‘Who are the Jews?’: Defining the Collective.

We have looked at a number of portraits, each representing a different kind of Jew. As mentioned earlier, it is clear that Jewry is more diverse than ever before. Without idealizing the degree of unity that characterized the pre-modern Jewish world, it is clear that modernity has brought diversity of Jewish life on a scale never imaginable in earlier eras. There are Jews who are religious and others who are not; some are Zionist and others are adamantly opposed to the State of Israel. Some Jews are fervent believers in the need to be part of the modern world, while others are equally fervent in their opposition to modernity.

One of the crucial questions that has affected the Jewish world is a definition of the collective: what are the Jews? In the pre-modern world it was easy for Jews to define themselves: they were a special hybrid, both a nation and a religion; an .

This was an anomaly. For many centuries before modernity the vast majority of humans had separated state and religion. A nation might be predominantly Christian or Moslem but these two concepts remained disparate. For example, an Englishman might see himself as quintessentially Christian and the religious element might be a central and inseparable part of his self-identity: however, the two concepts were not one and the same. Christianity had come to the population of England at a certain point and had been adopted as the national religion, but the English nation was not a priori Christian. They had been living in England before they adopted that religion, and the same was true for the vast majority of peoples around the world. The Jewish case was different: they had never been anything else. They developed as a people with a specific religious faith.

The modern world complicated matters much further. For one thing, as mentioned, many Jews started to redefine themselves in religious terms, adopting the nationality of the people among whom they lived. Other Jews retained their national identity, but rejected the religious content of their Jewishness. Some others insisted on continuing to define themselves in the traditional way as part of a religious nation. New definitions were added in the twentieth century. There were those who insisted that the Jews are a culture; others called them an ethnic group. Yet others used the term religious civilization.

Since we are discussing the Jewish world as a whole, it seems that we should take time to examine this issue and to see how the students relate to the Jewish collective of which they form a part.


Who are the Jews?

The aim of this activity is to provide space for the students to define the entire Jewish collective of which they are a part.



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30 Nov 2006 / 9 Kislev 5767 0