Q. I know you must have been asked a thousand times, but what is a Jew?
A. The problem is that there is no one word which completely answers the question. Countless attempts have been made, of course. Religion is a crucial element, but so is peoplehood. Some call the Jews a nation, understood in a historical and cultural sense (though Theodor Herzl said rather cynically that a nation is a group of people who have a common enemy). There is a popular habit of saying that the Jews are a race, but this view has no scientific basis.
In modern times one of the most useful approaches was that of Dr Nahum Goldmann, for many years president of the World Jewish Congress, who said, “There is a tendency, especially in the United States, to equate the Jewish religion with others, forgetting that the Jewish people itself was never solely a religious group, but that its uniqueness expresses its combination of peoplehood, religion and the bearer of a total civilisation”.
Another modern writer, the historian Dubnow, called the Jews “a spiritual nation” based on a “creative principle” that combines “religious, moral or philosophical ideals whose exponent at all times was the Jewish people”, together with historical memories and Judaism still has contributions to make to history.