Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Jews and Jews

I recently watched a comedian on YouTube trying to sort out what it is exactly that makes a Jew a Jew. Having only minimal familiarity with the Old Testament, and possessing almost no knowledge of modern Talmudic Judaism, the poor man was entirely at sea, and eager for somebody to explain it to him.

I don’t blame him. The term is used multiple ways by different groups with different things in mind. Sorting out the various claims to Jewishness is not easy, and I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of modern users of the term either get it wrong or use it in such an ambiguous and inconsistent way that nobody really knows what they are talking about.

The biggest contributors to this confusion, oddly enough, are a certain subset of … er … Jews.

So here, in no particular order, are some popular misconceptions that contribute to the confusion:

Myth #1: You can be a religious Jew without being genetically Jewish

“A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism.”
Despite being commonly accepted, this definition has at least three strikes against it:

Strike One: From a biblical perspective, no Gentile has ever become a Jew; rather, he or she became a proselyte.  In the New Testament, the word “Jew”, whether used literally or figuratively, always has an ethnic component to it. Luke contrasts Jews with Greeks. In Romans, Paul also contrasts them with Greeks (meaning Gentiles generally). John contrasts them with Samaritans.

If a term is consistently laid alongside another term, the logical conclusion is that the terms are of the same sort. If Greeks and Samaritans are national or ethnic identities rather than religions, it is fair to assume that the writer is using “Jew” to denote the same sort of identity.

Most compelling, though, in the book of Acts, Luke also distinguishes Jews from both “proselytes” (meaning converts) and “devout persons”. If Gentile converts to Judaism are considered Jews, why is the word “proselyte” used in the New Testament at all, let alone in contrast to Jews? At very least it is redundant.

Further, Luke also goes to the trouble in Acts of referencing the “Jewish nation”. A nation is not a religion, notwithstanding Wikipedia’s confusion on the subject. Even the “true Jew” of Romans 2 is a Jew both outwardly AND inwardly.

Strike Two: Jewish tradition rejects the notion of Gentiles becoming Jews.  In their acclaimed scholarly treatise on the subject of “The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew”, Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar maintain the transition from Gentile to Jew is impossible:
“Of all Judaic rituals, that of giyyur [the conversion process by which a Gentile is alleged to become a “Jew”] is arguably the most radical: it turns a Gentile into a Jew — once and for all and irrevocably. The very possibility of such a transformation is anomalous, according to Jewish tradition, which regards Jewishness as an ascriptive status entered through birth to a Jewish mother.”
“Anomalous” means irregular, incongruous or inconsistent. Sagi and Zohar opt to go with Jewish tradition rather than embrace the giyyur concept. The message of their book is that Gentiles do not become Jews by embracing Judaism.

Thus the idea of a “Gentile Jew” fails not only the biblical sniff test, but the test of learned Jews and Jewish history.

Strike Three: The ‘Jewish mother’ clause is traditional but not biblical.  It is well established that Matthew wrote his gospel specifically to Jews. Yet Matthew’s genealogy of the Christ explicitly includes two Gentile women, Rahab the Canaanite, and Ruth the Moabitess, and Luke’s genealogy includes both women implicitly. If Jewishness passes only through the mother, the legitimate Jewishness of every male in the bloodline of Jesus Christ from Salmon on down must at very least come into question. Yet both Matthew and Luke expected Jews to accept their genealogies as evidence that Jesus possessed all necessary qualifications to claim the title of Messiah, and it is evident many Jews did so.

In other words, the “Jewish mother” requirement must be a comparatively recent invention.

To sum it up, Christians cannot accept the definition of “Jew” used by modern Jews. It clashes with both the teaching of scripture and the Jews’ own traditions.

That’s confusing.

Myth #2: Mosaic Judaism and Rabbinic/Talmudic Judaism are the same religion

If you want to be even more confused, try comparing Judaisms across time.

Modern Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism bears little or no resemblance to the Old Testament worship of God based on the Law of Moses. It’s not just the abandonment of the mandated sacrifices and the centrality of the temple. The differences are significant, and have been a source of controversy throughout the history of the church, as this writer documents.

The Interactive Bible sums it up this way:
“Modern Judaism has little place for heaven or hell, as these have become metaphors for spiritual fulfillment or the lack of it, and nobody believes in the devil or angels either. So, what’s left for a religious person to do when every inconvenient, supernatural, and other-worldly element has been removed? Plenty! ‘The major concern has always been and is still very much, the religious effort to remove hell from this world and to build a heaven on this Earth.’ What’s left are the basic ideals of humanism in a monotheistic package.”
And as to the kind of Messiah most Jews expect?
No messiah at all. ‘In Reform and Orthodoxy alike theology parted company from Messianism by so reconstructing the messianic hope as to render it something entirely different from what it had been.’ He means that Jews believe in a Messianism without a Messiah: ‘As we shall see, in modern times the Messiah became the “messianic hope” and Jews talked about a “messianic age” rather than a single, wonderful man.’ The new messiah is a time and a place, not a man.”
[The internal quotes here are taken from Jacob Neusner’s The Way of the Torah: An Introduction to Judaism.]

Thus the word “Judaism” is currently used to describe two entirely different sets of beliefs, depending on who’s doing the talking. That’s REALLY confusing.

Myth #3: Christians are the “true Jews”

Another late-developing problem among evangelicals in particular is the conflation of Gentile Christians with Jews for theological reasons.

John Piper famously sermonized that every Christian is a “true Jew”. Supersessionist theology (the belief that the Church has inherited all the blessings and promises God made to national Israel, though not its curses) demands making spiritual Jews of all of us. This is not tenable, and is debunked at length here, but that hasn’t stopped numerous evangelicals from teaching it, thus further muddying the waters about the meaning of the word “Jew”.

That’s confusing too. Jews can certainly become Christian. But Christian Gentiles are not Jews, cannot become Jews and should not WANT to become Jews.

Myth #4: Most modern Jews share little genetically with the Jews of the ancient Middle East

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren earned herself the sobriquet “Fauxcahontas” for famously claiming Native-American heritage without evidence. How much Cherokee does Warren have in her? A mere 1/32 at best (a great-great-great grandmother). She would be more responsibly described as 31/32 pasty white than 1/32 Cherokee.

But it brings up a serious question: how many generations of intermarriage with Gentiles does it take for an ethnic Jew to cease to be Jewish and become (at least primarily) ethnically something else? Two millennia is a long time. Some people allege that today’s “Jews” are not really so Jewish after all.

Early in Israel’s history, intermarriage with other nations was severely frowned-upon, though that didn’t stop a number of famous Israelites from marrying outside their people: Judah, Moses and Solomon among them. As time passed, and as both Israelites and Jews lived in exile all over the world for (in some cases) in excess of twenty centuries, one might legitimately wonder whether intermarriage with Gentiles has become sufficiently common that many “Jews” are genetically more Russian, Italian, German or French than Hebrew.

Surprisingly, this does not appear to be the case. Recent DNA studies show that Ashkenazi Jews, who represent something like 75% of Jews worldwide, are a mixture of exiled Israelite men with women from the various European host nations in which they settled. As Infogalactic puts it:
“The proportion of male genetic admixture in Ashkenazi Jews amounts to less than 0.5% per generation over an estimated 80 generations, with ‘relatively minor contribution of European Y chromosomes to the Ashkenazim,’ and a total admixture estimate ‘very similar to Motulsky’s average estimate of 12.5%.’ This supported the finding that ‘Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors.’ ”
Whatever intermarriage with Gentiles was tolerated among Diaspora Jews seems to have occurred within a single generation, after which the Ashkenazi have largely kept themselves to themselves, maintaining an unusually consistent genetic profile across the centuries. Eighty generations is an awfully long time; yet by and large Jews are still Jews.

Mind you, eighty generations also allows for an awful lot of Elizabeth Warren-type Jews-of-convenience at the fringes, especially in the last few decades. That’s confusing, though maybe not as confusing as some of us might have thought.

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