Is Judaism a Religion?

By Lawrence Grossman
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

There is no end to the conundrums involved in defining what it means to be a Jew.  Must a Jew be someone who believes in the Jewish religion, in the way a Christian believes in Christianity or a Muslim in Islam?  That can't be the case, since many devoted Jews are atheists.  Is a Jew necessarily someone who acknowledges membership in a Jewish ethnic group, people, or nation?  That definition would exclude people who believe in Judaism but feel little kinship with other believers, and it would read out Jews who are anti-Zionist.  Should "Jewish" be seen as a cultural identity?  If so, it would cover people who are stirred to their souls by Fiddler on the Roof, live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, enjoy Jewish food, appreciate Jewish humor, and believe—like the woman who once told me she was Jewish because she subscribed to the New Republic—that Judaism mandates liberal politics.  But there are certainly non-Jews who meet all these criteria and significant numbers of Jews who don't.

Not only is there no satisfactory answer to this puzzle; there is a fundamental reason why not.  The people who would come to be called Jews and the faith that would be known as Judaism are ancient in their origins.  From their earliest history, Jews attributed those origins to a family founded by biblical patriarchs and guided by divine revelation.  For centuries afterwards, Jewish religion, peoplehood, and culture were indistinguishably bound together.  The people and faith thus predate by many centuries the emergence of such modern concepts as "religion," "nation," and "culture."

Professor Leora Batnitzky writes about the birth of these modern concepts and their consequences for Jewish thought.  In her new book, How Judaism Became a Religion, which grew out of her undergraduate course at Princeton University on Jewish thought and modern society, she argues that modern Jewish thought began at the moment in the late 18th century when Moses Mendelssohn declared Judaism a religion.  In doing so, he renounced the type of communal dominance that Jewish authorities had traditionally exercised.  He ceded cultural and political authority to the rising secular nation-state.

Batnitzky argues that in the years since Mendelssohn drew the then-unprecedented distinction between Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood and culture, his idea has run like a scarlet thread, sometimes overt and at other times subterranean, through the discourse and contentions of Jewish thinkers up until our own time.  Some of these thinkers assumed the accuracy of Mendelssohn's definition of Jews as co-religionists.  Some refined and redefined the notion.  Still others rejected it in favor of one or another form of ethnic, political, or cultural Jewishness.

The book uses the combined rubric of religion, nation, and culture as the key to understanding the past two centuries of Jewish thought.  This sweeping construct illuminates scholars and their debates, revealing ironies that have heretofore gone largely unnoticed.  For example, in the latter half of the 19th century, Samson Raphael Hirsch was the chief Orthodox antagonist of Abraham Geiger, the leader of early German Reform Judaism.  The two were poles apart in their understanding of Jewish religion.  But Batnitzky's analytical framework helps us see that the two men were in total agreement in believing the Jewish religion had no collective national dimension.  Indeed, it was the Orthodox Hirsch who was more radical in this respect, leading his followers out of the official Jewish community in a doctrinally based secessionist movement.

In the same way, Batnitzky points out an irony closer to our own time.  Separatist ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States, she notes, reject modernity in principle and claim to have restored a pre-modern synthesis of community and faith. Yet they are able to enjoy the autonomy that is necessary to their separatist communalism only because the U.S. legal system treats them as members of a religion—that newfangled idea—and, therefore, as entitled to expansive First Amendment protections.

It would be too much, perhaps, to expect a framework this broad to account for all of the significant features of modern Jewish thinking.  Batnitzky defines "religion" much as the German Protestantism of Mendelssohn's time did—as an inner spiritual experience particular to the individual.  If one defines religion in this way, one tends to see manifestations of group identity not as religious but as political.  This dichotomy may be appropriate in describing the relationship of Christianity to modern politics and culture, but it leaves unexplored some complexities of modern Jewish thinkers and schools of thought.

For example, Hasidism is discussed in a chapter titled "The Irrelevance of Religion" because Hasidism had its roots in the collective identity of East European Jews.  Yet a defining feature of Hasidism was its emphasis on the religious experience of the individual; and Martin Buber, who popularized the movement in the modern West, is quite properly labeled a "religious" thinker.  Similarly, the great champions of the analytical study of Talmud, also East Europeans, are called "collectivists" despite their intense, sometimes competitive pursuit of individual insight and innovation.  But Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the best known 20th-century exemplar of this analytic school, is called a "religious" thinker—in spite of his famous collectivist teaching that all Jews, religious and secular, are bound by a "covenant of fate."

Batnitzky notes that German Jews, in emphasizing Judaism as a religion and devaluing Jewish culture, showed a marked lack of appreciation for one of cultural Judaism's chief gifts to modern civilization—its sense of humor.  The modern arrival of cultural Jewishness and its ironic vision had to wait, she says, for the great secular Yiddish writers of late 19th-century Russia and their satirical treatment of everyday Jewish life.  But surely the original propagator of the idea of Jewishness as culture, separate and apart from religion, was the German apostate Heinrich Heine, whose satiric wit helped drive him out of Germany in 1831.  That Heine is not mentioned in this fine book is only another sign that modern Jewishness is a house of many mansions—so many that it may be too protean, complex, and multifaceted to be confined within the bounds of even the most ambitious and carefully argued thesis.  

Lawrence Grossman is the director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.


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