Judaism vs Jewishness

He could have been a poster boy for a Jewish magazine. Reared in an observant home, he had celebrated bar mitzvah at age 13. He graduated from Hebrew school at the age of 18, and it was clear he had a firm grasp of Jewish history and culture as well as an astute understanding of his Jewish heritage. He would go on to teach Sunday school for several years at a highly respected Jewish school in a prominent conservative synagogue. These impeccable credentials, however, were obviously inadequate to alter the direction his life would take. For when I met him, he was no longer teaching, no longer observant, and no longer possessing even a strand of Jewish attachment.

An all-too-common truth is that many Jewish people have turned away from traditional Jewish practice. What might seem truly baffling, however, was this man’s reaction to the gospel message presented to him by a Jewish person. Given his non-Jewish lifestyle, he astounded even himself when he said, “I know I have no right to say this because of the way I live my life, but I am deeply offended by your conversion.” While personally distancing himself from other Jewish people and the practice of Judaism, he was, nevertheless, Jewish enough to be offended. Was this non-practicing Jewish man still Jewish?

In conversation, a Jewish woman wanted to make one point very clear. Her friend’s daughter, she averred, “is no longer Jewish.” These poignant words were prompted by a sincere conviction that the girl’s personal faith in Jesus as Savior had stripped away her Jewish origin. Was the woman’s assessment correct? Had her friend’s daughter ceased being Jewish?

What does make a person Jewish? This question was asked of another Jewish woman whose daughter was about to marry a man who taught transcendental meditation. The prospective bridegroom graduated from Maharishi University in Iowa, and although born into a Jewish home, he had no allegiance to his Jewish upbringing or to God Himself. The woman’s answer? A person remains Jewish as long as he doesn’t believe in Jesus!

Many Gentiles, particularly believers in the Messiah, are fascinated by Jewish culture and tradition. Some actually adopt various Jewish practices. These include keeping the dietary laws, donning phylacteries, and worshiping on the Sabbath. Are these Gentiles now Jewish? Or are they simply Gentiles engaging in Judaism? Is there a difference between Jewishness and Judaism?

The term Judaism is an elusive one to understand. When Reconstructionalist Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro was asked, “What is Judaism?” she responded truthfully: “I don’t think we are tremendously clear on that” (Jewish Exponent, July 29, 1999, p. 21).

A cursory look into Jewish periodicals affirms the rabbi’s opinion. While numerous articles convey information on biblical history, feast celebrations, and life-cycle events, few provide a specific definition of Judaism itself. The late rabbi and philosopher Milton Steinberg attempted a definition in his book Basic Judaism. “Judaism,” he said, “denotes a full civilization; the total actualities, past and present, of the historic group of human beings known as the Jewish people” (Harvest/HBJ, San Diego, 1975, p. 3). His definition continues, “Just as properly, Judaism may stand for something more limited: the spiritual aspect of that civilization; in sum, for the Jewish religion.” Thus Steinberg’s estimation is that Judaism embraces both people and religion.

Asher Zvi Ginzburg, known under the pen name Ahad Ha-Am (meaning “one of the people”), was a noted author of the late 1800s. He defined Judaism “to mean the entire spiritual and intellectual life of the Jewish people of which the Jewish religion was but one expression.” He contended that “it was impossible for one to be a Jew in the religious sense without acknowledging nationality, yet it was possible to be a Jew in the national sense without accepting many things in which religion requires belief” (Joseph L. Blau, Modern Varieties of Judaism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1966, p. 160). For Ginzburg, practice was not nearly as important as nationality.

Thus Gentiles who incorporate Jewish practices into their lives cannot become Jews by virtue of these practices. It takes more than religious practice to be a Jew. Conversely, the former Jewish Sunday school teacher who has abandoned Jewish practice and the bridegroom who graduated from a school of Eastern thought do not cease being Jews. They are simply Jews not practicing Judaism. On these points, most members of the Jewish community would agree.

Possessing a messianic hope has long been regarded as foundational to the Jewish identity. Unfortunately, following false messiahs has been part of Jewish history as well. Today thousands of Hasidic Jews strongly believe that deceased Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was a messiah. These are Jewish people who believe they have found their Jewish Messiah. Would anyone say they are no longer Jewish? But what of the Jewish girl described by her mother’s friend as “no longer Jewish” because she believes that Jesus, a direct descendant of King David, is the Messiah? This young lady’s decision to cease practicing rabbinic Judaism makes her no less Jewish than others who have done likewise. This logic has not escaped Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro. According to an article written by Brian Mono in a July 1999 issue of the Jewish Exponent, she has written a book examining Jewish people who believe in Jesus as Messiah. Her Jewishness, however, has led her to this conclusion: “Maybe it’s time to revisit belief as a necessary component of Judaic identity.”

Thus it appears that Jewishness relates to a person’s essence, while Judaism relates to his practice. Jewishness defines a person’s identity, his roots, his heritage as a physical descendant of Jacob. It is a term that explains why a Jewish man can forsake Judaism to seek peace through Eastern thought but is still considered Jewish by his mother-in-law. Ginsberg’s analysis, written more than one hundred years ago, is amazingly accurate today. Today Jewish people are practicing atheists, Buddhists, and New Agers; but in essence, they are still Jews. It is their birthright, whether they like it or not. There is just one solitary element—the unpardonable Jewish sin, if you will—that alters that status in the minds of many Jewish people. That element is identifying Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. He and He alone seems to be the line of demarcation. A recent article by R. Albert Mohler Jr. in World magazine speaks to this issue.

The majority of American Jews are now thoroughly secularized, with only a minority confessing belief in a personal God. Major Jewish leaders—Mr. [Alan] Dershowitz included—argue that Jews do not need to believe in God, only in Judaism. The major Jewish groups have closed ranks on the question of Jewish converts to Christianity. A good Jew may be an atheist, but no Jew can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and remain a Jew (Sept. 25, 1999, p. 21 [emphasis added]).

Why do Jewish people feel this way? Many complex issues are involved. The name of Jesus has been invoked for centuries as a reason to kill, rape, and murder Jews. It also has become an integral part of the fabric of Gentile world culture—a culture that has been anything but kind to the Jewish people. Those who have spiritual eyes know that we are in a spiritual battle. Satan hates whom God loves, and God loves the Jewish people.

A chief ingredient to Jewishness is a desire to preserve tradition—to survive. Perhaps this explains why Jewish people who have received Christ seldom forsake their identity as Jews. Certain things do bind the children of Israel together regardless of belief. For some, it is the desire to preserve tradition. For others, it is the knowledge of common heritage as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A bloodline cannot be denied regardless of outward circumstances or inward beliefs. Though the sentiments behind it may differ, the essence of the saying remains true: “I was born a Jew, and I’ll die a Jew.”

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