Ha'azinu: Who are we? Q&As About Jews and Judaism

As I noted last week, I am again conducting High Holiday services aboard a cruise ship in Europe.  The ports are beautiful.  Yet, as Barbara and I walk the streets and admire the architecture – especially the magnificent churches and cathedrals -- the terrors our people experienced here – crusades, Inquisition, Holocaust, and other persistent persecution – never leaves our consciousness.

One of the reasons for those horrors was resentment at the notion, set forth in the Bible, of Divine Jewish chosenness. This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, contains one example of the “problematic” text.  In an ancient poem, we read “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Yaakov the lot of His Inheritance.”  (Deut. 32:9).  We are “Yaakov,” for the “Israel” in the phrase “Children of Israel” refers to Jacob’s other name, Israel.   

On Sunday, back in our Southern California community, the Fullerton Interfaith Ministerial Association will host an Interfaith Faire at St. Juliana’s Church.  The purpose of the faire is to foster interfaith understanding and respect.   

Although I will not be in attendance, a handout which I have prepared entitled “Q&As about Jews and Judaism” will be made available.  One of the questions I pose and attempt to briefly answer addresses the notion of Jewish chosenness.  

Here, below, is the text of my handout, which I invite you to peruse and comment upon.

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach.   

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Q&A’s About Jews and Judaism

By Rabbi Dr. Art Levine
rabbiartlevine@gmail.com

1.   Who are the Jews?  Is Judaism a religion? A “faith?”   

Jews are a people (in Hebrew, “Ahm Yisrael,” meaning “the people of Israel.”  “Israel” here refers to the name G-d gave to the Biblical patriarch Jacob.)  “Judaism” refers to the culture and practices of the Jewish people, especially those that reflect, or derive from, Jewish law (see below).   For some Jews, beliefs about G-d and the afterlife, i.e., what is modernly called “religion,” and ritual practice based on Jewish law, form the core of Judaism.  Many other Jews, however, do not consider themselves “religious.”  Their Judaism is based upon their Jewish ethnic identity. 

Thus, Jews and Judaism refer to an ethnicity and culture, rather than a “religion” or “faith.”  Core Jewish beliefs include ethical monotheism, a covenantal relationship with G-d, responsibility to pursue justice in the world, and Israel as the ancient and modern national homeland of the Jewish people. 

2.   What are Judaism’s principal values?   

Judaism emphasizes moral and life-affirming behavior, and human dignity.  These are rooted in the belief that all humans are created in the Divine image and thus are entitled to respect.  Judaism imagines G-d’s love analogously to that of a parent.  G-d gives lessons and direction, imposes discipline when necessary, and grants forgiveness for sincerely atoned transgressions against G-d.  (However, only humans can forgive transgressions committed against each other).  Just as one honors parents by living according to their teachings and values, Jews demonstrate their love of G-d by living in accordance with G-d’s requirements.  Understanding these requirements and how they are to be implemented throughout life requires lifelong study of Jewish law. 

3.   Are there different types of Judaism?

As broadly defined above, there is only one Judaism.  However, there is no central Jewish authority.  In America, four principal “movements” or “streams” of Jewish practice are mainly distinguished by their view of Jewish law.   “Orthodox” Judaism consider Jewish law, as it has been interpreted and developed by rabbis over thousands of years, to be binding upon all Jews.  “Conservative” Judaism, which arose in the late 19th century in America, agrees that Jewish law is binding.  However, Conservative Judaism has introduced modern interpretations of Jewish law based upon changing historical circumstances.  “Reform” Judaism (the largest Jewish movement in America) arose in the early 19th century in Germany.  It does not regard Jewish law as binding but rather as behavioral guidelines to be adopted (or not) by each individual Jew.  “Reconstructionist” Judaism regards Judaism as a “civilization” in which the members of each local community (synagogue) collectively decide which aspects of Jewish religion, philosophy, customs, etc.  to follow.  Orange County has synagogues affiliated with each of these movements, but members may belong to them for any reason (not necessarily agreement with the philosophy of the “movement.”)  In any case, the large majority of Orange County Jews do not belong to any synagogue. 

4.  Does Judaism believe that the Bible is literally true?  

Orthodox Judaism considers as true both the written Bible and an “Oral Torah” believed simultaneously given by G-d to Moses at Mt. Sinai to help explain what the written Torah means.  Most other Jews view the Bible as either Divinely-inspired or an entirely human creation.  In any case, much of the written Bible is terse and/or ambiguous, requiring extensive interpretation to understand G-d’s requirements.  For example, the written Bible prohibits “work” on the Sabbath, but isn’t clear what “work” means.   Many generations of Jewish sages debated what the text of the Bible means, resulting in a vast body of written analysis and standards (laws) for complying with what they determined G-d requires.  The result is Jewish law, intended to elevate every action into holy behavior, thus facilitating relationships with both G-d and people.   Although there are Jewish rituals, Judaism does not separate “religious” from “ordinary” activities.  Treating people with respect and returning lost property, for example, are obligatory actions, but aren’t considered “religious” or “non-religious.”       

5.  What are the main Jewish practices? 

Full ritual Jewish observance entails a lifestyle comprehensively governed by Jewish law.  In America, many Jews adopt at least some of the following practices, to some extent: circumcision, “kosher” dietary restrictions (most often, no pork or shellfish, sometimes extending to no mixing of milk and meat, and consumption of ritually slaughtered meat only), and Jewish holiday observance.   

6.  Do Jews consider themselves “Chosen?”  Can anyone become a Jew?

According to traditional Judaism (and the Bible), G-d chose Jews to fulfill the mission of living according to G-d’s commandments.  However, chosen does not mean better.  According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites were the last people asked to accept the Torah, after all others had rejected it as too onerous.  According to Genesis, the first book in the Torah, G-d chose Abraham (who, according to Jewish tradition, was the first monotheist) and his descendants to teach G-d’s instructions and, by living according to them, demonstrate to all people the wisdom and beauty of G-d’s governance and law.  The Biblical prophets make clear that a special responsibility, and punishment for failure to live up to it, goes with “chosen-ness.”  

Anyone not born to a Jewish mother (or, for Reform Judaism, mother or father) can become Jewish.  To become a “descendant” of the Biblical patriarchs simply means electing to live according to Jewish law.   The model of Jewish conversion is the biblical Ruth, who said to her Jewish mother-in-law: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d will be my G-d. Where you die, I will die and be buried.”  

Modernly, a person wishing to become Jewish demonstrates to a panel of rabbis (convened as a court) the sincere desire to become a member of the Jewish people.  This is accomplished by studying and answering questions about Jewish rituals, holidays, texts, prayers, and core beliefs.  If not circumcised, male converts must have a symbolic drop of blood drawn; women are ritually immersed in water. 

7.  Why do American Jews support the state of Israel?

Since most American Jews regard themselves as “not very religious,” their support for Israel is not primarily theological but ethnic and historical.  Israel is the ancient, and only, national home of the Jewish people.  Even apart from Biblical accounts (and corroborating texts from contemporary societies), archeological sites throughout the land attest to vibrant Jewish life there for over 1,000 years before the 2nd century of the Common Era (what Christians call A.D.).   

Nearly 2,000 years after Jews were exiled from their land – and during which no other people established a homeland there -- the United Nations authorized (but did not establish; this required a war of Independence) a renewed Jewish state in Israel.  Israel remains the only certain refuge for Jews around the world facing discrimination and persecution. 

Beyond this fundamental Jewish-survival function, Israel is the only place in which Jews as a sovereign people are free to develop and express what it means to be Jewish, just as other peoples do in their homelands.  Thus, American Jews who identify themselves as part of the Jewish people usually identify to some extent with Israel as the home of the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, American Jews disagree about many aspects of Israeli government policy – as do many Jewish Israelis.  

8.  Why don’t Jews “accept Jesus?”

Judaism rejects the idea that G-d is in any way human, or any human divine.  Also, in Judaism’s view, Jesus was not the political/religious leader whom the Bible predicts will one day bring about worldwide peace.  Judaism further holds that no intermediary is necessary between people and G-d.  People are born with both good and bad inclinations, and must strive throughout life (living according to G-d’s commandments) so that the former prevails over the latter.  [A maxim in the Talmud is: “The Holy One created the evil inclination, and the Torah as its antidote.”]  However, there is no notion of “original sin” or “damnation” requiring salvation.  Rather, G-d’s grace is obtained through righteous behavior, prayer, and repentance.  

9.  Does Judaism believe in an afterlife?  

Yes, but this is seldom discussed.  Judaism emphasizes proper conduct in this life.  One’s existence is continued through positive influence (by teaching and example) upon one’s descendants.  Even so, there is a tradition of praying for the soul of deceased relatives. 

10.  What are the major Jewish holidays?  

The most important Jewish holiday occurs every week: the Sabbath, which lasts Friday sunset through Saturday sunset.  (All Jewish “days,” including holidays, begin and end at sunset, as set forth in Genesis, i.e. “there was evening and there was morning, one day”).  Other major holidays are a ten-day period of introspection, behavioral evaluation, and repentance, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and ending with Yom Kippur; the three Biblical “pilgrimage festivals” of Passover, Weeks (“Shavuot”), and Sukkot; and Purim.  Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday, but it has assumed importance in America due to societal emphasis upon the seasonally concurrent occurrence of Christmas.   

Want more information?

Many excellent websites provide a great deal of introductory and advanced-level information about Judaism, which may or may not reflect the “movement/stream” philosophy of the website’s creator.  It is best, therefore, to consult several websites before accepting any information as “correct.”  Examples include:

myjewishlearning.com
jewfaq.org (“Judaism 101”)
jewishvirtuallibrary.org
jewishencyclopedia.com (very comprehensive but over 100 years old – pre-Holocaust and pre-Israel) 
wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaism
wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews
chabad.org 
aish.com
Websites of the Orthodox Union, United Synagogue (Conservative), Union for Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3