“Jew” — Ethnicity or Religion?

The Religious Kidnapping-for-Hire Ring thread has brought up the old dispute about what the term “Jew” refers to. One commenter wrote,

“Jew” has been a racial (as opposed to a religious) descriptor for, let’s say, at least the last century, and there’s not much to be done about it now. “Jews” as a category includes “secular Jews,” who are a big slice of the pie.

Another wrote,

The problem, though, is that words ought to mean something. If someone said, “I’m a libertarian because I believe in socialism,” or “I’m a communist who thinks free markets are wonderful things,” people would justifiably wonder if that person has any concept of what those words mean.

If someone tells me that he’s a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, that should theoretically tell me something about his world view. In practice, it may mean nothing more than that he was born into that faith and is too lazy to actually think it through. So, when I take the position, as I do, that people shouldn’t call themselves Christians or Jews unless they actually believe the historical tenets of those faiths, that is not a moral judgment about their belief system. Rather, it’s a desire that they speak clearly and unambiguously so I know what they’re saying.

A third wrote,

Being a Jew means following the 613 mitzvah. If Judaism is a race, then liberal Jews are admitting that it’s okay to hang out “socially” with people of only one race. Which goes against everything those liberal Jews say in all other respects.

I’m in the first commenter’s camp (though I’d say “ethnic” rather than “racial,” to follow the more modern terminology, though in the 1800s “racial” used to include what we’d now call “ethnic”). As a matter of how the word is actually used, “Jew” and “Jewish” have two main meanings:

  1. An adherent of one of the streams within the religious belief system called Judaism, an analog being Christianity.
  2. A member of an ethnic group called “the Jews,” even if he is irreligious (and, in the view of some though not others, even if he has converted to a different religion), an analog being Gypsies, or the Irish in the sense of people of Irish extraction rather than Irish citizens. Note that the ethnic boundaries here are potentially rather vague, as they are for many ethnic groups. For instance, whether someone who is Jewish on his father’s side but not on his mother’s is seen as ethnically Jewish depends a lot on where he lives, how he sees himself, and who is evaluating his ethnicity and for what purpose.

In English, those two definitions happen to share the same word.

The second commenter seems to disagree, on the grounds that it would be better if the line were more sharply drawn. Perhaps it would, just as it might be better if “Indian” didn’t mean both an American Indian and a South Asian Indian, or if “sanction” didn’t mean both approve of and punish. But in the English language that we speak, the word “Jew” bears both definitions.

What’s more, the view that “Jew” refers to an ethnicity is actually an orthodox (and especially an Orthodox) view within the Jewish religion. I’m not religious, but I’m Jewish by ethnicity — and to Orthodox Jews, that makes me a Jew who doesn’t follow The Law, not a non-Jew. This makes it even less likely, I think, that the English word “Jew” could be stripped of either of the meanings.

The third commenter’s definition is even more unusual, I think. Observant Jews don’t follow it, since to them someone born of a Jewish woman is a Jew even if he follows none of the commandments. And non-Jews who primarily view “Jew” as a religious label don’t follow it, either, since to them Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism are streams of Judaism that are at least as familiar and legitimate as Orthodox Judaism (or Ultra-Orthodox Judaism).

The third commenter’s argument about the supposed inconsistency of liberal Jews is not sound, I think, since I don’t think that liberal Jews generally think that it’s improper for people to like to hang out with those who share a particular ethnic and cultural background. (I think here “ethnic” is indeed more helpful than “racial,” since it focuses on generally smaller groups that have generally closer cultural similarities, so that a desire to hang out with people of the same group is more likely to stem from affection for the culture and a sense of common historical bond, rather than from hostility to other groups.) But in any event it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual meaning of the word “Jew.”

To return to a point that I’ve often stressed, in other contexts as well as this one: A word means what speakers of the language generally see it as meaning. (I oversimplify slightly here.) If speakers of the language generally understand a term as meaning one of two (or more) different things, that word has two (or more) meanings. And even if the world would be a better place if the word had a narrower or more precise meaning, that doesn’t change the actual meaning of the word, however confusing that meaning might at times be.

UPDATE: I had originally said that in Russian there are two distinct words for a Jew as a member of an ethnic group and a Jew as an adherent of Judaism, but have since been corrected; there are indeed the two words that I recalled (ЕВРЕЙ and ИУДЕЙ), but the former appears to be a double-duty word just as Jew is in English, and while the latter means “adherent of Judaism,” it is apparently quite rare and comes across as old-fashioned. My apologies for the error — Russian is my native language, but I haven’t lived in a Russophone environment in many years, and thus my sense of the nuances is sometimes off.

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