Some years ago, it was either Ben-Gurion or Levi Eshkol who posed a question to jews of the world: What it a jew? Not surprisingly, no one could agree on an answer. The legal rabbincal reply would be that a jew is any child of a jewish mother, regardless of the status of the father, and that anyone else can become a jew only by ritual conversion. But non-jews and non-orthodox jews, nominal jews, have always taken a wider view, regarding as jewish anyone of jewish descent on his father’s side. Hitler went even further: a person was legally jewish if he had a jewish grandparent. Most jews tend to take a wider view than the rabbinical one.
The criterion of Jewishness can hardly be racial, for it would be absurd to claim that the jews are a pure race, descendents exclusively of the ancient inhabitants of Judah. There are clearly many different ethnic types among jews, even if we ignore the jews of Cochin, in India, and the Falasha of ancient Abyssinia. The cartoonist’s stereotype of a jewish face is Levantine, or perhaps Mediterranean, and anthropologists have described the socalled Jewish nose as being Hittite in origin. But then again, in in the Nordic countries, Britain and Russia, it is easy to find jews who look more like their non-Jewish fellow countrymen than like their fellow jews in other countries.
If the jews are, as is sometimes maintained, a “socio-religious group,” then neither Freud nor Marx could be considered jews- nor could Spinoza after his expulsion from the Jewish community. One cannot solve the problem by arguing that Jewish identity is cultural rather than biological: there is a far greater cultural difference between an American Jewish businessman living in Westchester County and a Yemenite jew than between an American jew and a non-Jewish American. There is today no cultural unty among the Jews of the world, or even among the jews of America. To be Jewish does not necessarily involve membership in a specific race, a specific religion, or a specific culture. Yet a jew remains a jew until generations of assimilation have removed the memory of his or her origins.
Jewish unity is the product of history, and that history is unique. The opening of the twelfth chapter of Genesis begins the story: “The Lord said to Abraham,’Leave your own country, your kinsmen, and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation.’” So, something under four thousand years ago Abraham left his home in the Mesopotanian city of Haran to migrate westward to the country later known as Palestine.
There is evidence that such a migration actually took place and that the characters presented in the Bible as the patriarchs did hail from Haran. It is in the patriarchal period of ancient Jewish history that the beginnings of Hebrew religion and of a Hebrew identity are to be found. The movement to Egypt of the patriarchs descendents , their enslavement there, and subsequent liberation by Moses, who led them, as the Children of Israel, toward the land originally promised to Abraham’s descendents, is a Biblical story that represents, however encrtusted with legend and modified by later redactors, a real historical process.
In the same way, the story of the covenant of Sinai represents something crucial that happened to the religious consciousness of a whole people. After this, the belief that their view of god and of the moral law was both different from and better than that of their neighbors now became deeply ingrained. They saw themselves as playing out a divine drama whose first act had been god’s promise to Abraham. ( to be continued)…