People—What Do We Mean By That?

People—What Do We Mean By That? April 16, 2021

People as People
People as People / Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Most people misuse the term people by way of spurious familiarity.

Many people think and talk about familiar things in spurious ways. We get lulled into perilously imagining that we are so familiar with what we communicate about. Since we thoroughly understand it,  we assume that no further reflection or clarification is needed. But quite often we are clueless on the issues we think we understand, and worse, in the business of pooling ignorance. 

Many people, for instance, imagine they clearly understand what the term “people” means. You can see this in how they apply the term. It seems that they never bother to reflect on what makes a people a people. Instead, they adopt a popular yet spurious “fact” that “everyone knows” and run with that. Folks, we do this a lot, and the results, in this case with “people,” are disastrous and far-reaching. 

Take a look at this video presentation here:

Sometimes, well-meaning people mistake spiritual realities for ethnic or genetic phenomena. In other words, they confuse spiritual or religious people with being a race. It’s as if you can see the DNA evidence. Geo-politics gets involved in that. So do racists.  

Clearing Up Ideas About People

Allow me to illustrate why we aren’t really so clear with the concept of people with a thought experiment, one taken from Israeli historian Shlomo Sand. My mom, rest her soul, was not Jewish. Let’s say I am weary of being Catholic—God knows why I would ever wind up like that (har, har)! So, let’s imagine that I am shopping around, and I desire to become a secular Jew. How could I go about transitioning into that?

If you think about it, you should see the problem. I mean, it isn’t the same thing as joining any number of other “clubs.” Someone with a non-Jewish mother can become so many things—a Democrat, a U.S. citizen, a communist, a Catholic, a journalist, a Muslim, an Orthodox Jew, an atheist, an Israeli citizen, etc. All of these options are possible, and some are easy to become. But what about becoming a secular Jew? 

Again, my mom wasn’t Jewish. So can I become a secular Jew? Not really. Like Sand says, that club is exclusive, closed off to people like me. Therefore I cannot join. Now think about why someone like me really cannot become a secular Jew. Think really hard on that and what it tells us about the meaning of “people” and Jewish identity. Does secular Judaism exist?

Getting Real

Indeed, Jews exist. And inexorably bound to that truth, Judaism, a religious tradition, exists. Jews are a religious people. Jewish identity is religious identity, and spiritual. But is there really such a thing as ethnic Jews? Is there a Jewish race? Hitler thought so. But what about reality? 

Just like Jews (the religious people) exist, so also the very recent state of Israel exists. So also Israelis exist. Thus, Israeli culture must exist as well—we see Israeli food, music, a common language, cinema, and art, etc., all existing. Look carefully at that list as it helps show what makes up what a people is. The Israeli people do exist, and there is such a thing as Israeli identity. With me so far?

At one point, in Eastern Europe, another influential and significant culture existed—Yiddish culture. It was something quite distinct from Israeli culture. Tragically, Yiddish culture was destroyed by many forces (including Nazism, Bolshevism, Zionism, etc.). But once upon a time, there was indeed a Yiddish identity. People spoke Yiddish, dined on Yiddish food while Yiddish music played. And people could join Yiddish political parties. And so forth, and so on.

But there is no “secular Jewish culture.” Do you know why? It is because there is no such thing as the “secular Jewish people.”

No Secular Jewish Race

Think about Woody Allen, called a “secular Jew.” It should be very evident how very American Woody Allen is. Likewise, meet a secular Jew residing in Sofia, Bulgaria—don’t be astonished when you discover how thoroughly Bulgarian she is. Or perhaps travel to Nice in France and meet a secular Jewish person there. Please expect this person to behave mightily French.  

This should all be apparent to many people reading this. But, strangely, it is not obvious to many people. Do you know why? It is spurious familiarity again at work. Spurious familiarity means information that seems obvious and is presumed and accepted by everyone, but is difficult or maybe even impossible to document or demonstrate. This is the same culprit why many wrongly imagine Paul went out to convert Gentiles, why Jesus was Jewish, and his immediate followers like Peter were Christians.  

Many people believe these spurious facts. Among them, many Jews and “secular Jews” even believe the same. They believe all sorts of things like how the “race” of Jews are the closest thing we have to an eternal ethnic group or race that is five thousand years old. 

But not every Jew or Israeli believes this. Even Israeli scholars like Shlomo Sand don’t, for example. Be careful with insufficient samples. And even if everyone did believe that, so what? Everyone can be wrong, right? Truth isn’t subject to democracy. Remember that when you go out to poison Socrates or burn Boris Karloff, okay Americans? Do us all a favor and season a dash of scholarly opinion into your democratic enterprise. 

Spurious Beliefs Concerning People

Not all opinions are of equal value. Beliefs are, well, beliefs. Some are sound, some not so much, and some are idiotic. I know Christians who wrongly believe that their convictions in the rapture and in their individualistic take on sola Scriptura go back two thousand years. They think, mistakenly, that Jesus thought and taught their doctrinal essentials. Yes, there is such a thing as a spurious belief.

Are there really ethnic Jews? Is there really a Jewish race? Folks, “people” is a cultural concept. And like culture, the word “people” evolves.

What exactly is meant by people? What makes a people be a people? How far in time do any people go back? How far do the English go back? The French? The Italians? Everyone on earth living today is a mutt. I know beliefs get involved in this and emotions as well, but facts are facts.

Eternal People & Bad Ideas

Contrary to spurious belief, there are no “eternal people,” except in Marvel comics. No real people really goes back 5,000 years or even 2,000 years.  

That doesn’t make Jews fake or “unreal” as a people. Amen, Jews are real and deserve our respect. As Muslims and Christians, Jews are a spiritual people. Yes, spiritual is real, my American materialist friends. Spiritual is really-real! But the word “people” evolves as we move through time and space. “Jew” and “Jewish people” are culture-concepts, not genetic phenomena. But Jewish race? Sorry, there are no races. Yes, like Dr. Cornel West writes, indeed, race matters. But please, don’t let the racists win.

Beliefs often change when contrary evidence gets presented. Or for pragmatic reasons. The national founder of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, initially believed that the Palestinian residents of the early 20th-century Levant were the direct descendants of 1st-century Jews. He changed his opinion once resistance came from them. So we humans can change our beliefs for various reasons.

I know some “Black Hebrew Israelites” who claim to be the only authentic Jews on Planet Earth. And they will not budge on their beliefs. Moreover, they mock any Ashkenazi or Sephardim they encounter. They ridicule them and denigrate them as being “fake Jews.” Yeah, humans believe lots of spurious things! And they insist on many spurious things. Gratuitous insistence is always in surplus. Reason? Not so much!

Tolerating Beliefs, Reasonably

By the way, does questioning spurious familiarity and bringing up uncomfortable truths challenge the legitimacy of religious Jews? No. Does it deny or downplay the atrocities committed against people labeled Jews or who identified themselves as Jews over a thousand years? No. Does it eliminate the tremendous contributions Jews continue to give our world? No. 

Some people believe many things, some spurious. I think belief is acceptable. Hey, I tolerate your right to believe even in ridiculous things, popular or unpopular. The only exception is when your belief gets weaponized to harm people. Like for geopolitical aspirations to promote a master-race democracy/apartheid state. Then, I might have a problem with that. Indeed, Catholics have, over the centuries, done similar evil things with our beliefs. Doing such things has always been wrong.

Hearing Everyone

Did you know that there are about 500 or so persons residing today on Mount Gerizim who claim to be the direct descendants of the Samaritans in Jesus day? It’s true. They believe that their practice and identity go back way further than that. How come I don’t see any Vatican acknowledgment of those people? Is it strange that I don’t read any official statements or Catechism entries saying we have to learn from this group? Why is that? Is 500 too small to teach anything of value? Is it too small to count?

I ardently believe we Christians (religious, spiritual people) ought to learn from Jews (religious, spiritual people). We need to expand our relationship, and understand and respect each other like two parallel branches on the same Abrahamic tree. We are sister branches. And look! There are MORE branches besides our two. There is the Muslim branch and its shoots. And look at the Samaritan branch, which does indeed count as well. And there are still other sisters, like the Mandaeans and a whole bunch more.

The entire tree should be dialoguing. It’s a spiritual tree of spiritual peoples, not ethnic peoples, spiritual peoples. Ultimately, we shouldn’t confuse parallel shoots with roots. 

Spiritual, Not Ethnic

Ethnically speaking, Jews are like everyone else: a messy mix of many, many origins. That’s you, that’s me, Palestinians, and everyone else as well. Why are we reading our Bibles, Talmuds, and Qurans like scientifically accurate DNA-precise guides and history books? Don’t do that, folks. 

As I said before, there is no actual blood links, or Ancestry.com DNA-accurate connections between…

1. Apiru like Abraham and Moses with Canaanite/Israelite David

2. Canaanite/Israelite David with Persian-period Yahud-people

3. Judaeans/Galileans/Pereans with post-500 CE religious Jews

The ties between 1, 2, and 3 are mostly mythological. Mostly. We’ll pick this topic up again, real soon. We need to talk about the so-called Jewishness of Jesus. And we need to discuss the myths of a “Judeo-Christian Tradition” and “Judeo-Christian Ethics.” 

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