One of the questions most asked concerning the Jewish people is what is the definition of a Jew? The Jewish News ran an article entitled, “Who Is A Jew?” (10-10-2013, pp.12-14) The article asked if the Jews are a race, religion, or culture? It is usually agreed that the Jewish people must be one or more of the three possibilities, but which? This poses an important question for which Jewish leaders are unable to provide a clear answer. In actuality, there seems to be a definite splintering of Judaism into at least three separate, and perhaps largely disparate, directions.
A Cultural Phenomenon?
Has Judaism for many Jews today become simply a cultural phenomenon? A significant number would say yes, and treat it merely as a dietary regimen like vegetarian “veganism.” The “vegans” have a specific proscribed diet, and so do many people who keep a Jewish kosher diet. If so, what exactly is kosher food defined as? A large Jewish synagogue in metro Detroit celebrated its 151st anniversary recently with a kosher dinner comprised of sushi, tacos, and cocktails! Is this now considered representative of kosher food? It is clear that a kosher meal today has very wide latitude and does not have to consist of latkes and matzos! In addition, it is highly certain that a majority of Jews today accept no restrictions at all in their diet.
Food choices aside, is Judaism simply a calendar-driven event like the American “mother’s day” when friends and relatives get together to catch up on family news and “kibitz” (a Hebrew word for a friendly chat or discussion)? In the past century, the minor Jewish holiday of Hanukkah has become prominent simply as a Jewish family alternative to Christmas. It is the date on the calendar, and proximity to Christmas, that made it important, rather than its original religious significance.
In my own Jewish neighborhood, automobiles line many of the streets on the evening of major Jewish holidays, as friends and relatives gather in private homes, instead of the synagogues, for a simple social gathering with pot-luck meals. For many Jews, religion and worship seem largely to have been replaced by informal family social events, making Judaism a non-religious cultural lifestyle defined at will by each individual or family.
Judaism a Religion?
A new Jewish demographic study, the first in over a decade, has been released by the Pew Research Center of Washington, D.C. It shows that nearly a quarter of American Jews have no religion, and that number is growing. Can Judaism be considered a religion if a large percentage of its followers are irreligious? Today the term “atheistic Judaism” is no longer a contradiction of terms, but an accurate designation for a growing body of Jews who reject any form of religion. Is Judaism any longer defined as a religion? Can Judaism survive without religion?
The Pew study described Jews as “anyone who identified as Jewish or partly Jewish.” This is a very loose self-definition, which includes anyone who might choose to consider themself Hebraic, whether by race, religion, or culture. Apparently, a Jew cannot be a Christian except when they are doing a population estimate! In that case they not only include Messianics (Hebrew Christians), but most probably Gentile spouses as well. Therefore, the actual number of those who practice Judaism as a religion is a drastically lower number. Jack Wertheimer, a consultant to the Pew study and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, stated, “I don’t know how to spin this [Pew] report as being a good news story… It’s a story of a community that’s contracting.” (ibid. pp.12, 14) Not only are Jewish millennials (those born after 1980) more likely to marry non-Jews, but they are also much less likely to attend a synagogue for worship. Even more disastrously, large numbers are deciding to permanently abandon any form of Judaism altogether.
In addition, religious Judaism has split into several different warring denominations who do not agree on what form of religion is proper. What then is the real Jewish religion?
According to the Pew study referenced above, Jewish millennials are intermarrying with non-Jews in record numbers. According to Jewish News, “a whopping 79 percent of those Jews have a non-Jewish spouse” (ibid. p.14). With a 79% intermarriage rate, theoretically within a half-century (i.e. by 2030) few Jews in the entire U.S. would have a majority of the same ethnicity as the Jewish people of 1980. In other words, American Jews are unquestionably becoming ever more ethnically diverse “Gentiles” in composition. It is clear that Judaism must eventually be recognized as effectively a non-exclusive, “Gentile” or “Gentile-friendly” religion. This, in fact, may be the only possible way for it to successfully survive its declining numbers. Aiding this trend are the increasing efforts being made through newspaper advertisements and other means to convert interested Gentiles to Judaism. Anyone can be Jewish!
In actual fact, Judaism historically has gone through periods of large-scale evangelization of non-Jewish peoples, as historian H.G. Wells wrote in his magnum opus, “The Outline Of History.” He stated, “For phases of vigorous proselytism alternated with phases of exclusive jealousy in Jewish history. On one occasion the Idumeans [i.e. Edom], being conquered, were all forcibly made Jews. There were Arab tribes who were Jews in the time of Muhammad, and a Turkish people [the Khazars] who were mainly Jews in South Russia in the ninth century. Judaism is indeed the reconstructed political ideal of many shattered peoples—mainly Semitic. It is to the Phoenician contingent and to Aramean accessions in Babylon that the financial and commercial tradition of the Jews is to be ascribed…The main part of Jewry never was in Judea and had never come out of Judea.” (I:417-418) This respected historian presented several little-known facts: It is surprising but true that many of the trademark traits of Jewry did not have their origin in the Bible or the Hebrew people, and the “main part” of the Jewish people today is descended from non-Israelite Gentiles.
A majority of Jews were “Jewish Gentiles” long ago. The conquest and absorption of the significantly-sized nation of Edom took place in about 120 B.C., and the conversion and absorption of the large Turkish tribal nation of Khazaria (also spelled Chazaria) took place in the ninth century, A.D. Other Gentile conversion episodes occurred off and on throughout the last two millennia. So the gentilization of world Jewry actually long predates our modern era.
We will give the last word on this subject to Simon Klarfeld, the executive director of “Young Judea,” America’s oldest Zionist movement: “While we may have once been the Chosen People, now we are the Choosing People.” (Jewish News, 10-10-2013, p.31) How remarkable a statement, and how true! The Jewish people are largely choosing alternatives to historic Judaism and abandoning any proper semblance of their biblical ethnic and religious heritage. Today’s Jews are choosing to mix themselves wholesale into the Gentile world at large while fracturing into a multitude of inventive and increasingly heedless offspring, a trend that continued over time would move them certainly and ultimately toward eventual irrelevance.