top of page

Is Being Jewish a National Identity?

Sermon Shabbat Vayishlach 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Near the beginning of our Torah portion of Vayishlach this week, Jacob has his name changed. At the end of the great wrestling match which SD has addressed so movingly tonight, the angel or human opponent gives Jacob a new name. No longer will be he known as Ya’akov, the heel, but instead as Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God. That name, of course, has a double place in our heritage. It becomes the name of both the great people who is descended directly from Jacob, the B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel; and it is attached to the land we will ultimately inherit as an eternal possession, the Land of Israel. Both play a crucial role in the life of our people and it our identity: Am Yisrael, the peoplehood of Israel; and Erets Yisrael, the land of Israel.

Often I am asked to briefly explain what Judaism is. Since I’m a rabbi, most people assume that should be a pretty straightforward thing to do. After all, it’s relatively easy to explain that Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism are religions and have belief systems; it’s not even all that difficult to clarify the differences between, say, Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. But it’s far more difficult when I am asked to explain just what Judaism is.

The question becomes: is Judaism a religion, a nationality, an ethnicity, an ethical philosophy, a world-view, a culture or a civilization? The simple answer is yes… that is, Judaism is all of these things, and perhaps, for some Jews, mixtures of some or all of them. But it’s a complicated question, for Jewish identity is forged out of a combination of each of these elements, and can change for us over the course of our lives.

First, let me be clear: there is no doubt that Judaism is certainly a religion, probably the oldest continually practiced religion on the planet. There are variations between the different streams of Judaism, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal—but Judaism is surely a religion, and every denomination of Judaism has recognizable beliefs, liturgy and rituals, as all religions do.

There is also no question that Judaism is a nationality, since Israel is the only officially Jewish country in the world, the first nation with a Jewish majority population in over 1800 years, and the only country where being Jewish is a crucial aspect of national identity. That means that, for Israelis, being Jewish is a huge part of who they are, just because they are from the Jewish State.

Judaism is also a kind of ethnicity, or more accurately, ethnicities, since Jews come from every continent except Antarctica: there are the typical Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern European heritage from America and Europe and Australia and South Africa, and there are Sephardic Jews of North African or Spanish or Balkan heritage, there are Iranian Jews of Persian Jewish ethnicity, Yemenite Jews of Arabian Jewish ethnic heritage, and there are ethnic Jews from the Caucasus of Russia—truly Caucasian Jews—and there are black Jews from Ethiopia and Uganda and Kenya, and Iraqi Jews and Damascus and Aleppo Jews and Greek Jews and Jews from India and Argentina and Brazil and on and on… and for many of these Jews ethnic Jewish identity is a big part of who they are.

And certainly Judaism has serious claims to being an ethical world-view and philosophical system, a monotheistic approach to justice and morality that has helped shape all of Western Civilization and the modern world.

Now Jewish culture, or really cultures, encompasses holiday celebrations, food, music, art, literature, theater, film, dance, ritual objects, architecture, archeology, clothing, philanthropy and more… And these varied Jewish cultural expressions are distinct, extraordinary and remarkable.

Finally, you can make a good case that all of this goes together to forge Jewish civilization, a constantly evolving creation of the Jewish people throughout our long, complex history.

So, I am always curious about the way we are defined. When I served as a rabbi in Shanghai, China last year I discovered that Judaism is not one of only five recognized religions in China. The Jewish communities there are considered ethnic-cultural groups, and can’t be very open about their religious expressions, although they do hold all regular services and holiday observances.

Now, here in America, a peculiar thing just happened that has implications far beyond its intended purpose, and raises fascinating questions about what Judaism actually is. President Trump signed an executive order this week designed to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses by threatening to cut off federal funds to schools that don’t curb discrimination against Jewish students. But the content of the order is quite clever and a bit tricky.

The executive order defines discrimination against Jewish students as a form of bias against their shared national identity—that of the Jewish nation, Israel—rather than just a form of religious discrimination. Defining Judaism as a form of national identity allows the US Department of Education to open civil rights investigations into schools it deems not to be fostering an open climate for Jewish students. Under federal civil rights law, the Education Department doesn’t have the authority to crack down on any direct form of religious discrimination, but it can fight national origin discrimination.

To use this provision effectively, this new Executive Order defines Judaism as a national identity—but not an American national identity, a Jewish national identity, which is clarified as an Israeli national identity. That classification of what a Jew is makes it possible for the federal government to target the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel movement, popular on many college campuses. The Trump administration—along with BDS critics on the left and right—has argued BDS is a pernicious form of anti-Semitism akin to discrimination against racial minorities or women.

Critics of a tougher federal approach against BDS say the government is infringing on the free-speech rights of the movement’s supporters. Millions of dollars in federal funding are at stake.

The president’s executive order tries to achieve through administrative action what a long-stalled bill in Congress, the Anti-Semitism Awareness act, would write into law. That bill has broad, bipartisan backing in Congress, though some oppose it on free-speech grounds.

The executive order adopts a definition of anti-Semitism from the State Department, which defines one form of it as “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and cites opposition to Israel as an example of that behavior. In other words, regardless of the free speech issues involved, this American executive order essentially defines Judaism as a national identity, self-determination as expressed by the nation of Israel.

While many of us see Israel as an essential aspect of our Jewish identity, and I strongly encourage connection to Israel among our congregation and our students, I doubt that most American Jews would prefer to be defined as primarily loyal to Israel for national reasons. That is, most of us don’t really perceive our Judaism as essentially nationalist in nature. If we are part of the nation of Israel, we see it much more as a function of our place in Klal Yisrael, the peoplehood of Israel, rather than as citizens in absentia of Erets Yisrael, the land of Israel.

Now if this executive order proves to be an effective way of responding to the pernicious effects of the BDS movement on college campuses in the US, well and good. Many Jewish students have been adversely impacted by the climate of anti-Israel hatred spurred by the BDS movement, which has often morphed into blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish actions. But there is also reason to believe that the old “dual-loyalty” canard about American Jews will be revived by Anti-Semites in other quarters; in fact, it already is being revived.

So I wonder—how do you see your own Jewish identity? Is it purely religious, based on beliefs, prayers and practices? Is it primarily based around devotion to Israel? Is it ethnic, in the sense of being connected to traditions, holidays, food and music? Is it based on admiration for Jewish ideals such as our dedication to justice, ethics, religious action, caring and compassion? Is it focused on your connection to other Jews?

I think you will find that it’s somewhat different for each of us here tonight—and for most Jews you meet anywhere in the world. Judaism has stubbornly resisted easy categorization by anyone for a long time, and I seriously doubt that will change because of an executive order. Which is as it should be.

So, my friends, on this Shabbat when Israel is first named, and following a week when our Jewish identity was framed as being connected to the modern state of Israel, I encourage you to continue to develop your own Jewish identities, to explore ways of deepening each of those aspects—indeed, all of those aspects. Because we ain’t just one thing—and that’s definitely good.

Single Post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page