The title Jews has multiple variations in meaning. Jew is a term that can refer both to adherents of the religion Judaism and to members of an ethnicity (those who are Jewish). In the religious sense, Jews are followers of Judaism, whether or not they are ethnically Jewish. In the ethnic sense, Jews are those whose familial identification links them to the “people-hood” of Jews. Ethnic Jews include both religiously observant Jews and those who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, identify themselves as Jews culturally or through their ancestry. In Jewish law, or halakhah, there are two criteria for defining someone as a Jew, either one of which is sufficient. If one is the child of a Jewish mother, or if one converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law, then one is halakhi-cally recognized as a Jew. This standard is mandated by the Talmud, the record of Oral Law that elaborates the Torah (also known as the Hebrew Bible, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, or, in Christian texts, the first five books of the Old Testament). However, in the second half of the 20th century, two theologically liberal branches of Judaism, Reform and Reconstructionist, have shifted position on the matter of Jewish identity. They now recognize as Jews those who call themselves Jews, although they meet neither halakhic criterion. Based largely in the United States, these two denominations no longer require one to have a Jewish mother if one’s father is a Jew, nor do they require converts to follow traditional/Orthodox conversion procedures. This shift has produced a significant rift among various groups of Jews debating the question, “Who is a Jew?” Such Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, as well as secular/ethnic Jews, consider themselves Jews, but are not necessarily viewed as such by Orthodox and Conservative Jews. In addition, many Reform Jews outside the United States maintain traditional definitions of Jewish identity, rejecting American Reform Judaism’s adaptations.
Given these complexities of identity, one must think broadly when defining “the Jews.”
Despite these divisions, there are four generally recognized denominations (also called movements) within religious Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Orthodox Jewish movements are those that emerged as a response to the cultural and religious changes prompted by the European Enlightenment, which included the political and social emancipation of Jews. The term encompasses traditionalist movements that sought to resist the influences of modernity and religious reform that characterized this era. The term is not typically used to denote Jewish traditionalism prior to the modern era, nor is it used in the context of Jewish communities unaffected by the emergence of Reform Judaism (for example, Jewish communities in North Africa). Orthodox Judaism is viewed by its adherents as the “true” or “authentic” Judaism since it follows the provisions of halakhah codified in the Torah and Talmud. While maintaining broad similarities in ritual and theology, Orthodox Judaism is comprised of many groups with both intersecting and diverging beliefs and practices. For example, ultra-Orthodox Jewish movements such as Haredim and Chasidim differ from Modern Orthodox movements in the extent to which they make allowances for living in the modern world. In addition, there are differences in beliefs in many areas, including the role of women in Judaism, the significance of the State of Israel, and relations with non-Orthodox Jews.
In contrast to Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism embraced the changes brought about by the European Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. There are many varieties of Reform Judaism, but all assert the legitimacy of change in Judaism. As such, Reform Judaism has continually undergone revisions in practice and theology, since there is no irrefutable and absolute codification of Jewish law in Reform doctrine. The American Reform acceptance of patrilineal descent, which rejects the halakhic criterion of matrilineal descent in determining Jewish identity, illustrates the sharply contrasting positions held by Reform and Orthodox Judaism regarding strict interpretation of traditional Jewish sources of authority. While some Reform religious leaders promote adherence to select components of halakhah and traditional Jewish theology, others consider such practices to be inconsistent with Reform principles. Given Reform Judaism’s emphasis on personal autonomy in matters of faith, both of these positions are considered acceptable.
Conservative Judaism occupies some of the vast middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It, too, emerged as a reaction to the changes precipitated by the European Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. In Europe, this movement was originally called Positive-Historical Judaism, and is still known as the Historical movement. In the United States it became known as Conservative Judaism. In Israel and England, it is referred to as Masorti Judaism. Conservative Judaism embraces a strong commitment to traditional elements of Jewish observance, while simultaneously accepting the potential usefulness of contemporary critical (i.e., secular) scholarship on Judaism’s sacred texts. As such, Conservative Judaism maintains a commitment to halakhah, but sees halakhic authority as continuing to evolve in the modern era.
Reconstructionist Judaism, which emphasizes Judaism as a religious civilization, was developed by Mordecai Kaplan, an American rabbi trained in the Conservative tradition, during the 1930s. It formally assumed the status of separate denomination when the first Reconstructionist Seminary was founded in 1968. Like Reform Judaism, Reconstructionism privileges personal autonomy in matters of faith over traditional understandings of Jewish law and theology. However, this movement also promotes a number of traditional practices, including the observance of holidays, the use of Hebrew prayer services, and the wearing of yarmulkes (i.e., skullcaps). In Reconstructionism, individual congregations are free to accept or reject these practices, based on the wishes of their congregants. There are some significant theological differences between Reconstructionist Judaism and the other three major movements. For example, Reconstructionism rejects the idea that the Torah was delivered by God; rather, the Torah is considered a product of the social and historical development of the Jewish civilization.
Although there are religious Jews of many ethnicities and nationalities, there are two generally recognized ethnicities that are distinctly Jewish: Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Ashkenazim are descended from Jews in Eastern Europe, as well as Germany and Austria, while Sephardim trace their ancestry to the Mediterranean region, including Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. The traditional language of Ashkenazic Jews is Yiddish, while Ladino is that of Sephardic Jews. Neither of these languages is spoken widely today, and Ladino has all but disappeared from use. While there are many points of overlap in customs between the two groups, there are also many points of divergence. For example, it is customary among both groups to eat foods fried in oil during the festival of Chanukah, but the holiday’s signature food differs: for Ashkenazim, it is the potato pancake (called a latke), while Sephardim indulge in fried donuts known as sufganyot.
In the west, many secular Jews base their Jewish identities on shared history, a sense of peoplehood, and an investment in cultural Judaism. Some elements of cultural Judaism include specific foods (many of which have been incorporated into the non-Jewish mainstream, such as bagels), distinctive folk music called klezmer, and a particular style of Jewish humor (for example, Woody Allen). For many secular Jews, pride in the survival of the Jews as a people, through many historical episodes of persecution, expulsion, and attempts at annihilation, serves as the foundation of their sense of Jewishness. Some of the most notorious examples of such threats to Jewish survival include the Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust. In general, ethnic Jews reject the notion of “racial” Judaism, given the history of this concept’s relationship to anti-Semitism.
Among the consequences of the resolution of the Second World War was the establishment of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland. After over two thousand years spent largely in Diaspora, Jews established their own nation, one in which all Jews are guaranteed citizenship irrespective of their nation of birth. However, Israel’s Law of Return (the statute granting citizenship to all Jews) requires some level of agreement about the answer to the question, “Who is a Jew?” Given the significant rifts that exist between religious Jews and ethnic Jews (as well as those among the various denominations of religious Judaism), the answer to this contentious question has taken on political as well as cultural dimensions. In Israel, where most Jews are either Reform or secular/ethnic, the halakhic criteria for determining Jewish identity (supported by the Orthodox movement) serve also as the political criteria for determining immigration eligibility under the Law of Return.
Some observers worry about the long-term impact of the rifts among Jews on Jewish unity and the survival of Jewish “peoplehood.” Is there still a central link connecting all who claim to be part of “the Jews”? If so, can the center hold, given the varying definitions pulling from the periphery? Since the establishment of the State of Israel, some view Judaism as a matter of nationality. However, Jews can be (and are) citizens of many nations, and non-Jews can be (and are) citizens of Israel. Others view Judaism as a matter of culture, since many consider themselves Jewish without being religious. For those religious Jews who are faithful to halakhic law and traditional Jewish theology, even those raised in a culturally Jewish environment, they are Jewish only if born to Jewish mothers or converted through an halakhically approved process. The contemporary situation of the Jews is best defined as one in flux, with the outcome of the identity challenges still to be determined.
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