What Is a Jew?

“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country … unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great. …” (Gen. 12:1–2.)

With this command and promised blessing, Abraham became the progenitor of a numerous people, the Hebrews. The etymology is thought by some to be heber (other side), suggesting a people from the other side of the Euphrates, the area of Abraham’s origin (Ur of the Chaldees).

Thus, the descendants of this great patriarch might be designated as Hebrew: Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s wife Hagar, and Midian, the son of Abraham’s wife Keturah, the progeny of both being frequent antagonists of the posterity of another son, Isaac, the divinely promised child of Abraham’s aged wife Sarah. Many of the peoples now greatly disturbed over the present country of Israel may be descendants of Abraham, whether Jew or Arab, and thus all Hebrew.

The promised blessing, “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), has generally been projected through the family of Isaac. The Old Testament is largely a history dealing with this family, mentioning the others only as Israel came in contact with them.

Isaac was also the father of two nations, the progeny of his twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The former became a “son of the desert,” sold his birthright to Jacob, took wives from among the Canaanites, and became the father of the Edomites. Esau’s family, along with those of Ishmael and Midian, is also identified with those usually opposing “Israel,” though also Hebrew.

Jacob preserved the blessing of Abraham through his posterity. He became the father of twelve nations (tribes). During a stay of some twenty years among relatives in Haran, he married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, daughters of his uncle Laban, as well as their two hand-maidens, Zilpah and Bilhah.

Jacob’s name was changed to Israel as a symbol of his experience with God. It was declared that “as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” (Gen. 32:18.) Israel became the national name of the twelve tribes collectively and was applied to the descendants of all Jacob’s sons until Solomon’s kingdom of Israel was divided into Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom). Judah was the name of the leading tribe in the southern kingdom, but there were other tribes represented.

Within the boundaries of the kingdom of Judah were Benjamin, Levi, and other tribesmen, many of whom moved into Judah from Israel for religious and other reasons (political, economic, marriage).

Much earlier Ruth, the Moabite, forsook her own people and identified with Judah, declaring to her mother-in-law, Naomi, “… thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:16.) Ruth eventually married Boaz, of the tribe of Judah, who was a kinsman of her husband. They became the progenitors of David and of Jesus. This conversion experience given in the scriptures was undoubtedly an ongoing process by which many came into Judah’s fold. Converts were accepted and treated as born Jews.

Palestine had been divided among the tribes of Israel after they returned from their 400-year sojourn in Egypt. Each tribe received a land inheritance with the exception of Levi, whose people became the hereditary priests. Joseph received a double land inheritance through his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, who became heads of tribes, thus showing that Joseph was the recipient of the birthright as the firstborn son of Rachel. (Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son by Leah, forfeited the birthright through improper conduct.)

Generically, all the descendants of Abraham—Ishmael, Isaac, and Midian, and their progeny—are Hebrews. However, the name Israel only pertains to the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac. His posterity are therefore Israelites and also Hebrews.

After the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V, and his successor, Sargon II, defeated Israel (721 B.C.), few Israelites were left in Israel; so for the past 2,600 years the term Israel has generally been used in reference to Jews. The inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah were not all generic Jews (blood descendants of Judah) but citizens of the kingdom—Jews in the same sense in which Nephi declared himself a Jew in his parting testimony: “I have charity for the Jew—I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came.” (2 Ne. 33:8. Italics added.)

Nephi was not suggesting that he was a blood descendant of Judah, but that he was from the country of Judah, for it is clearly stated in the Book of Mormon (Alma 10:3) that Lehi’s family was of the tribe of Manasseh. Even in Lehi’s time a Jew could be defined variously: progeny of Judah (generic), citizen of the Jewish state (political), and believer in the Jewish religion (covenant). Then as now, to many Israel is a people; to others it is a place or state; and to still others it is an idea, concept, or ideal.

There has been a decreasing use of the term Hebrew in reference to the Jew, even though the words Jew, Israelite, and Hebrew are used almost synonymously. One author, speaking of the conditions at the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, writes: “So profound was the change in national status that historians referring to the people who survived the fall of Jerusalem in 586 [B.C.E.] drop the name Hebrew and speak of them henceforward as Jews.” (John B. Noss, Man’s Religions, 3rd ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1963], p. 536.)

In order to differentiate the terms, we need to emphasize the fact that while Judah’s progeny are at the same time Jews (descendants of Judah), Israelites (descendants of Jacob), and Hebrews (descendants of Abraham), all Hebrews are not Israelites.

What is a Jew? This is a problem the state of Israel is also attempting to resolve. Recently a native-born Israeli, Lt. Commander Benjamin Shalit, married to a gentile, registered his son, Oren, as “Nationality”—Jewish, “Religion”—none. The registration was amended by the clerk to “Nationality”—blank, “Religion”—blank. The case was taken through the courts by the father in order to establish the child’s nationality, and after two years (January 1970) the High Court ruled by a five to four decision in favor of the son, declaring that nationality and religion are matters of subjective feeling in Israel.

This was contrary to a long-established rabbinic code (Halakah), which declares that no one possesses Jewish identity unless born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to the stringent procedures prescribed by the Orthodox. On March 10 of the same year the court was overruled by the Knesset (legislature) by a vote of fifty-one to fourteen, and the Halakah definition (that no one possesses Jewish identity unless born of a Jewish mother) became the law.

Thus the state of Israel determined by legislation the identity of a Jew, an action that is deplored by many but one that prevented the dissolution of a coalition government.

Among a people where the “deed” is thought to be a reflection of one’s theology, it appears that the culture of the community rather than the synagogue determines what a Jew is. Morris Adler, long-time rabbi with Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, suggested that no people worry so much about their identity as do the Jews. The explanations the rabbi makes are as meaningful to the non-Jew as to the Jew for clarifying many misconceptions.

Judaism has never developed an official statement indicating what a person must believe to be considered a Jew. Many profound affirmations are implicit in the Jewish tradition, but they have never been established as dogma, nor is there a central cohesion of what is to be accepted as a Jew. To classify the Jewish people by race, nation, or religion would distort reality, though religious, cultural, and ethnic overtones cannot be ignored.

Jews cannot be thought of as a race, for among them are many races—Caucasian, Negro, Oriental. While their common origin is undisputed, mixed multitudes did accompany them from Egypt: concubines were taken from conquered nations, the Jews intermarried, neighboring tribesmen amalgamated with them, conversions were made. It is clear that the family strain has been much diluted.

To say there is a Jewish type is also not valid, for Jews generally resemble the native majority population of the lands of their residence more closely than they do the Jews of other lands. Such features as body shapes, complexion, and eye pigmentation are as varied among Jews at large as among other peoples. The indeterminable racial traits they seem to possess result from marrying among themselves. These traits have been referred to as “deep-rooted ancestral memory” and “ethnic kinship.”

Judaism is often thought of as a nationalism and the Jewish people as a nation. Because of an apparent loyalty of Jews to each other everywhere, the possessing of shared traits usually associated with national concepts (language, history, culture, literature, aspiration), and a traditional isolationism, they have frequently been thought of as a third race within a state. However, historic Judaism has never been exclusively either a religion or a nation but in many respects has usually comprehended both.

Even with a state of Israel now existing, to which all Jews have been invited, millions of Jews pledge their loyalty to the countries in which they now have citizenship, not thinking of themselves other than as loyal Englishmen, Americans, and so forth. There are others quite antagonistic to the Israel that has now been established, suggesting that its destruction would bring a realization that the Jews constitute only a religious and not a national group. Some feel that both religion and nationalism represent parochial loyalties that must be repudiated if men are to live together in peace.

Does a Jew espouse a religion? Religion has been the vitalizing force that has kept Judaism intact and is now probably central to the Jewish culture; yet there are other forms of group awareness that make it possible for nonreligious Jews to remain in the fold. Large numbers of self-professing Jews label themselves atheists. In the Israel nation of today, religion would have to be variously described for it to appear as a religious state.

If believing in God and in the coming of the Messiah is what is meant by being religious, then the average citizen might be considered nonreligious. But if being religious means promoting the great destiny of Israel, developing a messianic people, and being an example and light unto the world, then the Jews of Israel are a dedicated, religious people.

Gathering from many countries, they have a common faith in a Jewish redemption of the land of their inheritance; they have revived the ancient Hebrew language, and efforts are being made to reestablish their ancient civilization in a modern setting.

Today’s Judaism cannot be categorized as a religion in the same sense as Methodism or Mormonism without distorting its history and its nature. Any definition of Judaism must be broad enough to include all Jews, not just worshiping Jews. This is not to ignore the fact that it has generally been the acceptance of God that has preserved this people. The cry of the Maccabees in their effort to reestablish the Jews as a nation was, as in Moses’ day, “Whoever is for the Lord, let him follow me.” (Ex. 32:26.) Joshua’s rallying admonition was, “… choose you this day whom ye will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh. 24:15.) Jeroboam recognized that without the stabilizing force of religion his kingdom could not survive.

It was adherence to a common ancestry and to a spiritual-cultural heritage that sustained the Jewish dream of a messianic age, and it was their religious culture that made life bearable during the long years of dispersion. Centuries of diaspora have produced various Jewish interpretations of revelation, resulting in a varying appreciation and emphasis of synagogue ritual; but still there is a sharing of fundamental teachings, a consciousness of mission, and a purity of faith.

Orthodox Jews believe that God was completely revealed at Sinai and that his law is unalterable for all times. A Jew’s supreme duty is to live by it.

Reform Jews, sometimes called Liberal or Progressive, accept progressive revelation; thus the Bible and Talmud are not binding, making it possible to interpret tradition and rabbinical law in present circumstances—relevant to the generation being served and stressing only the spiritual aspects.

The Conservative, also designated Traditional or Historical, represents a search for the middle road between the old and the new. There is an effort to conserve as much of the tradition as possible. “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

The Reconstructionist sees Judaism as an evolving religious civilization made up of all the elements involved in people’s lives. He feels that it is necessary to unitedly promote the reconstruction of the Jewish religious civilization, which requires interpreting God in terms of universal human (Jewish) experiences.

What is a Jew? A Jew may be a person tracing his progenitors back to Abraham through Judah, Jacob, and Isaac. He may be an individual who has converted to the Jewish faith, thus identifying himself with a “people whose task on earth is to search for God and, by force of example, spread faith.”

Judaism is not a race or a unique ethnic group, although there are racial traits indicating an ethnic kinship. A Jew may be an individual citizen in a country under the rule of Jews, as was Jerusalem and Judah, and as Israel now is; yet he may choose to espouse neither its culture nor its religion.

A Jew may apostatize from the Jewish religion yet remain a Jew, for he was born of Jewish parents and had a Jewish education.

A Jew may be a Zionist fanatically working, fighting, promoting a political entity for himself and his posterity, with no thought of accepting a belief in God or attending the synagogue. He may consider himself a loyal Jew, reading and teaching the Bible as a record of the experiences of his people. He may observe in his home certain Jewish holidays and traditional rites as a part of his cultural heritage and as symbols of Jewish national history, without thinking of himself as believing in God.

A Jew may be an individual completely dedicated to a belief in God and study of the Law. To him Torah is a book, a law. To others, Torah is a way of life that blesses all men: understanding the anguish of an enslaved people; Abraham’s compassion for the innocent of Sodom; the great awakening, making possible the creation of a state encompassing a promised land. Or Torah may be the Jew’s greatest gift to humanity —Jesus Christ, Savior of all mankind.

[photos] Photos by Laurel G. Cole

[photo] Photo by Israel Embassy, Washington, D.C.

Brother Richardson is director of institute of religion curriculum for the Church. He teaches Sunday School in the Orem 38th Ward, Sharon Stake.