Jewish-ness is not something easily determined. Are we a race? A religion? A nationality? An ethnicity? Or, maybe, we are all of these things or something else entirely. We have been questioning how to categorize the Jewish people for thousands of years, and the recent executive order by the President has brought this question to the fore once again. In the early days of the Reform Movement, back in the 19th century, our founders declared that the Jewish people were only a religious group. The earliest Zionists then firmly stated that Jews represent a nationality. These, however, are only two opinions of the thousands on the core question, “who are the Jewish people?”
In America, it is easy to forget that half of the global Jewish population does not come from a European background. The vast majority of American Jewry is associated with Ashkenazi descent that we take the diversity of the Jewish people for granted. It’s difficult to claim that the Jewish people are a single ethnic group or race. Perhaps, however, the early Zionists are correct. The Jewish people represent a nationality. After all, many of the Jewish people originate from one region of the world, the Land of Israel, our homeland. However, this misses the entire religious and soul element of the Jewish people. We welcome converts to Judaism, those who have made a formal declaration and chosen Judaism later in life, but their ancestors may come from elsewhere in the world.
Still, I’m not convinced that the Jewish people represent only a nationality, a religious group, or any of the other modern categorizations. In our earliest texts, we describe ourselves as an “am,” (pronounced ahm) a people. Sometimes we translate that word as “nation,” but that too falls short of the true definition. Nations are new ideas compared to the ancient sense of peoplehood that unites the Jewish people. Perhaps that is what is most frustrating about all this business of defining the Jewish people. At our core, we are an “am,” a people with a culture, a religion, a homeland, a language, and a history. Yet, none of these things on their own can encompass who we are.
We don’t always set aside enough time to talk about these big, fundamental questions. But this is exactly why we need to take the time for our own Jewish learning. In the Introduction to Judaism class that begins January 7, we’re going to turn to a new core topic of Judaism each week. We will discuss the origins of Judaism, the Torah, the holidays, all of the foundational questions we’ve always had but never had the time to ask.
If you’re interested in finally asking those questions and learning those things that didn’t come up in Sunday school or when you were in college, check out this class. This is the right class for anyone who has ever felt like they didn’t know enough of the basics to explain Judaism to their co-workers, their children, or in their interfaith family. This is also the perfect class for anyone who is considering conversion and wants to learn the foundations of Judaism.
When else will you get to spend dedicated time with your rabbis learning all the things you’ve always wanted to know?
L’shalom | In Peace,