open/closed religions


I want to talk about this comment because it's blatantly wrong. Not everything is for everyone, and that is okay. 



Universalizing religions are religions that transcend ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national affiliation. Universalizing religions spread via colonialism, imperialism, and proselytization.

Universalizing religions include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, the Baha’i faith, and more. 



Ethnic religions are religions that are specific to a particular ethnic group. Closed religious groups do not proselytize. 

Ethnic religions include Judaism, Samaritanism, Yazidism, Mandeaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Haitian Voodoo, Hinduism, Druzism, and many others. 

In ancient times, before the spread of universalizing religions, there usually was no distinction between a group’s ethnic, tribal, national, and religious affiliation. That’s why virtually all Indigenous groups have traditional spiritual beliefs, though many have now been Christianized or Islamized. Many ancient nations were even named after their gods. For example, Israel was named after the Canaanite god “El,” which later became one of the terms for the Hebrew God, and Assyria was named after the Assyrian god “Ashur.”



Universalizing religions can turn into ethnic religions when they become strongly incorporated into ethnic identities. Some examples include Coptic Christianity, Maronite Christianity, Syriac Christianity, and more. 



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.



Today you can find Jews all over the world not because of proselytization, but rather, because we were displaced. In other words, when universalizing religions spread, it’s the faith itself that spreads. When ethnic religions spread, it’s the people that spread. 

The word “galut,” in Hebrew, describes the concept of the Jewish perception of the “condition and feelings of a nation uprooted from its homeland,” forced to live under foreign rule. It’s a word that appears time and time again in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), and as such, it’s at least around 2500 years old.

The word was used during the time of the Babylonian Exile, when Jews were forcibly displaced from the Kingdom of Judah in 587/6 BCE. However, it’s likely the word and/or its root existed in Hebrew beforehand. 

Though the word “galut” describes the physical dispersion of the Jewish People, it also encompasses the Jewish emotion and pain of being forcefully exiled from the Land of Israel. As such, it does have a negative connotation. It’s a concept that is quite difficult  to translate neatly into a Western paradigm, as it is a physical, emotional, and spiritual state of being.

The word “diaspora” comes from the Greek διασπείρω (diaspeirō), which means “I scatter, I spread about,” and is how the Greeks translated “galut” when they read the Tanakh.

In other words, the word “diaspora” came about when the Greeks tried to find a way to translate the word “galut,” which is a Hebrew word, specific to the experience and history of the Jewish People.



Just as the word “diaspora” has Jewish origins, so does the word “tribe.” In other words, no, Jews are neither appropriating nor misusing it.

In English, the word “tribe” dates to the thirteenth century and came from the Old French word “tribu,” referring to “one of the twelve divisions of the ancient Hebrews.”

The word in Old French comes from the Latin “tribus,” which is how the Romans translated the Greek word “phyle.” Phyle, which means “race or tribe of men, body of men united by ties of blood and descent, a clan,” is how the Greeks described the Twelve Tribes when the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was translated into Greek in the third century BCE.

Tribus also referred to the political and ethnic divisions in the Roman Empire.

It wasn’t until the 1590s that the English word “tribe” acquired a wider meaning. The Century Dictionary defined tribe as “a division of a barbarous race of people, usually distinguishable in some way from their congeners, united into a community under a recognized head or chief.”



Not all ethnic religions allow conversion, but many do. Conversion does not necessarily make a religion a universalizing religion. 

In the earliest days of Israelite nationhood, “conversion” was simply the process in which outsiders (or “gerim”) came to live within — and, most importantly, assimilate into the culture of — the Israelite nation. In other words, these “converts” adopted Israelite culture, beliefs, identity, laws, and mythologies as their own (with the consent of the Israelites). Foreigners who lived amongst the Israelites but didn’t adopt the culture as their own were not considered converts.

As time went on and Israelite national identity strengthened and evolved, it became necessary for Israelites to contextualize their relationship with the non-Israelite world. The national deity of the Jewish People — the Hebrew God — became inextricable from Israelite identity very early on. In the 800s BCE, the process of assimilating into Israelite identity became more deeply enmeshed with the process of accepting the Hebrew God. As such, the process of assimilating into the Israelite national identity gained an increasingly spiritual dimension. In other words, to become an Israelite, gerim (“foreigners”) would have to adopt the Hebrew God — and the spiritual tenets of Yahwism (the precursor to Judaism) — as their own.

Conversion to universalizing religions such as Christianity and Islam is predicated on accepting the beliefs of Christianity or Islam, respectively. Conversion to Judaism, on the other hand, is not merely about adopting the Jewish belief system, but rather, it’s a complicated process of naturalization into the Jewish tribe. A person can decide to believe in Judaism all they want, but if they are not Jewish, then they’re not Jewish. For context, consider conversion to Judaism an ancient form of becoming a naturalized citizen in a new country. 



As an ancient tribal religion, there are practices within Judaism that are not even open to all Jews. 

For example, Kabbalah is the sacred practice of the mystical interpretations of the Torah. Though the origins of Kabbalah are so ancient that the practice is thought to predate world religions, it reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, as a response to the great rationalism of Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar who was highly critical of magic.

Kabbalah is divided into three branches: (1) theosophical, (2) ecstatic/prophetic, and (3) practical. The practical branch of Kabbalah is thought to explain the mystical values of Hebrew letters and uses formulas, such as meditation and incantations (i.e. name recitation), to find closeness with God.

Kabbalah is considered so sacred and complex that Jewish tradition dictates one must not start studying it until reaching the age of 40. 

Another example is the privileges and duties of the Levites and Kohanim, the inherited priestly class. In the times of the Jewish Temples, both Levites and kohanim carried special duties. Non-Kohen Levites, for example, were specifically assigned to singing and playing music in the Temple and serving as guards. Kohanim performed the daily and holiday sacrificial offerings.

Today, 2000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Kohanim and Levites still carry special rights and responsibilities. For example, Kohanim are called to the Torah first, to be followed by Levites.


Though Judaism teaches many universal values, Judaism is not universal. 

It's the specific spiritual framework of a very, very ancient tribe. 

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