Archive for November, 2013

Jew or Judaist?

November 6, 2013

I recently read a book titled The Story of Ain’t, by David Skinner. It is not, to be sure, a history of the word ain’t. Even the subtitle, America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, doesn’t tell the full story, since the book isn’t really very much about language; it’s the story of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, how it came to be and the critical reception that it received. A good deal of the book consists of biographical sketches of the personalities involved in both the creation and the critique, and most prominent among the latter is Dwight Macdonald.

I have a fond memory of Dwight Macdonald. When I was young I was a devoted reader of Esquire, of which he was the film critic at the time, and I found him to be a most reliable critic: if he liked a movie I could be sure that I wouldn’t like it, and vice versa. Skinner likewise shows his criticisms of Webster’s Third, though skilfully argued, to be generally misguided. Other personality traits show up as well. Here is a quote (pp. 40–41):

He reviewed people, just as he reviewed books and sermons. In 1925, to a girlfriend of Dinsmore’s [Dinsmore Wheeler, a friend of his], he addressed a particularly vicious diatribe made all the worse by the smug vanity of its literary style: “I missed in you a certain dignity, an aloofness and sense of personal pride that I fancy is the sign of the lady…. Humility is one of the Christian virtues, but, as G. K. Chesterton paradoxically points out, humility is merely pride carried to a splendid extreme.”

Speaking of religion: “And then too there was the fact that you are a Jewess, and are rather obviously one, to make me react unfavorably. For I dislike rather intensely the Jews as a race.”

Now, while the first paragraph refers to Christian virtues, for the life of me I can’t find any reference to religion in the latter. It seems to me that Skinner succumbs to the common fallacy of thinking “religion” whenever he sees a reference to Jews. As did, for example, Russell Brand in his notorious rant on Hugo Boss, in which he referred to the Nazis as “killing people on the basis of their religion.” True, the Nazis did kill some people on the basis of their religion, namely, Jehovah’s Witnesses; according to Wikipedia, “[a]bout 2000 Witnesses were eventually sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by purple triangles; as many as 1200 died in custody, including 250 who were executed.” But somehow I don’t think that this was what Brand had in mind.

The Nazi persecution of Jews had nothing to do with their religion, but with their race, just as Macdonald disliked the Jews “as a race.” The conflation of Jews as a people with Judaism as a religion may have been valid before the end of the 18th century, but it stopped being so once Jews moved outside the ghetto and began to assimilate. It was then that the religion-based anti-Judaism of the Christian churches was complemented by the race-based anti-Semitism. The difference between them is profound. In the eyes of the Church, conversion to Christianity (if genuine) clears one of the Judaic taint. To the anti-Semite, on the other hand, a convert (like Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn, or Benjamin Disraeli) or child of converts (like Karl Marx) was still a Jew.

The term anti-Semitic seems to have been coined originally to describe the ideas of the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan, who was profoundly anti-Muslim and anti-Arab; he described Islam as embodying “the dreadful simplicity of the Semitic spirit” (l’épouvantable simplicité de l’esprit sémitique).   In Germany, on the other hand – which, unlike France (ruling Algeria), had no direct contact with the Arab world – it was the Jews who were the “Semitic” race. At the time race tended to be identified with ancestral language. Thus, native speakers of Indo-European languages were “Aryan” (since the Aryan, or Indo-Iranian, branch of Indo-European was considered its oldest), and since Hebrew, the ancestral language of the Jews, is Semitic, the Jews were Semites. (Renan did not regard the Jews as being racially Semitic, and was generally pro-Jewish.)

As a Jew who, like most of us, is not religious, I believe that it’s time to create a distinction between Jewishness as an ethnicity and Judaism as a religion. For this reason I propose to use the word Judaist  instead of Jew as meaning “one who believes and practices Judaism” (just as a Buddhist is one who believes and practices Buddhism). The definition is not mine; it comes, word for word, from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913). A similar one is found in the Oxford English Dictionary: “one who follows or favours Jewish practice or ritual,”  with the additional definitions “a Judaizer; esp. in Church Hist. used of Jewish Christians of the apostolic age.” And while the verb judaize, from late Latin jūdaizāre (Vulgate) and from Greek ἰουδαΐζειν (Galatians 2:14), was generally applied to the practices of the early Christians (the King James Bible renders it as “live as do the Jews”), the medieval Church used it to describe the secret practices of false converts.

I will therefore identify myself, from now on, as a Jew but not a Judaist. I would also suggest that a similar distinction be adopted in Israel, with יהודי (Yehudi) meaning ‘Jew’ and יהדותי (Yahaduti) meaning ‘Judaist,’ since יהדות (Yahadut) means ‘Judaism. This would help settle the ancient question of  ‘Who is a Jew?

It should be very simple to introduce analogous words in other languages.

The distinction can have other uses. With it, a Jew can adopt a religion other than Judaism and continue to identify as a Jew, as did, for example, a noted Catholic prelate, Cardinal Lustiger.

Conversely, while people who convert to Judaism usually join a Jewish community and thus become Jews, this doesn’t have to be the case. As a famous example, the Khazars who converted to Judaism did not thereby become Jews; they became Judaists.