Thoughts on Race and Being Jewish by Ivy Helman

20151004_161012When 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.

Categories: Education, Embodiment, environment, Identity Construction, Judaism, Race and Ethnicity, Racism

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Lots to think about, Ivy. I do believe that racism and all the other “isms” we use as an excuse to rob others of dignity, justice and life, boil down to money and profit. We “dress it up” to make ourselves appear less shallow and selfish.


  2. Excellent post! If we believe the 19th-century theories–and a lot of people seem to still believe them–and that everybody (every body) is unique, does that mean that except for twins we’re all members of separate races? Yeah. It’s nonsense. Your four qualifications make a lot of sense. You’re also right that every body has an obligation both to stand up to false and phony “science” and to help repair the body of our blessed planet.


  3. Thanks Ivy. Long ago, I made an acquaintance of a beloved Jewish friend, and who, in the beginning, talked a lot about her family, the holocaust, what it meant to be Jewish and also her political views as a conservative. I talked about being a recluse basically, a non-conformist, an artist, a liberal, thriving as best I could, outside the mainstream. We’re still great friends. None of those differences mattered then or now. I would even guess she would vote for Trump and me for Hillary Clinton, if they became the candidates in the next presidential election, though I would love to see Elizabeth Warren drafted.


  4. Thanks for this reflection. I am in an interfaith marriage and find myself thoroughly enriched by the family history and traditions of my spouse and our circle of friends who embrace being Jewish across a broad spectrum of identities and understandings.


  5. Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I enjoyed reading your article.


  6. Several years ago I attended a seminar on the future of the (local) Jewish community. They had some prominent speakers documenting and deploring the decline. I was not popular when I said that a major reason the population appeared to be declining is that they defined out of it many people who considered themselves to be Jewish: people who married non-Jews, children of inter-married people, people with certain types of conversions, etc.


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