Who Are the Jews―And Who Can We Become?

By – November 8, 2023

This book brave­ly chal­lenges age-old ques­tions about what it means to be a Jew, what has it meant to be a Jew his­tor­i­cal­ly, and what the future of Judaism might hold.

To tack­le such a broad-rang­ing top­ic, Don­niel Hart­man employs what he calls a metas­to­ry” based on Scrip­ture. He dis­tin­guish­es between Gen­e­sis Judaism, Judaism that’s born of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Jew regard­less of reli­gious or the­o­log­i­cal beliefs, and Exo­dus Judaism, which is com­mand­ment-focused and stems from ideals of belief and behavior.

Hart­man rec­og­nizes that this is a heuris­tic device, but it is one that enables him to cast an eye back­ward toward ancient and mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry. It also allows him to focus on the present and pro­pose an aspi­ra­tional vision for the future. He argues that Judaism is strongest when all of these aspects are in play.

One of the great strengths of the book is Hartman’s knowl­edge of Jew­ish life in North Amer­i­ca and Israel. He acknowl­edges, for exam­ple, that twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish life in North Amer­i­ca is evolv­ing. In an age of inter­mar­riage and blur­ring of tra­di­tion­al gen­der bound­aries, North Amer­i­can Jews can find new ways to flour­ish, with­in both the Gen­e­sis and Exo­dus modes of being Jewish.

Hart­man address­es the com­plex issue of iden­ti­ty in Israel as well. He sees the broad-brush dis­tinc­tion of dati” and non-dati” — reli­gious and not reli­gious — as inju­ri­ous to the poli­ty. He instead advo­cates for a recal­i­bra­tion of the sta­tus quo, which would allow for a rich­er, more var­ied depic­tion of reli­gious life.

With incred­i­ble depth and range, Hart­man also exam­ines the Dias­po­ra and its increas­ing­ly com­plex rela­tion­ship to Israel. He dis­cuss­es Pales­tin­ian rights and Israeli secu­ri­ty through the Genesis/​Exodus rubric he has developed.

At the close of the book, Hart­man speaks of a third covenant in addi­tion to the Genesis/​Exodus covenant: a Cre­ation covenant to val­ue all human beings as cre­at­ed in God’s image. He makes a com­pelling case for how Jew­ish par­tic­u­lar­ism can be a source of heal­ing rather than divisiveness.

Who Are the Jews — And Who Can We Become? is a deeply opti­mistic book, writ­ten before the world changed this Octo­ber. Hart­man explains how anti­semitism might be reduced in North Amer­i­ca and describes a need for greater rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple. While the moment now is very dark, this book is still deeply mov­ing and valid, both in its analy­sis and its under­ly­ing vision. 

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

Discussion Questions

Don­niel Hart­man’s thought-pro­vok­ing book delves into the com­plex­i­ties of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and the ever-evolv­ing nature of the Jew­ish peo­ple. Hart­man, a promi­nent the­olo­gian and philoso­pher, nav­i­gates the rich tapes­try of Jew­ish his­to­ry, tra­di­tion, and mod­ern chal­lenges to address fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the con­tem­po­rary world.

Draw­ing on his deep knowl­edge of Jew­ish texts, and engag­ing with a diverse range of per­spec­tives, Hart­man explores the dynam­ic inter­play between tra­di­tion and adap­ta­tion. He chal­lenges read­ers to reflect on the essence of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, exam­in­ing how his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ences, eth­i­cal val­ues, and cul­tur­al her­itage have shaped the Jew­ish peo­ple. In a world marked by rapid change and glob­al­iza­tion, the author encour­ages us to reex­am­ine the bound­aries and pos­si­bil­i­ties for Jew­ish identity.

Who Are the Jews — and Who Can We Become? is a com­pelling and acces­si­ble work that invites read­ers to explore iden­ti­ty, belong­ing, and the ongo­ing evo­lu­tion of the Jew­ish sto­ry. Hart­man’s insights will res­onate not only with those seek­ing to under­stand Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, but also with any­one who’s inter­est­ed in broad­er ques­tions of iden­ti­ty and cul­ture in our inter­con­nect­ed world.