Who Are Jews – OpEd


Eight months ago Whoopi Goldberg waded into a discourse that polarized the Jewish community for centuries. The controversy began on her daytime talk show during a discussion on (January 31) about a controversy over a Tennessee school board’s decision to ban “Maus,” an iconic graphic memoir about the Holocaust.

“The genocide was “not about race,” Goldberg said; it was instead about “man’s inhumanity to man.” And it involved “two white groups of people.” The comments immediately went viral and struck a nerve, leading to what Goldberg described as a deluge of accusations of antisemitism and Holocaust denial, and criticism from groups like the Anti-Defamation League. “Goldberg tried to clarify the situation saying that; “In her experience as a Black person, race is something “I can see.” 

But that is not what race meant in Anti-Semitic European circles where Semitic referred not just to a family of languages, but to physical races in a pseudo-scientific biological way; just as Islamophobia does not just refer to fearing or hating religious Muslims; but also includes secular Muslims, and Muslims of all races you can see. 

The Qur’an (30:22) states: “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth; and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs (of God’s works) for those of knowledge.”

Although Jews usually, but not always, mostly share a common gene pool, they are not a race because any non-Jew who converts to Judaism will be recognized as being Jewish by all those rabbis who share a commitment to the same religious denomination of Judaism as the rabbi who did the conversion. 

Yet a recent genetic map paints a comprehensive picture of the last 2,000 years in which different Jewish groups migrated across the globe, with some becoming genetically isolated units (as in Yemen) while others mingled much more, bringing in large numbers of local converts to Judaism.

“Virtually all the Jewish groups we’ve studied tend to be quite closely related to one another,” Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York said. “It would seem for most Jewish groups, there is a biological basis for their Jewishness based on their sharing of DNA segments.”

Major times of movement included the classic period of Roman dominance, when Jewish groups migrated out of the Middle East into South Europe and North Africa, converting locals and intermarrying along the way. 

A second major migration occurred after the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s and early 1500s, a time when Jews and Muslims were ordered to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain.

However, as anyone who has visited present day Israel knows, Jews come in many shades and looks. This is because even in the diaspora, and even against the will of the ruling religious authorities, Jews have almost always proselytized their neighbors, and quietly welcomed converts into the Jewish community, even against the formal rules of medieval rabbis. 

That is why most Jews in different geographical locations (that do not persecute Jews) tend to look similar to the local majority after ten to twenty generations. The rabbinical rule that one should not refer to any Jew’s convert status is evidence of the desire of Jewish leaders to keep proselytizing and conversion activities secret from the ruling religious authorities.

When it comes to Jews who are non-religious or even anti-religious, they are considered cultural Jews, unless they are converts to another religion. Orthodox Jewish law still considers even apostates to be Jewish because, for over fifteen centuries Jews were frequently subjected to persecutions and forced conversions, which meant that thousands of Jews who were baptized still believed in the One God of Israel. 

Like most nations, Jews have a national language, a shared history, which is much longer than most nations, and a style of cooking and thinking that is as distinctive as that of many other nations. 

What they have lacked for most of their almost 4,000 year history is an independent State in one geographical area. However, states come and go (Yugoslavia) and go and come (Poland and Israel) so having a state is not the most important aspect of being a nation. 

What is unique about Jews is that even during the centuries when they were a nation like the other nations; they felt that they were different. All the nations around them believed in many Gods; and used physical objects, either natural or artificial, as part of their worship. The Hebrew Bible is filled with expressions of this feelings of being a small minority that is different.

“From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.”(Torah Numbers 23:9);

and “For You [God] have separated them [Israel] from all the peoples of the earth as Your inheritance, as You spoke through Moses Your servant, when You brought our ancestors forth from Egypt, O Lord GOD.” (1 Kings 8:53); 

and “But you, Israel, (are) My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendants of Abraham My friend.” (Isaiah 41:8)

Also some converts to Judaism are just re-entering the Jewish gene pool. In the west today many converts to Judaism are descendants of ex-Jews in previous generations who are now returning to the Jewish People; bringing back their Jewish genes, and also many non-Jewish genes. Among the Jewish Prophets the strongest proponent of welcoming Non-Jews who want to join the Jewish People was Prophet Isaiah, 

“And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it; and who hold fast to my covenant: these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:6-7)

One unusual form of religious conversion, as a result of reincarnation, is a special aspect of Kabbalah: the Jewish mystical tradition. Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation occurs over the course of millions of years to millions of different sentient species. 

According to Kabbalah, only the souls of self conscious moral creatures like human beings, reincarnate; and they reincarnate only when they have not yet fulfilled the purpose of their creation. Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes. 

A few souls may take 3-5 lifetimes or more. The bright souls of great religious figures like Moses or Miriam can turn into dozens of sparks that can each reincarnate several times. 

The tragic souls of Jews whose children have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through persecution or conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their own no longer Jewish descendants. 

These descendant souls will seek sub-consciously to return to the Jewish people. A majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people, have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors. However, these converts also have genes that are mostly from their non-Jewish ancestors; and they introduce them into each local Jewish Community. 

Thus, the answer to the question of what are Jews; is that since Judaism and the Jewish People are so deeply intertwined, they cannot and should not be separated. Individuals Jews act in all kinds of ways, but the historical religious community is a blend of Jews by birth (genes), belief (religion), behavior (national culture) and belonging (ethnic). 

This pattern is also becoming true for more and more people as international migrants have grown from 77 million in 1960, or 2.1% of the world’s population, to 173 million or 2.8% by 1999, and reached 281 million or 3.5% of the world’s population now.

Jews are now celebrating the New Year (5783) and it would be a good time to see if the debate had a positive outcome. I hope that someone who knows Ms. Goldberg would ask her to tell us what positive outcomes she is aware of.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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