Judaism has traditionally been much more than just a religious faith. It has been a national or ethnic religion; the concepts of religion and peoplehood are so intertwined in traditional Judaism that one cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. Jews conceived of themselves as the descendants of the biblical patriarchs. Their prayers constantly repeat phrases like "our God and God of our fathers," "who has done miracles for our ancestors," and "who has taken us out of Egypt" -- all of them implying physical descent from the ancient Israelites. Even when early Christianity rejected Judaism and claimed to have superseded it, it still referred to the Jews and "Israel of the flesh" (and to itself as "Israel of the spirit").
Modern Zionism, too, is based in part on the assumption that modern Jewry is the physical descendant of ancient Jewry. The establishment of the State of Israel is therefore a reestablishment. The Jews are not "settling"; they are "returning" to their ancient homeland. For the religious among them, Israel is the land that God promised to their ancestors and is now giving to them.
Yet traditional Jewish views have never totally relied on physical ancestry. The legal definition of a Jew, according to tradition, was the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism. Either background would entitle one to be considered fully Jewish. The consensus of the rabbis was that a convert had the right to refer to God's having "done miracles for our ancestors." A convert was considered the descendant of Abraham and Sarah, the first Israelites. Descent could be symbolic as well as physical.
I've been thinking of the implications of these words off and on since I read them the other day. In the past I have heard of "Jews for Jesus" or "Messianic Jews"...basically those who are Jewish by birth yet, unlike the majority, accepted Jesus as their Messiah. Some Jewish groups say there is no such thing. Jewishness is so attached to the religion of Judaism that if you follow Jesus or convert to Islam, I get the impression that you are no longer considered a Jew to them. Yet I read the Bible and for me a Jew is one who is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So is Jewishness a physical line which one cannot break no matter which religion he follows? Or does one have to follow Judaism and your ancestry is null and void if you don't? Following the religion-over-physical-descent argument -- what about the thousands of Jews who aren't religious at all? A number of Israelis consider themselves atheists and in fact many of the Zionist leaders of the 1900s mocked the Old Testament "fables"! To them it was only useful in rallying the Jewish populations under the cry of "Didn't God promise us this land? Well, let's go claim it!" (Apparently, it mattered little to them that God also told them to treat the strangers living in their land as brothers as they remembered they, too, were once strangers in Egypt.) If you are not religious, is your Jewishness then suspect along with those Jews who follow Jesus or Muhammad?
Can one be like Peter, Paul and John and consider themselves Jewish, physical descendants of Abraham, and followers of Jesus Christ? According to the traditional definition of Jewishness, you can! As long as your mother was a Jew, you are Jewish no matter the religion you follow. Still I know of some who consider "Jewish Christian" to be wrong. To them it's two faiths (like a Muslim Christian or Hindu Muslim) and can one person have two faiths? But if we consider Jewishness as an ethnicity or nationality like Arabs or Chinese or Germans or British then yes, Jewish Christian makes perfect sense.
Also how different is it for Jewishness to be passed by mothers instead of fathers? I am curious now what other nationalities are this way. I hear way too much of the "I am X because my father is." Doesn't matter if the mother is something else entirely, but what the father is seems to dominate. I hear of Saudi Arabian women for example who are not able to pass along citizenship to their own children while Saudi men's offspring are automatically Saudi. I know they are not the only ones.
The part about descent being symbolic as well as physical and then the talk of Christianity before that made me wonder: if you grew up Christian or are one now - what do you understand concerning the promises of God to Abraham and this being physical, symbolic, spiritual or what (if anything)?
Do you think a strong case can be made for the Jews merely coming back to their ancient homeland in regard to the Israeli state today or do you argue that they had no right to this land because God took it away from them and dispersed them into foreign lands because of their sinful ways? Or maybe you have other thoughts to share about this topic. Please do.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything mentioned in this post.