What Is Judaism? It Is a Tribe

I long ago lost track of how often this question comes up.

What is Judaism? People ask. Is it a religion? A culture? An ethnicity?

It is a question that only makes sense from outside of Jewry. From within Jewry, we don’t discuss ‘what is Judaism?’ We discuss ‘who is a Jew?’ We know what Judaism is. What we struggle with is how to explain it to everyone else.

Before I go any further, I want to give credit to Sam Morningstar, emsenn, and the book The Color of Jews, all of which have impacted my thinking in ways that shaped this blog post.

Interestingly, what took me several years to understand my father, when we discussed it recently, saw as obvious. Part of that is probably that he’s spent a much longer time living Jewish-ness than I have, but also I think he has spent over a decade speaking mainly Hebrew.

See, the word ‘Judaism’ doesn’t really translate from or to Hebrew. If you look at the etymology of ‘Judaism’, it started as the Greek for ‘Jew’. Somewhere in its evolution, it went from being a word for a person’s identity to a word for a philosophy or belief system, which is what ‘-ism’ denotes in English.

Among non-Jews, ‘Judaism’ is usually understood as something like ‘the monotheistic religion of the Jews.’ (from google). However, when you look for how to translate Judaism into Hebrew, you get “יַהֲדוּת” which literally means ‘people of Judah’ and is (approximately) defined as ‘Jewry’ or ‘Jewishness’. 

To Abba, after years of speaking Hebrew and living Jewish-ly in a Jewish society, the answer to what is Judaism was obvious. Judaism is a tribe.

Now, there are problems with using the word ‘tribe.’

It isn’t a very clearly defined word and has often been applied to people whether they wanted it or not. But the immediate association for most English speakers will be something like ‘a group of people joined together by heredity, culture, and beliefs/traditions.’

Tribal identity is conferred, not chosen. Someone can be adopted into the tribe, but can’t decide to become a member themselves. Most tribes have their own faith/religion/traditions which social scientist-types call ‘ethnoreligions’ because ‘religion tied to an ethnicity’ is the best they can understand within their Christian-shaped world view.

“But Jess, Jews can convert to Christianity, and then they aren’t Jews anymore!”

Christianity is just about the only religion a Jewish person can convert to and not be considered Jewish anymore. Islam being the other. Why? Because they both require people to renounce Judaism — to renounce their membership in the tribe — to convert. But someone can be a Buddhist Jew or an atheist Jew or a UU Jew and still be part of the tribe. There’s this whole argument about whether you can be a practicing Buddhist AND an observant Jew. But you are still a Jew.

There’s a reason orthodox Jews use the term ‘off the derech’ (off the path). A Jew who goes off the derech is still a Jew, a member of the tribe. They’ve just gone off the right path. That’s a completely different thing from renouncing and abandoning Jewry.

It didn’t occur to me to use ‘tribe’ for Jewry under I started following Sam Morningstar on Quora and emsenn on Fediverse.

Several times with both of them I have had conversations along the lines of ‘oh, our people do this the same! Isn’t it annoying how Christians/European-Americans never get it?’ The more I learned from them, the more I struggled to find words in English that encompassed ‘יַהֲדוּת’… eventually the two came together and I realize, ‘Oh, yeah, the word I’ve been looking for is ‘tribe.’

It’s not perfect — translations never are. But it’s way better than anything else I’ve come up with for trying to explain to Christians and atheists raised in Christian hegemony that ‘Judaism’ isn’t religion OR ethnicity OR culture, but some larger thing that sort of but doesn’t include all three.

Now, most tribal peoples are also indigenous. I want to be clear that I’m not trying to claim indigenity. I think we could have a good conversation about what being indigenous is and how it can/cannot apply to peoples who have been forced into diaspora. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Jews are/were a tribal people in diaspora.

As we have/had been in diaspora, different groups of us have evolved in different directions, developing new customs, traditions, and even languages.

Several other tribal peoples have been forced to survive in diaspora or partly in diaspora and the struggle to retain a cohesive identity as a people is another thing I have heard from others that resonates with Jewish experience.

Of course, there is a major split in יַהֲדוּת now — many of us are no longer in diaspora. That’s causing a whole lot of fretting, discussion, arguing, and lots of other synonyms for ‘people trying to figure shit out and always agreeing’.

Anyway, yeah. That’s my final answer. What is Judaism?

“Judaism” is a tribe.

A tribe in/from diaspora.

Jews are people who belong to the tribe. No matter where in the diaspora they come from. No matter if they were born to the tribe or were adopted (‘converted’) as adults.

It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Thanks to emsenn also for doing a sensitivity read of this post.

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