Friday, July 30, 2010

Are Jews a Race?

[Reinhard Heydrich. A Jewish nose?]

I'm wondering if there is any physical or mental characteristic which distinguishes Jews, even Jews whose families have been Jewish as far back as anyone can remember, from gentiles.

The answer is apparently, no.

In other words, if a forensic anthropologist were to autopsy a recently deceased person and he chose to run every DNA test and examine every organ and bone, I don't believe he would be able to answer the question "Is this a Jew or a gentile". DNA can merely indicate if some of someone's ancestors were probably Jews. The famous Jewish nose seems to be a poor criteria as well.

Mentally, there is the Jewish high IQ, or "Yiddishe kopf", however obviously there is a very wide range of intelligence among Jews and gentiles even if the average may be higher among Jews of Central European origin. Being smart in and of itself surely does not prove Jewishness.

So in any case, the "Jewish race" is simply a myth, probably originating with anti-Semites. (The expression "j├╝dischen Rasse" was used by Hitler, and not in a positive way.)

So what does make a Jew a Jew? As an Orthodox Jew, I would say it is the possession of a very elevated, very holy soul which a person aquires by either converting to Judaism or by having inherited it through matrilineal descent from someone else who converted. The event at Mount Sinai was a mass conversion. (See Way of God by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto 2:4 for more details.)

From the point of view of an atheist, however, since he does not believe that he has a soul, and he does not believe in the Jewish religion, there is in fact no difference between himself and any other atheist. Therefore expressions like "Jewish atheist" or "Jewish skeptic" are really nonsensical. The Jewish atheist or agnostic or secular humanist should logically drop the "Jewish" label since he does not believe that he differs in any way from anyone else. Some of his ancestors practiced Judaism, that's all. Some of my ancestors were Catholic, however I hardly would introduce myself as a "Catholic Jew".


NoLiveGod said...

Nonsense. Maybe you shouldn't call yourself an Orthodox Jew if you don't like labels.

I can and will call myself a Jewish or non-Jewish whatever. Secular Jew, Humanist Jew--it's my choice and my identification, for whatever reason I come up with. I'm not particularly interested in what you think I should or should not call myself. Maybe next you'll want to tell me which political parties to support?

Sorry, but you'll have to live with us whatever Jews.

Mahla said...

Even the Nazis tried to adopt out Jewish children who had blond hair & blue eyes so they could be brought up in the Reich & be absorbed into the 'Master Race.' :^( I forget the name of that program .... It fell under the heading of "Germanization" though.

Also, they had Dr. Mengele experimentally injecting stuff into brown eyes to hopefully make them blue. :^( This shows how primitive the Nazi conceptualization of "race" really was, how plastic.

Still, I have always thought that "Jewish" was a race as well as a religion.

From medieval Spain to Nazi Germany, I don't think someone could just change (or pretend to change) their religious practice and be taken seriously as a non-Jew ... that is, as being un-Jewish enough to not get herded on to a cattle car. :^(

jewish philosopher said...

"I can and will call myself a Jewish or non-Jewish whatever."

You can call yourself a tooth fairy, but it doesn't make sense.

"I have always thought that "Jewish" was a race"

I don't see any evidence for it. It seems to be a myth.

Anonymous said...

If Judaism is not a race then what claim do they have to the land of Israel? Also, if they are not a race from where did they originate?

jewish philosopher said...

We originated with the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the claim to the land of Israel is based on a promise made to Abraham Genesis 15:18-21:

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates- the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."

Anonymous said...

But if we originated with the patriarchs then are we not a race? Surely we must be their specific descendants if we are to have any claim to the land of Israel.

jewish philosopher said...

"descendants" means in the sense of spiritual disciples.

Genetically, I would imagine that most of humanity is by this time descended from Abraham, who lived about four thousand years ago.

Anonymous said...

But it does not say to your 'spiritual' descendant, is not the verse clear; or are you allegorizing the verse? If so can we not say that if it is to Abraham's spiritual descendants to whom the land is promised perhaps the verse references a spiritual land?

NC said...

No clear scientific definition exists for race, and it is subject to change based on cultural or political factors. Many consider it an invalid concept in the first place. So saying Jews are or are not a race is fairly meaningless.

The real question is: are Jews a nation, a religious group, or an ethnic group? Here, too, there are traps. I think the most historically accurate thing we can say is that Jews are the descendents of the ancient nation of Israel, and Judaism is the faith of these people. We can't even claim to be an ethnic group, since Jews from around the world are ethnically very different (although they may share many customs). Beyond that, its just personal opinion and politics.

What makes a Jew a Jew? Refer to the above statement. As for conversion, it is up to the nation itself to decide what criteria to apply, like any other nation. The traditional Orthodox view is but one of several alternative views, but not the only valid one. Since 90% of Jews are not orthodox, orthodox criteria need not apply.

Garnel Ironheart said...

This discussion seems to be lacking any sense.
First of all, the word "race" is often used incorrectly by those without adequate training in biology. This is clearly the case here because if one understood what "race" is it would be immediately clear that Jews are no such thing. A race is a define biological entity that cannot be joined. A white person can want to be black, own every rap record out there and address his father as "Hey homey!" but he would still not be black.
However, one can become Jewish and, over the millenia, many diverse groups have. Therefore there is no unique racial basis to the Jewish people.
Rather Judaism is a nationality with citizenship not unlike any modern nation-state today without a couple of important differences:
1) Anyone can join nowadays as long as they accept Torah MiSinai and the authority of the halacha.
2) No one born into the nation can ever leave it no matter what their sins. The Shulchan Aruch and preceding codes make it very clear that the most apostate Jew is still considered a Jew even though he is denied certain "privileges of membership" within the nation. The great Chasidic rebbes like the Sfas Emes note that every Jew, no matter how estranged from Torah, has a pintele Yid, a Jewish spark that is never extinguished and may yet burn brightly. Therefore a born Jew who declares he is an atheist is still a Jew.

jewish philosopher said...

"But it does not say to your 'spiritual' descendant"

The question of exactly to whom the Promised Land is promised, what it's borders are, etc are things for which we must turn to the Oral Law in the Talmud.

"I think the most historically accurate thing we can say is that Jews are the descendents of the ancient nation of Israel"

Can any Jew actually verify that? And with all the assimilations, kidnappings, etc over the past few thousand years, probably all European and Middle Eastern people are to some degree descendents of the ancient nation of Israel. So again, why does the atheist Jew call himself a Jew?

"Judaism is a nationality with citizenship not unlike any modern nation-state today"

I don't think "Judaism" is recognized as a state by the United Nations and I would not try traveling internationally with a Judaism passport.

A.A. said...

The idea that Jews possess a holy soul seems to be contradicted by Jews like NoLiveGod who write in espousing their particular views, which seem distinctly unholy. What would make this person any "holier," than a gentile who, for instance, who follows the Noahide laws?

Being Jewish is a national affiliation BTW. This is the plain meaning of Jews being a "goy Kadosh."

jewish philosopher said...

A very spiritually elevated person still has free will.

Let's say in the Second World War a private in the US Army switched sides and became a Nazi or General Eisenhower became a Nazi. Both are traitors, however Eisenhower's crime is far greater.

This is the difference between a gentile and a Jewish atheist.

Anonymous said...

Kohanim have a unique DNA on the Y chromosome. This indicates that the common ancestor of the Kohanim lived ~3000 years ago, right around the time of Aharon.

jewish philosopher said...

His father's father may have been a Cohen while all other grandparents were Gentiles and he himself is a devout catholic and he would also have that marker.

DNA testing at best can tell us that some of ones ancestors were probably Jews.

davidf15x said...

There are clearly physiological features that many Jews have in common, that is, Jewish physical types. "Funny you don't look Jewish!" is a statement among Jews that indicates there are certain "tribal" trademarks among certain Jews.

Clearly there is variety and when I go to may small shul with few people in attendance, I cannot say this has the looks of a Jewish crowd.

But back in my days as a Conservative Jew, with hundreds of people in one place--physical distinctions do seem to appear. But the thesis is correct we are not a race like the Asians or the blacks or the Indians--but having a common history and a strong amount of breeding among the "tribe" certain physical traits emerge so that in some ways, Jews do look different but not so distinctive that we are a "race."

An Italian can probably see the difference between an Italian woman and a French one--perhaps we cannot. A woman can sense a gay man and no he is not "available" to her. A young Jewish man, as I once was, can sense a Jewish woman from his experience hanging around a lot of Jewish women.

jewish philosopher said...

You can try to guess, but obviously it's not fool proof. That's why the Nazis needed those yellow stars and even then plenty of full blooded Jews passed as Gentiles on false papers and survived the war.

NC said...

"Can any Jew actually verify that?"
JP, you can nitpick, but it does not matter even if it cannot be verified 100%. Even halacha recognizes that if someone is known to be a Jew, and born of a Jewish mother, than he is Jewish. Since this is not dependent on any measurement of his soul, or his religious observance, it is basically a tribal or national identity. Granted, it is not a recognized state, but that doesn't matter. Jews are descendents of a state that once existed. Not unlike Gypsies.

Shalmo said...

Consider that zionism changed the definition of Judaism from religion to nationality.

The idea of Jews as a race is mainly paraded by the hiloni, but isn't really at the heart of any frum jew, exceptions exist!

@ JP do you believe gentiles have souls?

I have also been meaning to ask you. I have heard that many haredi believe that by breaking the 3 Oaths and creating Israel, the hiloni have delayed the coming of the moshiach ben david even more? Do you agree with this? Is this a mainstream ultra-orthodox/haredi view?

NC said...

"Consider that zionism changed the definition of Judaism from religion to nationality."

Shalmo-- to a great degree that is what secular Zionism attempted. Nationality, in the modern sense. The orthodox Jews at the time Zionism for this reason.
But even before Zionism Jews referred to themselves as an "am", a nation.

jewish philosopher said...

If someone no longer observes gypsy customs I don't know why he would call himself a gypsy.

I think that ultra-orthodox have never endorsed violence since the failure of the bar kochba rebellion.

Gentiles have a soul, although very diminished.

NC said...

If you have a soul theory of life, including who has one and which kind, please provide details so this theory can be tested. For example, how can we check to see if a gentile has a "dimished" soul? How can we detect the presence or absence of a soul, in say, a comatose person, or an animal?

You make many assertions about the nature of life based on your traditional sources. If, however, these assertions cannot be tested, measured, confirmed or disproven, then your assertion would be considered "dogma" and therefore you are not being rational. Rationalism means conclusions based on reason, logic and evidence, not on tradition. Tradition may be nice as a moral philosophy, but it has no bearing on objective reality. While absence of evidence is not proof that something does not exist, if one has an alternative theory that better explain observations, than we should prefer that.

Paley's watchmaker argument has long been disproven on this basis.

So you are free to reject evolution if you wish. You can believe that vaccines cause autism, or that the Jews conspired to bomb the WTC, or anything else. but if you do so there is nothing rational about your position.

And your "anti-conspiracy principle" or Kuzari argument is without merit. Such a "methodology" has never been recognized or claimed by any bona fide historian as a technique for studying or comfirming remote historical facts (other than by Jewish rabbis themselves...).

As you would say-- any sober and honest person, when looking at all of the facts objectively, then weighing the alternative theories as explainations of reality, would have to come to the conclusion that your Yahweh/soul theory of life is incorrect.

AA said...

"Let's say in the Second World War a private in the US Army switched sides and became a Nazi or General Eisenhower became a Nazi. Both are traitors, however Eisenhower's crime is far greater.

This is the difference between a gentile and a Jewish atheist."

A majority of Jews on this planet do not observe orthodox Judaism. While there is the halachic category of tinok shenishbah, many are not actively interested in pursuing a life of greater mitzvah observance. Why doesn't the holy soul of these Jews instantly cause them to adopt orthodox practice after encountering their local Chabad shaliach?

The "holy soul" is not just mentioned by the Ramchal, it's in much of the mystical literature, and one can even construct arguments that it is consistent with certain passages in the gemara, although I am not aware of an explicit Talmudic reference to a "holy soul." I'm looking, however, for empiric evidence that it exists amongst Jews.

Additionally, even those Jews who are ostensibly nourishing their holy souls with a life of Torah and mitzvahs seem to run afoul. In the suburb where I live (largely populated by gentiles, and non-orthodox Jews), there has not been a history of, say, rioting in the streets that you encounter in some of the Chareidi communities in Israel. I'm not saying that the people who live in my suburb are saints, but advancing the notion of a holy soul, particularly on a blog where plenty of non-O Jews, and gentiles visit, needs to be substantiated heavily by empiric facts(truthfully I question the wisdom of discussing such things in a public forum such as this, although the possibility of converting to Judaism and "acquiring" this holy soul mitigates against the charge of racism).

NC said...

Let’s play a rationalist’s game: What would you expect if….
What would you expect if…the soul theory of human consciousness was true?

1. Since the soul exists independently of the body, its manifestations, such as emotions, personality and thoughts should be unaffected by drugs, chemical brain states, or other physical factors. FALSE
2. The dead should be able to be resurrected. Not observed (by credible and verified source)
3. Somebody should have verifiably interacted with a soul in some way. Not observed.
4. Reincarnation should be possible. Not observed.
5. Prayer invoking a righteous person’s soul (such as tzaddik’s graves) should work better than a coin toss. Not seen.
6. Since a dead person’s soul would presumably have access to information not available to living beings (ie information that another person did not reveal before his death, or the conditions in the afterlife), we could expect to get unique information in this fashion. Not observed.

What would you expect if…the neurochemical evolutionary theory of human consciousness were true?
1. Consciousness, personality, emotions, behavior and thoughts would be profoundly affected by chemical or physical forces in the brain. Very frequently observed.
2. Genetically identical twins, even if separated at birth, would have remarkably similar psychological profiles. Well known observation.
3. Once tissue death occurs in the physical substance of the brain, no consciousness is possible. Well known medical fact.
4. Behavioral traits, emotions and consciousness should be observed in other closely related mammals. Observed throughout zoology.
5. Man’s psychological makeup would be adapted to the environment from a pre-industrial era, to which the human species has been exposed for most of its history. True (ie food seeking behaviors, revenge impulses, concepts about numbers, stereotyping, etc)

Now, based on what you would expect, which theory would you accept?

jewish philosopher said...

I think there is some confusion here about what the "soul" is.

The soul is not the same thing as the mind or the personality.

Rather the soul is a spiritual entity which causes us to feel that we are not our bodies. We see ourselves as inhabiting our bodies but we don't identify ourselves by it. This feeling begins with the smallest children and is universal culturally.

Additionally, the soul gives us free will. We all feel the freedom to make choices that are not determined by prior causes.

Our criminal justice system is based on the assumption that we have a soul. This is mentioned by a former dean of Harvard Law School Roscoe Pound in his introduction to "Cases on Criminal Law" by Francis B. Sayre (1927): "Historically, our substantive criminal law is based upon a theory of punishing the vicious will. It postulates a free agent confronted with a choice between doing right and doing wrong and choosing freely to do wrong."

The soul is mentioned in the Torah in Genesis 2:7 "Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

The special status of the Jewish soul I think is indicated in Deut. 14:2 "For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be His own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth."

The special Jewish soul does not influence the personality. It does however mean that Jews have far more spiritual responsibility and potential - potential to do damage or to cause benefit in the spiritual realm.

As far as the authority of the Torah is concerned, I don't see any reason to question it. It is obvious that purposefulness indicates intelligent design, as is taken for granted for example in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Living things include a very highly complex level of purposefulness, for example the eye, heart or knee or for that matter any organelle in any cell.

Once we accept the existence of God, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that He would have at some point appeared to mankind, to identify Himself and instruct us.

The Exodus is as well documented as the Peloponnesian War while there is as much evidence for Abraham and Moses are there is for Aristotle and Alexander the Great, as I've explained here.

not convinced said...

"Rather the soul is a spiritual entity which causes us to feel that we are not our bodies. We see ourselves as inhabiting our bodies but we don't identify ourselves by it. This feeling begins with the smallest children and is universal culturally. "

That feeling is exactly a description of consciousness.

There is no difference, and there is no evidence to think there is a difference.

jewish philosopher said...

Right. The soul causes us to be self concious while machines are not.

Anonymous said...


The brain is matter, but the mind has qualities that are not qualities of matter, so there must be something more to the mind than matter.

And we know from studying watches that complex systems cant make themselves.

And if the Torah is not divine in origin then someone went to the entire Jewish people and said to them "you have to accept the Torah as your authentic history because G-d spoke to your Grandfather" and nobody said "Then why didn't my grandfather tell me?"

fred said...


The jews have always called themselves a race.

Also if Judaism is simply a Religion, then wouldnt someone born to a non religious but Jewish by descent mother (or even one who converted to and is practicing another religion)have to convert in order to be considered Jewish?

fred said...

And also the Jews were a Nation before they got the Torah. If they weren't who was redeemed from Egypt? Modern Jews claim that they descended from that nation

jewish philosopher said...

The Jews are a spiritual community.

fred said...

"The Jews are a spiritual community."

As well as a nation.

Jews beleive they are descendents from a specific nation that started with Abraham, was led out of eygypt and then after all that given the Torah. Jews consider anyone decsended from a Jewish mother jewish no matter what religion they practice.

Therefore if a jew was brought up as christain and it was found out that his mother was jewish when he was an old man he would not have to convert in order to be considered a jew.

jewish philosopher said...

"As well as a nation."

I don't think the United Nations recognizes "Jew".

fred said...

They call the Jewish state "Israel". Either way what the U.N. recognizes or dosnt recognize has no bearing on who considers themselves and have been considered a seperate nation (as Jews have).

Also you havn't answered why according to you, if a somone was brought up as christain and it was found out that his mother was jewish when he was an old man he would not have to convert in order to be considered a jew.

jewish philosopher said...

Israelis are not all Jews and Jews are not all Israelis.

In this post I explain who is a Jew and why.

ade cohen said...

of course jewish is a race..absoultely and no doubt. im also have jewish nose even im indonesian with jewish descent.