When studying the Shoah, it is extremely important for teachers to introduce students to the 1800s concept of race “science,” which is what I have been doing in my classes over the past few weeks. An American and European development, this “science” was deeply connected to the development of racism. Through a “scientific” method, humans were classified based on certain characteristics (i.e. head size, posture, gait, etc.) and traits (i.e. aggression, passivity, even temperament, etc.). Physicality was linked to personalities that were “typical” as well as desirable or undesirable.
Race “science” supported the slave trade, colonialism and the exhibition and exotification of non-European peoples. In the case of the Shoah, race “science” was heavily relied upon by the Nazi Regime in their propaganda, law and ideology. For the Nazis and all nations under their purview, “Jewish” was a racial identity, “scientifically-proven” through measurements and observations and set out by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, previous and subsequent anti-Semitic decrees and the systematically-planned extermination of 6 million of us.
While race “science” was used to classify, mark (literally) and exterminate us (and others) in the past, should anyone still consider Jewish a racial identity today? First of all, it is clear that race is a social construct closely connected to the devaluing of those considered racially inferior (racism). Racism has been used over centuries to justify various degrees of mistreatment of one group of human beings by other group. That is unjust, unfair and just plain wrong. Nevertheless, it seems important to remember that racism still exists and that Jews and many other peoples have been affected and continue to feel its effects.
While I think it is essential to acknowledge that race “science,” race and racism are part of Jewish history, I’m not convinced that race is or should be part of the Jewish identity. First, those pseudo-scientific, racial classifications are unjust as well as inaccurate. It is quite clear that Jews vary in ethnic backgrounds, facial features, genetic markers, and skin color as we always have. Second, when we consider Jewishness a racial identity aren’t we just playing into the Nazi anti-Semitic ideology? It does not need another victory.
So then, who is Jewish? In the halakhic sense, being Jewish is matrilineal, while tribal affiliation and priestly and royalty status is patrilineal. One can also be Jewish through conversion. In addition, in the Reform Movement, if a father (only) is Jewish and a child is raised within Judaism, then the child is also Jewish. Matrilineal descent first entered the legal language of Judaism in the Mishnah (somewhere between 100CE and 200CE). However, the Torah only mentions patrilineal descent, hence the emphasis on “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.” Likewise, later in the Torah, one’s tribal identity as well as one’s Jewishness comes from descent from one of Jacob’s twelve sons, who are each the founding member of a distinct tribe.
Except in the case of conversion, traditional understandings of Jewishness present it as a given. Many believe that converts should not be asked about their non-Jewish past. At the same time, people who are born to Jewish women–but who have never set foot in a synagogue, do not understand a word of Hebrew, may consider themselves atheists, or even deny their Jewishness altogether–are considered Jewish by many Jews.
So then, instead of who is Jewish, I suggest we should ask: what does it mean to be Jewish? In my opinion, Jewishness consists of four related ideas. First, it is a form of embodiment, chosen or born into, centered on the conditions of this life. Second, it is a collective movement, or community, of embodied persons focused on tikkun olam, repairing the world. Third, our community values education, studying sacred writings, prayer and discussion as additional forms of holy, embodied action. Finally, being Jewish means observing the customs, traditions and Holy Days of our people.
As mentioned, Jewishness is grounded in the here-and-now. While we work on repairing the world in some seemingly esoteric ways like prayer and study, we also have practical actions to take including ending the racist ideology that affected and continues to affect not only us but many other peoples too. In addition, we must work for more just relationships by fighting sexism, heterosexism, and class inequalities, and by strengthening access to natural resources, healthcare, spiritual support, employment opportunities, clean water, education, and human and civil rights. Insofar as injustice, inequality, racism, sexism and heterosexism exist in our own communities, we must end that too. Likewise, our planet is becoming more and more a stranger to humanity. We have the responsibility to stand up for it and repair it as well. Our rewards are the fruits of our actions: ensuring the flourishing of human life and the planet. Nothing more, for it is more than enough.
Yes, in the past, one’s Jewishness was defined by racial features and characteristics alone. For those who espoused this theory, actions played no role in determining this identity. The Shoah has taught us the errors of this line of thinking. It doesn’t really matter, in my opinion, if instead of a race, we consider Jewishness a religion, an ethnicity, a culture or some combination of all three. How we live or “be Jewish” is what counts.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses. She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department. In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends considerable amounts of time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.