What it means to be Jewish
As encapsulated by Andrew Silow-Carroll (Opinion, Oct. 28, “Does Trump hate Jews, or just ‘bad Jews?’ ”), author Emily Tamkin’s book (“Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities”) released in October tackles the issue of “who is Jewish, how to be Jewish and what it means to be Jewish.”
I should like to explore that dilemma from a slightly different, and non-political, angle.
It is curious that alone among European languages, the English language,* orthographically, uses two “roots” to refer to matters pertaining to post-exilic Israel: Je(w) and Ju. This variation in usage, interestingly enough, roughly corresponds to scholar Daniel Elazar’s categories of kinship and covenant: JEWry/JEWish relates to peoplehood/kinship while JUdaism/JUdaic refers to ideology/culture/worldview. (This theological vs. ethnic differentiation might also be applied to the dual identity of the third patriarch: Israel vs. Jacob.)
IMHO, this distinction is crucial.
Compare the three worst blackguards of Jewish history: Antiochus Epiphanes, Adolf Hitler and Haman.
The festival of Chanukah commemorates the successful Maccabean revolt against Antiochus’s Seleucid Empire. For imperial political reasons, he proscribed the practice of Judaism in Judea, but not in the Diaspora. He had nothing against Jews per se, just Judaism.
Adolf Hitler, on the other hand, being racially motivated, sought the annihilation of Jews, which were deemed an inferior race. Haman, the villain of the holiday of Purim, seemingly combined the two.
Contemporary application of this insight: Messianic Jews are, by kinship, Jewish, but by covenant are anything but, inasmuch as they subscribe to the New Testament as Holy Scripture. They are all Protestants, almost always fundamentalists. (By way of contrast, Jews who have converted to Catholicism such as Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and Monsignor John Osterreicher never spoke of themselves as Messianic Jews. They were Catholics of proudly Jewish parentage.)
Or looking at this dialectic in a more playful manner, is Superman Jewish? As seen ethnologically, sociologically, as a reflection of the Jewish immigrant experience in 20th-century America, he was. But as demonstrated in the Baltimore Jewish Times (Letters, “In defense of a Christian Superman,” March 8, 2013),* viewed theologically, he is unquestionably Christian.
*Oddly enough, a comparable differentiation seems to also exist in Russian: yevrei means “Hebrew” and is the standard, inoffensive word for Jew in Russian. It denotes an ethnicity, not a religion, which would be iudei (“Judaic”) …
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