Is there such a thing as the Jewish people? A moment symposium: Y-Love Shlomo Sand Karl Skorecki Moshe Tendler Adin Steinsaltz Stephen Oppenheimer Shulamit Reinharz Yehuda Kurtzer Larry Brilliant Kerry Olitzky Erica Brown Noam Pianko Jill Jacobs.

Author:Breger, Sarah


Jewish peoplehood is always central. It comes before the Jewish nation or the Jewish state. We live in modern times, but our peoplehood is still essential, primitive. We never ceased to be a clan or tribe. This is expressed both sociologically and theologically. Sociologically, we behave like a family. Because we are close to each other, we have fights. But even when you say terrible things about your own people, you care deeply about their reaction. I can have, from time to time, a desire to kick my own brother. I may even do it. But I won't allow any stranger to kick my brother. That's the sociological side of the peoplehood, the tribalism, that Jews are blamed or praised for.

Is it genetic? No. In a theological sense, we as a people never bothered much about genetics. We always had a certain number, no one can say exactly how many, of other people blending in. There was a proselyte from Sicily, who had been a Norman knight. He wrote a letter to Maimonides asking him a halachic question: "When I pray, do I say, 'God of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?'" And Maimonides wrote back, very warmly--not like most of his letters--saying, "Of course! Once you convert you are a child of Abraham, and you can say, 'My father Abraham, my mother Sarah,' and so forth."

According to Jewish law, one cannot leave the Jewish people, exactly in the same way that one cannot leave one family. No Jewish court has ever had the right to un-Jew someone. At the same time, converts are treated like adopted children: Once they join, they are family. This is the theological expression of the same notion of peoplehood.

Almost every great religion has a missionary stripe in it. Except for Jews, and why? Because you don't grab people on the street and tell them, "Join my family!" There are all kinds of things that began with us and spread all over the world--think of the notion of a weekly day of rest--but not because we were preaching them. The mission of the fire is to burn. If we think of it as a prescription, something we are doing for other people, then it doesn't work.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a scholar. philosopher and teacher He is known for his published translations of the Talmud in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish and Russian.


You cannot call the Jews a people. When we say the French people or the Italian people we are not thinking about a scientific concept, we are thinking of a human group that has a common language, a common secular culture. If they share only a religious culture I call it a religious community I think the Jews are a very important religious civilization, one of the most important in the Western world, but I'm sorry, as a historian I cannot use the words Jewish people. What is there in common between a Jew in Marrakesh, a Jew in London and a Jew in Rome? Only a religious practice, not a secular one--they don't speak the same language, they don't eat the same food, they don't have the same music.

The Romans did not exile the Jews 2,000 years ago and create the diaspora we know today. Those Jews under Rome stayed and are more the ancestors of the Palestinians today. Early Judaism was a proselytizing religion, and Jews today are descendants of those converts to Judaism. It was only in the late 19th century, in the context of rising nationalist movements, that Zionists turned the Bible and these stories into a historical book to create a foundation for a people and a claim to the land. It's important for Israeli society and Israeli people to understand that we are not a new people or an ethnic race. Maybe this will help us be more open to our neighbors and live with them better.

Shlomo Sand is a history professor at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Invention of the Jewish People and many other books.


Jewish peoplehood is first and foremost cultural and metaphysical, a matter of shared values, beliefs and so forth. It just happens that there is evidence of a genetic commonality as well, and this catches the public imagination in ways that other evidence doesn't. Archaeology, linguistics and other tools like that can't directly prove shared ancestry the way DNA can. There's no single place in the genome that...

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