Thirty years ago, the great feminist Jewish writer Evelyn Torton Beck wrote that "if the concept ‘Jew’ does not fit the categories we have created, then … we need to rethink our categories."
She was echoing an observation by Albert Memmi, who lamented the "sociologists' lack of imagination" in their insistent efforts to slot "Jews" into a familiar and well-trodden social category schemas.
For it sometimes seems that any answer to the question "what are Jews" doesn't quite work.
Are we a religion? Yes, in part -- but certainly not just that. There are and have always been many Jews, fully recognized as part of the Jewish community, who have no particular religious or spiritual orientation whatsoever. The attempt to delimit Jewishness as "just a religion" almost always is an attempt to degrade or delegitimize Jewishness as a collective identity in favor of an individualistic, atomized spirituality where people "just happen to be Jewish" as they might happen to be Catholic or Protestant.
Are we a race? Surely, at times Jews have been racialized -- most notably by Nazi racial scientists. But why should we so eagerly accept their conclusions? Moreover, the argument that Jews are a "race" doesn't rest easily with acknowledgment of racial diversity within Judaism. Are Black Jews not Black (because their race is Jewish)? Or are they not truly Jewish (because their race is Black)? Or if we accept that there are Black Jews and Latino Jews and Persian Jews, what am I? "Just Jewish"? How come I get the neutral descriptor? What makes my Jewish identity more central than theirs?
Are we an ethnicity? Much of the same issues with "race" seem to apply, and most of the usage of "ethnicity" around Judaism typically is more fine-grained around Ashkenazi versus Sephardic. But even there, it has been observed that these are minhags -- there are a great many African-American Ashkenazi Jews, after all -- so why should Ashkenazi be defined in terms of ethnicity, as opposed to liturgical community?
Are we a "nation"? Clearly we've often defined ourselves that way. But doing so seems to walk straight into a dual loyalty charge -- after all, isn't my nation American? Is there are difference between "Jewish" the nation and "Israel" the nation?
Sometimes I dodge and just say Jews are a "people", which works -- but only because it is so self-consciously vague. What is a "people"? What am I even trying to communicate in describing Jews that way?
Recently, I heard someone say that the best way to describe Jews is as a "civilization". A civilization can include people of an array of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, under a multitude of different political authorities. It might have an associated religion, but it can admit a diverse range of manners of practicing it or living it out. A civilization has distinctive art, culture, history, politics -- and not just one thread of these, but many. There is Jewish art, but not just one style; Jewish history, but not just one narrator; Jewish culture, but not just one form.
Is it a perfect fit? No. But if it doesn't fit, the problem might not be with the Jews, but with the categories which fail to fully account for the Jewish case. And for me, I'd much rather preserve the ambivalent, fuzzy contours of the Jewish civilization than I would attempt to shoehorn Jews into a category that wasn't built for us to occupy.