Project Genesis

Jew: A nation or religion?

I have several questions about the Jewish Religion

1. Is Jew a race and a religion, serperate from each other? 2. Is it seperate but being a Jewish nation with a Jewish religion? 3. Are some Jews not be of the Jewish religion? 4. Is the Jewish nation the same as being a race?

Thank you in advance for your response.

Dear Friend,

Below, I have pasted three separate responses that were written in the past to questions which were similar to yours.

The following is a brief overview of the history of the Jewish People.


Abraham was born in 1812 BCE in the city of Ur in Ancient Mesopotamia. According to Jewish tradition, he spent the first 40 years of his life questioning the polytheistic ideas of the surrounding culture, eventually coming to the conclusion that all the details of existence emerged out of a simple primal, undifferentiated existence which we refer to as God. Once he was confident in the truth of his theory, he began to publicize his ideas through writing, teaching and public debates, and eventually built a movement of tens of thousands of people who shared his beliefs. G-d then appeared to Abraham for the first time and told him that his biological descendants would eventually grow into a nation which would live by the philosophical principles that he had discovered and would be given the Land of Canaan as a national homeland (Genesis 12:1).



Abraham passed on his philosophical system to his son, Isaac, who in turn passed it on to his son Jacob (also called Israel – see Genesis 35:10), who then handed it over to his twelve sons (the families founded by these twelve individuals eventually grew into the twelve tribes of Israel). A famine then occurred in the Land of Canaan in 1522 BCE, forcing the patriarch, Israel, and his 70 member family down to Egypt (Genesis 46:8), where after 210 years (94 of them as slaves), they had grown into a People of approximately 3 million, retaining their separate philosophical, cultural and linguistic identity as Hebrews. They were led out of Egypt by Moses the Prophet in 1312 BCE, and about 50 days later, found themselves awestruck at the foot of Mt Sinai, where God revealed Himself to the Nation as a whole, and proclaimed the 10 Commandments. God then sealed a covenant with the Israelites, whereby they committed themselves (and their descendants) to follow the path of life which God would reveal for them (a path that would incorporate the philosophical system discovered by Abraham). Moses then ascended Mt Sinai alone, and God taught him all the details of that path. The enormous body of legal and moral principles revealed to Moses form the content of what is called "TORAH" – the term incorporating the Five Books of Moses as well as the Oral tradition found in the Mishna and Talmud (36 volumes).


In 1272 BCE, after 40 years of traveling in the Sinai Desert, the Israelite Army, led by Joshua, conquered the Land of Canaan and inaugurated a period of over 1200 years of National experience in the Land of Israel, focused around the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which existed for approximately 800 of those years (combining the 1st and 2nd Temple periods).


In 70 CE the Roman army destroyed the Second Temple (the first was destroyed by the Babylonians about 500 years earlier) and from this point onwards, the majority of Jews have lived in various communities outside the Land of Israel. For 1900 years the Jews in exile prayed 3 times daily to be able to return to their homeland, and in 1948 the dream was realized with a majority vote in the United Nations to allow the re-establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.
As to responsive: Yes, the questioner asked about "Judaism," not the "Jews," but his meaning is clear enough: "Do the Jews constitute an ethnicity, nation or race, and if so, how?" It is, of course, true that "Judaism" is a belief system, not a nationality, but the Jews are and have always been a nation. And inasmuch as we are a nation, Jewishness is a nationality and also an ethnicity ("nation" and "ethnic" are cognate words).

As to "race," Jews are not, in the modern sense of the word, a "race," though Jews are a "race" in the 19th century sense of the word, which then meant "nation." [A Supreme Court decision explains this point pretty clearly. See Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604 (1987) 2E+6043A]/doc/{@21}/hit_headings/words=4/hits_only?> .]

As to how Jews became a nation, the answer is in the Torah and the Haggadah. An extended family of seventy Hebrews (Yaakov and his family) "went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation – great and mighty and numerous." (Haggadah.) The Torah records HaShem's promise that Yaakov's descendants would become a "great nation" (Gen. 25:22-23). (HaShem also promised Yaakov's grandfather, Abraham, that he would become a "great nation."). In Gen. 46:3-4, the Torah recounts how HaShem appeared to Yaakov on his way to Egypt and said to him: "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for there I will make of you a great nation; I Myself will descend with you to Egypt, and I Myself will bring you up again."

Once in the Land of Israel, we established a tribal confederation headed by temporary chieftains (for example, Shimson (Samson)), later a kingdom (Saul, David, Solomon, etc.), returned to the Land after the Bablylonian Exile, and later established a commonwealth (finally destroyed by the Roman). After the Romans forced us to leave the Land, we considered ourselves in exile, which is possible only if one thinks of himself as a foreigner away from his land—which we were. And about fifty years ago, we re-established Jewish sovereignty in the form of a republic.

Regrettably, in the 1850's the Reform movement attempted to disavow the national character of the Jews, and for one quite illegitimate reason—that it made it difficult to assimilate into German and later American society, and aroused the ire of anti-Semites. That anti-Semites dislike our avowal of Jewish nationhood, and that it arouses suspicions of dual loyalty, is no reason at all to deny our national identity. We are a nation, whether anti-Semites like it or not.

What is even more important to realize is that the Jews are not simply a nation nor are we simply a group of co-religionists. We are a religio-nation, i.e., a nation whose character and uniqueness is defined by its religious mission. A convert to Judaism is required to accept that he has national obligations to his fellow Jews, not merely religious obligations to HaShem.

The word "race" is much too broad of a word to define the Jewish people. Let me explain: When we speak of race or ethnicity, or clan, or family, we mean the same thing, but in varying degrees. We mean a group of people that share a common genetic past, or in plainer English, a common ancestor or ancestors. My siblings and I share common ancestors, but no one would think of calling us the Davidovich race or ethnic group. The difference between family, clan, ethnic group (nation) and race is how far back the group in question can trace the common root. The French people as a whole shares common ancestry going much farther back than my siblings and I, but we generally do not think of the French nation as a race.

So too the Jews. The common ancestry is not of the degree to warrant being called a race. And while it is true that the promise made to Abraham was that his direct physical descendants would be bearers of the continuing relationship between Abraham and G-d as well as the promise to inherit the Land of Israel, Jewish Law allows for others to join the nation as immigrants (or in conventional speech, converts), and dilute the genetic pool, if you will. The end result is that the genetic factor, though essential at the roots of the Jewish people, is not what defines us in actuality. The Talmud compares those who join the Jewish nation, like Ruth, to branches grafted to the Jewish tree. Although the branch does not share the common past growth of the tree, it now derives its nourishment from the whole tree's past and participates in its future as a full part of it.

No Follow-ups »

No published follow-up questions.

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


Powered by WordPress