…the very idea that Judaism is a religion is a distinctly modern invention. Prior to Jewish modernity — most clearly defined as the acquisition of citizenship rights for Jews, a long process that began in Europe in the late-18th century — Judaism was neither solely a religion, nor simply a matter of culture or nationality. Rather, Judaism and Jewishness were all of these at once: religion, culture and nationality.
The basic framework of organized Jewish life in the medieval and early modern periods was the local Jewish community. While a Jewish community’s existence depended on the whim of others (usually the nobility or royalty), pre-modern Jewish communities were unique in that they had a tremendous amount of political autonomy.
Each community had its own set of bylaws administered by laypersons who, among other things, elected a rabbi for the community. Rabbis in turn had jurisdiction over ritual law and also gave credence to the laws of the community as a whole.
Each community also had its own courts, as well as its own educational, health, economic and social services systems. Outside rulers gave the Jewish community responsibility to maintain law and order, and the right to punish its members in a variety of ways, including exacting fines, imprisonment and corporal punishment.
For all these reasons, it simply was not possible in a pre-modern context to conceive of Jewish religion, nationality, and what we now call culture as distinct from one another. A Jew’s religious life was defined by, though not limited to, Jewish law, which was simultaneously religious, political and cultural in nature.
It was only in the modern period that the corporate Jewish community dissolved, and with that, political agency shifted to the individual Jew, giving him the freedom to define his identity for himself.
Leora Batnitzky, “Is Judaism A Religion Or A Culture?” The Jewish Week (2 September 2011), 24.