What Are They?

Modernity and Jewish Self-understanding

What exactly are the Jews? The question baffles the layperson and the scholar alike. If we define them as adherents to a religion, then how can there be Jews who are secular (as most in America are)? And why all the signs of ethnicity—the resistance to intermarriage, the characteristic foods and modes of humor, and the focus on the State of Israel, for example? But if we define the Jews as an ethnic group or race, then why all the religious practices and institutions? And what are we to make of the possibility that a gentile can become Jewish, whereas a white person, for example, cannot become black? If, building upon the importance of the State of Israel, we define the Jews essentially as a nation-state, how shall we account for the fact that most of them do not live there and about 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, in turn, are not Jewish? When it comes to the Jewish people, our convenient categories fail us.

In How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, $27.95, 224 pp.), Leora Batnitzky, one of the foremost scholars of modern Jewish thought, shows that the problem is one that Jewish thinkers themselves have pondered for about two and a half centuries. It is, she demonstrates, characteristic of modernity itself. Earlier, “Judaism and Jewishness were all these at once: religion,...

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About the Author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and the author, most recently, of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press).