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We are a People, not a Faith

April 29, 2015 – 12:03 pm9 Comments
Emblem of The Tribe Motorcycle Club of Seattle

Emblem of The Tribe Motorcycle Club

By Anthony Frosh
It’s time that we as Jews change the language around Jewish identity. We need to stop letting ourselves be classified as a religious, or even worse, a faith group.  It is fairly self evident to anyone who understands the nature of the Jewish people that we are a tribe, or a collective or related tribes, far more akin to how one would classify Indigenous Australians, rather than Christendom or the collective of Islam.

Yes, our tribal collective has a religion, Judaism, unique to its members. However, not all members of the tribe significantly practice the religion. And even then, many or even most of those who do practice the religion do so primarily from the desire for continuity of tradition, rather than from faith. Indeed, Judaism emphasizes behavioural aspects over belief, especially when compared to Christianity which emphasises the importance of belief/faith in Christ over behavioural aspects, particularly ritual observance.  I have heard it said by a very learned and well known rabbi/scholar that Judaism is not really a religion (in the Christian or Islamic sense); rather, it’s a relationship with a text, and dare I say it, a magnificent relationship that should continue l’olam va’ed , forever and ever.

Regardless of how you describe Judaism, it is clear that Jewish identity and the Jewish people are larger than their religion.  There are far more conceptual parallels between Jewish Australians and various tribal/cultural/ethnic groups than with Christian Australians.   Let’s look at two diverse examples.  Along with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, Greeks have a unique religious denomination, Greek Orthodox, to which Greek Australians might or might not practice to varying degrees. But who would seriously describe the Greek community in Australia as a religious or faith group?  I am sure there are many Indigenous Australians today who participate in the various tribal rituals and religious practices of their rich cultural tradition, but do not necessarily literally believe in animism.  Hence, no one would classify them as a religion or faith group.

You might ask what need is there to correct the common misconception that the Jewish people are a religious group.  For one thing, as the fallout from the Enlightenment continues until this day, religion has come to be seen in ever more marginalised terms. Fairly or unfairly, religion and faith are often seen as the spectral opposites of science and reason.

I’m not proposing that we should reframe the public understanding of Jewish identity purely for marketing purposes.  Rather, we should reframe the public understanding because it is currently a misunderstanding. The fact that correcting this misunderstanding will result in better marketing merely provides another compelling reason to do so.

As an example, in the future, it will become increasingly more difficult to have what is, erroneously termed (in the case of UJEB, for example) “religious” education programs in government schools.  The programs UJEB run are not even close to a parallel of the programs run by Christian groups in state schools. In state run institutions, the door will likely open for “cultural” education (which is better description of most Jewish education) as the door for “religious” education closes.

Another area that will benefit from reframing the wider community’s understanding of Jewish identity is outreach.  There are many completely assimilated or disaffiliated Jews, who by nature of their complete assimilation, share the wider community’s misunderstanding of Jewish identity.  Since they think being Jewish means “believing in stuff” that they don’t really believe in, they allow their Jewish identity to whither.  Reframing their understanding of Jewish identity as a result of reframing the wider community’s understanding will do no harm in terms of rekindling their interest in their heritage.

Finally, as I’m sure some people are thinking this, “what about converts?”  As the old sales adage goes, “I’m glad you asked!”  Rabbi Daniel Gordis and other wise Jewish thinkers have argued that conversion used to be more about one’s willingness to throw one’s lot in with the Jewish people.  Think of the biblical Ruth, for example.  In recent times, conversion has become about the ability to pass exams (increasingly ridiculous exams in the case of the Melbourne Beth Din).  We need to put the emphasis back on a prospective convert’s willingness to throw one’s lot in with tribe, and away from their ability to memorise an enormous amount of information that most Jews-from-birth would have severe trouble remembering off the top of their heads, if they ever knew the content in the first place.

So next time you hear someone use the term religion or faith to describe the Jewish people, or boil Jewish identity down to a matter of belief, I hope you will politely but assuredly educate them as to their misunderstanding.

Anthony Frosh runs a consumer and social research consultancy.

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  • Toby says:

    God underpins all of Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish identity. Not all Jews believe in God. However most do, or at least participate alongside those who do.

    In the absence of God there would be no Judaism, no Jewish culture and no Jewish identity. The very existence of God is pivotal to all of this.

    If you accept the above, then it requires faith to accept God, because without faith there would be no God and by extension, no Judaism.

    So to the point, that you object to the Jewish people being labelled a faith community, you are denying what it actually is, namely a community that exists in name only because of faith. Take away the faith, take away the God, and you no longer have any reason for a community.

  • frosh says:

    Toby, to quote your own second sentence:
    “Not all Jews believe in God.”
    That alone would prove my point.

    However, not only is your above statement true, but most Jews who do believe in God believe different things and practice different things which may or may not be a result of that theological belief. Given that we recognise them all as Jews regardless of their beliefs, we cannot correctly categorise the Jewish people as a faith group.

  • R B says:

    The idea of replacing religion, as the core of Jewish identity, with a more contemporary and attractive core, is not new. Unfortunately, it works only in theory.

    Zionism aimed at replacing the religious Jewish identity with a national, secular one. This idea was born at the late 19th century when the nationalism was trendy in European social and political thinking. More than 100 years later, is this identity sustainable? The rate of assimilation among Israeli expats is 80%, second among all Jewish groups (Russian Jewry is the first). Their kids will not be Jews not only Halachically, but also practically, as they do not have much connection, if at all, with the Jewish communities where they live, to which they are alienated.

    Progressive Judaism aimed at creating a contemporary and attractive version of Judaism, an idea which became popular especially in USA. These communities are gradually vanishing, due to a high assimilation rate. Some claim that within a few decades, most American Jewry will be Orthodox.


  • frosh says:

    Sorry R B,

    But what you’ve written has no relevance to my article.

    I’m NOT arguing to change any aspect of Judaism or indeed Jewish culture.

    I’m only arguing that we correct a misunderstanding of what the Jewish people are, and what it means to be a Jew.

  • nomi katz says:

    I agree with your last comment Frosh. The Jewish people are a diverse entity and absolutely many of no faith (some my best friends!) consider themselves part of the tribe. But would that tribe be sustainable if you removed faith? I somehow doubt it. Nomi.

  • R B says:


    I think my comment was relevant.

    You aim at “correcting a misunderstanding of what the Jewish people are” – that is exactly what Zionism did, understanding the Jews as a nation rather then a religion, and focusing on the national identity, putting aside – and in some cases, eliminating at all – the religious one.
    While such an identity is quite sustainable in Israel (although eroding recently), it is totally not sustainable overseas, as I claimed.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Nomi,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my article, and asking a really good question:

    “would that tribe be sustainable if you removed faith?”

    I think it probably would NOT be sustainable in the long term, and I certainly don’t discourage people from faith (nor do I make any comment about my own faith – that’s a different question, and a far more personal one). I think there is a role for faith, an important role in fact; however, for most people for the whom consensus deems part of the Jewish people, faith (in the Christian sense) is not the primary motivation for maintaining their Jewish identity.

  • Nathan Marks says:

    Here’s a passage from Wikipedia in relation to ‘faith’ from a Jewish perspective:

    The proper counterpart for the general English term “faith” -as occurring in the expression “principles of faith”- would be the concept of Emunah[1] in Judaism. The concept of Emunah, while in general translated as faith or trust in God, is described as “an innate conviction, a perception of truth that transcends (..) reason.”[1] Emunah can be enhanced further by the help of wisdom, knowledge, understanding and learning of sacred Jewish writings. But Emunah is not simplistically based on reason nor can it be understood as an opposite or contrast to it.

    Faith may not be the most familiar word to a Jewish ear but nevertheless the concept exists. Perhaps we oughtn’t dwell on the semantics but rather, look to the underlying principle.

  • letters in the age says:

    They’re jewed out….and that’s a failure of the school system that places SO much emphasis on identity

    It should be more organic.

    Where would you put someone like Mia Freedman in this context…?

    Many prominent Jews have already moved on and are redefining themselves in a modern world

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