“Is Judaism a religion?” You might have read the title of this post and thought, “Yes, of course.” And on the surface level, you wouldn’t be wrong. Of course Judaism is a religion. But I want to dig a little deeper and explore this a bit further.
Consider this: Christians are people who believe in the teachings of Christianity. Muslims are people who believe in the teachings of Islam. Jews don’t necessarily believe in the teachings of Judaism.
You can read that again: Jews do not necessarily believe in the teachings of Judaism. In fact, 27% of Jews in the United States consider themselves atheist or agnostic. That’s a pretty significant number. And yet, by Halacha (Jewish law), atheist and agnostic Jews are every bit as Jewish as the most observant Jews.
The term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE). In Hebrew, Jew is “Yehudi(t),” meaning someone from “Yehuda” (Judah). The term Judaism — “Yahadut” in Hebrew — could be translated as “Jew-hood,” as in “the state of being Jewish.” For reference, for example, “childhood” in Hebrew is “yaldut” (the dictionary definition of “childhood” is “the state of being a child”).
WHAT IS RELIGION?
Believe it or not, the modern concept of “religion” is a rather new construct. In fact, Judaism predates this concept by millennia. There is no exact equivalent to the word “religion” in Hebrew. The closest terms are “dat” (“law”) and “emuna” (“belief”).
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.
The term “religion” comes from Old French and Anglo-Norman, dating to around the year 1200 (about 800 years ago). By contrast, Judaism is over 2500 years old; Jewish beliefs (i.e. Yahwism, the predecesor to Judaism and Samaritanism) are over 3000 years old. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “religio.” Scholars believe that “religio” comes from either (1) the Latin words “re” (“again”) + “lego” (“read, go over, choose, consider carefully”); or (2) “re” (“again”) + “ligare” (“bind, connect”).
“Religion” can be defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship.”
The concept of religion as we know it today only dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, despite the fact that sacred texts, cultural practices, and spiritual traditions and beliefs have existed since the dawn of humanity. It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, that Europeans even conceptualized Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Judaism as “religions.”
WHAT IS JUDAISM?
Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe.
Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. This is verifiably true per 3000 years’ worth of archeology, a plethora of genetic studies, and thousands of years of historical record. 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.
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 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 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 imposition fundamentally shifted the way that Jews understood their identity.
So if atheist and agnostic Jews are considered Jews by Halacha (Jewish law), what about Jews who choose to convert to other religions?
It’s important to note two things: (1) all tribes, Jews included, have specific parameters for membership; and (2) as mentioned, in terms of Jewish identity, Judaism, ethnicity, culture, and peoplehood/nationhood (not to be confused with modern nationality; e.g. American, Canadian) are inextricable from each other. This is not unique to Jews but is virtually universal for Indigenous Peoples across the globe, per the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues definition of Indigeneity.
For the purposes of lineage, according to Jewish law, regardless of the person’s religious belief, a Jew cannot stop being a Jew. *However,* according to Halacha, Jews who abandon Judaism *by choice* (as opposed to forced conversion) become “meshumadim” (an example being Messianic “Jews” of Jewish ancestry). Though still considered Jewish by lineage, they cannot claim any privilege pertaining to Jewish status, such as participating in a minyan.
ANTI-JUDAISM VS ANTISEMITISM
Anti-Judaism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based only on religion. Antisemitism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based on religion, culture, and/or ethnicity. Anti-Judaism is always antisemitism, but antisemitism is not always anti-Judaism.
The word “antisemitism” itself was coined in the 1870s by an antisemite in Germany to replace the previously used term “Jew-hatred,” as “antisemitism” sounded scientific, which “legitimized” it. This was during the beginning of the height of the scientific racism movement.
Much — but not all — of the early anti-Jewish sentiment and persecution in Europe was motivated by anti-Judaism. Jews were persecuted on the basis that they had chosen to reject Jesus and Christendom. *However,* anti-Judaism has had a racist component from the start. While Jews are an ethnic group, not a race, antisemitism racialized us. In other words, we were not seen as a religious group.
Some examples of this early Christian racialization of Jews include concept of a polluted “Semitic race” in the Middle Ages, the ideology of “Limpieza de Sangre” during the Spanish Inquisition, and antisemitic stereotypes about the Jewish body (e.g. large, hooked noses, which were depicted as ugly or even grotesque). For more on this, see my post A HISTORY OF RACIAL ANTISEMITISM.
SO NOW WHAT?
With all this being said, there are certainly some important advantages to classifying Judaism as a religion: (1) most people are likely unfamiliar with the nuances and the history of the word “religion,” as well as the history of how Judaism came to be understood as religion; (2) for all intents and purposes, Judaism does fit the “religion” descriptor; and (3) sometimes, the classification of Judaism as a “religion” is important for documentation purposes.
A noteworthy point, though: in the United States, the FBI keeps track of various categories of hate crimes, including crimes committed due to the victim’s sexual orientation, religion, gender, and disability. However, race/ethnicity/ancestry are lumped together into a single category. Antisemitic hate crimes are classified under religious bias, which many Jews and Jewish organizations find problematic, as the vast majority of antisemitism is *not* anti-Judaism; that is, most people that target Jews don’t target Jews because they dislike the Jewish religion. Instead, we are generally targeted on a racialized basis (again, Jews are not a race; we are an ethnoreligious group, but that doesn’t matter to antisemites).
Jews constitute 2% of the American population, and yet we are targeted in 60% of all religiously-motivated hate crimes. But we are also the targets of 10% of *all* hate crimes, and that’s quite a disproportionate number. That’s worth noting, but it’s not documented, because of the way that the FBI classifies Jews. That’s why I think it’s important to stop reducing Jewish identity to a religious identity and start looking at Judaism through a more holistic, non-Western, and yes, decolonized lens.
It’s also important to note that while membership into the Jewish tribe is *not* dictated by genetics, the study and classification of Jewish genetics matters when it comes to disease prevention and medical research.
Finally, other Jews are of course entitled to disagree with my opinions. I do hope that I’ve at least provided some food for thought as you navigate how to relate to your own Jewish identity.
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