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.
Our history dates back some 4000 years, and, as such, we were one of the oldest tribes in the world. In fact, the word “tribe,” which comes from “tribus” in Latin, was first used to refer to the twelve Israelite tribes.
It’s worth noting that 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), one of the two Israelite kingdoms after the split of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel in 930 BCE.
The fact that modern-day Jews descend from the ancient Israelites should not be up for debate (unfortunately, because of deep-seeded antisemitism and propaganda surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it is). Archeological evidence, a plethora of genetic studies (“Jewish” DNA is among the most studied in the world), historical record, and the continuity of Jewish culture all conclusively tie the origins — and very identity — of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe.
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 word “Judaism” itself doesn’t come from Hebrew, either.
Instead, the term “Judaism” is actually a variation of the Greek word “Hellenismos.” “Judaism” or “Ἰουδαϊσμός” [Ioudaismos] — is how the Greeks described all of the things that encompassed Jewish culture and spirituality.
According to Biblical scholar and rabbi Shaye J. D. Cohen:
“Ioudaïsmós [was not] reduced to the designation of a religion. It means rather ‘the aggregate of all those characteristics that makes Judaeans Judaean (or Jews Jewish).’”
In other words, Judaism is not a religion in the western or modern sense. It’s a word to describe all of the cultural and spiritual characteristics that make our tribe what it is.
TRIBAL/ETHNIC VS UNIVERSALIZING
According to the Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, some of the defining characteristics of Indigenous Peoples include “distinct language, culture and beliefs.” Virtually all Indigenous Peoples have — or had, prior to colonization — a set of spiritual beliefs specific to their tribe. In other words, Indigenous Peoples have their own deities and mythologies. Think, for example, of Greek or Egyptian gods in ancient times.
For Jews, this specific set of beliefs particular to our tribe is known as Judaism.
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, Christianity, and Islam are far from the only “Abrahamic” religions. Our closest ethnoreligious cousins and fellow Israelites, the Samaritans, also consider Abraham their patriarch. So do Bahai’s and the Druze. Yet when people speak of “Abrahamic religions,” they almost always exclusively mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, not Samaritanism, the Baha’i faith, and the Druze faith. The latter three are not the first three either: Samaritanism predates both Christianity and Islam, and arguably Judaism as well.
When we lump Judaism in with Christianity and Islam, we are placing it in a category where it just doesn’t belong. We are stripping Judaism of its uniqueness as a tribal, ethnic, and perhaps most importantly, closed set of spiritual beliefs and pairing it with two universalizing religions that actively encourage proselytization and conversion.
Most Christian denominations encourage evangelism and the spreading of the Gospel. In Islam, the concept of Da‘wah — translating to "issuing a summons" or "making an invitation” — is encouraged, as it increases the size of the Muslim Ummah, or community. By contrast, Judaism does not seek converts and actually discourages conversion. The Hebrew term for conversion, “gyur,” actually translates more accurately to the process of naturalization into the Jewish tribe. Think: an ancient version of immigrating to a new country and going through the process to become a citizen.
When Jews refused to convert to Christianity or Islam, we were murdered for it, repeatedly, over the course of thousands of years. Or, in the best case scenario, we were segregated, denied basic human rights, or relegated to second-class citizenship (i.e. dhimmitude), all in the name of our very own text that was never meant for anyone else but ourselves.
Using the term “Abrahamic religions” when referring exclusively to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam legitimizes the appropriation of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), because in universalizing it, we are stripping it of its intended tribal, national, and cultural context. The Tanakh is at its core the national charter of the Jewish tribe, not a document of moral instructions for the rest of humanity. I recommend you read my post WHEN, HOW, & WHY THE TORAH WAS WRITTEN for more on this topic.
To sum it up: we are lumping the appropriators with the appropriated, which legitimizes the appropriation.
Let’s reiterate: our sacred text was appropriated and then we were repeatedly murdered for not adopting the way that the appropriators interpreted said text.
OBJECTION TO TERM
Some experts also object to the term “Abrahamic religions” on theological, historic, and demographic grounds. To start with, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam understand the role of Abraham in drastically different ways. Not only that, but the three religions do not share the same story of Abraham.
According to professor of Judaic studies Alan Berger, “There are essential differences between the Abrahamic traditions…both historical and theological.” He argues that the relationships between Judaism and Christianity and Judaism and Islam are “uneven” and that the three religions are “demographically unbalanced and ideologically diverse.” To illustrate this point: Jews form 0.2 percent of the world population. By contrast, Christians and Muslims constitute 31 and 24 percent of the world population, respectively. The demographics aren’t even remotely comparable.
Aaron Hughes argues that, while the term “Abrahamic religions” might serve the purpose of interfaith dialogue, it is academically and historically unsound. He calls the term an “ahistorical category” and an example of “abuses of history.” He believes that in grouping the three religions together, we are making vague and imprecise generalizations and preventing an understanding of the complex nature of each of them.
THE TERM JUDEO-CHRISTIAN
Even worse than the term “Abrahamic religions” is the term “Judeo-Christian,” in my opinion.
First, Jews were persecuted in the name of Christianity for 2000 years.
The term was originally coined in the 1930s by American progressive Christian interfaith groups, with the hope of combatting growing antisemitic sentiment in the United States and Europe in the lead up to the Holocaust.
However, following World War II, the term was co-opted by conservative American politicians as a catchphrase against “godless communism.” Ironically, during the period of McCarthyism, Jews were disproportionately targeted under the guise of anti-communism.
In the 1960s and 1970s, white Evangelical pastors further co-opted the term to use it as a rallying call against the Equal Rights Amendment and to oppose gay rights, the legalization of abortion, and more.
Following the 1979 Iran Revolution, the term was once again co-opted by conservatives to spread Islamophobic rhetoric.
In other words: an inaccurate term has been co-opted again and again to promote various forms of bigotry — including, unsurprisingly, antisemitism.
SO WHAT NOW?
Religion is a touchy subject, and I know this is going to strike a nerve. Today Muslims and Christians are discriminated against and persecuted in different parts of the world, and they’ve been persecuted at various points in history as well. Ultimately everyone is entitled to their very personal religious beliefs, but the more I learn about ancient Jewish history and the reasons why, precisely, we were persecuted, the more I feel a need to articulate this frustration.
At this point, this ship has sailed. The majority of the world is either Christian or Muslim. This is not going to change just because I’m pointing out that thousands of years ago, what was most sacred to us was appropriated without our consent. We never wanted to or consented to being the “foundation” of Christianity or Islam. To us, Judaism is complete as it is. Judaism is not the foundation of other religions for us; it’s the building.
What is a massive problem for me is that, in universalizing the Tanakh and lumping us in with Christianity and Islam, two universalizing religions that historically oppressed us, we are relegated to the status of “just” a religious group, just as Christians and Muslims are religious groups. We are a tribe and a nation Indigenous to the Land of Israel, and for 2000 years we were killed for it. Now this is erased and we are called colonizers. This is inexcusable.
I also think that a distinction must be made between a Christianity or Islam that is used to colonize versus Indigenous tribes adopting those religions but incorporating their ancient tribal customs (in other words, religious syncretism). For instance, Kurds, Imazighen, Copts, and Assyrians all incorporate their ancient cultures in their practice of Christianity or Islam.
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