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Shlomo Kalchstein (hereinafter SK) has proposed his
own version of the classical question concerning the so-called Jewish
uniqueness. In its usual form, the question is as follows. The Jews have
been living for over two millennia in the midst of many other nations. The
Jewish destiny is markedly different from theirs; even the very nature of
Jewish collective existence definitely bears different, distinctive traits.
What follows from this otherness, indestructibility, dissimilarity and mimicry?
Uniqueness? A chosen status? Irrationality? Perhaps the Jews are a living
testimony to divine intervention in human history? Or to our complete ignorance
of its laws?
breaks this classical question up into two.
he asks, how are we to define "Jewishness"? Is it a full-fledged, "sensory",
i.e. empirically perceivable human attribute, like race (akin, for example, to
belonging to the white or black race) or culture (as, for example, belonging to
the Far Eastern civilization)? In other words, is it an objective quality
largely independent of human will and consciousness, intrinsic to the Jews and
setting them apart from all others, and most importantly, one that can be
perceived, in theory at least, by an independent observer? Or is it merely man's
more or less conscious choice of his destiny, something like membership in a
political party or a club of like-minded individuals?
continues SK, let us assume for the moment that we should choose the first
answer to the first question (apparently, he views this as a probable or even
inevitable choice), that is, admit that "Jewishness" is a innate, inborn and
ineradicable quality of every Jew. What, then, is its "physical essence?" What
is its nature? Where does it come from?
is aware of the convoluted complexity of the objective in hand. Common sense,
frequently misleading yet indispensable in tight corners, plainly suggests that
Jewishness is not really a club (along the lines of a yacht-club, for example),
but something more profound, or, as SK puts it, intrinsic. It is not a
conscious choice that makes us Jewish -- and that's all there is to it. On the
other hand, it is not easy to isolate "Jewishness", that is to say the quality
that defines one as a Jew, a suitable rational yardstick. The Jews are hardly a
race; they not only lack distinctive anthropological traits, but they can be
incredibly diverse in this regard, belonging to every possible group, be it
Caucasians, Aryans, Semites of all kinds, Dravidians, Chinese -- not to mention the
fact that their ranks are constantly joined by proselytes who fit in quite
comfortably. Nor do the Jews constitute a distinct civilization 
-- for not only do they continually join others, but they become passionately
entrenched within them. What is even more important, it is particularly in
terms of civilizations that the Jews from Fez, Berdichev and Vienna (say, in
the late 19th century) had very little in common. Each of them
existed in his own (Moroccan, East European and West European respectively) cultural
space; what is more, their Jewish attributes were completely local.
Nevertheless, they certainly did have something in common -- though not race or
culture. What exactly was it? Since it is clear that neither of the two
rational answers proposed by SK fits, one is tempted to propose an answer that
is irrational -- at least in part. From this, it is a short step to arguments in
favor of Jewish uniqueness (who else wrestles with such an issue?), or even
will not split hairs over trifles. Thus, SK talks about innate Jewishness
("someone who is born Jewish by nature"). Yet of the two "innate" answers he
proposes to solve the Jewish issue, one -- the anthropological one -- indeed fits
the description, while the other-- the civilizational one -- clearly does not:
"civilization" is not acquired by birth, but rather by nurture. At the same
time, there is certainly a reason to group them together, for they meet a
criterion that is more crucial than that of "innateness" -- that is to say, they
do not depend on our choice, they are not a product of our conscious acts, they
are above us.
the other hand, this raises the pressing question of whether the entire
potential set of rational answers must be reduced to the two being proposed.
Could there not be a third? And another thing: are the basic premises so
self-evident? For example, are Jews and "Jewishness" really so immutable? At
the very least, have they really existed for over two millennia in an immutable
form? Will the sought for definition of "Jewishness" turn out to be timeless
and immanent? Could it be that "Jewishness" was transformed over time? Is it
all that obvious that the Jews have existed for millennia in one and the same
incarnation? Perhaps the course of Jewish history saw ethnic and cultural
exchanges that must be traced? Perhaps the only permanent element is the
these problems are sufficiently complex. In examining them, I will take the
following course. First I will provide relatively simple answers directly to
the questions raised by SK. Next I will attempt to dig a little deeper, giving
no quarter to the theories that have just been formulated. The theories,
strangely enough, will emerge largely intact, though somewhat deformed. I must
make an immediate proviso: the need to remain relatively brief rules out
beforehand any attempt to exhaust the topic. Such attempts obviously demand a
different format and other methods of research.
us therefore proceed from the simple to the complex.
Jews are indeed neither a club nor a party. "Jewishness" is not a game one
decides (or refuses) to play in addition to one's other occupations. It is a
real, tangible form of collective identification, as independent of one's
consciousness as anthropological or civilizational identity.
Jewish identity has nothing to with either. It is at one and the same time an
ethos and an etiology. It is at once simpler and more rigid.
this point I will not provide precise definitions, particularly since this is
far from an easy task. Let us therefore introduce a tentative (useful,
sufficient, but not quite precise) term: self-explanation. The Jews are united
not by biological or cultural features, but by a common collective
self-explanation, self-description, self-definition, a shared mythology -- in a
word, by their participation in a shared collective psychological game. A common
ethos -- no more and no less.
first glance, this explanation may be seen as disappointing. First, what makes
identification through an ethos different from the usual cultural one? Second,
it does not seem to contain the expected specifically Jewish features: others
also play ethos games. Third, it would appear that the Jews "amount to
themselves" -- they way the depict themselves is the way they are. Where, then,
is the objective, let alone unique, component?
we have serious reasons for disappointment. No modern nation exists exclusively
or even mainly by virtue of its ethos. Nowadays, ethos is by and large an attic
used by a people  to store its
phobias and secret desires, rather than a house in which it lives. The French
are by no means a collective united by shared memory of the Gauls; they are
rather an undisputable sum total of their history and culture, a functional
unit that has earned and won its unity. The Italians or the Greeks, who, up
until the modern era, had quite a few problems with self-identity (which were far from
only political), exist and function as a unified whole not by virtue of
myth-inspired reminiscences but rather in spite of them. Jewish identity indeed
looks odd against today's multinational background; it must be stressed,
however, that it has absolutely nothing unique, let alone unprecedented. On the
contrary, we are dealing with an old and far from forgotten phenomenon -- that
of classically tribal identification -- a phenomenon navigated by the collective
predecessors of all modern nations. It is practiced to this day in every corner
of the world, usually in a slightly bastardized form. At the same time, it has
become somewhat passé in the Western world, which is made up almost exclusively
of fully formed nations .
However, these nations are the products of relatively recent social evolution.
The first European nation in the modern sense of the word is considered to be
the French, who emerged as such into the spotlight of history 600-700 years
ago. Until the Hundred Year War, the territory of today's France was inhabited
by numerous intricately organized and badly degenerated (or, rather,
regenerated) feudal tribal alliances in vigorous search of a new type of
collective unity. The other European nations are certainly even younger.
Jews come across as an ethnic curiosity against the backdrop of today's West,
above all because they have managed to retain to this day a purely tribal
identity, one that allows them to remain "strangers in their native land, and
natives among strangers" to the considerable amazement of their socially more
advanced neighbors. However, North American Indians, Australian aborigines, and
many other tribal ethic groups would look exactly the same if relocated to
is something worth a thought. The North American Indians were divided (and
still are, strangely enough, but we are not going to discuss contemporary
Indian realities) into numerous tribes and tribal alliances. To avoid
misunderstanding, let us recall that tribes A, B and C existed alongside one
another. Obviously, those were strictly delineated, rigidly formed entities.
Each tribe had a clear-cut definition of itself, and this definition was
recognized by the neighboring tribes. Every Indian could be unmistakably
identified as a member of a specific tribe ;
the tribes existed for hundreds of years, had their external policies, and
occasionally warred with one another. In a word, in all their diversity, they
were completely real. The question is, what makes them different from one
a few of them (the very ones that are of interest to us, in fact) were
virtually indistinguishable from one another, both in terms of anthropology and
civilization. They belonged to the same race and the same anthropological
group, the same civilization and even the same culture. They spoke the same
language. They could barely be seen to contain any objective differences whatsoever,
for their customs and even mythologies were similar. Essentially, the only
element that set them apart was their narrative, their self-explanation. One
tribe originated from the beaver, another from the owl. Some were related to a
lake, others to a river. There were no objective differences between them; the
self-explanations they had devised were isomorphic. In fact, none of them would
have devised narratives of their own had there not been other tribes and
narratives; thus their self-explanations were intended primarily to encourage
tribal isolation, insularity, exclusivity. Each of these tribes produced its
own reference point within the same space, its own ethos, one among countless
others, and mainly in order to explain its singularity, its incompatibility,
its distinctiveness. This alone proved sufficient to give birth to the Indian
ethno-genesis. But is it unique to the Indians? Could it be that it applies to
all tribal entities in general, including, of course, the Jewish?
identification (TI) has two wonderful qualities. First, it is metaphysical, and
thus simple and stable, producing enduring collectives and capable of
withstanding erosion. Second, it is rigidly fashioned for a specific set of
social relations -- a set we are very familiar with from thousands of examples.
As a consequence, it is inimical to and incompatible with palpable progress.
The American Indian society could not give birth to a historical state without
transforming and distorting its nature, without undergoing a social revolution.
No wonder: a state grows out of a tribe the way a chick hatches from its egg.
They cannot coexist: the egg and the tribe not only give rise to the chicken
and the state, they perish when their time is up. In the same manner, the Jewish
society formed during the Talmudic and post-Talmudic eras (and this in contrast
to earlier Jewish states -- but I am getting ahead of myself), the Kahal,
having returned to archaic, prehistoric TI, proved so enduring -- and so
unsuited to state existence, social evolution, in fact to all the historical
processes of the modern era. When we compare it once again to the American
Indian tribal units, the mechanism of Jewish existence and survival -- as well
as historical Jewish impotence -- becomes completely transparent. In order for
Jewish collectives to awaken from their historical slumber and reach out for
the political and social structures of the modern era, TI and the tribal,
kahal-based collective structure had to collapse. Zionism, which had managed to
bring this about, has played the same civilizing role as that performed
twenty-two centuries ago by the Hasmoneans, who briefly restored the Jews,
stagnating in their tribal hierocracy, to history -- and paid a heavy price for
doing so. There was a reason why the Talmud, which either returned the Jews to
the bosom of tribal system or depicted this return, denounced the Hasmoneans as
usurpers who misappropriated the throne of David, a throne that was meant to
remain empty until the end of days. Essentially, the Talmud condemned the
historical experiment staged by the Hasmoneans, who helped the Jews regain
their taste for politics and statehood.
so, allow me to sum up my answers to the questions posed by SK.
"Jewishness" is a completely objective quality that unifies and defines the
Jewish collective. It is neither physical nor biological nor anthropological.
Nor is it cultural in the usual sense of the word -- if we use the likes of the
French or Chinese culture for our point of reference. On the other hand, it is
not a conscious decision to "be a Jew" made by an individual, similar to
joining a party or a club .
One is not born a Jew, the same as one is not born French. However, if a person
is made French (through an adaptive process) by the objectively existing French
cultural environment, the Jew becomes a Jew and exists as a Jew independently
of his actual culture. Thus he can be reared in the French culture and adapt to
it without becoming French as a result.
The mechanism that transmits "Jewishness" is simple -- it is the Jewish TI, the
Jewish tribal ethos. It easily accommodates itself to any anthropological,
cultural and physical environment; it is durable and lasting -- yet absolutely
incompatible with modern-day statehood and collective social skills. See tribal
societies in general.
in fact, is all there is to it.
 May we be
forgiven by Mordechai Kaplan. His speculations regarding Jewish civilization
are a typical case of wishful thinking, or more precisely an attempt at
self-explanation. As a matter of fact, self-explanations are exactly the topic
of our further discussion.
 Or a nation.
Let us assume for the sake of discussion that a nation is a people with a
historically determined need for its own state or territorial autonomy. Let us
assume that a people is a meta-ethnic or meta-tribal collective (whose
boundaries only seldomly and accidentally run along the exact lines of the
ethnos), whose culture, functions and structure were formed in response to
countless social, economic, ecological and other challenges in historical
times. We should also come up with a name for a collective that outgrows the
functional need for a national state. If no one does so in the near future, I
will give this topic some thought -- but in another article.
regarded as passé today are the countless non-monotheistic religions -- as if
the entire range of human beliefs has from time immemorial been reduced to
Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Euro-centrism, exacerbated by the absolute
status accorded to the drama and conflict we have experienced, often places us
in an awkward position.
 I believe
that this feature of tribal society merits a closer look. The tribe possesses a
clear -- by virtue of being metaphysical rather than anthropological or cultural
-- definition, and thus stable boundaries. Any individual can be definitely
(even if only theoretically) grouped with a particular tribe. One cannot be
"part Sioux" or "half-Sioux" (even though one can certainly have a Sioux father
and a Chinese mother) -- for tribal identity is absolute, and certainly not a
product of biology or lifestyle. The same holds for the authentic Jew partaking
of the flesh of tradition, for any person is in truth, i.e. in the eyes
of heavens, either Jewish or not, even if we ourselves do not always have the
right answer. This, incidentally, accounts for the so-called giyur le'humra
("conversion just in case"), a practice applied in disputed instances, which
makes no sense to any sane observer unless he is a Jew or an ethnographer. On
the other hand, the French people has no rigid formal boundaries, so that not
every person can be defined as French or not -- in fact, one can be part-French
or a member of an affiliated culture. Thus, on France's eastern border the
French ethnos seamlessly melts into a German one (I deliberately oversimplify),
with no one bothered by this. A Chinese is certainly not French -- but what
about an Alsatian? It could be anyone's guess; after all, being French is not a
metaphysical quality by any means. I cannot swear at this point that the
aforementioned principle of ethno-metaphysical purity is a logically
sufficient means of determining the tribal character of a collective, but the
necessary pre-requisite is there: a tribe whose ethnic boundaries are eroded is
no longer a tribe and is on the way to becoming obsolete.
 In fact, the
last option can hardly be called conscious -- after all, in order to join a club
this club must exist, which inevitably raises the question of where it came
from and what exactly it is.