Religion, Nationhood and Ethnicity in Judaism

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Term 2
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

This course will discuss the manifold ways in which Jewish identity is expressed in ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish culture. Were religious, ethnic, and national identity always connected, and if so, in what ways? Are developments recognizable with regard to definitions and expressions of Jewish identity? How and to what extent do political, social, and economic circumstances play a role in this regard?

The first part of the course will focus on Judaism in antiquity, in its transformation from biblical to post-biblical and rabbinic times. It has been argued that in post-biblical times the Israelite tribal cult became a religion. How did post-biblical Jewish religion define itself and to what extent were ethnic and national definitions of Jewishness maintained? When was the matrilineal principle introduced? What was the significance of the Land of Israel for ancient Jewish identity? Did Jews in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora express their Jewishness in different ways? How did ancient Jews cope with Greek and Roman imperialism, and how did they distinguish themselves from the surrounding pagan and Christian environment? In the Middle Ages Jews lived as minorities within the dominating Christian and Islamic cultures. How did they manage to remain Jewish and how was this Judaism expressed? The course will examine the processes of cultural distinction and acculturation within the Ashkenazic and Sephardic environments.

The following sessions will deal with the changes which Jewish identity formation underwent from the Middle Ages to modern times. For Jews modernity began with the French Revolution which eventually led to Jewish Emancipation. Subsequently, the question of how to maintain a Jewish identity while at the same time participating in Western culture was solved in many different ways. Different Jewish religious denominations developed and cultural and secular definitions of Jewishness emerged.

Finally, the role of Zionism and the foundation of the State of Israel for Jewish identity will be discussed. How do Diaspora Jews define their relationship to Israel and how is this relationship expressed in literary and autobiographical sources? What range of different positions can be discerned and how did they change over time, depending on the particular historical and political circumstances? How is Jewish religious identity expressed in Israel and how are the conflicts between secular and religious Jews to be understood?

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of this course, a student should be able to:

  • understand the many and variegated ways in which Jewish identity was expressed from ancient to modern times;
  • analyse expressions of Jewish identity within their respective social, political, and economic contexts;
  • trace historical developments in Jewish self-understanding;
  • compare Jewish identity-formations with identity-formations in the respective surrounding cultures;
  • explain the significance of the French Revolution and Jewish Emancipation for modern Jewish identity;
  • distinguish between the various forms of orthodox and liberal Judaism which developed in the 19th century;
  • understand the development and significance of Zionism and the foundation of the State of Israel for Jewish identity;
  • analyse gender differences with regard to how Jewish identity is expressed;
  • write essays that utilize and integrate literary, epigraphic, historical,autobiographical, and philosophical sources.


A two hour lecture and one hour seminar each week.

Method of assessment

One 4000 word essay (worth 80%); one class presentation (worth 20%).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules