What is the nature of Jewish identity/ethnicity? It is not an easy question to answer because we are a multifaceted people. So what are we? A religion? A race? An ethnic group? Are we a “people”? What about a nation? In order to better understand our origins, let us take a mini-crash course through Jewish history.
Our story does not begin in 1967 or 1948, as many college students believe. The Jewish journey began 3,836 years ago with Abraham, born in Sumer in 1812 B.C.E. During the time of Abraham, Sumer was a major cultural center; in fact, the birthplace of human civilization, including everything from the wheel to the Epic of Gilgamesh. During this period, the entire world was focused on idolatry, as a way of life and belief. People worshipped a pantheon of gods and forces, which often represented natural phenomena. Many kings claimed that they themselves were gods and human sacrifice was commonly practiced as a method of appeasing those powers.
There is evidence that there were pockets of individuals who recognized the one true God. For example, Noach and his sons had direct evidence of His existence. There is an ancient Jewish tradition that Shem, the son of Noach and father of the Semitic people, had a mountaintop academy where he taught spiritual seekers how to meditate on the nature of the One God. The lives of Noach and Abraham overlapped, and it is likely that they knew each other.
Abraham was the world’s first religious revolutionary. He had the chutzpah to challenge the pagan beliefs and practices of his day. Everyone knows the story of young Abraham breaking the idols manufactured by his father, Terach.
Many people, including Nimrod, the king of Babylon, attempted to kill Abraham because of his challenge to their belief system. The question is, why did they want to kill him? So he disagreed with what they believed in. Big deal! Why didn’t they try to kill Shem and his academy?
The answer is that Shem and his meditators were harmless hippies on the mountaintop. They made no demands on society at large and were left alone. The crime of Abraham was his belief in one God coupled with an ethical standard of human behavior. How dare Abraham tell others, including a king, how to behave! Double chutzpah!
For this reason, Abraham was known as Avraham HaIvri, Abraham the Hebrew. The Hebrew word Ivri derives from the word ever, meaning “the other side,” because Abraham stood philosophically on the other side of the rest of the world.
Abraham taught that God demanded moral behavior from mankind, not bloody human sacrifices. He taught that God is the ultimate Giver, and it is our duty to emulate Him by extending hospitality and kindness to all. It was well known that the tent of Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had doors facing each direction in order to welcome travelers. This is why Abraham is identified with the trait of chesed—kindness.
Abraham and Sarah wanted to teach their understanding of the giving God to the world. The system that they developed became known as ethical monotheism. After many years of living as doers of kindness and developing spirituality, The Almighty gave Abraham his first commandment, saying:
Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:1–3)
God instructs Abraham that his family will become a great nation, and he is being sent to a land specially designated as an environment for both physical and spiritual growth. The promise of land also gives him a homeland, which is a primary identifier of nationhood, and this is the Land of Israel.
Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac, who fathers a son, Jacob. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are known to us as the Patriarchs of the People of Israel. These three were more than highly accomplished spiritual individuals: they were the founders of a dynasty like links in a chain. Parenthetically, the Hebrew word for chain and dynasty is shalshelet, the root word being shalosh or “three.”
Jacob inherits the blessings of nationhood bestowed upon Abraham from his father Isaac, and then his name is changed. The Torah states in Genesis 35:10–14 that
God said to him, “Your name is Jacob. Your name shall not always be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a congregation of nations will descend from you, and kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and your offspring after you I will give the land.”
Jacob plays a key role in the transformation of a very small family with few individuals into the roots of what would become the Nation of Israel. Jacob had twelve sons who became the founders and heads of what will be known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel. By the time Jacob’s family moves to Egypt in the face of severe famine in Canaan, his family numbers 70 individuals.
Jacob’s family were initially honored guests of Pharaoh during the lifetime of Jacob and his son Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt. After the passing of the generation, a new Pharaoh arises “who did not know Joseph” and began the enslavement of the Bnai Yisrael—the Children of Israel.
The period of Israelite bondage in Egypt lasted 210 years, until Moses was sent to Pharaoh as the promised redeemer and demanded “Let my People go” (Exodus 9:1). After 10 plagues and the miraculous splitting of the Sea, the Nation of Israel left Egypt in the year 2448 (1312 B.C.E.). The Torah tells us there were 600,000 men between the age of 20 and 60. This number does not include at least an equal amount of women, children, and men over 60. Sources say there were approximately three million Israelites at Sinai.
After 40 years in the wilderness, after the death of Moses, his student and successor Joshua lead the Israelites into the Land Canaan and spent the rest of his life conquering the land and settling the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each in their designated tribal territory.
At this early point in our history, we see that the Israelites possess the six indicators of ethnic identity.
- Identifying name of the group: the Children of Israel, Israelites.
- Common ancestry: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Israel.
- Shared history, common memories, including events, heroes, and commemoration of sacred events.
- Common culture: shared language, Hebrew; common religion, Judaism.
- Link to a national homeland: the Land of Israel.
- Sense of communal solidarity.
After the death of Joshua, there was a 363-year period known as the Era of the Judges. The Twelve Tribes of Israel formed a loose confederacy without any central authority. During this time, a leader called a judge arose from each of the tribes. The last such leader was the prophet Samuel, a personality that had influence upon the entire nation. During his time the Israelites gathered and requested a king to rule over them. Samuel was instructed to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel, but Saul, who had angered God, only reigned for two years and died a tragic death. Samuel anointed David during the life of Saul.
Saul was followed by King David, who became one of the most important personalities in Jewish history. David was born in 906 B.C.E. and reigned as king for 40 years, and he died in 836. David was from the tribe of Judah, who was blessed by Jacob as the legitimate ruling tribe over Israel:
Judah, you and your brothers shall acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies nape; your fathers sons will prostrate themselves to you… the scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants, until Shiloh shall arrive, and his shale an assemblage of nations (Genesis 49:8–11).
King David led the Israelite armies in battle against their enemies, made Jerusalem his capital city, and united the Twelve Tribes into the nation of Israel. Among other things, he is also famous for composing the Book of Psalms and is known as “the sweet singer of Israel.”
Upon King David’s death, his son Solomon became king and he reigned 40 years in which Israel enjoyed peace and prosperity. Solomon was also known for his wisdom and was called the wisest of all men. As a result, Jerusalem became an international center of knowledge.
Solomon’s crowning achievement was the building of the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem in the year 2935 (825 B.C.E.). The Temple became the center of Jewish worship and was visited throughout each year by the Twelve Tribes on the festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. During this period, considered the golden era of Jewish history, Israel was a militarily strong and unified nation.
Following the death of King Solomon in 2964 (796 B.C.E.), he was succeeded by his son Rehoboam, who was much weaker and more easily influenced than his father. Tensions sprang up almost immediately between Jerusalem and the northern tribes over political and economic issues, including forced labor and taxes. King Rehaboam consulted the elder advisors of his father, who counseled him to be lenient and compromise with the opposition. The younger advisors suggested that Rehoboam needed to show the people who was boss. This opinion appealed to the new young king, and the results were tragic.
As a result of these disputes, at the end of Rehoboam’s first year as king, the northern tribes seceded and created the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital city first in the city of Schechem and then in the city of Samaria under the reign of Jeroboam ben Navat. Rehoboam was left with Jerusalem and the southern end of the country, and his country became known as the Kingdom of Judah. The terminology we use today, Judea and Samaria, had their origins in the split in the nation after the death of King Solomon.
For the remainder of its existence, the Israelite nation was divided between the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
In the sixth century, an ascendent Assyrian began invading lands of the northern kingdom, and in 3205 (555 B.C.E.) Emperor Sargon II of Assyria completely conquered the entire northern part of the country and the kingdom of Israel was destroyed. The surviving population of the ten Northern Tribes were deported and resettled throughout the Assyrian Empire. Over the generations, they became assimilated and dispersed, and to this day are called the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
This was the beginning of the Jewish people becoming an exiled people.
Solomon’s Temple stood for 410 years until the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C.E. A large proportion of surviving Israelites were taken into what is known as the Babylonian Exile and established Jewish communities that became centers of Jewish life and scholarship for centuries. The multi-volume compendium of the Jewish Oral Law, known as the Talmud Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, was produced over a period of centuries in the Academies of Sura and Pumbedita.
A smaller number of Judean exiles made their way west, some settling in North Africa, as well as to the lands that would become Spain (Sefarad), France (Tzarfas), and Germany (Ashkenaz), establishing Jewish communities there.
As a result of the loss of the Northern Tribes, it is interesting to know that the majority of Jewish people in the world today are descendants of the survivors of the kingdom of Judah, which was comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, as well as parts of the tribes of Simon and Levi.
So, what happened to these disparate Jewish communities now exiled to the four corners of the earth? Over the centuries of geographical separation Jews have remained an ethno-religious people. How do we define what a Jew is? On a simple level, a Jew is part of a religion, a nationality, and a culture.
Judaism is the religion that originally defined the people. Judaism contains the laws of its peoplehood and is what forms the central element of Jewish culture that binds Jews together as a nation. Judaism defines what foods are permissible or forbidden, and the laws of kashrut thereby define an important part of Jewish culture—food! The Torah also lays out the very detailed Jewish calendar with Shabbat, the many festivals and fasts days, and it is observance of Judaism that has preserved the Hebrew language.
This is in contrast to Christianity and Islam, which view religion as a group of people who agree to believe the same theology, follow the same laws, and share the same values. For example, a Christian who rejects the divinity of Jesus is not considered a Christian; and a Muslim who rejects the prophecy and authority of the Koran is not a Muslim.
Judaism is different. A Jew who does not believe in God, does not adhere to Jewish laws, practices, and customs, and refuses to follow Judaism is still considered to be a Jew. Traditionally, the qualification of Jewish identity is that a person born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, though, remarkably, a gentile can become a Jew if he or she is converted according to Jewish law. It indeed is possible for non-Jews to convert to Judaism. In fact, Abraham is mistakenly referred to as the first Jew. He and his wife, Sarah, were actually the first converts to Judaism. Their son Isaac was the first born Jew.
Conversion is a controversial issue because there are different standards of conversion. The denominations of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist have changed or eliminated many of the traditional guidelines. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, therefore, we do not actively seek converts. If a person wishes to become part of the Jewish people, he or she must go through the proper procedure and have the proper motivations.
The Torah in Exodus 22:20 states: “You shall not taunt or oppress, a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to mistreat converts, verbally, economically, religiously, or socially. Once they have properly converted, they are considered to be fully Jewish both religiously and ethnically. Little to no distinction is made in Judaism between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jewish as a result of conversion.
It is a fascinating concept that a person from a different ethnicity, and maybe even race, can go through the procedure of conversion and graft themselves onto the tree of the Jewish people, becoming a child of Abraham and Sarah. They acquire Judean ethnicity by default.
One of the most famous converts in history is Ruth, the Moabite princess. After the death of her husband and father in-law, Ruth cleaves to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi as she sets out to return to Israel. Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, and utters these famous words:
Do not implore me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may Hashem do to me—and more, if anything but death separates me from you. (Ruth 1:16–18)
Indeed, we learn many of the laws of conversion from Ruth.
Today, Jews can be broken into a number of ethnic groups. The largest Jewish group in the world today are the Ashkenazi people, which includes all the Jewish communities that settled in northern Europe, especially Germany and Poland, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.
The second-largest Jewish group are the Sephardim who settled in Spain and Portugal after the destruction of Herod’s Temple. Sephardim lived in these lands until the Christian conquest in the fifteenth century, culminating in the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. These exiles resettled across North Africa, Northwestern Europe, a few cities in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and some in the land of Israel.
The third group are called Mizrahim, and they are Jews who never left the Middle East. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., many of these Jews who were not killed or taken as slaves to Rome made their way to Persia, Southwest Asia, and North Africa.
Each one of these ethnic groups have their own cultural identities, along with major similarities with each other. Language is a major difference. Many Ashkenazim speak Yiddish, while many Sephardim speak Hebrew and Ladino, while Mizrahim speak Judeo-Arabic. Each group has developed unique customs relating to Jewish practice and observance of Jewish holidays. Each group has developed their own unique cuisine and mode of dress.
What do they have in common? Though they live in far-flung countries all over the world, they share common ancestry with the ancient Israelites. Though they may speak different languages, they all share the Hebrew language. While there may be slight differences in the prayer book of each group, the format of the prayers is the same.
The bottom line is that the core that unites these disparate Jewish groups is the bedrock from which we all spring: the Torah, and ultimately the God of Abraham, the father of us all.
Today, in light of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people on October 7, 2023, and the subsequent viral explosion of anti-Semitism in major cities and academic institutions all over the world, we must be united like never before.
As a rabbi and Jewish educator, I feel it is vital that as a community we do everything we can to strengthen Jewish education of our children and also adults. We must actively teach the Jewish connection to the land of Israel as well as its history. Too many Jews today are ignorant of the facts. We must build Jewish identity and pride so we have a community of strong minded, knowledgeable Jews.
One of the most distressing things I encountered as a campus rabbi was so many Jewish college students who were virulently anti-Israel. Many had assumed leadership positions with Israel hate groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and BendTheArc.
Having an open, intellectual conversation with these students was almost impossible, as any encounter ended with them cursing and screaming at me that I should be ashamed that I support the “Israeli apartheid state” that steals “Palestinian land” and encourages “genocide of Palestinians.” I was able to arrange to sit down with eight students for five minutes and I asked them one question: Why do you hate Israel so much? I got the same answer from them all. “Hating Israel is a very Jewish thing to do that I learned in Sunday school and heard from my
rabbi in Temple.” They told me Israel is an “apartheid state” that “steals Palestinian land and murders their children.”
They were all members of reform Temples. This is a symptom that our Jewish educational system is failing and needs an immediate remedy.
During the Second Commonwealth of our people in the land of Israel until the destruction of the Second Temple, we were known as the residents of Yehuda, or Judea, which is the source of the word “Jew.”
We were called Judeans then, and I think it is entirely appropriate for us to once again proudly identify as Judeans.