The Ancient Jewish Debate About the Nature of Jewishness

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Jewish identity is confusing.
Are we a religion, nationality, race, ethnicity or some mixture of all the above?
This fundamentally important topic is one that I have devoted a multiplicity of articles to tackling. I have argued that Mordecai Kaplan’s classification of Judaism as a Civilization makes the most sense when considering all of the relevant factors. I have furthermore argued that being a Jewish Atheist is an identity that makes complete sense when considering the fundamentals of Jewishness. Finally, I have even connected the fact that there are multiple froms of anti-semitism - be it racial, religious or anti-Zionist - to be reflective of the multifaceted essence of Jewish identity both here and here.
While this is a very contemporary conversation - one that has become commonplace within the Jewish intellectual world - it actually reflects an ancient debate that the Jewish community was hashing out at one of the most pivotal points in our history.
It came as a surprise when Cyrus and the Persian empire, after conquering the land of Israel from the Babylonians in 538 BCE, issued an edict allowing Jews to return to their homeland. After an initially difficult adjustment to exilic life in Babylonia, 70 years later the Jewish community was comfortable and many didn’t actually want to return to Israel - leaving their new home in the process.
In Babylonia, Judaism was forced to adapt from a temple-centric, tribal nation with theologic and ritualistic elements to a religious community with no political or centralized power. It is hard to over emphasize how much Judaism changed over these years. Many new religious laws, philosophies, biblical books, and even holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were created during this time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Jews became deeply intertwined within the larger Babylonian culture many of them took non-Jewish wives.
Now from our modern conception of Judaism, where intermarriage is constantly maligned, the idea of Jews in the Bible taking foriegn wives may come as a shock. However, it is crucial to understand that in the ancient Jewish world, where Judaism was seen as a porous nation, intermarriage was the norm. I noted in another article (here) that if we took a full account of the male biblical heroes who married non-Jewish women, the list would take up a full paragraph. Some major examples are Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David and Solomon, just to name a few.
But many were not happy with this phenomenon. In fact, Ezra, a scribe and the Jewish leader of the generation, made eradicating intermarriage one of his central life missions. In a public speech given to the Jews upon their return to Israel, Ezra demands that they depart from their foriegn wives, because they were “mixing the holy (Jewish) seed” (Ezra 9:2).
At this point it is important to make a number of things clear. The first is that this scene is taking place in a pre-conversion world. In other words, at this point in Jewish history, conversion did not yet exist within Judaism. Rather in the biblical world foreigners wanting to join the Jewish people would simply marry in - a commonplace in ancient tribal societies.
Here Ezra is in essence arguing that Judaism is a race and that any intermixing with non-Jews will necessarily taint the “Jewish seed”. According to this view, there is nothing a person can do in terms of belief, practice, or allegiance that would deem intermarriage tolerable. The difference between Jewish and non-Jewish “seed” is metaphysically immutable and therefore Jews can never marry gentiles.
However, this racial view of Judaism would not go unchallenged. In the next generation another polemical text would arise, mounting a direct challenge to this view of Judaism as a pure race. In the book of Ruth, a young woman would, by pledging her allegiance to the Jewish community and belief system, effectively become a Jew. What can be a stronger affirmation of the fact that Judaism was not a race! What’s more, the author of this text even argued that the ancient King David was born from this righteous woman. For more on the book of Ruth and how it fits within this discussion click here.
So we have the ancient, pre-exilic, biblical view that saw Judaism as a tribal nation, Ezra who taught that Judaism was a race, and the book of Ruth that argued that Judaism was essentially a religion.
Which one won?
The answer, of course, is all of them. These sparring views of Jewishness were fused together eventually creating the multiplicity of modern Jewish identity we see today. Conversion, an institution that arose generations after the Ezra/Ruth debate actually attempt to combine all of these aspects. A convert is not simply one who accepts Jewish dogma within the context of a religious conversion. Rather, conversion is actually an elaborate adoption ceremony where, over the course of multiple years, a person becomes a part of the Jewish family. They are now seen as if they were descended from Abraham and Sarah - the idea being that metaphysically even their race changes.
So yes, Jewishness is complicated. But it was always that way. And arguing that Judaism can be reduced to just a religion, race, or even a nation/people is simply ignoring the depth and nuance throughout our history.
 Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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