What Are Jews?

A religion? An ethnicity? Yes

Posted Jan 15, 2019

I recently got my genetic heritage results back from 23andMe. The verdict: 99.9% Ashkenazic Jew.

It is interesting, however, that 23andMe does not have a genetic heritage designation for other religions. There’s no genetic category for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or Sikhs. But there is one for Jews. Why? If Judaism is a religion, how can there be a genetic component to that? And if Jews can in fact be genetically classified, does that mean they are a distinct ethnicity or race?

In order to understand, we’ll need to start with some brief historical background.

Thousands of years ago, a tribal civilization existed on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Israel/Palestine. This civilization—like all civilizations at the time, such as the Greeks or the Mayans—consisted of various components: a distinct language, ways of dressing, certain cuisine, music, art, kinship structures, economic relations, government systems, and so forth. What this ancient Israelite civilization also contained was a specific set of legends, myths, and beliefs about the origins of the world, history, and the supernatural. There was also strong belief in a powerful God. These ancient Jews wrote their myths, beliefs, and stories down—creating what is known as the Old Testament. At this time, Jews did not comprise a “religion,” per se. They were a people—a civilization—which had a religious component inextricably interwoven with all other aspects of the culture.

Then, some 2,000 years ago, the Romans conquered/destroyed this ancient Jewish civilization, kicking the Jews out of their ancient homeland and thereby sending different Jewish communities in differing directions, creating a diaspora. Some Jews went east, into the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Syria, Iraq. Others went west, into the Maghreb of North Africa. But most Jews ventured north, up into Europe. For nearly two thousand years, Jews lived in disparate diasporic communities, mixing with their host countries to varying degrees. They held on to their ancient ways as best they could. They married each other. They developed new languages, such as Yiddish (a combination of Hebrew and German) and Ladino (a combination of Hebrew and Spanish). They also held fast to their religion: always studying their sacred scriptures and maintaining a belief in their special god. They were often despised by their hosts, being the victims of endless attacks, persecutions, expulsions, pogroms, and ultimately, genocide.

Historically, Jews constitute a people with roots in an ancient civilization. Yes, religion has always been a huge part of the Jewish people’s identity, but that identity cannot be strictly reduced to religion.

In terms of being a religion, Judaism certainly foots the bill—there are specific beliefs and practices, sacred scriptures and prayers, worship of God, holidays and congregations, and rituals aplenty. And yet, most Jews today do not believe in the specific tenets of the religion itself, most do not participate in all the rituals, or even attend synagogue with much frequency. There are even many Jews who are atheist or agnostic. But even when the religiousness is weak or absent, Jewishness still remains. That’s because of the culture/heritage element. This helps explain why, in a recent Pew study, 62% of American Jews said that their Jewish identity was mainly about ancestry and culture, 23% said it was mainly about religion, ancestry, and culture, but only 15% said it was mainly about religion.

Thus, we get Jews as an ethnicity. Ethnic groups are groups of people defined by a shared culture, heritage, or historical descent. Ethnicity often has to do with common languages or dialects, foods, lore, customs, norms, and values. This ethnic component is a reality for most Jews—however, because of the history of diaspora, there are actually many distinct ethnicities within Jewish civilization; while most Jews are Ashkenazic, there are also Sephardic Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Syrian Jews, and so on. Jewish ethnicity certainly exists, but it is not monolithic.

Then there’s the notion of Jews as a race. Of course, the very concept of race itself is problematic: it seeks to distinguish a group of people as sharing specific physiological traits – like skin color, eye shape, or whatnot. Most scientists dismiss its typological efficacy. Do all Jews look alike? While there are some stereotypical features—such as dark hair, olive skin, etc.—he answer is: No. Especially when you consider Jews from different diaspora communities (Ethiopian, Yemenite, Persian, Indian, Lithuanian, French, etc), the notion that all Jews look alike is hard to sustain.

Finally, there’s the recently created state of Israel—which offers citizenship to anyone who is born of a Jewish mother—which renders being Jewish somewhat of a nationality. But since millions of Jews do not live in Israel and are not citizens of that nation, the notion of Jews as comprising a nationality is regionally limited.

There are approximately 14 million Jews in the world, comprising about 0.2% of the world population. There would be many more today, but about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. And as for what today's 14 million Jews are—the bottom line is that Jews defy any simple, single categorization. They are not strictly a religion, nor are they strictly an ethnicity. They are a mix, a combination, a conglomeration of cultural, genetic, religious, ethnic, linguistic, nationalistic, and spiritual components, resulting from their unique history as an ancient people long dispersed.

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