What Makes a Jew?

10/09/2013 08:58 pm 20:58:06 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

On October 1, a poll released by the Pew Research Center revealed the shocking news that over 60 percent of American Jews consider Judaism to be "mainly a matter of ancestry and culture," while only 15 percent say it is a matter of religion. Shocking, perhaps -- but to whom? Obviously not to American Jews, who presumably knew this before they responded to the poll. Shocking, I suppose then, essentially to non-Jews. There's a real irony here.

Jews have often been defined from without, rather than from within. When Jews try to define Judaism, it gets messy pretty quickly. Traditional laws require matrilineal descent -- if your mother is Jewish, you're Jewish -- or conversion. Ultra-Orthodox groups demand adherence to a set of practices. As is so often the case, definitions created by those inside the group are designed to exclude, rather than to include; to restrict, rather than to enfold. By most traditional standards, my daughters wouldn't be counted as Jewish.

When Jews are defined by outsiders, by non-Jews, the net is cast much wider. The question of "what makes someone Jewish" goes back all the way to the Exodus from Egypt. It is perfectly safe to say that Pharaoh did not enslave and try to kill the Jews because of their religious practices: the laws were not given until the Israelites left Egypt, at Mount Sinai. No, it had nothing to do with practice: everyone descended from Jacob was, by Pharaoh's definition, to be enslaved and, eventually, wiped out.

The Bible demands that we remember and retell the story of the Exodus. Even after the laws were given, it was the experience of the Exodus that served as the basis of Jewish self-identification. When Moses encounters the Edomites in the book of Numbers, he doesn't introduce his people as the ones with all the laws about ritual purity. He says, "You know all the hardships that have befallen us...that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us."

In the Haggadah, the text for the Passover Seder, it is emphasized that we are all to consider ourselves as having been in Egypt. In telling the story of the Exodus, we situate ourselves in it. And in doing so, we must remember: Pharaoh did not oppress only observant Jews, or only those who called themselves "religious," or only those who dressed a certain way. In Egypt, before the law, Judaism was genetic, ethnic. When we tell the story, we cannot forget this part of it: everyone of Jewish descent, Ultra-Orthodox or secular, would have been treated equally by Pharaoh.

So too in the Holocaust. Hitler didn't stop at those who refused to eat pork. He couldn't have cared less about religious practice. Every Jew was the same, from the most observant to the most thoroughly secular. Jews died in concentration camps and gas chambers who had never spoken a word of Hebrew in their lives, who had never been to a synagogue, who had never even known that they were Jewish.

Some have reacted to the Pew poll by wondering whether, in the increasing contemporary abandonment of traditional Jewish practices, Hitler has gained some sort of posthumous victory. Such a victory would assume, however, that what Hitler really wanted was to secularize the Jews, rather than eliminate them. Rather: the more broadly Judaism is defined, the more thoroughly Hitler's ideology is defeated. Jews assimilating, giving up some of their ritual traditions while still preserving their ethnic and cultural identity--this is Hitler's worst nightmare. And it is because he himself defined Judaism so broadly that we were ever able to get to this place.

In the Pew poll, the feature of Judaism that most people, 73 percent, said was essential was remembering the Holocaust. Observing Jewish law came in at 19 percent, This is not shocking; this is how it should be. Jewish self-definition is not a matter of practice, but of storytelling. We experienced the twin horrors of the Exodus and the Holocaust: people killing us because we are descended from Jacob. When we tell our story, we are those who would not be here had the Nazis or the Pharaoh succeeded. Anyone who can say that is Jewish. Defining Judaism as a mere religion is an affront to the memory of those who died merely because of their genes. For better or worse, we are defined by what we have been through: "You know all the hardships that have befallen us."