The lines between Jewish ethnicity and religion are quite blurry and many people are not sure which is which. It is not uncommon for someone to talk of the Jewish religion or even mention Judaism when in fact they intended to mention Jewish.
Jewish ethnicity has to do with the culture, ancestry, and history of the Jewish people. For most Jews, their identity is in their familial lineage as well as their historical connection to the Jewish people. Jews have a common language, traditions, and customs that have been handed down through the generations.
On the flip side, religion refers to the rituals, beliefs, and practices of Judaism – which is one of the oldest religions in the world. Judaism adherents observe commandments written in the Mosaic law, participate in communal worship, and study the scriptures. There are several denominations under Judaism ranging from Reform to Orthodox and each of these have unique interpretations of scripture and religious rituals.
There are many differences but in a nutshell, ethnicity has to do with a shared culture and ancestry. Anyone born of Jewish Ancestry is considered an Israeli national irrespective of their location. Religion on the other hand refers to the religious practices shared by Jews- which are primarily from Judaism.
How the Two Overlap
Understanding the relationship between Jewish ethnicity and religion can be a bit confusing because they intersect as well as diverge in many complex ways. Lots of Jewish people believe in identifying both with their ethnic as well as their religious heritage. However, there are many people who convert to Judaism that may not necessarily share the same ancestry and heritage as the Jewish people. These converts happily embrace the religious practices but do not share the same ethnic ties with the Jewish people.
One of the primary points of intersection is the customs, traditions, and cultural practices that are handed down from generation to generation. These customs typically have both religious and ethnic significance which helps to reinforce the bond between Jewish ethnicity and religion. Some celebrations of Jewish Holidays like Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover are not only religious practices but they are also intertwined in the Jewish culture. As such, the observance of these holidays often involves eating special foods, carrying out traditional rituals, and using symbolic objects that reflect the historical experiences of the Jews.
Language is another important place of confluence. The religious texts, prayers, and liturgy are written in the Hebrew language. The connection of ethnicity and Jewish religion via language links the two via a rich shared linguistic history.
The concept of “Am Yisrael” (the People of Israel) is another point of overlap between Jewish ethnicity and religion. It represents the shared identity of all Jewish people irrespective of their current location on earth or their religious affiliations. This creates a sense of unity among the Jewish people by drawing from a shared ancestry while at the same time combining their heritage with the religious aspects of Judaism.
Moreover, lots of the Jewish events (e.g. births, bar or bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals) are laden with cultural and religious undertones. These important Jewish milestones connect the Jewish person to their heritage but they are also avenues through which Jews uphold their religious traditions and rituals. Family ties as well as social bonds are established and strengthened during these milestone events which is how intertwining Jewish religion and ethnicity are.
Jewish Identity in Israel
Israel is often referred to as the Jewish State. The state of Israel is the crucible in which Judaism and Jewish ethnicity are mingled. Israel was founded as the homeland for the Jews and this is where the dimensions of Jewish identity and religion converge. The state of Israel was established in 1948 with the principal aim of providing a haven for the Jews who had been scattered throughout the nations of the earth after the holocaust. Even though this was a political move, most Jews believe it was a spiritual move in fulfillment of ancient prophecy. Israel’s identity is therefore deeply intertwined with Judaism. This can easily be seen in the national symbols, holidays as well as Hebrew as the national language.
Israel uses the Jus Sanguinis (right of Blood) principle of citizenship. This principle says that a person can become an Israeli citizen based on their Jewish heritage alone. In other words, even if a Jew is not born in Israel, they are considered Israelites just because of shared ancestry. This unique approach to citizenship is another illustration of how Jewish ethnicity is enshrined in the nation’s identity.
However, the Judaism-ethnicity relationship in Israel has its complexities. For instance, there are non-Jewish citizens of Israel (e.g. Arab Israelis) that comprise a significant population of Israel. Jewish Israelis enjoy all the rights and privileges of Israelites thanks to their heritage. However, non-Jewish Israelis may not necessarily enjoy some of the privileges that citizens ought to.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another important factor when looking at Jewish ethnicity and identity. The struggle to control the territory as well as the push for self-determination have been contentious issues since time immemorial. For most Jews, the conflict has not only helped them develop their national identity but also affirmed their cultural and religious identity.
Jewish ethnicity and religion are intertwined at so many points of intersection that it may even seem hard to know where one ends and the other starts. For instance, most of the religious practices in Judaism are full of culturally significant rituals that Jews consider part of their heritage. This interconnection may stem from the fact that the Jewish patriarchs (e.g. Abraham, Issac, Jacob, etc) were all religious and they handed down their faith to the subsequent generations. Additionally, Israel’s nationality is not similar to other nations which mostly require citizenship by birth, naturalization, or registration. For Israel, citizenship is by birth which means anyone born of Jewish ancestry is considered a citizen of Israel irrespective of their geographical location. This also adds to the relationship between their ethnicity and religion.