All in the family
Jew in the Christian world
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
During a book discussion that raised questions about Jewish history, rituals, and beliefs, one of the Christian attendees said to me, “Thank you so much for your comments. I’ve met Jewish people before, but not a real Jew!”
This perception that a “real Jew” is a practicing, knowledgeable Jew is not uncommon.
Jews and Christians both have misconceptions about one another’s identity. Each group tends to define the other from its own point of view instead of learning the other’s self-definition.
“We assume that what is true of ourselves, particularly the way we define our identities, must be true of others, as well,” notes Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Thus, excluding members of another specific religion, Jews view most non-Jews as Christians and Christians view Judaism as a faith, Eckstein writes in Christian-Jewish Relations: History and Overview.
Christian, from the Greek root christos or Christ — translated from the Hebrew mashiach or anointed one — refers to those who believe in Jesus as Christ (Messiah) and adhere to the religion based on his teachings.
In a more nuanced definition, Christian means follower of Christ in behavior, activity and speech.
A lesser-known, exclusionary view defines a Christian as a member of any of certain Protestant churches: a rejection of Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses as followers of “the true Christ.”
Other exclusionary views assert that a particular denomination is the only valid faith, that more liberal churches are not truly Christian, or that individuals who don’t act Christ-like aren’t true Christians.
While the denominations disagree about a definition of Christian, at the core of all versions is belief in the centrality of Jesus to one’s faith, practice, and salvation.
Thus, Christians understandably conclude that a Jew must be a believer of “the Jewish faith.” But among Jews themselves, who is a Jew is still in debate.
In the Torah, the Jews are described as a nation: a group of people with a common history, destiny, and connection to one another.
In the time of the biblical Abraham, Jews were called Hebrews (Ivrim), possibly because they came from the other side (eyver) of the Euphrates River.
Beginning with Jacob (whom God renamed Israel) and his sons, Jews were called Children of Israel or Israelites.
Note that Israelite and Israeli are not synonymous. Israeli denotes a citizen, Jewish or not, of the modern state of Israel.
After the death of King Solomon, his kingdom split into two — Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
Judah was named for the dominant tribe in the southern kingdom.
The word Jew (Yehudi) came to describe anyone from Judah (Yehudah).
When Israel was decimated, the Judahites (Yehudim) in the remaining kingdom, their descendants who shared a history — and all the later adherents to their culture, language, traditions, and aspirations — were by definition
Yehudim or Jews, although Israelites or Hebrews were the more commonly used terms until modern times.
When viewed through the lens of nationhood, Jewishness means identification with a biblical people and its heritage.
A Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother or converted by Jewish legal (halachic) standards, a definition codified by the end of the Second Temple period (70 C.E).
In the Reform movement, either Jewish parent suffices and the conversion process may not be halachic.
It is ancestral definition that has erroneously been used to characterize Jews as a race.
However, one cannot convert into a race. Furthermore, there are many races and types among the Jews, who generally resemble the native populations where they live more than Jews in other lands.
From a halachic perspective, Jewishness is a result of maternal ancestry or conversion.
From its biblical origins until modern times, Judaism has espoused certain ideas about the world, the purpose of mankind, the relationship between God and humanity, the nature of good and evil, and the way Jews should live.
These ideas were outlined in the Torah, variously explained by the Sages of the Talmud, and conveyed by ritual practices and prayer traditions.
However, there has never been a centralized Jewish dogma or “catechism” that defined what a person must believe to be a Jew.
According to a religious definition, Jewishness is identifiable by one’s ideas and resultant practices, but not by one’s beliefs.
Many Jews are characterized by their celebration of long-held customs, cultural traditions, and ethical principles separated from religious belief and practice.
These Jews may light candles on Friday night or might avoid pork products in keeping with family traditions.
They may be Zionists who politically and financially support the Jewish state, or modern Israelis who build, protect, and live in the Jewish homeland.
They may donate to Jewish charities, prefer ethnic foods, or celebrate some Jewish holidays without religious trappings.
For today’s cultural Jews, Jewishness can be expressed through various secular pursuits informed by Jewish values and ideas.
Neither nationhood, ancestry, religion, nor culture alone adequately answers the question of who is a Jew. Perhaps that is why, confusing as it is, Judaism embraces all Jews as part of the family.
Literature to share
Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then by Harriet Ziefert. This clever book for young children uses foldout pages to illustrate how Passover Seder rituals connect with the ancient Biblical story. Two texts, one with simple sentences in large print and the other with more traditional text in a smaller print, invite readers of all ages into the story. The artwork is exquisite and not to be missed. Enjoyable again and again.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris. Filled with rich descriptions, multifaceted characters, compassion and humor, Harris’ debut novel is an engaging exploration of faith, family, and relationships in London’s Orthodox world. Selected as noteworthy by both Amazon and Barnes and Noble and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it is highly recommended.
Candace R. Kwiatek is a recipient of an American Jewish Press Association First Place Award for Excellence in Commentary, and an Ohio Society of Professional Journalists First Place Award for Best Religion/Values Coverage.