Friday, January 18, 2008

"But who am I? That's one secret I'll never tell."

This post, arguing that Judaism is a religion and not a race, means well but makes no sense. On a basic level, it's true, Judaism is a religion, for sure, and no one race encompasses all who are Jews (Ashkenazi awesomeness genes aside), thus Judaism is indeed not a race but a religion.

This was always something that stumped me growing up: who are Jews? It's a seemingly unanswerable question until you break it down. Who are Jews according to whom, when, and in which country? All Helen Jupiter's post on Jewcy explains is that to some progressive Americans in 2008, Judaism is a religion. This definition appeals to the open-minded, to the belief that no one should be held back from self-invention. But Judaism cannot be only a religion in a universal sense if not all believe it. One could argue that Judaism should be treated as just a religion, and in fact that's what Jupiter argues. It's just the "is" that fails to convince.

The idea that Judaism might be just a religion was invented in France at the time of the Revolution, in order to find a way to emancipate that country's Jews. Previously, where there were Jews, there had been "Jewish nations," not mini-Israels with tanned and toned soldiers, but communities with a specific place with respect to the state. Part of chucking the system of "privileges" and corporate groups during the French Revolution meant that "We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals." Quelle bonne idée! The issue at the time was not race, but nationhood in the pre-nation-state sense of a people with common interests, practices, what have you. Not a nefarious cabal with well-hidden lines of mutual support, but an all-out, out-in-the-open community. Sort of--there were also the "Portuguese" Jews who lived officially as Catholics until gradually "coming out" (in the words of Ronald Schechter) as Jews after some time living in France--but that's another story. The point here is that it was not racist, before 1791, to suggest that Judaism was more than just a religion. It was! Neither Jews nor gentiles would think to deny this. If anything, it was racist to ask Jews to give up autonomy before allowing them to great honor that is membership in the French nation. (Pierre Birnbaum and Arthur Hertzberg explain this all so very much better than I just did). One could even go so far as to say that Europe colonized the Jews, much as it did "Oriental" peoples in Asia and Africa, in asking them to shed all particularity in order to even hope for a nod of recognition from the so obviously superior French. (Here, Albert Memmi has some ideas, not that this is anything but an over-botched summary).

In other words, Judaism-as-religion-only is a relatively new invention in Jewish history, a history which goes back I would guess at least to 1700, maybe even before. French Jews accepted the religion-only definition, not always but often, and so it eventually became offensive to imply that there was anything more to it. Fast-forward a century. Political Zionism revealed that some Central, Eastern, and Western European Jews believed Judaism was more than a religion. Some Jews all over had never adopted this 'enlightened' definition. Yet many had. A racial definition (or any definition including more than just religion) would offend some, while a religion-only definition would not include all. This remains the case today.

The only way one could offer a convincing case for Judaism-as-religion-only would be to say that a Jew is a person the religious version of whom is an observant Jew. This definition includes atheists, but allows the converted-outs their free will and does not shove them into a racial definition.


Withywindle said...

For comparison's sake: to when do you date the invention of Christianity as "just a religion"? Long roots, but I would say the idea has solid purchase in European culture for only a century or two before 1789. Which is to say, I think the idea is about as tense in Christianity as it is in Judaism, and Jewish ambivalence about religion/nation isn't unique. There may have been multiple Christian nations, but that's a far cry from the "just a religion" frame of mind.

Phoebe said...

My thoughts are 1) I have no idea, and 2) one might argue that in majority-Christian countries this simply isn't an issue, because while there may be debate over how much church and state should mix, there's an assumption of what "church" usually refers to, and that's Christianity. Again calling up Memmi, when you're in a Christian country, no matter how secular, things like Christmas, Easter, and Sunday closings, churches as major tourist sites, political parties calling themselves Christian Democrats... all strike Christians as neither here nor there but seem very Christian to non-Christians. (In a good number of cases, Muslim countries, and the only Jewish one, do not pretend to be secular, so the situation for minority religions is different.) The point being, the religion-only definition is irrelevant when you share a religion with the majority, and your religious beliefs do not make special demands on the secular or allegedly-secular government. Judaism is only religion-only where Jews are in the minority and need to show that nothing about their faith contradicts their patriotism.

Withywindle said...

I think you are minimizing how important the transition from Christian-nation to Christian-religion was within the various Christian-majority nations. In France, say, how can one understood political history from the French Revolution to at least Vichy without seeing the civil war between the two camps as a significant factor? (Or Spanish history ... Italian ...) If you're in the Christian-nation camp, what strikes you as comfortably Christianish can seem like rank paganism, blasphemy, etc., a reason to take up arms. I think you should give more weight to this factor in your historical analysis.

Andrew Stevens said...

Hmm, I'm not sure that there isn't a significant difference between Christianity and Islam on the one hand and Judaism on the other. Both Christianity and Islam are (and have always been) proselytizing religions, which Judaism has only been rarely. So it's always been easier for Christians and Muslims to separate the religion from the "nation," so to speak. There certainly was a sense of Christendom, but I think there was also a sense of Christianity as "just a religion."

Correct me if I'm wrong on this, but according to most Rabbinic law you don't have to do or believe anything to be considered Jewish by other Jews, so long as you were born of a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. This is quite different from Christianity which requires certain beliefs and practices in order to remain a Christian and this has always been the case.

I meet many atheists who still call themselves Jews. I meet no atheists who still call themselves Christians (or Muslims, though I don't know many atheists with Muslim heritage).

Withywindle said...

"So it's always been easier for Christians and Muslims to separate the religion from the "nation," so to speak."

Mm, dubious. After all, the experience of most Christians in most of the Christian centuries was either 1) as members of sovereign Christian nations, or 2) as Christian nations subject to Muslim rulers. And Islam famously has a rather tight tie between religion and nation--to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim state was distinctly unnatural.

Anonymous said...

Until recently - In Greece, being called Greek meant, in part, being Greek Orthodox. In fact, most Greeks (their ethnicity) are Orthodox (their religion). But some are not - some are no religion. Indeed some still worship the old Gods. In theory, it's a little bit different in Israel, but not really. Jewish is the ethnicity, Judaism is the religion. Yeah - that's all debatable, but that is one way things are viewed.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't know, there were and are plenty of places where Muslims are in the minority and did not rule the state. Muslim traders created many converts, not nearly so many as Muslim conquerors, but they did exist. (Muslims in the Sudan were a substantial minority there long before the place was conquered by Muslims.)

We may be talking at cross-purposes here, though. I am not saying that the culture of a nation and its dominant religion aren't inextricably intertwined, so I do not question your analysis of French history, for example, only that proselytizing religions must make a clear distinction between religion and ethnicity, in a way that a non-proselytizing religion does not. In the time period you're talking about, one could safely assume that a person of European descent was a Christian, but you wouldn't necessarily assume that a non-European was not a Christian. Christianity had been the dominant religion in the Middle East and North Africa before the Muslims got there and they still exist there to this day. After Columbus, of course, Christianity spreads globally with its missionaries and this becomes even more true.

Withywindle said...

I was indeed thinking that there were fairly few Muslim expansions separate from Muslim conquest. Indonesia, for example, from Bengal--although I understand this had something to do with a reaction by local princes against Christian (Portuguese, Dutch) conquests in the area. Sudan? -- my understanding was that was a fairly straightforward conquest scenario in the 1000s-1400s. (And that there were still Christians in the Sudan as late as the 1700s!) China, I suppose, has a small Muslim-trader population. Sub-Saharan Africa?--some conquest, as I recollect, and elsewhere, weren't the traders in pretty stateless areas? It is notable, I think, that there wasn't a Muslim trading diaspora in Europe--for which Christian expulsion, and forcible monopolization of the maritime trade routes, accounts for a good deal--but not, I think, everything. Valencia, yes--but not Andalucia, where expulsion *followed* a very large Muslim rebellion in, I think, 1264.

I was trying to mention Christians nations *subject* to Muslims--millets. But there wasn't an Ottoman nation that included Christians--but Armenian and Greek nations, Bulgarian and Serb, subject to the Porte.

I should say here that the theology of Christianity and Islam (and, I suspect, certain schools of Judaism, suspect on the grounds that Judaism is quite internally variable) would make the distinction you speak of--but I think most Christians and Muslims would not have, through the centuries--even, perhaps, most priests, ministers, and imams. My claim is about religious culture, not theology--to use a somewhat anachronistic and arbitrary frame of analysis.

Andrew Stevens said...

My understanding is that Muslim traders spread Islam into East Asia and into East and West Africa before conquest came. (In India and a lot of Africa, conquest did come eventually. In southeast Asia, Muslim states arose due to conversion of rulers.) However, if you know it to be otherwise, I defer to your expertise since I can't speak very long on the subject without revealing my ignorance. I do agree that in East and West Africa, we're talking about stateless areas and itinerant tribesmen, not full-fledged civilizations.

At least from a modern perspective, I believe we can see Judaism as, if not unique, fundamentally different from either Christianity or Islam with its blurring of religion and ethnicity. Whether this is because much of Judaism still clings to a tradition abandoned by the other religions or because it's always been different in kind (due to its non-proselytizing nature), I grant is probably an open question.

Your point is well taken in that I am largely ignorant of what the "man in the pew" thought (or even the priests), as distinct from the theologians and philosophers of the medieval Church.

Withywindle said...

"However, if you know it to be otherwise, I defer to your expertise since I can't speak very long on the subject without revealing my ignorance."

Even were I an expert, I would encourage you never to defer to my putative expertise! Call me a widely-read amateur, summoning up scattered memories of many books read over a score of years, generalizing with unwarrantedly great confidence and citing selectively to prove my point--par for blog comments.

I suppose my main point would be that from Morocco to Turkey to India--where the vast majority of Muslims now and historically have dwelt--the conversion followed conquest. So far as numbers go, I think Indonesia is by far the largest exception to the rule, followed, perhaps, by the fringe of Islam south of the Sahara. Probably more conversion followed trade than I previously thought, so we'll say your blog-posts, at least as authoritative as mine, have influenced my understanding of that history.

My take in Judaism is that it had great proselytizing potentialities within the religion--there's a figure that 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish by ca. 300, a great deal of which was by conversion--also, a great number of medieval Christian laws forbidding proselytizing Judaism, which indicates it must have kept happening somehow! I would put it that the very severe sanctions against Jewish proselytizing in both the Christian and Islamic world *severely* reduced the proselytizing strains in Judaism, and make it a far smaller portion of its actual tradition--and correspondingly strengthened the ethnic conception of Judaism--but that to speak of any "essential" nature of Judaism (or of Christianity or Islam) is something to be engaged in cautiously at best.

Which I also state with confidence, but without any claim to professional authority. Largely because I am gabbly, and the subject interests me.

Andrew Stevens said...

I hadn't really thought about the idea that suppression of proselytizing was what led to the Jewish tendency not to proselytize. There is some evidence of proselytizing in Judaism before Christianity and as you say afterwards as well (e.g. Matthew 23:15 where Jesus is reputed to have said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are"). My understanding is that many scholars believe he was merely referring to their efforts to convert other Jews to their particular philosophy, however. It seems, though, that Christian laws against Jewish proselytizing might be aimed at Jewish attempts to win back Jews who had converted to Christianity (which I'm sure is legitimate in virtually any strain of Judaism) or could be simple paranoia. Christian paranoia about Jews has a long and storied history, of course; such laws don't have to have any basis in fact.

As you say, though, any attempt to generalize is shaky at best. I have no doubts that there were occasional proselytizing strands in the religion. This still differentiates it from Christianity and Islam where proselytization is the absolute rule. (This distinction, by the way, should not be used to judge either philosophy harshly, in my opinion. The proselytizing religions claim to be universal and proselytize in order to save souls. This is laudable. I believe the usual theology in Judaism is that it is not a universal religion until the Messiah comes, so Gentiles do best simply by leading righteous lives. This is also laudable.)