Test question: Define "Jewish" and give three examples

jew_in_lotus.jpg

Let me jump in here quickly to respond to Doug’s post on the issue of Jewish Christians, Buddhist Jews and other hard to define, emerging niche spiritualities. For journalists, this is a case in which it is almost impossible to write anything without starting linguistic warfare.

But journalists are not alone in this struggle, as I learned last year when I waded into the details of the long-delayed National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01, which was based on interviews with 4,500 Jews. It was sponsored by the United Jewish Communities — which covers 550 groups — and its supporters bravely tried to call it the most detailed statistical portrait of American Jews ever done.

As always, the marriage and family statistics made headlines. But what I found most interesting was — here we go — the attempt by the researchers to answer that hot-button question: “Who is Jewish (and who is not Jewish)?” Here is that crucial definition: A Jew is someone whose “religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing.”

This was a wide, wide net strung together with “or,” “or” and “or.” This is where things got interesting.

. . . (All) definitions include some and exclude others, said research director Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz. This survey, for example, was clear to include Jewish Buddhists. But its “non-monotheistic religion” clause excluded two people who had converted from Judaism to Islam. The “whose religion is Jewish and something else” clause created another problem.

“We included people who said they were both Jewish and Catholic or Jewish and something else,” he said. “But if they identified themselves as Jewish Christians or we found some evidence that they were Messianic Jews, then we excluded them from the study. We had to draw that line.”

I pressed for details. Someone could be Jewish and active in the United Church of Christ, but not Jewish and Southern Baptist. Or Jewish and liberal Episcopalian, but not Jewish and an Episcopalian who attended an evangelical congregation that was active in ministry to Jewish people. Jewish and United Methodist? Probably. Jewish and Eastern Orthodox? No. Jewish and Presbyterian? That would depend.

Jewish and Roman Catholic? The researchers said yes, in light of the changes of Vatican II.

In other words, the key issue is “universalism,” the belief that salvation is found through all faiths or through no faith at all. One can be Jewish and Christian at the same time, so long as one does not claim to be a “Jewish Christian” or to believe that the Christian part of that equation has anything to do with salvation. The best of all possible worlds is Jewish and Buddhist, since this, in the American incarnation of Buddhism, implies few specific beliefs of any kind. whatsoever

Now, try to work with that definition in your standard Associated Press-style news story. Good luck.

But please let me hasten to add that even some of the pioneers in this new interfaith world have some worries about these trends. For example, note this quotation from poet Rodger Kamenetz, the celebrated author of The Jew in the Lotus.

“Let’s face it, one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.kellner.us Mark Kellner

    Terry’s summary: [[[In other words, the key issue is "universalism," the belief that salvation is found through all faiths or through no faith at all. One can be Jewish and Christian at the same time, so long as one does not claim to be a "Jewish Christian" or to believe that the Christian part of that equation has anything to do with salvation. The best of all possible worlds is Jewish and Buddhist, since this, in the American incarnation of Buddhism, implies few specific beliefs of any kind. whatsoever.]]]

    Methinks this is rather facile on the part of the survey people. The plainer truth, I would suggest, is that they would catch holy you-know-what if they admitted Messianic Jews were, well, Jews. That might have cost their funding, credibility, support, whatever in the community.

    Again, there’s a double standard here: if I a Jewish-born and Jewish-raised and Jewish-confirmed (bar mitzvahed) son of TWO 100-percent Jewish parents, can still be considered a Jew if I’m a Jew-Bu, then logic would dictate that I would be considered a Jew, albeit a Messianic one, if I’m a Jew-for-Yeshua.

    That is, everywhere except the survey Terry cites. Oh, there, and the LDS parts of Utah: in the Deseret Zion, a nice Jewish boy like me is still considered a “gentile,” since I have not embraced the LDS gospel.

    Anyone ELSE out there grasping the irony?

  • http://www.caspari.com/jbj Cindy

    Unfortunately, the only definition of “Jew/Jewish” that most Jews can agree on has come to be (as my father told me) “Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” I’m just glad the church no longer believes the same. :-

  • Elizabeth Josephine Weston

    I was Jewish and 11 years ago was baptized as a Catholic. After that I was no longer Jewish: you cannot be both because in believing in the Messianc identity of Jesus Christ you no longer accord to the doctrine of Judaism. There are people who tell me I am a completed Jew or a fulfilled Jew and I find those terms highly offensive, and a form of Christian triumphalism. The Messianic Jews, of course, have built a religion around that idea. It is a difficult issue for Judaism because of all those OR’s, but I believe that a religious community has a right to define who is in and who is not, and that theology should play a role in this…(it is a religion, after all!) theologically, it is Orthodox rabbis who define things. You can’t widen the definition to the point of absurdity. The Jewish emphasis has primarily been on right action rather than right belief; much different in practical terms when it comes to drawing religious boundaries. David Berger’s recent excellent book on the theological implications of Lubavitch Messianism is an example of an “in house” dialogue about this issue made public.

    There is much I can say about this issue of identity, but one reason I am writing is to thank you for the introduction to “Generation to Generation” and suggest that as a good framework with which to view the definition issue. Christianity needed to differentiate itself from Judaism in such a way that it still had legitimacy in the Roman Empire. Conversion narratives (a form of apologetics) are a good lens through which to view the relationship between Christians and Jews but this need for Jewish converts to create a syncretic religion for themselves (“Girl Meets God” and “Convergence” being two recent books that do this) is different than the clear doctrinal exposition in Protestant conversion narratives.

    The boundary issues in Judaism around particular/universal are similar to Catholic boundary issues (“no salvation outside the Church”/Rahner’s “anonymous Christian”) — Family systems therapy has a lot to say on this matter!

  • http://www.caspari.com/jbj Cindy

    Elizabeth – I’ll grant that as a Jewish believer I don’t practice Judaism – but then before coming to faith I didn’t practice it or even believe in God! Being Jewish, however, is also an ethnic thing; just as a Chinese person does not stop being Chinese when they become a Christian, neither does a Jewish person stop being Jewish and become a gentile.

    PS – the ministry I work with is writing a history of Jewish believers; if you click on my name you can read about it and also how you can add your story to our research if you’d like to participate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Wm. Linden

    Face it. The dirty little open secret is that, just as the bulk of self-styled-mainline Protestants can not give a coherent account of “their” religion beyond “We don’t believe in the Pope”, there are too many Jews to whom all it means is NOT being Christian. (Something in which the resemble the neo-pagans.)

    Yes, it is a double standard, and yes, it makes my blood boil when I realize that I am “Jewish” enough for any REAL anti-Semites (as opposed to the ones my father saw under the bed), but not for “the” Jews.

  • http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ambivablog amba

    You guys would be fascinated by this book — LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW:

    http://buddhistjew.com/

    My brother, a Jew-bu, articulates many modern Jews’ discontents with their religion, and is articulately taken to task (yet not completely convinced) by a brilliant modern Orthodox rabbi who claims that what Jews are looking for in Buddhism can be found, and then some, in the depths of their own tradition that they’re ignorant of. You come away from this book newly awed by the mystical depths of Judaism, impressed by how much it and Buddhism both DO and DO NOT have in common.


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