Question: "Does the word Jewish refer to a race or a religion?"

Answer: It can be difficult to define what it means to be “Jewish.” People may assume that being Jewish means that one is a physical descendant of the ancient Jewish people, but there is much more to consider. Being Jewish can be defined in terms of religion, race, culture, and nationality. Any one (or more) of the varied definitions may apply to a given individual, but all of them are not true of all Jews.

To speak of being Jewish religiously means that one follows the Torah and/or the Mishnah. There are many who do not follow the tenets of Judaism but who consider themselves cultural Jews, since they observe certain festivals or traditions, albeit in a non-religious way. But there are also converts, or proselytes, to Judaism, and they, too, are “Jewish,” regardless of their background or ethnicity.

There is only one race, and that is the human race, so to speak of the “Jewish race” can be problematic. Various courts in the U.S. have ruled that Jewish people classify as a race in order to extend them protections under anti-discrimination laws. But when a Jew filling out a survey or application is faced with the choice of “Caucasian, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian, Black, or Pacific Islander,” he could be any of the above.

Using the word Jewish to refer to a specific culture bypasses the religious and racial considerations, but “Jewish culture” can be elusive to pinpoint, as well. The particulars of worship and practice are not common to all Jews. Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews, for example, practice some different customs, follow slightly different liturgies, and have different accents in their Hebrew pronunciation.

In the Bible the Jews were called to be a special nation, but it is impossible today to define Jewishness according to nationality. For almost 2,000 years the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were a people without a country, and when modern Israel was established in 1948, there were a great many Jews who did not support it. Today people living in Israel are called Israelis as opposed to Israelites, but there are many Israelis who are not Jewish at all. By the same token, most of the Jews in the world are not Israeli citizens.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz suggests that the proper way to think of the Jewish people is not as a religion, a race, a culture, or a nation, but as a family (We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?, 2005). Jews, according to Steinsaltz, are united in that they are the extended spiritual and/or physical family of Jacob.

The Bible is clear that God chose the children of Jacob for a special purpose. Paul, who was himself a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, wrote of his willingness to give up everything, if he could, for the sake of his fellow Jews’ salvation: “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen” (Romans 9:3–5).