What Are We Jews, Anyway?

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In response to some of the comments about the cartoon that I posted about Friday, first appearing on the Volokh Conspiracy, a Jewish writer using the pen name “Caliban Darklock” first questioned — and he meant this as a troubling thought — “what’s wrong with hating Jews?”

Fundamentally, Jews have very similar beliefs and very similar behavior.

So why can’t you hate Jews in the same exact way you might hate conservatives, or liberals, or Democrats, or Republicans?

Of course, he was immediately pounced upon by other Jewish (and non-Jewish) writers pointing out that it’s really not so. We have very dissimilar beliefs — in fact, for diversity of thought, the Jews probably out-do most any other ethnicity. He tried to say that we share things like Rambam’s Thirteen Principles — which, of course, most Jews today unfortunately don’t believe. So that got nowhere.

So then, realizing that this was so, he wrote the following poignant question:

The interesting thing here is that every criticism of my question centers around the idea that Jews are not fundamentally of similar beliefs and behavior.

So what, exactly, makes us distinct from anyone else? If Jews are not similar, why do we have our own name in the first place?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with another Jew in my office. We were observing that we’re pretty much the only ones in the building, and I said “It’s not unusual to me; I’m the only practicing Jew in my family.”

He responded, “You practice?”

Again, if we do not share fundamental beliefs and traditions, WHAT ARE WE? An artifact of a once-proud people, hanging on to the tattered remains of a promise we no longer believe? Have we become nothing more than a loosely-bonded political interest group that persists only for the purpose of promoting Israel and complaining about anti-Semitism? What possible redeeming factor can a people have if they are no longer even a people?

It’s simply absurd to claim that we share this rich tradition and heritage and legacy, and then turn around to claim that we’re all just individuals with every bit as much differentiation as everyone else. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot stand up and proclaim your distinctive character, and then refuse to accept that someone else doesn’t like it. You have to take the bitter with the sweet. If you refuse to accept that some people will hate you, you likewise refuse the opportunity for others to love you.

And the really sick part is, the people trying to *love* you will respect your refusal, while the people trying to hate you will just go right ahead and force it on you.

I have my own ideas for a response… but would like to open this up for Cross-Currents readers, to get your thoughts, feelings and opinions as well. More on this later, but please comment.

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14 Responses

  1. David Ashley says:

    One view is at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/article.php3?id=3813 which discusses the reasons why a supposedly secular, democratic Israel can have certain “religious” laws, not others, and how it is as much a cultural law as outlawing whale meat in Western, non-Scandinavian countries.

  2. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Why would a Jew who does not practice, and has little interest in the religious heritage whence he springs, identify himself as Jewish?”

    I think that public identification as being Jewish comes from the fact that one wants internally to identify as much as possible as being Jewish. I don’t think that there is a point identifying publicly so much for it’s own sake, or for Jewish cultural survival, as much as that it could with time, expand one’s own and other’s authentic Jewish consciousness.

    As Rabb Zvi said, there is a spark of Judaism that runs deep, and many people want to keep it alive; just because today a person doesn’t feel like expanding his or her sense of Jewish self through practice or public identity, doesn’t mean that tomorrow they won’t feel that being Jewish adds richness, meaning, fulfillment and a senses of destiny to one’s life.

    The uniqueness of anti-Semitism, which I elaborated on before, is a part of the Jewish destiny and survival. From a Jewish perspective, one reason why God might keep alive anti-Semitism is to keep Jewish people alive(although one can’t completely fathom the ways of a merciful Deity):

    The prophet Yechezkel stated:

    “That which comes into your mind shall never come about, that you say, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.” As I live, says Hashem Elokim, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with an outpouring of anger, will I be king over you’ (Yechezkel 20:32-33).”

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Regarding “Eisav Sonei es Yaakov”, in order to maintain bechirah chofshis(free will), we must assume that if a particular individual has an overwhelming urge to hate a Jew, then he or she must have a corresponding ability to overcome, or even sublimate it.

    It is wrong to irrationally hate people with a certain skin color, who think a certain way politically, or who have a homosexual lifestyle. Nevertheless, when ethnicity causes hatred, the hatred is far more pernicious, because it is a hatred more of a person’s essence, than of his political ideas or lifestyle.

    Jew-hatred(“anti-Semitism”) in general and the Holocaust in particular, was and is a sui generis experience , insofar as the hatred went and goes to the essence and core of the Jewish nation. This can be seen because the Holocaust was the systematic, calculated and brutal annihilation by an entire society consisting of educated, cultured and advanced people of another entire people. It also involved collaborators and the abandonment of other humans by entire nations that were indifferent. Furthermore, it consisted of the gratuitous humiliation and devaluation of an entire people.

    I have seen a quote from Jewish sociologists that obsession with suffering such as the Holacaust is “a lachrymose sense of Jewish identity”. I am not suggesting that the definition of a Jew, as the Nazis understood it, should create our definition. Rather, the depth of Jew-hatred and the Holocaust shows that the essence of Jewish identity is likewise extremely deep.

    In Chapter 11 of “Denying the Holocaust”, Deborah Lipstadt discusses the tactic of “immoral equivalencies” used by Holocaust Deniers.

    “The brutal Armenian tragedy, which the perpetrators still refuse to acknowledge adequately, was conducted within the context of a ruthless Turkish policy of expulsion and resettlement. It was terrible and caused horrendous suffering but it was not part of a process of total annihilation of an entire people…

    As the German historian Eberhard Jäckel observed…never before in history was a particular human group — its men, women, children, old, young, healthy, and infirm — singled out to be killed as rapidly as possible using “every possible means of state power” to do so.

    …For the victims in all these tragedies the oppressors’ motives were and remain irrelevant. Nor is this a matter of a head count of victims or a question of whose loss was larger. In fact, Stalin killed more people than did the Nazis. But that is not the issue. The equivalences offered by these historians[Holocaust revisionists-BH] are not analogous to the Holocaust.”

  4. Rabbi Zvi says:

    That is called the “Pintele Yid”. The Jewish Spark in the Jewish soul.

  5. Caliban Darklock says:

    Well, that’s precisely my point. I think most of us here can agree there is a greater good or need to *being* Jewish, but what exactly is the greater good or need that we address by deliberately identifying ourselves to the general public?

    There are, of course, aspects of Judaism which are visible to the general public as a matter of course; these are not what I question. Why would a Jew who does not practice, and has little interest in the religious heritage whence he springs, identify himself as Jewish? What greater good is he pursuing by so identifying?

  6. Rabbi Zvi says:

    Other than identifying myself – I am not substantially different.

    People often do things at a personal disadvantage when they see a greater good or need. Hence we have firefighters selflessly walking into burning buildings knowing full well that they may never return. Think 9/11.

  7. Caliban Darklock says:

    > I am not particularly different than anyone else
    > and I am certainly not special. […] Anti-semites
    > hate me anyway

    I believe there’s a contradiction here. When you identify yourself as a Jew, that means something, and it makes you different by definition.

    This may be instructive. We self-identify. Self-identification is something most people do because it will provide some advantage; when it does not provide advantage, you do not advertise it, and when it provides *disadvantage* you actively attempt to conceal it.

    So when people see quite clearly that identifying as Jewish provides some disadvantage, they rationalise that we must be receiving some balancing advantage. Since there is often a great deal of disadvantage, they reach the conclusion that the advantage must be correspondingly great… and yet they can see no advantage.

    Wouldn’t this lead some of them to the conclusion that Jews keep their advantage secret, so nobody else can have it? Why would you be recogniseably Jewish when it provides such a disadvantage?

  8. Rabbi Zvi says:

    Two points:

    1) As I understand it, I am Jewish because my mother is. I did nothing to become special and I am really not all hat special or privileged, I certainly don’t feel special or privileged.

    Many years ago, my great-great-great…grandfather forged a special relationship with G-d. Bacause of G-d’s fondness for my ancestors, G-d has a special relationship with me. My part in this relationship entails tremendous responsibilities to my fellow man, to the world and to G-d.

    2) Those who hate Jews do not hate them for their beliefs or practices – I have not been questioned regarding my beliefs or practices by any anti-semites. Indeed, the Nazi’s did not give any exemptions to irreligious or non-believing Jews – they did not interrogate anybody as to their level of commitment or as to their acceptance of the Torah’s divinity or as to anything else.

    A prominent Rav repeated to me a conversation that he had with a Ger Tzedek. The Ger told to this Rav that the Chachamim were right when they said that it is a K’lal that Eisav Sonei es Yaakov. He was quite emphatic that it was true and that we Jews do not comprehend the extent of it.

    The upshot: I am not particularly different than anyone else and I am certainly not special. I try to help people and not hurt them. Anti-semites hate me anyway.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Did our ancestors act as G-d’s chosen people before the Galut? The writings of the prophets (first temple period) and the history of the Chashmonaim (second temple period) seem to show that when we had a country, we were no better than any other nation.

    Maybe Jews have acted as G-d’s chosen people because we are a self selected group? For most of the Galut, Jews who did not want to stay Jewish could become Christian or Muslim and assimilate. Similarly, gentiles who wanted to be Jewish could become Jews.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    JO is correct (9:24 pm), but I was responding to the specific question. As Jews we also have the extra dimension of \”chosenness\”, which may actually motivate those who hate HaShem to also hate Jews.

  11. Jewish Observer says:

    “If someone asked me why he should not hate Jews, I’d say that we are HaShem’s chosen people, and to hate us categorically is also to hate HaShem for choosing us.”

    – this argument can be generalized to support why we should not hate any man; i.e. the tzelem elokim in all (even goyim)

  12. Bob Miller says:

    I don’t see any value in hating the other named categories (conservatives, liberals…) either, whether these are categories of people who think exactly alike or not. Granted, there are also some extreme categories that one ought to hate because of the objectively heinous nature of their deeds, but those are not what we are discussing here.

    If someone asked me why he should not hate Jews, I’d say that we are HaShem’s chosen people, and to hate us categorically is also to hate HaShem for choosing us.

  13. mycroft says:

    He tried to say that we share things like Rambam’s Thirteen Principles—which, of course, most Jews today unfortunately don’t believe.

    A tanget-but since when have we paskened like the Rambam say versus the Ravad-Rav Yosef Albo,Hasdai Crescas, the Abarbanel. The Mukabalim certainly have a hashkafa different than the Rambam.

  14. NerBochur says:

    In my sheirut together with a secular professor and others, a fairly heated debate took place with regard to the justification of religious laws enacted in Israel that affect the lives of secular Israelis. “What justification do the religious have in restricting the lifestyles of others in a democratic society” asked the professor. So the popular counterargument to that was the need for Jewish identification; if we were just another Sweden what makes Israel a Jewish state?

    Even as an orthodox Jew, based on the above arguments I would have to agree with the professor. Enforcing ones beliefs on others in order to define the nature of a country in not a democratic principal – and the bottom line is that Israel is a democratic country. As it relates to our discussion, I would go further to say, that religious commonality is also not a necessary factor to define a nation. What makes Americans Americans, and what makes English English? A common history, or common interests, perhaps- let everyone have their own pick. Why can’t being Jewish be like being American? The logic seems impeccable.

    The answer I gave to the professor, and which applies here too, that there is no answer, except that we do have evidence that proves our divine distinction in being a light unto the nations based on a Torah prescribed lifestyle. That’s right. And if we didn’t, I may have indeed justifiably ended up voting for the Shinui party in the last election. Some will argue that nobody has to accept your proofs, so don’t enforce laws based on them. But if a bill proposing a law contains evidence that speeding or driving dangerously posseses a risk to yourself and society, would anyone argue that if anyone doesn’t accept that evidence he should be exempt from that law? In the same way we have evidence that chillul shabbos (desecration of the Sabbath) and Pride Parades are hazardous to your health and the health of others, that is a much more severe and permanent health-hazard that exists even after death.

    The Christians in America don’t have the right do stop me from going to the theatre on Sunday, because unlike Charaidim in Israel, they don’t have proof. It’s that simple and as arrogant it may sound, it’s true. It may seem like an undemocratic argument, but democracy is less important than our 3000 year old Torah heritage. So if anyone asks what defines a Jew and what unites us as a nation, the answer is that we are the Am Segulah (chosen nation) who is obligated to live under the guidelines of the Torah. The ensuing hours of the debate went on to outline the fundamentals backing our emunah (faith), but those of who are reading this post and looking for these outlines, are suggested to visit their nearest Ohr Sameach or Aish Hatorah. Your nearest Judaica bookstore would do fine, and I recommend Lawrence Kellman’s books (Permission to Believe / Permission to Receive).