Defining or describing a Jewish lifestyle assumes that one understands the meaning of Jewish identity. What constitutes Jewish living is therefore connected with the age old question of who is a Jew or what constitutes Jewishness. The variety of answers to this question causes Jewish living to also vary substantially in contemporary Jewish society in and outside of the land of Israel. Determining what is distinctly Jewish can be a troubling endeavor because it affects the manner in which one lives his or her life in areas of morality, politics, family, and inter-group relations.

Some have chosen to articulate Jewish living in terms of those elements that emphasize the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel independent of any purely religious concerns. This of course was reflected in the Zionist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to manifest itself in part in both the civil religious practices of Israeli society and the generally secularized attitudes of Israeli Jews toward Judaism. Others have chosen to define Jewish living in terms of a racial or cultural distinctive viewing Jewishness as primarily an ethnic identity.[1] The basis for this lies in the argument that ethnic communities share a sense of common origins, claim a common and distinctive history, and possess a sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity, and a distinctive lifestyle.[2]

More traditionally inclined movements maintain definitions of Jewish living based upon classical approaches to Halakhah. At the opposite end, movements like Reform Judaism which reject the binding nature of Jewish law and instead emphasize individual autonomy often radically depart from historic notions of what Jewish living has meant. “Jewish values” have replaced traditional understandings of Jewish living and in American society such values have largely morphed into the phenomena of Jewish liberalism and social action.

Each of these perspectives provides justification for its definition of Jewish living. Each of these positions also encompasses a number of strengths and weaknesses which fail to fully appreciate the complexity of Jewish life in light of classical Jewish sources.

Halakhic Perspectives on Jewish Living

The criteria for Jewish living until the modern period remained strictly linked to those practices embodied in Halakhah. The Torah revealed in both its written and oral forms was the guideposts by which a Jewish life was understood and practiced. External factors, whether in the form of ghettos, distinctive clothing, or restrictedoccupational opportunities, served to both isolate Jewish communities, and reinforce this classically understood definition of Jewishliving. Theghetto society of the Middle Ages reinforced communal authority andautonomy.[3]

For generations then Jewish living was dictated by Halakhah and reinforced through external legislation. Regardless of divergent views on theology, Halakhah served to maintain the linkage and continuity between communities spread across the fartheststretches of the Diaspora. The most basic ofthe communal institutions in existence was the Kehila. The Kehila's powers rested on the sanctity of the established religious tradition and its recognition by the ruling powers. The decline of the Middle ages and the rise of the modern nation-state contributed significantly to the alteration of rabbinical authority in Jewish communities. In the end, government intervention began to usurp responsibilities once carried out by rabbinical authorities. Communal authority became increasingly voluntary rather that compulsory in nature. Consequently, the crisis affecting traditional society seemed to lie primarily in the diminished influence of the rabbinate.

The Beginnings of Jewishness

The idea that Jewish life can be understood or defined in an intelligible fashion independent of the concept of Divine revelation is an incomprehensible assertion for those adhering to an Orthodox position. As Saadya Gaon states: “Israel is a people because of the Torah.”[4] Jewish culture is understood solely as the outgrowth of those practices derived from the framework of halakhah. Attempting to separate Jewish culture from its theological foundation is an attack on a Torah governed life. The rabbinic view of Jewish living is firmly based upon the idea that Jewish survival is ultimately reliant upon the faithful continuity of the spiritual heritage embodied in the Torah.[5] Even those Jews, who may adhere to less fundamentalist approaches while still upholding its authority, see Jewish living as derived from halakhic sources.[6]

The Zionist Approach

In the 19th century, the rise of nationalistic movements in Europe affected Jewish groups seeking to re-establish a Jewish homeland in light of continuing anti-Semitism. Zionist movements perceived Jewish identity in the same manner that their nationalistic contemporaries saw peoplehood. A nation was characterized by a distinct language, borders, culture, and history. Though some religious Zionists were involved in the formation of the modern state of Israel, the majority of Zionists embraced a definition of Jewish identity that was either largely devoid of any religious connotation or one which significantly altered the traditional meanings behind Jewish holidays and practices. Religious holidays such as Passover or Hanukah took and retain new meaning as nationalistic holidays. As Sherwin notes:

“In Israel, Hanukkah has been interpreted in a manner compatible with Zionist ideology and with the “civil religion” of Israeli Jews. Whereas the Talmudic rabbis characterized Hanukah primarily as a festival of lights, Israeli “civil religion” has transformed it into a memory and celebration of victorious fights. From a festival celebrating the tenacity of Jewish religious faith, Hanukkah has become an occasion to revel in the military prowess of the Jewish people – past and present.” [7]

Even the Bible was regarded simply as the national literature of the people of Israel in the same manner that Shakespeare or Mark Twain might be understood in British and American culture. As Sherwin notes:

The “return to the Bible” must be understood as a nationalistic trend, and not a religious one. Indeed, it articulates a rejection of Talmudic and medieval rabbinic authority, often identified by Zionist ideologists with the “abnormal” Diaspora Jewish experience.” [8]

Classical Jewish sources were and are often seen as the by- products of the Diaspora. Hence most Israeli Jews and their non-Israeli Zionist counterparts abroad typically share apathy for towards religious definitions of Jewish identity and Jewish living since they are not seen as integral. Judaism is a phenomenon of the Diaspora.

On the whole, the earlyZionist adopted the concept of people-hood and its interconnectedness to the land ofIsrael, often independent of religiosity, as its primary theme.Yet they did find one issue to agree on. The ultimate argument in the minds of both the Maskilim and early Zionists gravitated towards the question of rabbinical authority and purpose in solely defining Jewish identity. Instead, modernity with its emphasis upon personal religious autonomy would provide a new connection for Jews throughout the world.[9]

Jewish identity independent of religious definitions lies at the heart of Asher Ginberg's (Ahad Ha'am) perspectives on cultural Zionism. As one of Zionism most prolific writers, Ahad Ha'am believed that Judaism did not need a simple modernization as Reform Judaism espoused but a complete radicalization of its theological foundations:

"After many centuries spent by the Jewish people in poverty and degradation, sustained only by faith and hope in divine mercy, the present generation has seen the birth of a new and far—reaching idea, one that promises to bring down our faith and aspiration from the heavens, and transform them into living and active forces, [one that] makes our land the object of hopes, and our people the anchor of our faith."[10]

For centuries, Judaism had perceived the exile as a struggle between Israel's own troubled history and its G-d. The Zionists viewed this struggle as a struggle between the Jew and the world. Jewish self-definition had included at its core a sense of choseness. The Zionist thinkers accepted this view but once again redefined its essential character.[11]

Zionism rose out of a series of complex religious, political, and social changes. Socialismand nationalism played a key role in the "theology" of Zionism. The inclusion of theseelements in redefining Jewish goals for ultimate emancipation and self-determinationcame only as a result of radicalized perspectives in the ability of the traditionaldefinitions of Jewish identity and makeup. Centuries of changing dynamics within themakeup of the Jewish community enabled Zionist thinkers not only the ability to arguefor an active political messianism but also in the redefinition of Jewish identity and makeup. Quite amazingly the Zionists often found themselves quoting or expressing theirconvictions in the language and very words of the sages whose identity structure theydesired to alter.

This definition of Jewish identity and Jewish life has considerable challenges even though it recognizes the importance of the Jewish state in the history and identity of Jewish life. This position in its extremes places a greater emphasis and importance on the truly astonishing events that have taken place in the course of the state of Israel’s emergence than on the claim of Jewish faith that G-d initiated a covenant with the Jewish people in which the Land of Israel holds a special role. Nationalism cannot be as Jacobs states a substitute for religion.[12] As a result, a Zionistic approach to Jewish identity renders Jewish living devoid of any meaning other than the ethnic and historical ties of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland and thus offers no response to the question of Jewish purpose.

The revival of the Hebrew language, the rise of Hebrew literature, the creation of a democratic state, etc. are as Louis Jacobs’s notes truly incredible achievements. They do not and cannot however, substitute for a view of Jewish identity that is centered on the service of G-d.[13] Furthermore the symbols of Jewish practice as traditionally understood inevitably are incompatible with the manner in which secularized Israelis may understand them. Hence Sherwin notes:

“This new approach to telling and remembering Jewish history and to celebrating certain events that comprise it has led to a retelling of past events, a revisioning of memory, a restructuring of the meaning of the Jewish liturgical year. As Liebman and Don-Yehiha have observed correctly in their insightful study Civil Religion in Israel, there must be an inevitable clash between traditional Jewish symbols and values and those of Israel’s “civil religion.” The symbols and values, express in traditional forms, conflict with the needs and values of the modern state.”[14]

Jewish Living as Belief: Emancipation and the Rise of Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism sought to revisit age old questions regarding Jewish identity and brought to light thechanging perceptions on what it exactly meant to be Jewish or be connected to theongoing experiences of the Jewish people amidst changing social and political realities of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

In some quarters of the earliest Reform movement, Orthodoxy's unbending fidelity toHalakhah was perceived as crystallizing and as dangerously as fossilizingJudaic thought and practice. The Reformers viewed this as a crisis that threatened to relegate themeaningfulness of Jewish life and purpose to bygone eras. Judaism, the Reformersargued, had to be rescued and the innovative religious spirit and religious plurality thatthey regarded as having characterized earlier Jewish life during the SecondCommonwealth. Orthodoxy, asfar as they were concerned, far from preserving the foundations of Judaism fromdangerous outside influences was entrenched in a mode of thought that denied the lofty
ideals envisioned in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew scriptures and destined Judaism to utter failure and misery. Jewish identity as far as the Reformers were concerned, lay at the prerogative of each generation's consideration of its past and place in history. [15]

Consequently, Reform Jewish perspectives in the area of identity and living appear to have beenlegislated heavily by the concern for acceptance into modern society and, by default, afeeling that the merits of Judaism must be presented to the world. While Judaism in its"classical" sense and structure may have served well in the past, the Reformers believedthat the realities of the then-present day Diaspora did not mesh well with a Torah and oraltradition incapable of undergoing thoughtful adaptation and, if necessary, critique.

Rabbinical texts and, moreimportantly, rabbinical authority presented itself as an obstacle to those who sought toreduce the notable differences between Jews and individuals of other faiths. The moraland ethical truths found in the Torah and the Prophets could serve as Israel's definitivecontribution to the modern world.In the end, the majority of Reform Jewry no longer considered Halakhah as the binding authority of Jewish life.This reality created a difficulty that the Reformers failed to address. The reformers didnot replace the binding and subsequently unifying quality of rabbinical law with somenew point of authority.

The emerging Reform movement stressed Jewish identity on the basis of religious belief only, and sought to dispel the view that Jewish identity was tied to either the existence of Jewish state or an expected messianic redemption which would culminate in the restoration of Israel. The Reformers instead sought to characterize Judaism as a faith compatible with modernity whose principle tenets could be summed up with the term ethical monotheism comparable to other monotheistic faiths. To those who argued that Jews could never truly be loyal to the state or true citizens of their country, Reform Judaism responded by its emphasis on the spirituality of Jewish living. The movement was characterized by increasing diminution of the observance of tangible mitzvoth which has also weakened the religious identity of its adherents.

This has been replaced to some great measure with the redefined Jewish values. Firstly, Jewish survival, or rather the survival of Jews as Jews is a major dogma of American as well as Israeli civil religion.[16] Secondly, American Reform Judaism has interpreted the classical concept of Tikkun Olam in light of Jew’s modern participation in modern politics. “American Reform Judaism, which has put most of its religious eggs in the redefined “Tikkun Olam” basket, as secular Jewish agencies such as the American Jewish Congress, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory council, and the like frequently point to Jeremiah 29:7 as a mandate for Jewish political involvement. Amazingly however, even Reform Judaism now admits that this perspective on social improvements with regards to Tikkun Olam draws heavily from the liberal Protestant tradition of the social gospel. The Reform movement continued(s) to advocate strongly for the all-important Reform tenet of individual autonomy in approaching Halakhah or any other issue for that matter. The movement continues to confront various areas of social change. Nevertheless the last several years have seen a radical shift towards the reconsideration of classical Jewish observances and the definition of Jewish education.[17]

Ethnic and Racial Identity

The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s largely connected to various racial and ethnic minority power movements in the United States led to the definition of Jewish identity by many in terms of racial or ethnic terms. The justification for this lay in the fact that an ethnic community shares a sense of common origins, claims a common and distinctive history, possesses one or more distinctive characteristics, and feels a sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity.[18] The cultural element has also led many in the Jewish community to perceive Jewish identity in terms of membership in a variety of Jewish institutions (e.g. Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations, etc.)

Each of these approaches has major weaknesses. The racial or ethnic definitions quickly lose validity in light of the very visible ethnic and racial differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities or at its extreme for example between Ethiopian and Russian Jews. The cultural argument also loses its basis of validity when language and cultural differences between various Jewish communities are also taken into consideration (e.g. Ladino/Judezmo versus Yiddish).

Membership in Jewish community organizations is largely open to anyone, so a definition of Jewishness solely dependent on this facet is pointless since it includes non-Jews and fails to articulate the distinction of Jewish identity.

The Theological approach

Each of these approaches defines aspects of Jewish identity and Jewish living which have been understood throughout history by various Jewish communities. But non religious or non-theological ideas fail to justify and articulate what makes a Jewish life distinctive and what purpose Jewish living serves. Some theologically based definitions such as the initial Reform position, also fail to take into account the idea of people-hood in their definitions. Even the halakhic definition which was predominant for so long, though religiously based, does not express a seminal definition and purpose of Jewish identity.

More specifically, the definitions of Jewish life cannot be understood and appreciated outside the relationship of the Jewish people to the Exodus from Egypt and the experience at Sinai. The connection of G-d, as the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and consequently the people of Israel must be fundamental to a meaningful definition of Jewish life. Regardless of denominational view of Jewish life that fails to appreciate the centrality of this fundamental principle does little to establish the purpose and existence of Jewish life.

A major problem with these approaches is that they, like the Zionist perspective, do not address the reason for Jewish living and therefore Jewish existence. Secular approaches based on cultural or linguistic bases can also fall into the trap of not recognizing the differences between the great secular literary figures of recent days (e.g. Asher Ginzberg, Sarna, Bialik etc.) and Torah revelation. Jewish or Hebrew culture cannot substitute for Torah.

That being said, the definition offered by Byron Sherwin seeks to address the validity of the points expressed by the various approaches and movements while rightly emphasizing the underlying theological definition of who is a Jew. Sherwin offers the following definition of who and what a Jew is an by extension a sense of what Jewish living should reflect:

“A Jew is a member of the covenantal community known as the people of Israel who are bound to its collective consciousness though memories of its historical expressions.”

Sherwin proposes this as a definition which recognizes the various claims and approaches of the aforementioned movements to Jewish identity (i.e. historical, cultural, linguistic, ethno, etc.) while clearly emphasizing that Jews are differentiated and created by the covenantal encounters recorded in the Tanakh and the ongoing dialogue with G-d of subsequent generations. Sherwin’s definition lends credence to the view that Jewishness and therefore Jewish living cannot, then, be reduced to purely halakhic status. As Sacha Stern notes Jewish identity is a “multifarious and holistic experience, which can only be described with reference to the whole panoply of Jewish life.“[19] Nevertheless, Sherwin’s definition concretely establishes the inseparable theological center of Jewish identity.



[1] Andre LaCoque, Commitment and Commemoration, (Chicago: Exploration Press), 109. Sherwin notes the findings of the Highlights of the Council of Jewish Federations 1990 National Jewish Population Study (New York: Council of Jewish Federations, 1991), p. 28. Its findings conclude that less than five percent of Jews consider themselves Jewish on the basis of religious identity whereas 90 percent define themselves as being Jewish in ethnic or cultural terms.

[2] Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 66.

[3] Taxation systems during the medieval period served to strengthen communal organization by giving the

community a strong control over its members whose membership was obligatory. In addition to this, Jewish
affairs in regard to legal matters were to kept out of civil courts. Jewish communities were often capable of
trying both civil and even criminal cases and administering punishment. Compulsory adherence to
communal regulations was affected by rabbinical ordinances referred to as Tekanot. Israel Abrahams,
Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (JPS: Philadelphia, 1993), pp. 44, 49,52,58

[4] Saadya Gaon, Beliefs and Opinions (Emunot vd-Deot), Treatise III, Chapter 7, trans. S. Rosenblatt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 158.

[5] Byron L. Sherwin, Mai Hanukkah What is Hanukkah?, (CCAR Journal, 2003), 22.

[6] “When we want to understand ourselves, to find out what is most precious in our lives, we search our memory…That only is valuable in our experience which s worth remembering. Remembrance is the touchstone of all actions. Memory is a source of faith. To have faith is to remember. Jewish faith is a recollection of that which happened to Israel in the past…Recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1951), pp. 162-163.

[7] Byron L. Sherwin, Mai Hanukkah What is Hanukkah?, (CCAR Journal, 2003) 20, 27. Sherwin further notes: “In the Jewish liturgy…G-d is praised for bringing about victory and redemption. However the Israeli “civil religion” awards victory to the Maccabees. In this view, it was the Maccabees’ self-redemptive military skills that brought about Jewish national self-determination and independence. The miracle of the cruse oil and what it represents has been virtually edited out of this telling of the store. As an early secular Zionist song proclaimed: “A miracle did not happen to us, we found no cruse of oil.”Regarding American Jewish attitudes towards Hanukah, Sherwin notes that during the first half of the twentieth century, American Jewry often opted to interpret it in categories drawn from secular liberalism and its origins in the European Enlightment.

[8] Andre LaCoque, Commitment and Commemoration, (Chicago: Exploration Press), 109

[9] Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity (Oxford: New York, 1988), p47

[10] Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'am and the origins of Zionism, (University of California Press: Berkley, 1993), p35. Even though the Reformers did not agree with the Zionist perspective, they indirectly influenced the Zionist cause. While the Reformers argued for fidelity and nationalism, Zionism redefined Jewish identity based upon national-cultural and linguistic features. Nationalism was indeed appropriate but needed to be directed towards a Jewish nationalism. The nationalistic surge that was uniting much of Europe was now used to engender the transformation in Jewish identity.

[11] Jacob Katz, Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation (JPS: New York, 1986), 94.

[12] Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, (Springfield: Berhman House, 1973), 281.

[13] Ibid. 281.

[14] Andre LaCoque, Commitment and Commemoration, (Chicago: Exploration Press,), 104.

[15] Jacob Katz, Jewish Emancipation and Self-Emancipation (JPS: New York, 1986), p11. Many of the

Maskilim were heavily influenced by Kantian philosophy and came to disregard the view holding to the
historical revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Judaism in their view, was the product and result of a long
historical process, which needed to be reviewed using historical research. Immanuel Kant's own
perspective of Judaism relegated it incapable of being reconciled with a pure moral system. Judaism had to
evolve and reform itself.

[16] Byron L. Sherwin, Mai Hanukkah What is Hanukkah?, (CCAR Journal, 2003), 22.

[17] David Shatz, Tikkun Olam (Aaronson: Northvale, 1997), p164.

[18] Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 66.

[19] Sacha Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (New York: Brill, 1994), xv, xxxiii.


Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Creation of Jewish Identity: From the Biblical Era to the Second Temple Period and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics. If you purchase through our link, Yeshivat Meor Enaim gets a commission to help continue our mission.