Who is a Jew? Bagels and Shylock as stereotypes
“But who is a Jew? Historically, in the Jewish ghettos one studied the Torah (the Old Testament) or Marx. That of course was Karl Marx, not Harpo Marx, and V.I. Lenin, not John Lennon.”
Henry Srebrnik’s fascinating articles on religion, “Will non-religious Jews survive?” and secularism ( JP, Jan 18, 2016 and The Guardian Jan 25, 2016 ) warrant further serious consideration and elaboration. If history and current demographic trends are any indication non-religious, or secular Jews will not only survive, they will thrive.
Jews have been trying for 4,000 years to answer the question: Who is a Jew? In brief, one can be either be a religious or an ethnic Jew. Generally four (4) criteria must be satisfied to be considered a Jew: being a monotheist, that is, believing in only one God; having a Jewish mother, that is the matrilineal transmission of religion (or conversion); following the kosher dietary laws; and ritualistic circumcision for a male. Not all these requirements need be satisfied; indeed, some have been considerably loosened or abandoned in recent years. One doesn’t have to be religious to be Jewish.
There is, as well, an established and respected Jewish tradition called Secularism Judaism, based on ethical humanism, that goes back to at least Moses Mendelssohn in mid-18 century Germany; some people refer to this tradition as being a “Jewish atheist” or a “non-Jewish Jew.” This is a loose ethnic identification, and has little to do with the ossified religion of the backward Eastern European shtetl. Secular Judaism has a much more universal, and less ethnocentric, orientation than does other variants of Judaism.
Jews in Canada represent about 1.5 per cent of the population. Canada has the fourth largest Jewish population in the world. Significantly, according to Statistics Canada, as of 2011, religious and non-religious Jews were almost evenly divided. According to a 2003 U.S. Harris Poll, only 45 per cent of all Jews belong to a synagogue. Of those 38 per cent were (liberal-secular) Reform Jews, 33 per cent were Conservative, and 22 per cent (strict) Orthodox Jews.
A Time magazine survey (dated) indicated that 40 per cent of all North American Jews are non-practising, while only 54 per cent are religious: seven per cent are Orthodox Jews, 28 per cent Conservative, and fully 58 per cent are liberal-secular Reform Jews. These survey data suggest that most Jews in North America are non-practising. These trends suggest that the number of non-religious Jews is likely to increase, especially with the high rate of interfaith marriage. So who is at risk of extinction?
But who is a Jew? Historically, in the Jewish ghettos one studied the Torah (the Old Testament) or Marx. That of course was Karl Marx, not Harpo Marx, and V.I. Lenin, not John Lennon. Jewish history has had more than its fair share of famous rebels and revolutionaries, mostly secular Jews.
So who is a Jew? Being a “Jewish atheist,” a “non-Jewish Jew,” a left-wing radical, or being involved in the labour movement (such as my parents and myself) is a respected Jewish tradition and has been integral to the Jewish identity and experience in places like NYC, Winnipeg, and Montreal. Jewish literature is full of working class heroes. Those Jews who have escaped to suburbia in the post-war era willfully forget their roots.
Current political and social trends hold important lessons for the Jewish community. Professor David Vital of Tel Aviv University in his book, The Future of the Jews (1990), argues that Israeli and North American Jews are headed in very different directions, and may result in the increased alienation of North American Jews from Israel as it rejects its secular Labourite origins and becomes more religious.