The greater Jewish family

Are the Jews an ethnic entity?

Boy wearing a kippa (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Boy wearing a kippa
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Should Judaism be defined as a religion, and a Jew as one who conforms to the commandments of the Jewish religion? Certainly not. Most those who define themselves as Jews do not adhere to many of the religious edicts of Judaism and more than a few are atheists. Moreover, even the most ardent followers of Jewish religious laws do not repudiate the Jewishness of those who do not follow these laws. They may refer to them as offenders and heretics, but do not deny their Jewishness.
Is Judaism a culture? The accepted definition of a culture is an integration of language, customs, dress, beliefs, skills and habits which one acquires as a citizen and member of society. However, Jews do not reside exclusively in any particular country, either through circumstances or their own choice. They may not share the same language, and their cultures are most different and varied.
Are the Jews an ethnic entity? This is also not the case. With ethnic entities, we identify lines of physical similarity and behaviors that are not necessarily applicable to Jews. And still, North African, Polish, Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews belong to the same ambiguous Jewish entity that enables many of us a mutual, intuitive identification of each other. Moreover, converts to Judaism and their descendants are considered to the end of days Jews.
The answer to these questions may be found in the common names the group to which we belong uses to describe itself: “Bnei Israel” (the Children of Israel), and “Jews.” We are all the descendants of two patriarchs: Jacob, later known as Israel, and his son, Judah; the forefathers of the tribe of which, according to Jewish tradition, all of today’s Jews are descendants (the other 10 tribes who settled in the Land of Israel disappeared into the darkness of history).
We are not Russian, English or Spanish but rather members of one greater family. Unlike other nations, which are referred to by names of the geographical regions they have settled in.
The Old Testament refers to this greater family hundreds of times. Mostly as Bnei Israel and later on as Yehudim, Jews, an abbreviation of Judah. We are descendants of these two patriarchs. Among us are those who conform to Jewish religious laws and those who don’t. We speak different languages, have varied histories and lifestyles. We reside in different countries and dress differently, but we all identify ourselves as belonging to the greater family of Bnei Israel, sons of Jacob-Israel, or as Jews, sons Judah.
While the greater Jewish family might be defined – and I don’t mean this in jest – as a dysfunctional family, it nevertheless maintains all the characteristics of a family, one which stood and still stands behind its sons and daughters in times of trouble all across the globe, and showed strong solidarity countless times throughout history.
With all the problems inherent in our daily life as members of our dysfunctional family of Bnei Israel, we preferably intermarry between (often different) Jewish communities and bury our dead next to each other in the same cemeteries, unlike most other peoples who bury their dead in cemeteries according to country of birth and religious affiliation.
We can appreciate the degree to which Jews feel the inherent communal and familial belonging by looking at the Kol Nidrei prayer, read on the evening of Yom Kippur, commonly referred to as the most sacred day in the Jewish year: “And may the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, as well as the proselyte who dwells among them, be forgiven....”
On Yom Kippur, we do not pray for ourselves and those close to us, but rather for everyone in our extended family. The Kol Nidrei prayer was composed during the Babylonian exile, hundreds of years after the second exile of the Israelites from their land, and has been adopted by Jews wherever they may be, with all of its explicit social connotations.
Not many people know that this prayer became rooted in Jewish consciousness despite strong opposition from strict Orthodox authorities, who did not hesitate to call it “sheer nonsense.” Yet it became a dominant ritual even for those who have divested themselves of any other contacts with the world of Jewish religion but still feel obligation to attend synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur to show that they are members of the greater family, both to themselves and to others.
This is also why it is relatively easy for new immigrants from all over the world to be assimilated into the newly established State of Israel in the historical homeland of the greater Jewish family. It may also explain the wonder at how a Jew arriving in a foreign city overseas will never remain isolated in time of need and will always find a “family member” for help in times of trouble. Many have been assisted by this mutual unwritten covenant that crosses all borders, and those who have never experienced it, and I hope will never need to, can depend on it – it works.
The more we succeed in maintaining this mutual covenant among our greater family members and don’t resort to “every man for himself,” or to his immediate society, even if we might differ in views in almost every matter imaginable, the greater our chances of preventing a potential third destruction of Bnei Israel in their newly erected State of Israel.
That is why all of the Orthodox schools and yeshivas keep studying the dramatic internal disputes that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple and the independent (then) Jewish state, and that is why nowadays we remind ourselves and our children over and over again of the need for a lawful, democratic governance in Israel, where every single one of us has equal rights and obligations – lest we forget.
The author is an engineer with a career in managing industrial and commercial projects. He writes on variety of Hebrew bibliography and Jewish history subjects.