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Judaism: Race or Religion? - My Thoughts

by: Shmuel ben Shlomi

What is Judaism? Or better asked: What is a Hebrew? A religion? Is it a race? While the answer is complicated, at least to some, including many Jews, it is, in reality, both.

To qualify as a religion Judaism must adhere to a certain body of ideas, concepts, rules, laws or commandments to be followed. Certainly Judaism is that; being composed of a list of commands given by the Creator and listed in a law code known as the Torah (Instruction) consisting of a total of 613 mitzvot (commandments) governing one’s behavior, attitude, daily practices and organization of worship of said Creator.

There was a time when Jews or Hebrews were thought to be only a religion and not a race. That view is still held by a great many Jews and non-Jews in the 21st Century CE even those Jews who are not particularly religious in their day to day practice of Judaism.

As a religion Judaism has been around as an organized system of religious codex for the last 3,300 years under the tutelage of Moses. However, as a race, Judaism is nearly 4,300 years old beginning with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the first recorded family to begin the idea of monotheism (belief in One and only One Supreme G-d). While this idea of One G-d may have begun with the family of Abraham the concept didn’t fully catch on with the Jewish people until sometime after 586 BCE, during and immediately after the Babylonian exile of the Jewish elite from Israel to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and leveled Solomon’s Temple in the 6th Century BCE. Until that time the idea of monotheism was not quite viewed as it is today in Judaism. While G-d, known by the acronym (Y-H-V-H), was seen as the Supreme

G-d, He was regarded as the Head of a pantheon of lesser gods. After the 70-year Babylonian exile ended and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem under the reign of the Persian king Cyrus, Jews were lead by predominately three men — Zerubbabel (appointed Governor of Israel and overseer of the rebuilding of the Temple), Nehemiah (Mayor of Jerusalem) and a scribe by the name of Ezra who became the religious leader at the time and began a very successful campaign to teach that Y-H-V-H was not only the Head Deity, but the only Deity. Ezra eliminated all other gods as non-existent and set Judaism on the path of true monotheism, calling on all Jews to strictly live by the commandments of the Torah, laying the foundation of G-d’s Oneness as express in Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear O Israel the L-rd our G-d is One.”) that became firmly entrenched in the minds of Jews to this very day.

When we speak of Jews being a race of people it is not to imply that Hebrews are an ethnic group. Ethnicity implies certain physical and character traits. Nothing of the sort is to be gleaned from that approach. Jews come in all sizes, shapes, colors and so forth. Before the age of genetics it was thought by nearly all that Judaism was purely a religion, however with DNA testing it has shown that the Jewish or Hebrew people can be identified as a distinct race of people. Particularly one group of Jews known as the kohen or priestly group. DNA grouping can also distinguish between two specific sub-groups called Sephardim and Ashkenazi. As genetic research continues to advance I have little doubt there will be other specific DNA markers that will distinguish Jews as a unique race of people.

Judaism as a religion does have adherence who are not racially or genetically identified as Jewish. They are converts to the religion of Judaism and are considered as much a Jew as someone who is genetically a Jew, just as non-religious or even atheistic and agnostic Jews are still considered Jewish as well. Think of an adopted child. While that child may not carry the genes of its adopted parents it is still very much a member of that family and holds all the rank and privilege of a every naturally born family member even down to familial inheritance under the law.

There was a time when those who held to the ideas presented here were considered antisemitic for thinking Judaism was both a race and a religion. This was mostly engendered from the horrendous display of Jew hatred during Nazi era Germany under the tyrant Adolf Hitler. He considered Jews to be both a race and a religion and that stigma has remained as a burning point of contention even to this day, but that is slowly changing due to continued medical and scientific discoveries and advancements with genetics.

Another way to see Judaism is like an aforementioned family. The late and highly respected Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of blessed memory loved comparing Jews to a very large family [1]. The Rabbi’s idea of family further supports the racial element of Judaism. All Jews can trace their physical lineage back to those patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca, and Jacob and his wives. Their blood — their DNA flows through the veins and corpuscles of every Jew that has ever lived, is living now and will live in the future. Those who converted to Judaism, while racially not Jews are still linked to the patriarchs/matriarchs as spiritual descendants [2]

I have little doubt that this debate over what is Judaism (Jew or Hebrew) will continue for many years or at least until the preponderance of genetic evidence will finally lay this question to rest, at least for those willing to put away their prejudice against such an idea.

In closing:

I am a Jew. I am one genetically and religiously (which some may object to my view of religious Judaism - another topic for another day). As someone who practiced medicine for nearly 50 years I have no problem accepting the fact of life that all Jews - practicing and otherwise, are genetically linked to one familial line. Sadly much of today's discussion on the genetic viability of Jewish identity has become bogged down in semantics (ancestry, identity, ethnicity, etc.) At least for me the rational and scientific evidence is becoming quite overwhelming with each new leap in our understanding of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) [3] —— PERIOD!

I would love to read your thoughts on the matter. Leave your comments below. The references for this article are linked below.

Until next time…..Shalom!


[1]. We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz - published 2005 CE


[3]. Can a DNA Test Determine Jewish Status?

Additional Source Studies:

DNA and the Origin of the Jews

Prof. Steven Weitzman - The

The Cohanim - DNA Connection -

Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman

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