October 23, 2018

Who Is a Jew? Depends Who’s Asking

“In her statement, Ruth lists different elements of her commitment: It is geographic (“wherever you go…wherever you lodge…where you die….”), ethnic or national (“your people shall be my people”), and religious (“and your God my God”). There are not separate components, but different expressions of what it meant for Ruth to become Judean.

For Ruth, as for Jews throughout much of history, to be Judean, that is, to be Jewish (to this day, the Hebrew word ‘Yehudi’ expresses both), meant to consider Judea your homeland, to belong to the Jewish people, and to accept the God of Israel. The idea that these aspects could be separated was inconceivable.

This notion of Jewishness was challenged by the new forms of citizenship and statehood that emerged in Western Europe and North America in the late 1700s.

As a separate people living among Europeans whose identity was increasingly national, it was in the Jews interest to define Judaism as a religion so that Jews might not be rejected by the emerging nation-states in which they lived.”

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