is Judaism a major religion?

JEWS & JUDAISM

Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.

The Indigenous-led UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples using a guideline with a number of differentiating characteristics. Among these characteristics is the following: “distinct language, culture, and beliefs.” Judaism is the distinct religious framework (i.e. beliefs) of the Jewish tribe.

Judaism is an ethnic, rather than universalizing, religion. Ethnic religions are religions that are specific to a particular ethnic group. Universalizing religions are religions that transcend ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national affiliation. Two examples of universalizing religions include Christianity and Islam. Universalizing religions spread via colonialism, imperialism, and proselytization.

Jews don’t proselytize. The only reason you can find Jews in nearly every corner of the globe is that foreign empires displaced an Indigenous population. This displacement(s) is something that Jews have in common with other Indigenous Peoples. By contrast, you can find Christianity and Islam across the globe because the *faith* spread (via colonialism and imperialism), rather than the *people.*

 

JUDAISM AS “RELIGION”

Virtually all Indigenous tribes have — or had — a spiritual framework specific to their tribe. Indigenous tribes worldwide generally make no distinction between their tribal identity, peoplehood, and religious/spiritual practice. Their spirituality is an intrinsic part of who they are as a people. For Jews, it is no different.

The idea that Jews are merely a “religious group” is a fairly recent one and dates back to the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

In the decades that followed, Jews living under the reign of Napoleon were finally officially granted freedom and security to live as Jews under one major condition: Jews could no longer exist as a distinct cultural and ethnic minority but instead were forced to assimilate into French society as French citizens. 

In 1806, Napoleon wrote: “[It is necessary to] reduce, if not destroy, the tendency of Jewish people to practice a very great number of activities that are harmful to civilisation and to public order in society in all the countries of the world…it is necessary to change the Jews…Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”

This (French — that is, foreign) imposition fundamentally shifted the way that Jews understood their identity.

 

THE “OLD TESTAMENT”

The Tanakh, also known as the “Hebrew Bible,” is a specific text consisting of the sacred mythologies, laws, and spiritual beliefs of a specific tribe (the Jewish People) in a specific region of the world (Israel-Palestine).

While it’s true that the first Christians were Jews, the Jewish People did not “claim” said Christians, as evidenced by the infighting between Jews and Christians in the aftermath of the death of Jesus. In just a few centuries, a massive empire — an empire that colonized the Jewish homeland *and* enacted a genocide on the Jewish population (i.e. the Hadrianic genocide), no less — adopted Christianity, appropriating our most sacred texts, without the consent of the Jewish community.

Because the Tanakh was never meant to be understood outside of its intended context, the Romans both misinterpreted and weaponized said misinterpretation as justification to murder Jews. Mistranslations of the Tanakh were also weaponized to perpetuate antisemitic conspiracies that culminated in violence (e.g. the Romans mistranslated the verb “karan,” meaning “sent forth beams,” confusing it with “keren,” meaning horns. As such, the conspiracy that Jews have devil-like horns was born).

The term “Old Testament” implies that the Tanakh is unfinished, that our sacred text is not complete and instead comes in two (or more) parts. Many Jews — myself included — find the term “Old Testament” problematic and even offensive.

 

 

OUT OF CONTEXT

Judaism — and by extension, the Tanakh — was never meant to be understood out of its cultural and tribal context. Taken out of context, it becomes something else entirely.

The concept among Indigenous Peoples that their ancestral land is a gift from the heavens/deities/G-d is quite universal, though of course Indigenous Peoples are not homogenous, and as such, different tribes across the world have different beliefs and different ways through with which they exercise their stewardship over their lands. For example, among Algonquian Peoples (modern-day Canada and northeastern United States), there is a legend that, when the world was created, a godly entity known as the Great Spirit (“Aasha Monetoo”) gave the land to the Shawnee tribe (an Algonquian-speaking tribe).

Similarly, the Hebrew G-d states in the Torah: “to your descendants I have given this land [the Land of Israel]...” Rabbinic Judaism surmises that G-d had set the Land of Israel aside for the Jewish People during the time of Creation**.

Taken out of its tribal context, however, this sounds a lot like…well, colonialism. But as I’ve previously stated, Judaism was never meant to be taken out of context, and the only reason that it was is that foreign, oppressive empires violently took what was most sacred to us *without our consent.*

**this does not mean only Jews can live in the Land of Israel, so don’t twist my words.

 

AS A “FOUNDATION”

Some argue that Judaism is considered a “major religion” because Judaism provided the “foundation” or “building blocks” for Christianity and Islam.

But to Jews, Judaism is not the foundation for anyone else; Judaism is complete and needs no other religion to complete it. In fact, this sort of rhetoric is the rhetoric that Messianic “Jews” such as “Jews” for Jesus utilize to groom vulnerable Jews (e.g. new Soviet Jewish immigrants, who, due to the Soviet cultural and spiritual genocide, often became very distant from their Jewish identity). To utilize this metaphor, Judaism is the entire building.

The idea that Judaism should be a building block for someone else only makes sense if Judaism is framed through the lens of Christianity and Islam. In fact, this is the lens through which dhimmitude (second-class citizenship) was justified in Muslim-ruled countries for nearly 1,500 years. Jews were “People of the Book,” but they were not Muslim, and as such, they were subject to oppressive laws.

Judaism should only be framed through Judaism, not through the eyes of our historic oppressors. Had Jews contributed to Christianity and Islam *consensually,* then the foundation metaphor would make sense. But we didn’t.

 

OVERESTIMATION

Numbers-wise, the idea that Judaism is a “major religion” makes zero sense. There are exponentially more Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists than there are Jews in the world. There are more Sikhs than there are Jews in the world. The vast majority of the world population has never met a Jewish person. And yet, the majority of the world vastly overestimates the Jewish population.

Jews form 0.2% of the world population. By contrast, ~31% of the world is Christian and 26% of the world is Muslim. About 15% of the world is Hindu and 7% of the world is Buddhist. 0.38% of the world is Sikh.

Jews come from a small region of the world roughly the size of New Jersey. Israel, the world’s only Jewish majority state, constitutes about 0.1% of the world population. Yet 30% of the world thinks Jews form 1-10% of the world population. 18% of the world thinks Jews form over 10% of the world population. On average, Americans think Jews form 30% of the American population. In reality, only 2% of the United States is Jewish.

This overestimation is likely rooted in two things: (1) had Jesus never existed (and by extension, Christianity and Islam), Jewish issues would be completely inconsequential to the world at large; and (2) antisemitic conspiracies that Jews are a lot more powerful and influential than we actually are.

This overestimation is harmful simply because it’s inaccurate and feeds antisemitic conspiracies and disinformation about the Jewish People.

 

CONCLUSIONS

Just because it doesn’t make much sense to describe Judaism as a “major religion” doesn’t mean that Judaism isn’t important. Like it or not, and certainly through no fault of our own, Judaism changed the course of world history. That’s pretty significant.

But misdescribing Judaism as something that it is not only contributes to the disinformation campaign that Jews, for instance, have no valid ancestral and Indigenous claim to the Land of Israel. It feeds antisemitic conspiracies about so-called Jewish power and influence. And it misinforms the world about who we are as a people, nation, and tribe. In my opinion, all of this is quite problematic.

If you are not Jewish and this post makes you uncomfortable or even angry, I encourage you to sit with this for a moment and consider what I have to say. Learning from a marginalized minority, as Jews have been for 3000 years, usually means that you must work through some discomfort. If you are Jewish and disagree with this post, you are obviously entitled to your own opinion, but I ask you to think about the way that you understand who you are. Does your perception of yourself come from you, from your ancestors, and from your people? Or does it come from your historic oppressors?