What is Judaism?

 

ju·da·ism/ˈjo͞odēˌizəm/

Noun:
  1. The monotheistic religion of the Jews, based on the laws revealed to Moses and recorded in the Torah (supplemented by the rabbinical…
  2. The Jews collectively.

 

The most common answer you will get if you as a thousand people, “what is Judaism?” is, “a religion”.

 Is Judaism a religion?  The answer is no.  But the answer is also yes.  How is that for a Jewish answer?  Judaism can not be solely defined as a religion because there is no belief system or adherence to practice or ritual that would define someone as Jewish.

There are Jews who are complete atheists, they are considered none-the-less, just as Jewish as the chief Rabbi of Israel.

Would a Catholic who did not believe in Jesus be as Catholic as the Pope?  I do not think so.

Not only is Judaism not based on a religious belief system, once you are Jewish there is nothing you can ever do to “unJew” you!  There is no such thing as “no longer Jewish.”  Once you are Jewish you are always Jewish.

Here is something really interesting, the Judaism that is practiced today by the majority of Jews who practice Judaism, is a relatively new innovation.  By new of course I mean slight less than 2000 years old.

When did the Jewish religion of today start?  A lot of people would say with Abraham.  They would be wrong.

When we read the stories of the prophets of Israel, they were not observing Judaism as it is observed today.  Now don’t get me wrong.  We have the same Torah, we believe in the same God, we celebrate the same holidays, but the daily practice and ritual has changed radically.

This all changed during the first century of the common era.  Up until that time the ritualistic (religious) dimension of Judaism had been based around the Temple in Jerusalem.  There was a complex system of animal sacrifices managed by the priestly caste of Kohanim, in a central location.  All Jews who were able were commanded to appear in Jerusalem three times a year.

This all stops in the year 70 when the Romans take Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and begin an exile of the Jewish People from our land that lasts 2000 years.

If you have a set of “religious” practices that are attatched to a specific place, what do you do when you are exiled from that place?

Enter one of the greatest sages in Jewish History, Rabbi Yochonon ben Zakai.

Yochonon ben Zakai was in the city of Jerusalem during the Roman siege of 70 CE.  He saw the writing on the wall and he realized that life for the Jews was about to change radically.  So he came up with a plan.  The first thing he had to do was to get out of the besieged city.

Yochonon ben Zakai, faked his own death, and smuggled himself out of the city.  Immediately outside of the city he was caught by a Roman patrol and taken to the Roman commander of the siege General Vespasian to be sentenced to death.

Upon meeting the Roman general Yochonon ben Zakai greeted him as Emperor Vespasian.  The general regarded him as strange and said, “you realize I am a general and not the Emperor of Rome.”

To which ben Zakai replied, “but your majesty, you will be very soon.”

At that moment according to legend, a messenger arrived from Rome with a senatorial declaration pronouncing Vespasian Emperor of Rome.

Dually impressed Vespasian spared Yochonon ben Zakai’s life and offered him “any thing he wanted”.

Yochonon ben Zakai responded, “give me the sages of Jerusalem and the city of Yavneh to set up a yeshiva.

Yochonon ben Zakai was given what he had asked for, and it was at this yeshiva that he started to put together the pieces of what a Judaism in exile would look like.

Faced with the question of how do we as the Jewish people survive for what was sure to be a very long and difficult exile, Yochonon be Zakai came up with the idea to turn the way of life of the Jewish people into a religion that could be portable.  That they could carry with them into exile.

Thus the Jewish Religion as we no it was born.

So is Judaism a religion.  Yes.  Judaism is the official religion of the Jewish People in Exile.

So if Jews can not be defined by religion what are we?

 

Is Judaism a race?

According to the U.S. Supreme court ruling from 1987, Congregation Shaare Tefila vs. Cobb, we are.  That’s right, the United States supreme court ruled that Jews in America are a race and therefore entitled to protection under the racial discrimination act.

But can you really say Jews are a race?  For sure there are racial similarities when you stand a Jew from Poland next to a Jew from Russia, and lots of Jews in America bear a striking resemblance to there bubbies and zaides from the Old Country but does that mean their race is Judaism?  There are Jews with blonde hair and blue eyes, Jews that are black, Jews that are Chinese, not to mention middle eastern.  A Jew from Yemen probably looks a lot more like an Arab from Damascus than like your bubbie from Galatia.  Yet what do all of these groups have in common?  They are all Jews, and if they are all indeed Jews, this means, Jews can not be considered a race.

 Ethnic Cultural Identity

So how about an Ethnic Cultural identity?  After all what could be more Jewish than Lox and Bagles?  Fish of the Gefilte?  Herring and kugel?  Ah how much more Jewish can you get?  We all know that to many Jews this is where their Jewish identity starts and stops.  With the cultural and ethnic connections to Judaism.  Sometimes they are referred to as gastronomic Jews, but usually they are refered to as “cultural” Jews.  Jews that resonate solely with the ethnic aspects of their Jewish identity.

Mimouna Celebration from the Jewish Communities of Northern Africa

But here is the thing.  If you are a Jew from Morocco, you very well may have never in your life tasted gefilte fish, but you look forward all year to eating mofletta at the Mimouna celebration after Passover.  How many Jews from Manhattan’s Upper East Side have even hear of mofletta?

There is not a single cultural or ethnic Jewish identity because for two thousand years we were scattered around the world, and the Jewish People absorbed much of their cultural identity from the surrounding cultures.  Cured fish is not “Jewish” but rather custom of the countries that the Jews found themselves in during the long and brutal exile.

So just to recap, is Judaism a religion?  Sort of.  Judaism is the official religion of the Jewish people, but you do not have to practice the religion to be considered Jewish.  So what are we then?

We are clearly not a race, and we have too many varied customs to be considered a cultural ethnic group.

What are the Jewish People?  We are just that.  A People.  We are a nation.  The problem is that two thousand years ago, the greatest empire the world had ever seen, the might of Rome, decided that by exiling us from our land would be just the thing to un do who we really are.  Who after all has ever heard of a nation that existed for thousands of year without their land?

The reason that there is so much confusion about who we Jews are is that it has never happened before in all of world history.  There has never been a nation that was removed from its land, retained its unique identity in exile and then returned thousands of years later to pick up where they left off.  Yet this is just what the Jewish people did.

We have come home and we are witnessing a renaissance of who we really are.  We are the Jewish Nation.  We cleared the swamps and grow fruit out of the desert sands.  We have revived and ancient language that has not been spoken in millennia.  We brought back our ancient currency the shekel, and we are gathering all of the different colors, and flavors of Jews from all over the world, back to the place where we are from.

Israel is the only place in the world where you can eat gefilte fish and kugel for your last meal of Passover and then go out that night for mofletta.  Where Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Chinese Jews join with fur hatted chassidim from Poland to pray together at the Western Wall on Friday night.

More than any other thing we are a nation.  A nation that was scattered to the four corners of the world, and today is coming home.

 

 

Comments

  1. Judy Sever says:

    If you say we are a nation, a people, won’t others use that old argument that we have a stronger allegiance to Israel and Judaism than we do to the country we are living in?

    • Hi Judy,
      People will indeed claim that, as they have. In my opinion what matters is, is it true? We are a nation. I think that one of the biggest problems the Jewish People have today is that we have lost sight of this fact. We have traded social integration for giving up our national identity. We have become a religion based on exile. We are Frenchmen or Germans, (or Americans) of the “Mosaic Religion”. This is simply not who we are. I think that more than the world wondering about our allegiance to the countries we have found ourselves in during 2000 years of exile, the world is waiting for us to be ourselves.

      My 2¢. Thanks for listening.

  2. You yourself said that there is no unique identity, culture, or heritage — because it has traditions (cuisine, melodies) coming from all over the world — and then you claim in the same breath that the Jews are coming back home with the unique identity that they have had all along.

    In addition: A nation is a political entity. Never in all of mankind’s existence has his national affiliation been determined by heritage, regardless of place of birth!!!! There is good reason for this: it is unfair to children to force them to grow up as foreigners in their countries of origin (if they happen to be born in places other than Israel); or if their families’ affiliation to Judaism is religious or cultural alone. It is equally unfair to force political allegiance on people who, through their own experience have come to conclusions other than those of the reigning politicians.

    • I never said that there isn’t a unique identity or heritage. Jews have taken on aspects of the cultures that they have lived in while in exile, but as for a National identity, there certainly is and has been one for 2000 years.

      No matter where Jews were they considered Israel their true home, they considered themselves in exile and in every corner of the world prayed and struggled to return home. Your definition of a nation as a “political entity”, is a 200 year old construct. We are talking about something different. Also, if you are going to imply we do not really belong here in Israel, you are going to have to come up with something better than “there is no good reason”, and “it is unfair”.

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