There is a widespread misconception that the Jewish people is a race. In the Torah reading of Beha’alotcha, in the Book of Numbers (12, 1), Moses, in the plain meaning of Scripture, takes a second wife that the Bible calls a Cushite – “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman who he took; for he had taken a Cushite woman”. A Cushite means a black woman from Cush. In modern Hebrew the term Cushite is a derogatory term, but this is not so in the Bible where it is merely a descriptive term referring to a person from the land of Cush, an unknown area somewhere in Africa.
The Jewish people is not a race or ethnic group but a nation. Aside from the fact that anyone no matter racial or ethnic background can convert and become a member of the Jewish people, from the beginning of Jewish history, Jewish blood was not pure, and people of differing racial and ethnic background joined the Jewish people. In the Bible, besides Moses taking a Midianite woman as his wife (Exodus 2, 21) and then a Cushite woman, Joseph takes the daughter of an Egyptian priest as his wife who is the mother of Ephraim and Menasha the ancestors of two of the Biblical tribes of the Jewish people. The Bible records that a “mixed multitude” (people of differing racial and ethnic background) joined the Hebrews in escaping from slavery in Egypt, the birth of the Jewish people (Exodus 12, 38). The notion of Jewish peoplehood in a nationalistic sense is an integral part of traditional Judaism as a religion.
Traditional Judaism is a religion in a completely different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in the theological sense of a faith commitment – faith not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah (savior). There are in Christianity different streams (orthodox, catholic and protestant) and many different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Christian is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers, and one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular, non-believing Christian.
By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but in the pragmatic sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people – not faith in God nor any other faith commitment defines one as a Jew, and among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. There are in Judaism different streams (orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist, reform and secular) and different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Jew is being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and what unites Jews is not a faith commitment nor a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), homeland (Israel) and culture or way of life (and in speaking of Judaism as a culture I am speaking not only of a traditional life of observance of law and ritual but also secular Jewish culture, such as Israeli folk dancing, which is not a part of traditional Jewish law or ritual but is an expression of a larger Jewish culture).
There are then two fundamental elements of traditional Judaism – peoplehood (in the sense of nationhood) and religion. The element of nationhood is based upon the covenant of Abraham who is considered the spiritual father of the Jewish people. The covenant of Abraham also includes the land of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, as a nation cannot generally exist without a national homeland (the survival of the Jewish people for over two thousand years without our national homeland is an exception to the laws of history). The sign of the covenant of Abraham is circumcision – “And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your seed after you…every male child among you shall be circumcised…and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17, 7-11).
I want to clarify that Abraham was actually not a Jew having lived prior to the exodus from Egypt representing the birth of the Israelite (Jewish) people. The Bible describes Abraham as a Hebrew, and the patriarchs of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – were Hebrews, and not Jews. One explanation of the term Hebrew among historians is that the term is not a noun referring to a specific ethnic, national or racial group, but an adjective describing a type of people – wanderers who did not belong to any particular society, in the main shepherds raising sheep and cattle, as the Bible describes the patriarchs and their families. They were not tied to any particular land, but wandered from area to area depending upon the availability of grazing land for their herds. According to this explanation, there were Hebrews from earliest times throughout the ancient near east – Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt. The Bible describes Abraham as coming originally from Mesopotamia, wandering with his family to the land of Canaan and spending time in Egypt as well. Furthermore, according to this explanation, not all Hebrews became members of the people Israel (the Jewish people). Rather, it was Hebrews who were of the families and clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who became enslaved in Egypt, and escaped from slavery, joined by the “mixed multitude” (people of differing racial and ethnic background), marking the birth of the Jewish people.
The element of Judaism as a religion is based upon the covenant of Moses, as the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a constitution of the Jewish people is regarded in the Jewish tradition as the Divinely revealed word of God given to the Jewish people through Moses. To be accurate, the Five Books of Moses do not describe the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as being given on Mount Sinai. Rather, according to the Torah, the tablets containing the so called ten commandments (the Torah and the Talmudic rabbis use the term ten statements) and other mitzvot (commandments) were given on Mount Sinai. Yet, nowhere in the Five Books of Moses is it written explicitly that the entire Torah as a written document came from Sinai. However, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is regarded as given on Sinai; and is the legal constitution (as a basis of Jewish law), and a source of moral and spiritual guidance, of the Jewish people. The main sign of the covenant of Moses is the Sabbath – “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying speak to the children of Israel saying, you shall surely keep My Sabbaths for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31, 12-13).
The modern term religion and the term Judaism are not found in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature. In speaking about Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis use the term Torah (תורה) – a term from a Hebrew root (הוראה) that means instruction or guidance, and the central concept of the Jewish tradition. The term Torah has a number of different usages ranging from the 5 books of Moses, the Bible as a whole, the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible, to wisdom of a universal nature.
According to the Jewish tradition there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden. Such material establishes permissible and forbidden behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. Just as in any modern nation state, citizens do not establish law for themselves and there are authoritative law makers and interpreters of law – so, too, we do not establish law for ourselves in traditional Judaism, and it is the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.
Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.
In order to make clear the importance of Jewish peoplehood in the sense of a nationality, especially in distinction to Christianity in which there is no notion of nationality, I want to briefly discuss the conversion process in traditional Judaism. The ancient Jewish process of conversion is actually very similar to such a modern process of naturalization as in the United States. What defines one as a citizen of the United States is being born of an American parent (or in the US) or having undergone a process of naturalization. One who undergoes a process of naturalization must study a little about American history and government, and take an oath of allegiance to the Unites States in a court of law or before a judge. Similarly, in traditional Judaism, the conversion process involves a period of study about Torah and commandments of Torah, and an acceptance of Torah as binding in a rabbinic court of law.
The most important and authoritative Talmudic source relating to the conversion process in traditional Judaism requires in the main two things – an awareness that in becoming a member of the Jewish people one is becoming a member of a persecuted people, and a period of study of some of the more important and less important commandments of Torah (Yevamot 47a):
Our rabbis taught: If at the present time a potential convert comes to convert, he is told: What reason do you have that you have come to convert? Do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions? If he replies, I know and yet am unworthy, he is accepted immediately, and is informed of some of the minor and some of the major commandments…He is also informed of the punishment of the commandments…And just as he is informed of the punishment of the commandments, so is he informed of their reward.
Strikingly, there is no mention in the source of acceptance of theological doctrines as a requirement of a potential convert in becoming a member of the Jewish people. Christianity is a religion in a universal and theological sense of a faith commitment. Theology and theological doctrine is of the essence of Christianity as a religion. Reflected in this Talmudic source is a conception of Judaism as a religion in a nationalistic and pragmatic sense of a way of life (observance of Torah and commandments) of a people. Conspicuously absent from the source is any mention of theological doctrines including belief in God that one must accept.
Thus, to ask what the theological doctrines of Judaism are is like asking what the doctrines of the United States are. Just as being an American is a matter of belonging to an American culture or way of life and belonging to an American people (as a nation), and not a matter of acceptance of specific doctrines – so, too, being a Jew is a matter of belonging to a Jewish culture or way of life and belonging to a Jewish people (as a nation), and not a matter of acceptance of any specific and especially theological doctrines. Just as the American nation includes people of differing racial and ethnic background – so, too, the Jewish nation includes people of differing racial and ethnic background.