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Judaism: Race, Religion, or Ethnicity?

Every so often I get this question. Usually, I am asked simply whether Judaism is an ethnicity or a race. One person phrased it to me this way:

I am under the impression that "being Jewish" relates both to ethnicity (as in, someone is born Jewish), as well as a religion (as in, I converted to Judaism and therefore I am a Jew). Which is correct?

What I cannot understand is: who cares? Why do people want to know? Of what relevance is this issue to being Jewish?

The Mesilas Yesharim, a seminal work in Jewish philosophy, has a chapter called "The Obligations of the Human in This World." He does not mention race or ethnicity even once in the entire chapter.

The fact is that as Jews, whether one is descended by maternal lineage from those who stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah from Hashem, or whether one is a proper, full convert, or whether one is maternally descended from a proper, full convert, we are required to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah to the best of our abilities, and thus achieve self-actualization, holiness, and closeness to Hashem.

Words like "ethnicity," "religion," or even "race" are completely irrelevant to our obligations in this life. That's not the path to pursue. What is important is each individual's personal relationship with Hashem, and our relationship with Hashem as a People, as well as our relationships with our communities (roughly in that order).

I would hope that if you read the articles found on my web site, you will begin to have some sort of an understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

Why do so many people ask about race? A Jew could also be someone who converted to Judaism. Proper and true converts to Judaism are accepted as full Jews. Thus, there are Jews who have been Black, Asian, whatever. I know some of them myself. Furthermore, there are many Jews from many backgrounds and many "races," and often they don't look at all like people expect Jews to look (whatever that is). It doesn't make a bit of difference. Race isn't a factor in being Jewish.

And if you go back far enough, we all come from the same Adam and Eve. So "race" is at best an artificial concept.

Aren't there enough race troubles around the world? The counterfeit distinctions of race have led to the extremely dangerous misconception of one "race" being better than another, and this has caused more pain in the world than probably any other failing of humanity. Can't we get past that issue already?

Let's focus on what the Torah tells us to do, and not on irrelevant concepts.

Sooner or later, though, someone is bound to ask, "What about Amalek? Doesn't the Torah command us to kill them out? Isn't that racial? Isn't that commanding us to perform the evil of genocide?"

The answer is no. The Commandment to kill out Amalek is not racially based. In the first place, there have been Amalekite converts to Judaism, as we find in the Bible. In the second place, the Commandment to kill out the nation of Amalek is a Commandment of self-defense. The Amalek nation dedicated themselves to destroying the Nation of Israel (on religious grounds, mind you -- they were militant atheists). Throughout the generations, Amalek has attempted again and again to kill all of us. Haman, during the Babylonian exile, attempted to eradicate all the Jews of the world, and he was given the power and authority by the Persian-Median Emperor (see the Book of Esther). Haman was a descendant of Agog, King of Amalek, and he inherited their national hatred of the Jews.

There are those who argue that the Nazis were the descendants of Amalek. It can certainly be said that they were the "spiritual descendants" (for lack of a better term) of Amalek.

Amalek wanted to destroy the Jews, and all and any knowledge of Hashem in this world. They have tried this time and again. Nevertheless, the Talmud tells us, the grandsons of Haman the Amalekite studied Torah in the Talmudic Academies of Bnei Brak (a city in Israel). They were not killed, they were not ostracized, though they came from Amalek, our ancestral enemy. Jews have never been very good at carrying a grudge.

What about the Commandment not to marry a Gentile? Isn't that racially biased? Again, the answer is no. It seems that way, at first glance, but let's examine what the Torah says about marrying a Gentile.

When Hashem your G-d brings you to the land you are going to inherit, and many nations fall before you: the Hittites, the Gersonites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Prezites, the Chivites, the Jevusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you; Hashem your G-d will hand them over to you, and you will strike at them. You must shun them utterly, you may not sign a treaty with them. You may not marry them. Do not give your daughter to a Gentile's son, and do not take his daughters for your son. For if you do they will remove your sons from worshiping Me, and they will worship other gods. The result will be that Hashem will be angry with you and he will destroy you quickly.... For you are a holy nation [i.e., exclusively] for Hashem. Hashem your G-d chose you from all the nations on the earth, to be His special people. Hashem desired and chose you not because you had greater numbers than all the other nations, for you are the smallest of all the nations. It was because Hashem loves you, and because He kept His promise to your forefathers, that Hashem took you, with a strong hand, and rescued you from slavery, from the clutches of Pharaoh the king of Egypt.

-- Deuteronomy 7:1-8

Read it carefully, as the Torah is meant to be studied. The point I wish to focus on is the verse that says that if we intermarry, our spouse will draw us away from Judaism. This is why marrying a true and proper convert is permitted, in most cases, because the convert is dedicated to Hashem and Judaism, and thus will not try to seduce us away from Judaism. A convert is a Jew. A Gentile, however, i.e., someone not born to a Jewish mother and who has not converted, might draw us away from Judaism.

So race is not an issue at all. We, as Jews, have a purpose to fulfill on this earth. We have obligations. The most optimum environment in which to perform those obligations is within the context of a Jewish marriage. Both spouses must work together to fulfill the purpose of their existence. If one member is not sincerely religious, the other spouse will at best fail to reach his or her potential. Most likely, he or she will find it impossible to fulfill those obligations as necessary.

Judaism teaches that the soul of one person is only half a soul. When a man and woman marry, they form one complete soul. That way, the soul finds its purpose.

What happens when one half is working in another direction? Can you imagine a car on which each of the wheels are trying to travel in different directions? Can you drive a car like that?

Another aspect highlighted in the passage from Deuteronomy I quoted above is the concept of our being the Chosen People. What does that mean, really?

Well, G-d created mankind because G-d wanted to give good to someone. G-d wants to have a relationship with a creature that works hard to achieve good. G-d did not want to give away something for nothing, so G-d created humanity with the ability of free will, and put him in this universe, where he has the opportunity to sin and the opportunity to do good.

But people did not want to do good. G-d offered the Torah to all the nations, and they all refused it. Many individual people among the nations did not refuse -- they are those who get reincarnated so they can get the chance to convert to Judaism. But on the whole, the nations refused the Torah. The Children of Israel wholeheartedly accepted the Torah. So we were given the responsibility of the Torah. We were chosen to become servants to G-d. It may be hard work, but it makes us holy.

But the main point is that anyone can become chosen, by assuming the responsibilities of the Commandments, just as we did. Is this racism? How could it be racism if we allow anyone to join us and become equally chosen? The Nazis did not let anyone become a member of the so-called "master race." One had to be born to it. That was racism. Refusing to hire someone simply because they are dark-skinned is racism.

Saying that we accepted a responsibility and were as a result chosen to fulfill that responsibility, and allowing anyone else to accept the responsibility as well, is not racism. It is easier to become Jewish than it is to join some unions. In Judaism, the entrance requirements are tough, but everyone who is sincere, has no ulterior motive, and commits themselves to the full Torah is allowed in.

Furthermore, the Torah has strict Laws about how to treat a convert. By Law, we are required to love a convert, and if we mistreat a convert (or anyone else who has had a difficult life), it is even worse than mistreating anyone else (which is also a sin, of course).

Furthermore, some of our greatest Rabbis have been converts and children of converts. For example, the great and famous Rabbi Akiva, one of the most pivotal Rabbis in the entire Talmud, was the son of converts. The incomparable Unkelos was himself a convert, and he wrote a translation of the Five Books of Moses that is considered one of the most important commentaries on the Torah ever written. While we have been chosen, so is everyone who is dedicated to Hashem and undertakes to serve Hashem as the Torah instructs. Our being chosen also includes anyone and everyone who chooses Hashem, no matter what nation he or she comes from. And a non-Jew who keeps the Seven Noahide Commandments is also loved and accepted by Hashem, even without the responsibilities of being "chosen."

Judaism teaches a complex way of life, but there is a great tendency to try to adapt from other religions and other belief systems. Where it does not contradict Judaism, there is no problem. Consequently, Jews use computers, and Jews have joined a wide variety of careers. We are not Amish; we are permitted to use electricity. But we are human, and humans enjoy wandering and learning. We are therefore often tempted to adapt foreign modes of thought as well, modes that contradict the teachings of Judaism. Therefore, to some extent we are forced to be exclusive, to live in our own neighborhoods, to do our own thing, so as not to be exposed to that which would offend us or tempt us. Nevertheless, we can cloister ourselves only so much. We have to live in the world. So we spend our formative years in as Jewish an environment as possible, thus granting ourselves as solid a Jewish foundation as we can. This is a strong antidote against the depravity and lax morals that can be found in certain areas of most cities.

So, in short, the answer to the question stated at the beginning of this article is: who cares? But if you really need an answer, it is not racial. Judaism is something we are proud to do, not something we are proud to be. Judaism is our opportunity to attain holiness. What difference does it make if it's a culture, ethnicity, or race? It is completely irrelevant.

If this subject concerns still anyone, I want to demonstrate to you that you really have nothing to be worried about. It has been a long time since I first placed this article of mine on this web site, and I have received only one disagreeing letter about it. When you read the letter, you will see that the people who consider Jews a race and disdain converts are not exactly the highest quality of people. Take a look at what this "human being" wrote me. (I have edited the profanity, as I found it offensive, but I have not touched the letter in any other way.)

With all due respect....Youre full of ****!......We Jews who can claim direct descent (and prove it through dna tests) from ancient Israelites are a well-defined racial group!!! furthermore the U.S. Supreme Court has even recognized us as a racial group,look it up!!! You must be just another dumb convert...who's got not one!!! not one drop of Semite Middle Eastern blood!!! i p*** on free loading gold digging converts like you!!! and you must look like gomer pyle,not as a classical Judean,dumb*ss!!!

Now, obviously, we can't take seriously anyone who writes or talks like that. It stands to reason that a group of people who have had, for over three thousand years, such a high rate of exclusive marriage within the group is going to have a higher tendency of the same DNA. It could very well be that we do. But that's the result, not the reason for marrying within our faith! Our reason is because of the Commandment in the Torah, as I explained above. Furthermore, to hate a convert violates an additional Commandment in the Torah. If I were truly a convert, that writer would be violating both the Commandment of loving fellow Jews, as well as the Commandment not to disdain a convert.

It is evident to me that this person has no interest in the Torah and the Commandments. It's also interesting that he quotes the U.S. Supreme Court, as if that's some sort of convincing Jewish source.

Let me make this clear: Nowhere in the Torah, neither in the Written Torah or the Oral Torah, is there any indication that a Jew with so-called "pure" Jewish blood and DNA is in any way more meritorious than a true convert or the descendant of true converts. There is no such thing. It is not your blood or DNA that matters. It is what you do, and what you believe, not who your parents were. Either type of Jew can achieve the same level in the World to Come, depending on what they do in this world, not who they are.

To stress the point: we do not keep Judaism because we have a racial identity as Jews. If anything, we probably shouldn't have a racial identity. We should have a religious identity. We keep Judaism because Hashem commanded us to. And He commanded us to teach our children to do so as well. And so while being Jewish can be inherited, one can become Jewish as well. Only idiots like that can think that this makes Judaism racist.

If someone reading this disagrees with me, for some reason, I'd welcome a polite letter to that effect, explaining any valid reasons. So far, all I have received on this point is complete drivel.

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