How can Jews be both an Ethnic Group and a Religion?

Judaism is not just a religion. Judaism is a civilization with a language, a land and a religion.

We have always been passionate about God, Holiness and Morality. In that respect, Judaism resembles a religion. But, I believe, Judaism goes well beyond that. Being a Jew involves identifying with a specific people, with their history, culture and identity. Often, Jewish religion and Jewish identity find themselves at odds. Look into, for instance, the writings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, most especially his book Judaism as a Civilization to see this conflict at work.

According to Maslow, the first level in the hierarchy of needs is physiological. We have bodies, and we need basic ingredients for our bodies to survive. We need food; we need water; we need shelter. We need air to breath and a place to sleep and a way to meet our biological needs. And we need good health, the ability of our bodies to work correctly. The Rabbis recognized this idea from the very beginning. They said Im Ain Kemach Ain Torah. “Without flour, there can be no Torah.” The Baal Shem Tov tells the story of a pious man who ran a soup kitchen for the poor of the community. He provided meals, but first he had these poor people gather in a sanctuary for prayers. The Baal Shem Tov walked in on this, and challenged him. “Why are you making those hungry people pray?” The man answered, “I am worried about their souls.” The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Better you should worry about their bodies and your own soul.” Judaism is built on the idea that we need to care for the bodies of others and our own souls.

Most religions speak about compassion, feeding the hungry and helping the poor. But in a way Judaism is different. Other religions emphasize heaven, some other spiritual world. It is the spiritual that is important, not the physical. To our Christian and Muslim friends, this physical world, the world of our bodies, is an inferior world. They ask, “Will you get to heaven?” I have never seen the words on a synagogue sign, “Will you get to Heaven?” Eastern religions also de-emphasize this physical world. Buddhism teaches that this world is Duhka – suffering. We move beyond suffering by letting go of the things of this world. The goal is to live the endless circle of samsara, death and rebirth in this world, and to reach nirvana. Only Judaism teaches that this physical world is where the action is. This physical world is where we can do mitzvot.

For thousands of years, attempts have been made to define “Judaism.” The word “Judaism” denotes a full civilization; the total actualities, past and present, of the historic group of human beings known as the Jewish people. For some, Judaism may also stand for something more limited: the spiritual aspect of that civilization. Understood in this way, we understand Judaism in seven threads that cannot be untangled:

  1. A doctrine concerning God, the universe and human beings;
  2. A morality for the individual and society;
  3. A regimen of rite, custom and ceremony;
  4. A body of law;
  5. A sacred literature;
  6. Institutions through which “Jews” find expression;
  7. A people, Israel, connected to a land.

Two thousand years ago, a pagan challenged Rabbi Hillel to summarize Judaism while he stood on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole doctrine. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”  In conclusion, Judaism is more than the sum of its parts.

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and the immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

'How can Jews be both an Ethnic Group and a Religion?' has 1 comment

  1. June 16, 2017 @ 8:48 pm Steve

    Nice article, Jeremy. This is going to be featured on (with full credit of course).


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

For advertising information, please contact