Jewish identity

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Ashkenazi Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, segregated by gender. Traditional elements shown include tallit, the torah and kippot. (1878 painting by Maurice Gottlieb)

Jewish identity is the objective or subjective state of perceiving oneself as a Jew and as relating to being Jewish.[1] Under the broader definition, the Jewish identity does not depend on whether or not a person is regarded as a Jew by others, or by an external set of religious, or legal, or sociological norms. Jewish identity does not need to imply religious orthodoxy. Accordingly, Jewish identity can be cultural in nature. Jewish identity can involve ties to the Jewish community. Traditional Judaism bases Jewishness on matriarchal descent. According to Jewish law (halacha), all those born of a Jewish mother are Jewish, regardless of personal beliefs or level of observance of Jewish law. Jews who are atheists may have Jewish identity. While the absolute majority of people with this identity are of Jewish ethnicity, people born from a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish background may have Jewish identity. (See also "half-Jewish".)


Jewish identity can be separated into three separate, independent parts:

  1. Jewish ethnic divisions: those of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizrahi Jewish ancestry, or more specifically, those Jews who by all secular accounts are the descendants of the those who were depopulated by the Romans in c.100 CE, resulting in the Jewish Diaspora. These include Crypto-Jews - Jews Usually descendants of "conversos" who fled Spain at the time of the Inquisition - who still have a somewhat sense of a Jewish identity, or have heard their families were initially Jewish, or are discovering their families were Jewish. Such Jews are usually of Sephardic origin and found throughout Latin America, New Mexico, the Caribbean and Texas. Early Spanish explorers, soldiers and settlers had Jews among them, known or hidden. Many were raised as Catholic, and told of their Judaism when they became adults. Others have remnants of Jewish practice without understanding it has anything to do with Judaism (such as lighting candles of Friday nights...) Others hid by joining Catholic groups such as the Penitentes in New Mexico, knowing that the last place the church would look for them would be among a group of ultra-religious flagellants.
  1. Judaism: those Jews who follow the tenets of the Jewish religion. This includes converts and adoptees of non-"Jewish" ethnicity.
  2. Jewish culture those Jews who celebrate Jewish holidays and were "raised in a Jewish home", regardless of current belief.

A cultural/ancestral concept[edit]

Jewish identity can be cultural, religious, and/or through ancestry. There are religious, cultural and ancestral components to Jewish identity due to its fundamental non-proselytizing nature, as opposed to Christian or Muslim identity which are both "universal" religions in that they ascribe to the notion that their faith is meant to be spread throughout all of humanity, regardless of nationality, (and still are, though to a far lesser extent than throughout its history in the case of Christianity).[2] However, Jewish identity is firmly intertwined with Jewish ancestry dating back to the historical Kingdom of Israel, which was largely depopulated by the Roman Empire c. first century AD, leading to what is known as today as the Jewish Diaspora.

In contemporary sociology[edit]

Jewish identity began to gain the attention of Jewish sociologists in the United States with the publication of Marshall Sklare's "Lakeville studies".[3] Among other topics explored in the studies was Sklare's notion of a "good Jew".[4] The "good Jew" was essentially an idealized form of Jewish identity as expressed by the Lakeville respondents. Today, sociological measurements of Jewish identity have become the concern of the Jewish Federations who have sponsored numerous community studies across the U.S.;[5] policy decisions (in areas such as funding, programming, etc.) have been shaped in part due to studies on Jewish identity.

Antisemitism and Jewish identity[edit]

According to the social-psychologist Simon Herman, antisemitism plays a part in shaping Jewish identity.[6] This view is echoed by religious leaders such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who writes that modern Jewish communities and the modern Jewish identity are deeply influenced by antisemitism.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity. Yale University Press, 1997.
  2. ^ Galatians 6:11, Romans 16:22, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17
  3. ^ Sklare, Marshall, Joseph Greenblum, and Benjamin Bernard Ringer. The Lakeville Studies. Under the Dir. of Marshall Sklare. Basic books, 1967.
  4. ^ Sklare, Marshall. "The Image of the Good Jew in Lakeville." Observing America’s Jews. Brandeis University Press, 1993.
  5. ^ Sheskin, Ira M. "Comparisons between local Jewish community studies and the 2000–01 National Jewish Population Survey." Contemporary Jewry 25, no. 1 (2005): 158-192.
  6. ^ Herman, Simon N. Jewish identity: A social psychological perspective. Transaction Pub, (1989): 51.
  7. ^ Love, Hate, and Jewish Identity, by Jonathan Sacks. First Things, November 1997.

External links[edit]