WHO/WHAT IS A JEW?
In modernity the Jews again slip through the grasp of
Gentile attempts to comprehend them. Are the Jews a
race, a nation, or a religion, modern Gentiles and Jews
asked. The answer depended upon the interest of who
At this point, before we go any further, it is necessary to pose what one would think to be a relatively simple query: What, dare we ask, is a Jew anyway? Who are they? Who qualifies for admission? What are the criteria for inclusion as a bonafide member of the Chosen People, secularly, religiously, or any other way? And for the Jewish masses that endlessly wail, rage, and breast-beat about enemies who have allegedly assailed them relentlessly throughout history, and for all the heralded Jewish oppressors who thought they could clearly identify and persecute the people who they hatefully despised, it is bizarrely enigmatic that by the end of the twentieth century even Jews cannot -- in consensus -- decide exactly who and what they are. It is, strangely enough -- as growth pains of modern Israel have borne witness -- an in-house controversy of the most profound dimensions. For if the state of Israel was founded as refuge for world Jewry, and if any Jew in the world has the innate right to be admitted there as an Israeli citizen, who, then, EXACTLY are they? "Jews live in a world," says Michael Selzer, "in which, seemingly, no two Jews can agree on what a Jew really is ... [but] every Jew has his own reasons for knowing that he is a Jew." [SELZER, p. 11] "It is a tragic irony," notes Barnet Litvinoff, "that the only people who could decide with certainty who were Jews were the followers of the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg." [LITVINOFF, p. 6]
[KAMENETZ, R., 1994, p. 156]
A 1964 textbook for Jewish high school students published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations frames the answer to the "Who is a Jew?" query in as vague terms as possible, yet likewise lobbies for the activist continuance of this indeterminate "Jewish" entity:
"Hard to Answer. By now you have discovered that it's not easy to answer
what first seemed like a simple question: What is a Jew? As a matter of fact,
there are some intelligent Jews who do not think the question can be answered
all. They say that we Jews are unique; that is to say, we are different from
any other group of people on earth ... [Some people feel] that, to some extent,
... we are a religious group, in some ways a nation, in some ways a race, and in
some ways a nationality. And yet we are more than any one of these by itself.
We are a religious group plus, a race plus, a nation plus, and a nationality plus.
But it is not easy to define what that 'plus' is in each case." [GITTELSOHN, R.,
1964, p. 20]
The essence of Jewish identity is, hence (in echoing the Chosen People conviction), an indefineable uniqueness -- a term of distinction we will hear more about later in other contexts.
"It is very difficult to give an exact definition of Judaism," wrote Kaufman Kohler in 1940, "because of its peculiarly complex character ... Religion and race form an inseparable whole in Judaism." [GITTELSOHN, R., 1964, p. 27]
"We ourselves know that most of us feel a strong sense of kinship with other Jews throughout the world," says Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, "Perhaps without actually expressing it, in so many worlds, we feel as if we Jews constitute a large 'family.' When we read of some tragedy befalling a group of Jews in Poland, in Turkey, or in Persia, though we are not personally acquainted with a single one of them, we nevertheless feel a verey special sense of loss." [GITTELSOHN, R. 1964, p. 37]
"The classical view of Covenental existence as the basic meaning of Jewishness," adds Monford Harris, "has always been that the Jew who rejects the Covenant is still a Jew. The atheistic Jew of our time (and perhaps this is the dominant type of ou time) who may reject the covenant on the grounds that there was (or is) no God with whom a covenant was made, is still claimed by the covenant as a member of that covenant. The covenant by God with the ancestors stands for all time, with all Jews." [HARRIS, M., 1965, p. 91]
"'We were born of Jewish parents who were born of Jewish parents going back,
I assume, for thousands of years, barring the occasional pogrom and rape.
My ancestors were Jews as far back as you can possibly imagine. That alone
is more than enough to make us Jews." [KRANTZ, J., 2000, p. 325]
Jewish psychoanalyst Theodore Reik put it this way:
"Once a Jew, always a Jew. The story is told in New York of the banker Otto
Kahn and the humorist Marshall P. Wilder who was a hunchback. Strolling along
Fifth Avenue, Kahn pointed to a church and said: 'Marshall, that's the church I
belong to. Did you know that I was once a Jew?' Wilder answered: 'Yes, Otto,
and I was once a hunchback.' The conviction that there is an unalterability about
being Jewish is expressed better in this dry sentence than in many treatises.
It seems that it is as difficult for the Jew to get rid of his Jewishness as it
is for the ancient mariner to lose the albatross." [REIK, T., 1962, p. 90]
Similarly, Meryl Hyman, who thought herself Jewish made plans to emigrate to Israel. But, alas,
"Late in 1996, I called the Israeli consulate in New York to inquire about making
aliyah, about exercising a right to return to the homeland as an Israeli citizen and
and a Jew. I asked the young woman who answered the phone to define a Jew.
She said, 'If you have a Jewish mother.' I said, 'My mother isn't Jewish, but
my father is. I am a Jew.' She said, 'No, you are not a Jew,' and hung up the
phone. I was dismissed by the first person I called." [HYMAN, M., 1998, p. 20]
"The Chosen People had already been chosen by circumstance," insists Jewish author Earl Shorris in addressing the essences of Jewish identity, "They were defined from outside, for no man chooses to be a slave -- the condition that is thrust upon him. The genesis of the people whom God chose was from outside. They were a nation made by their enemies." [SHORRIS, E., 1982, p. 44]