontinued this in 1859, along with making some other of their Jewish practices even more secret, only under investigation by Muslim authorities. The identity of the Doenmeh was still sufficiently separate, and separated, in the social sense for it to have been noted that young men of this origin were particularly prominent in the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. It is even still rumored that Kemal Ataturk belonged to the Doenmeh. The Doenmeh experience paralleled that of the Christian Marranos. After conversion something of their Jewish identity was maintained in secret by choice; persecution made the content of this identity ever harder to preserve, but it kept alive a pained sense of alienness for many generations.

The Modern Era

At the dawn of the modern era the definition of Jewish identity was no problem almost everywhere in the world. The trickle of Marranos coming out of the Iberian Peninsula ceased almost completely by 1800 and the Inquisition came to its effective end soon thereafter. On the European stage a Jew was someone defined by halakhah, that is one who was born of a Jewish mother (or who converted to Judaism) and who in actual practice regarded himself and was regarded as belonging to the Jewish community. This had legal relevance, for the Jew was structurally part of systems of law, both his own and of the governing powers, which depended on his identity's being clear cut. The only way that he could change was by conversion to another religion, which in actual practice in Europe meant some form of Christianity. Halakhically even this may not yet have excluded him from Jewry, but it did everywhere admit him to legal rights and status within the majority. So long as this was the action of a relative few, followed in due course by intermarriage with people not of Jewish stock (see *Mixed Marriage), some social discrimination might remain, but conversion effectively ended Jewish identity in most cases. Indeed in the aftermath of the Jacob *Frank episode in the 1770s his followers who converted to the Catholic faith quickly intermarried with Polish nobility, and the Jewish origins of their descendants were not widely remembered.

With the era of the *emancipation the whole question of Jewish identity appears in new forms. The structure of law which enshrined a precise definition of who was a Jew came to an end wherever any version of the modern secular state was created. Before the law religion became a matter of indifference and the choice to uphold one's own became purely voluntaristic. The law protected the right to private opinion and free association for worship, provided the specific practices of a religion were not flagrantly in conflict with public order as conceived by the state. This formulation had Christianity in mind, for it defined religion as containing dogma about God and the world to come and as acting in specific forms of worship. These premises were accepted by the founders of *Reform Judaism both in Germany and in the United States, who constructed a modern definition of Jewish identity as that of individuals who belonged to the Jewish religious faith, now conceived as containing primarily ethical content and personal edification. This non-national definition of Judaism and Jewry was shared in many senses by the *neo-Orthodoxy that arose in Western and Central Europe under the leadership of Samson Raphael *Hirsch. Here too, the general culture was accepted and patriotic identification was made with the state. What was different was that neo-Orthodoxy identified the content of Jewish religion with every aspect of the inherited law, meticulously observed as divine commandment, but whatever was national in Judaism was relegated to far-off, apocalyptic days and thus made largely irrelevant. Both of these versions of Jewish identity could not utterly deny the obvious, that they were addressing themselves to the biological descendants of Jews, and that, regardless of their self-definitions, they were inevitably involved with all sorts of Jews, both in their own countries and all over the world. Many of those who thus began with definitions of Judaism, but wanted no identification with the Jewish people, moved into a general ethical humanism and entirely out of Jewry.

To be sure, in a number of European states the institutions of the Jewish religion were in some sense still "established" even after the emancipation, and in some jurisdictions, such as Hapsburg Austria and its successor republic and in Prussia, a Jew could cease paying some fractional tax to the Jewish community only by declaring himself "without religion." It was, of course, an open secret that such people were, in the overwhelming majority, Jews, and some social discrimination was directed against them. Nonetheless at the height of 19th-century liberalism in Europe and America, it was possible for some Jews to "pass" without doing anything more than simply ceasing to function in any Jewish association of any kind. On the other hand, it was possible for Jews to feel a strong sense of Jewish identity on the basis of minimal or no association, even after every vestige of religious faith and practice had evaporated. Increasingly there arose the institutions of the voluntaristic Jewish *community of the modern era, which accepted this situation. These bodies regarded it as their task to serve any who claimed to be Jews, especially at moments of danger or when such people needed social services. Indeed, these very voluntaristic associations to alleviate suffering became increasingly the overarching Jewish community organization. This modern pattern had been forecast, when the delegates of the Portuguese Jews returned in February 1790 from Paris to Bordeaux with the news that their community had been granted equality. It was decided that very day to make an end of the historic "Spanish-Portuguese Jewish nation" and to reorganize the community as a welfare committee.

However, the majority community did not easily accept these various new forms of Jewish identity, especially as ever greater numbers of Jews moved in the direction of appearing to be, and even feeling that they were, undifferentiated westerners, and so the marginal Jew appeared, marginal both to his own earlier identity and to the one that he was trying to acquire. Such figures had appeared at the very dawn of the era of the emancipation, in Isaac de Pinto, the Franco-Dutch Sephardi who debated with Voltaire, and David Friedlaender, the disciple of Mendelssohn. Men such as these, and their equivalents (e.g., Heine, Bernard Berenson) were to occur in every generation of the modern era, especially wherever the Jews were a minority fighting for equality. Some were ambivalent about their Jewishness and spent their lives in emotional torment, but most believed that Jews would achieve equality only by total assimilation to the way of life and outlook of the majority. An element of such a vision was an assumption of responsibility on the part of Jews for helping to create the kind of society which would live up to its most spacious new vision of equality for mankind. Inevitably the moral commandments of this doctrine moved Jews to turn away from specific concerns for their own community to the concerns of the general community, and the battle for Jewish rights itself could, and often was, identified with the struggle for the rights of all oppressed individuals and minorities. Since men do not easily jump out of their skins, this basic position was often identified as messianic, arising out of Jewish prophetic teaching and carrying it to the ultimate conclusion of the dissolution of Jewish specificity as the climactic act in the historic drama of Jewish existence.

The appearance of Jews in the revolutionary movements of the modern age was, in terms of Jewish identity, motivated by considerations comparable to those given just above which inspired their immediate Jewish predecessors in modernity, who did battle for the rights of Jews in the liberal era. Here there was already an awareness that bourgeois society was not living up to the promises of the middle-class revolutions and that from the perspective of all the oppressed, and certainly from that of the Jews, the only hope for real human equality was to uproot the past and to begin all over again in some new dispensation in which all men were equally cofounders. The more apocalyptic was the vision of a heaven on this earth, the more, either explicitly or in subterranean ways, did the allegiance of Jews to revolutionary movements represent both a conscious denial of specifically Jewish identity and an expression of certain aspects of that very identity. Here the battle against antisemitism and reechoes of Jewish prophetic messianism fused to create the post-Jewish revolutionary. So prominent have Jews been in modern movements of social reform, political revolution, new literary and art forms, and new modes of human self-understanding, that their enemies generally identified the hated and upsetting newness of things and thoughts with Jews. In many western countries during the last century the literary and intellectual community was heavily penetrated by Jews; and such subcultures as a whole, although Jews were often under attack within them, became identified as "Jewish," even though the Jews within these circles did not, except sometimes in crisis, function as Jews.

If inner Jewish commitment had become functional and diverse in the modern era, so had the outside world in which Jews were attempting to live. Before the middle of the 19th century the vision of the Enlightenment, an all-human society to which all regenerated men would belong, had been joined, both as ideal and as political doctrine in Europe, by nationalism. The question was therefore raised again whether Jews could ever participate in a national culture and society with historic roots in a distant past in which they did not share. More important, antisemitism was not in the process of coming to an end, not even among the most modern and revolutionary groups. On the contrary, to the older religious and economic rationales for hatred of Jews among some of the makers of modernity, such as Voltaire in the 18th century and some of the founders of socialism (Proudhon and Fourier) in the 19th, new anti-Jewish arguments were added about the ineradicable cultural alienness of even the most assimilated Jews. The racial theorists who followed after Gobineau defined Jews as a biologically alien race. Even non-socialists who were not anti-Jewish, such as Werner Sombart and Max Weber, elaborated on the essay (Zur Judenfrage) of the young Karl Marx, agreeing that the Jews had a very special, middleman and capitalist, role in the economy from the very beginning of their existence and that they were, if not by their very nature at least by long historical experience, removed from primary production and agriculture and thus unassimilable into all the healthy pursuits of a normal economy. From a variety of perspectives the Jew who wanted to become part of the contemporary world was thus faced with ever more complicated dilemmas. He could choose to remake himself even more thoroughly than he had imagined and get rid of every trace of his supposed past nature. He would nonetheless remain confronted by some, such as the German historian Treitschke, who would continue to insist that the most dejudaized of Jews had not yet become German. A future therefore had to be fashioned by the modern Jew in another direction: the creation of some realm of his own within which he could enter the contemporary world free of the intellectual and physical pressure of his enemies. This was all the more necessary for the westernizing Jewish intelligentsia that arose in the modern era, precisely because they were themselves part of all the secular and secularizing movements and states of mind to which their relationship was increasingly ambiguous.

All of this, especially as antisemitism became ever more virulent in the last third of the 19th century, led away from both reformed religious definitions of Jewish identity, or various modes of acculturation, to national definitions of what the contemporary Jew was or could become.

Its essential affirmation was that the Jews are a people, an organically developing historic community among many such communities which together make up human society. The Zionist version of this definition is not the only one, and it indeed arose somewhat later than most of the others. From this perspective the Jewish people is unlike most others in the extent of its dispersion, its persistence for many centuries without a land of its own, and a number of other differences from the prevailing norms of modern national identity. Despite the fact that this was a people which harbored a particular religion, belonging to this people, from the beginning and certainly in the modern, secular era, was defined as a national sentiment rather than a matter of religious assent. Just as it was possible in the modern age of doubt to cease being Anglican and remain English, so it was possible to cease believing in Judaism and remain Jewish. At least in theory, such secularization solved the problem of Jewish identity and continuity in the modern age, but those who accepted these new premises remained confronted by two questions: why should an individual prefer one secular culture over another, unless his own is always demonstrably higher? In what sense can a secular culture lay moral onus on those who abandon it? Questions such as these led such theoreticians of Diaspora nationalism as Simon *Dubnow to opt for Jewish communal organization, an international Jewish parliament, and national institutions of culture and education to maintain the national ethos. Others, such as the Yiddishist movement which arose at the beginning of the 20th century, laid the accent on Yiddish as the spoken and living language of the vast majority of world Jewry, at least before 1939, and aimed at preserving a secular national culture in that language.

Even before the Nazi Holocaust, the Zionist criticism of Diaspora nationalism was its unrealism. It was argued that national identity would be abandoned by Jews in the Diaspora, at the very least because of economic and social demands made upon the individual Jew by his quest for personal economic success. Some sentiment might remain, but inner Jewish content would inevitably evaporate in any post-ghetto society, even in one such as Poland between the two world wars, where bitter discrimination continued to exist in many areas. Zionism held that a continuing secular Jewish identity was, as a matter of social fact, possible only where Jews had achieved territorial concentration. Moreover, to be historically valid, a nation had to be involved in its own land, the soil of its ancestors, not in some new arrangements in new places, and the people had to revive its capacity to speak its own classic language, Hebrew. This was not only valid historic identity, but also the preservation in the secular, modern context of the best resonances of the religio-national past.

In contemporary Israel, therefore, the question of Jewish identity revolves around the interpenetration between the older, religious and halakhic definitions of who is a Jew and the both more contemporary, and far older communal-national emphases. Very small elements within the whole of Israel would go so far as to declare themselves to be Jewish Canaanites; however, many are in sympathy with the idea that the strictest of religious tests cannot be applied to those non-Jews by birth who have chosen to identify themselves in Israel with its Jewry. On the other hand, in circles far wider than those of the officially Orthodox, there is continuing and even increasing concern about returning to a sense of tradition which is beyond the purely secular. Indeed, one of the recurring problems studied by Israel sociologists is whether its population, and especially its younger population of Jews, regard themselves as primarily Israelis or primarily Jews. By all of the usually established criteria, from religious observance to involvement in the destiny of world Jewry, the Orthodox and most of the non-Sabras of all persuasions rank as "Jews." The non-Orthodox Sabras consider themselves "Israelis" on all counts except that they feel strongly about their connection to the Jews of all the world and their involvement in this international destiny.

In recent years the question of what is contemporary Jewish identity has been a matter of considerable political and social concern for the State of Israel. Under its Law of Return all Jews have a right to automatic admission and immediate citizenship in Israel. For this purpose non-Jewish spouses and the often halakhically non-Jewish children (of gentile mothers) have been allowed to accompany the Jewish member of the family who emigrated to the land of his ancestors. Many of the problems which have thus arisen have been solved individually by ritual conversion, but the question of definition was inevitably tested further by a Jew by birth who had become Christian (the Brother Daniel Case before the Supreme Court of Israel in 1966, see *Apostasy), and by intermarried nonbelievers who refused to allow their children to undergo ritual conversion (the Shalit Case of 1970). The Supreme Court of Israel decided against Brother Daniel, despite his valid halakhic claims to Jewish status, on the ground that he had chosen to remove himself by conversion from the history and destiny of the Jewish community. In the Shalit case, the court ruled that the technically non-Jewish children of this intermarried couple should be registered as Jews because they were growing up within the Jewish community of Israel as indissolubly bound to its destiny. Such registration, however, would have no bearing in matters of marriage and divorce. This emerging consensus was inevitably involved with concern about what such new, legal definitions of what is a Jew would do to the unity of world Jewry, where, in theory, the halakhic definition prevailed. Considerations such as these were important in the overturn by the Israeli Knesset of the Supreme Court's decision in the Shalit case, by reaffirming the halakhic definition. Years earlier, in 1958, after a governmental decision that anyone who declared himself to be Jewish would be registered as such, the then prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote to a wide variety of Jewish religious, intellectual, and legal figures both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The answers that he received ranged from reaffirmation of the halakhah to acceptance of inner emotional choice and labeling by the outside world as valid forms of Jewish identity.

The social situation of world Jewry outside Israel more nearly approximates the second rather than the first definition. In the major center of the Jewish Diaspora, the United States, the rate of intermarriage is now generally held to be at least one in two. It is estimated that many thousands of conversions to Judaism are taking place every year, the largest number under Reform auspices, and thus not halakhically satisfactory. There are even a number of Jewish clergy in the U.S. who are officiating at intermarriages even without conversion. All of these non-Jews are coming into some relationship with the Jewish community, and even the many who live entirely outside it are affected in some degree, even in those cases where their spouses are substantially dejudaized. Among those born and raised as Jews, the whole corpus of contemporary American Jewish sociology has had as its major subject in this generation repeated study of such questions as the rapid evaporation of Jewish ritual observance and intensive Jewish learning, the negligible rate of regular synagogue attendance, and the erosion of opposition to associating or marrying outside the Jewish group. On the other hand, these same studies have proved a very high rate of almost exclusive association of Jews each with the other even among those younger Jews who affirm little or nothing of the content of the Jewish tradition and an ongoing sense of at least passive involvement in what happens to Jews all over the world. To be sure, there are small, though notable, circles of younger Jewish intellectuals in all of the extreme revolutionary groups, and Jews also figure prominently among those who are dropping out of society in the name of highly personalist, often mystic, fulfillment. Even among these, some Jewish consciousness is still present, and it certainly does exist among the vast majority of their less radical contemporaries. This emerging, or eroding, Jewish identity is historic, in a very muted way, and situational.

The fate of Jewish identity in Eastern Europe, particularly after World War i, evolved under far different circumstances. The fundamental fact underlying this development is the unchanging concept, shared there by Jews and non-Jews alike, that the Jews are a historic, ethnic unit, i.e., a people, a "nationality" or even a "nation," into which a person is born and to which he belongs, whether he lives up to it in his linguistic, cultural, and religious habits or not. Out of this concept emerged for some periods and under favorable political circumstances, certain forms of official Jewish autonomy, mainly in educational and cultural facilities (as, e.g., in Poland, the Baltic states, and also in the Soviet Union in its first decades, where even an unsuccessful experiment of Jewish territorial autonomy in *Birobidzhan was made). Ultimately, however, particularly from the 1950s, Jewish identity in the Soviet Union became trapped into an unprecedented cruel paradox. The obligatory registration of each individual born of Jewish parents as being of Jewish nationality, even when he is a declared atheist or even a convert, remained in force, though alltraces of the Jewish historical heritage and of Jewish educational or cultural facilities were eradicated, thus transforming the Jewish population into a kind of a "ghost nation." In other East European countries, the registration of the Jewish nationality was optional, and not obligatory; but eventually this formality did not lead to the obliteration of Jewish identity through the assimilation of a sizable number of Jews into the majority nation, but rather to mass emigration, to Israel or to other countries, since the formal option did not change the traditional concept of the Jew, sometimes even people of partly Jewish descent, as being ethnically different and "alien." This fact was often exploited in antisemitic campaigns for political purposes, as, e.g., in Poland in 1968–70. In the U.S.S.R. the paradox of the obligatory registration of the Jewish nationality, though devoid of any historical or cultural content, caused a growing manifestation of Jewish identity and even identification with the independent Jewish nation in Israel, mainly among the younger generation, including spontaneous efforts of small groups to study Hebrew and Jewish history and to congregate en masse in and around the synagogues in the great cities. The tension engendered by it transformed the solution of the problem of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union gradually into an international moral issue of major magnitude (see *Antisemitism, in the Soviet Bloc, *Assimilation, in the Soviet Union, *Russia).

In the last third of the 20th century there were many Jews, especially that worldwide, intensely Jewish, religiously traditionalist minority, for whom the question of Jewish identity was decided by the halakhah. The overarching institutions of world Jewry, while paying respect to this view, determine their policy by broader and more amorphous considerations of history and situation. So, when the last remaining, completely dejudaized, almost entirely intermarried communists of Jewish parentage in Poland were purged in 1968, the Israeli government provided them with the necessary exit passports, even though few were going to Israel; the world Jewish social service budget took care of the overwhelming majority who opted to go to other countries. Those who suffer as Jews, regardless of their own perception of that suffering, and those whose Jewish consciousness might one day be rekindled, remain part of world Jewish concern. In the broadest sense, significant elements of world Jewry in the modern era have defined, and are defining, Jewish identity as a community of history and destiny of those who still feel their involvement in this community or about whom others feel strongly that these people belong to Jewry.

[Arthur Hertzberg]

In the last third of the 20st century significant developments occurred in the three largest centers of Jewish life – the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel. In the Soviet Union, the upsurge of Jewish feeling triggered by Israel's Six-Day War created steady pressure for immigration to Israel and the accompanying phenomenon of the *"refusenik," denied an exit visa by the Soviet authorities, as well as open celebration of Jewish holidays in the streets of Russian cities. With the collapse of the Communist system the mass emigration of Soviet Jewry commenced, most arriving in Israel, where it may be said that for most a process of "Israelification" set in which, though it involves sets of identities tied to the everydayness of life in a modern Western society, also bears the powerful imprint of the country's Jewish identity. In the former Soviet Union itself, Jewish communal life has also revived, centered on synagogues, community centers, and an extensive Jewish educational system, often under the auspices of Chabad rabbis but also with the support of the Jewish Agency and other international organizations. In the United States all the disturbing demographic trends noticeable since World War ii continued, but here too Jewish identity was fortified among identifying Jews, partly as a result of the emotions generated by the Six-Day War and partly as part of the general upsurge of ethnic pride in the United States in which blacks and Alex Haley's Roots played a pioneering role. However, the precise nature of this Jewish identity, which seeks to affirm Diaspora life as a legitimate variety of Jewish experience, no less valid than a Jewish experience centered in a Jewish state, remains problematic, if only for demographic reasons. In the last analysis, the Jewishness of this identity does not prevent Jews from drifting away from Judaism, even if Judaism is perceived as no more than a cultural identity or intellectualized under the rubric of a Diaspora multiculturalism that seeks "to create a community of communities and a culture of cultures," as the editors of Insider/Outsider put it.

In Israel, Jewishness permeates everyday life. How one defines oneself – as a Jew, Israeli, human being, or professional person – does not alter the context of this daily life, which is life in a Jewish state whose symbols, ceremonies, aspirations, and commonality are rooted in palpable Jewish experience. In Israel one may be Jewish in spite of oneself. This is its saving grace, and the meaning of the Jewish state. It cements the Jewish identity and, like the strictest Orthodoxy, ensures its survival.

[Fred Skolnik (2nd ed.)]

bibliography:

S.N. Herman, Israelis and Jews: The Continuity of an Identity (1971); Y. Kaufmann, Golah ve-Nekhar, 1 pt. 1 and 2 (1929); Kaufmann, Y., Toledot, 4 pt. 1 (1956), 501–3; B. Ringer, The Edge of Friendliness, A Study of Jewish-Gentile Relations (1967); M. Sklare, Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier (1967); L. Fein, Studying Jewish IdentityObservation and Bibliography (1966); E. Rosenthal, in: AJYB, 64 (1963), 3–53; 68 (1967), 243–64; M.H. Stern, Americans of Jewish Descent (1960); R. Lowe, in: JSS, 7 (1965), 153–75; E. Schoenfeld, Small-town Jews, A Study in Identity and Integration (1967); S.N. Eisenstadt, Israeli Society (1967); B. Netanyahu, The Marranos of Spain (1966); B. Litvin and S.B. Hoenig (eds.), Jewish Identity: Modern Responsa and Opinions on the Registration of Children of Mixed Marriages (1965); W.G. Braude, Jewish Proselyting in the First Five Centuries of the Common Era… (1940); B.J. Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (19682), J.A. Montgomery, The Samaritans, the Earliest Jewish Sect… (1968); A.I. Gordon, Intermarriage, Interfaith, Interracial, Interethnic (1964); S.W. Baron, Russian Jews under Tsars and Soviets (1964); G. Friedmann, The End of the Jewish People? (1968).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Jewish Identity." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Jewish Identity." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jewish-identity

"Jewish Identity." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved December 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jewish-identity

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.