Explaining Jews, part one: What is a Jew?

Posted: Jan 04, 2006 12:05 AM

Years ago, on a flight to Louisville, Ky., the woman seated next to me asked what brought me from Los Angeles to Louisville.

 "I will be giving a lecture," I responded.

 "To whom?" the personable middle-aged woman asked.

 "To the Jewish community," I responded.

 She then proceeded to engage me in a discussion about Jews, and it became apparent that she believed Jews wielded great influence in society. So I decided to ask her a question:

 "There are almost 300 million Americans. How many of them do you think are Jews?"

 "Fifty million," she replied.

 When I told her there are 6 million Jews in America, she thought for a moment and said, "Hum . . . they must all live in Kentucky."

 Love them or hate them, respect them or loathe them -- and most people have at least one of these reactions -- of all the world's groups, none receives as much attention, including hatred, as the Jews. And this has been true for thousands of years.

 Yet, for all their fame and notoriety, Jews are little understood. In fact, it may be said that those who do not understand Jews fall into two groups: non-Jews and Jews.

 So, after a lifetime immersed in Jewish life -- an involvement that includes nearly every aspect of Jewish life from the religious (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox) to the secular (Jewish federations, Israel and Soviet Jewry activism) -- and after 25 years of speaking to people of all backgrounds on the radio and in lectures, I feel ready to attempt the daunting but significant task of explaining Jews.

 With this first column of the year, I inaugurate a series of columns titled "Explaining Jews." Last year, 25 of my 50 weekly columns were devoted to "The Case for Judeo-Christian Values," and I came to realize the significance of exploring one topic in depth alongside columns on the immediate issues of the day.

 Subjects to be addressed will include:

 Why are Jews overwhelmingly to the left of center?

 Are Jews a nation, a religion, a race, an ethnicity?

 Why have Jews been so hated?

 What is Zionism? Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?

 Are any stereotypes about Jews true?

 Why are most Jews irreligious? And how can there be a secular Jew when there is no such thing as a secular Christian?

 Why do Jews oppose intermarriage?

 Does Judaism believe in an afterlife?

 Why don't Jews seek converts?

 Is the doctrine of "Chosen People" racist?

 How do Jews view Christians?

 Do Jews control Hollywood?

 Why do Jews shun "Jews for Jesus"?

 Readers' additional questions and reactions are encouraged.

 Let's begin with the most basic question: Are Jews a religion, an ethnicity, a people, a nation, a culture?

 The most accurate answer is all of the above. And that confuses both Jews and non-Jews because there is no other major modern group that falls into all these categories.

 Christians, for example, constitute a religion but not a nation. One is a Christian by virtue of affirmation of a faith. In order to be a Christian, one has to believe some Christian doctrine.

 On the other hand, Americans are a nation, not a religion, and there are, therefore, Americans of every religion and of no religion. As is true of other nations, one is born an American by virtue of one's parent(s) being American. No affirmation of American faith is necessary. One can be an American and hold no American values or love for America.

 Jews are Jews in both the above ways. One can become a Jew solely by affirmation of the Jewish religion (just as one can become a Christian by affirmation of Christianity) or solely by being born to a Jewish parent (originally the father, through most of Jewish history the mother, in Reform Judaism today the father or the mother).

 That is why there can be atheist and secular Jews -- just as there can be atheist and secular Americans even though the country's values are Judeo-Christian. But that is also why any person in the world, no matter what race, ethnicity or religion his or her parents are, can become a member of the Jewish people through religious conversion.

 That is also why there can be self-hating Jews -- people born Jewish who devote their lives to harming the Jewish people -- because no one born a Jew can be read out of the Jewish people. It's probably a good thing. But not always. As we shall see.