For many years I have read Professor Neusner’s polemics with profit and delight. I have marveled at his skill in combining an arcane discipline with provocative rhetoric. Despite this respect, I nonetheless find myself disagreeing with Neusner’s November essay (“Jews Without Judaism“) about “irreligious” Jews. For one thing, it is problematic to treat Jews like a Christian creedal community. Jews as a group have never been bound primarily (and certainly not now) by individual adherence to theological doctrine. They have always defined themselves as a nation {am yisrael) to which one belongs first by blood ties and then by the performance of communal rituals.

Spinoza, whom Neusner cites, makes a similar observation in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, where he contrasts the ethnic and collectivist aspects of the Old Testament to the individualist and universalist New Testament. Though certain exceptions can be found in prophetic Judaism (as Spinoza himself noted), Spinoza’s contrast between Jews and Christians seems generally true. Jewish concerns are for the fate of a national community that is held together partly by ritual obligations traced to divine revelation and rabbinic commentary. Christians, in contrast, stress the salvation of individual souls, achieved by faith in the redemptive promise of a personal savior. They also understand this promise in terms of creedal symbols and confessional statements which define membership in specific Christian communions. Undoubtedly aware of this difference between Jews and Christians, Elliott Abrams makes a case for Jewish ritual observance on non-theological ethnic grounds, i.e., to keep Jews from intermarrying and assimilating in a friendly American environment. The same concerns are now regularly used by the Orthodox Rabbinic Council of America to recruit members for their congregations and schools. Such concerns are understandable given the identitarian and territorial nationalism which is integral to Jewish life.

National communities, united by ritual, are different from collections of individual believers. The agnostic founders of the state of Israel were good Jews motivated by love of Israel (ahavath yisrael)—or so I was told by Talmud instructors in an Orthodox school I attended. And although Norman Podhoretz may not accept the theological formulation that Professor Neusner wishes to use to define Jews, the orthodox Yeshivah University awarded Podhoretz (undoubtedly for his Zionist zeal) an annual award for outstanding Jewish service. Alan Dershowitz has also received multiple awards from Jewish organizations for his devotion to the Jewish community. Outside of transplanted ultra-orthodox Eastern European settlements, Dershowitz’s theological improprieties do not upset very many of his fellow Jews.

Another problem with Neusner’s restrictive definition is quantitative. How observant must a Jew be to qualify as such under his standard? While some Jews keep fewer biblical and rabbinic commandments than Rabbi Neusner, others keep more. Do these Jews have a right to declare Neusner non-Jewish by virtue of nonobservance in the same way he challenges the Jewish identity of Alan Dershowitz?

But Professor Neusner’s most startling proposition is that “Jewish ethnicity” has been discovered only recently, both as a response to, and a symptom of, declining Jewish religiosity. In A People That Shall Dwell Alone, psychologist Kevin MacDonald cites the copious Jewish restrictions placed on intermarriage since the age of Ezraand Nehemiah. Despite the reductionist nature of his thesis that Judaism is a “genetic strategy,” MacDonald does demonstrate the ethnic and genetic concern shaping these prohibitions. Like Japanese Shintoists, Indian Parsees, and Armenian Oriental Orthodox, Jews have refrained from contacts with outsiders for ethnic (as well as other) reasons. Growing up in a traditional Central European Jewish community in the United States, I would have had to be cognitively challenged not to notice this fact. The members of my community married only those with “Jewish blood.” Though a gentile, MacDonald seems to understand this Jewish fear of miscegenation as well as I did as a child, which is why neither of us is surprised that Jewish ethnicity has survived the disappearance of Jewish ritual observance.

        —Paul Gottfried
Elizabethtown, PA

Dr. Neusner Replies:

Professor Gottfried accurately portrays the viewpoint of the sources that he believes should define “Judaism,” and I do the same with mine. The question is, who has identified the definitive sources for the definition of Judaism, the religion? He invokes Spinoza, who was declared a heretic by the rabbis of Amsterdam. My definition derives from the Torah of Sinai, oral and written, which guided the rabbis of Amsterdam in their rejection of Spinoza. They had good reason. The sages of the Torah define “Israel” as a holy people who worship the one true God, and were called by God to Sinai. In other words, Israel is a community of faith, comparable to the Church, “the mystical body of Christ,” as my colleague Bruce D. Chilton and I have shown in Christianity and Judaism: the Formative Categories. II. The Body of Faith: Israel and Church (Trinity Press International). By this definition of “Israel,” deriving from the authoritative writings of the Torah, we deal with a religious community. Gottfried maintains there is no such religion as “Judaism,” only a sociology, a politics, an ethnic culture. He speaks of ethnic customs and ceremonies, but the Torah speaks of God’s commandments and the sanctification of Israel. On the question of Judaism as a religion he is wrong, and the authoritative sources of the Torah show how and why he is wrong.

But he is right, too, when he maintains that the Jews as a whole do not practice Judaism; some practice another religion, whether Buddhism or Christianity, and many practice none. Secular Jews therefore do not define Judaism, and Judaism does not dictate the opinions or practices of secular Jews. A Jew who does not believe in God and who does not accept the Torah, oral and written, as God’s teaching, does not carry out commandments but mere customs, and his opinions are not statements of that religion. He may be a “good Jew” in some other context, by some other definition, but as an atheist, he cannot be deemed a faithful part of holy Israel, God’s people, who meet and know God in the Torah. Professor Gottfried knows enough of the classical sources of Judaism to find in those sources ample evidence for the statements here set forth.

I do not mean to suggest that secular definitions of the Jews or of Israel or of “Judaism” do not compete with the religious one. The ethnic definition speaks of “the Jews,” and refers to a community of fate, not of faith; to a group characterized by common traits or sentiments; or to an individual who regards himself as Jewish by some other criterion altogether. Some ethnics will invoke the Nuremberg definition of 1935; a single Jewish grandparent suffices. The political definition speaks of “Israel” as “the State of Israel,” and it derives from Zionism, which defined the Jews as not only “a people, one people,” but also as a political entity. The issue, then, is not settled by someone’s declaration of who is a “good Jew.” That is irrelevant to rigorous thought, based on clear categories and proportionate evidence. Theology, sociology, and politics frame matters in accord with a particular logic. The confusion of Gottfried’s discourse, its appeal to heresy in place of theological norm, its introduction of distinctions (“collectivist/ Old Testament” vs. “individualist/ New Testament”) that have no standing in contemporary scholarship, its argument from cases—and rather weird examples at that (Dershowitz indeed!)—all of this will stand corrected upon further reflection on his part.

So the issue is not “Jewish identity.” A Jew by the law of Judaism is the child of a Jewish mother, and however he may sin by the definition of the Torah, he never ceases to be “Israel,” in the Torah’s definition. And judged by the Torah (written and oral), holy Israel, God’s people, is not answerable to Kevin MacDonald, Alan Dershowitz, or Elliott Abrams, but only to God, who, happily, reveals Himself in the Torah as infinitely merciful and possessed of a good sense of humor and the patience to sit through age old arguments about the definition of Israel.