Judaism and Jews


How important is Judaism for the Jews?

We’ve long confused social science by being both an ethnic group (or tribe) and a religion.

Among us are members of the tribe who deny religion, and converts to the religion who may have to wait a generation or two before being fully accepted by others as members of the tribe.

We argue about members of the tribe who have adopted another religion.

What are they?

Their descendants can be welcomed back. And, depending who is judging, the converts themselves can change their minds.

The question here is whether the ethnic culture depends on the doctrines of the religion.

According to rabbis and other religious professionals, activists, and some of their congregants, religion is essential for keeping the people together.

Yet the Books of Ezra and Maccabees, as well as the writings of Josephus reveal that Jews for a long time have ignored those claiming to be religious leaders.

Ezra laments Jews who returned from Babylon and took up with women of the land, who were less than kosher in his eyes.

The Book of Maccabees, which didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible due to rabbis’ animosities toward the Hasmonean rulers who came after Judah Maccabee, describes Judaic scorn for Jews who behaved like Greeks. Yet the Book of Ecclesiastes, which did make it into the Hebrew Bible, is at least as much Greek in its thought as it is Judaic.

Josephus describes a civil war between Jews he described as religious fanatics and Jews who adopted the culture of Rome.

It is not beyond credibility to assert that the vast majority of educated Jews today, with the exception of ultra-Orthodox who cleave to their educational ghettos, are at least as much Greek and Roman in their culture as they are Judaic.

The migration of a million Russian speakers to Israel brought forth complaints from the religious that a third of them were not true Jews. No surprise that there were many mixed marriages in an empire that had discouraged religion, especially that of the Jews, for three or more generations.

Yet most Jews were still marrying Jews in the Soviet Union.

How come?

According to several that I asked, “We all knew who were the Jews.”

The meaning of all this is that Jews’ identification with Judaic culture may not depend on rabbis, religious teachers, and going to synagogue.

Forty years in Israel has brought me into close contact and friendships with secular Israelis, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and religious Jews who frequent non-Orthodox synagogues. All these categories include Jews whose families came from virtually all the places that have or had Jewish communities.

Cultural and ethnic differences have interested me since my childhood in multi-ethnic Fall River, three years as a young academic in the Deep South, travels to a few dozen countries, and long stays in several of them.

Those interests have not subsided in Israel, home to Jews and others from what is said to be 100 countries.

It’s not easy to define the culture of Jews or the doctrines of Judaism. Jews have been literate, and writing about themselves and their religion for perhaps 3,000 years. There’s a lot to read by way of social and political thought, religious doctrine, and much that falls under the heading of custom. Doctrines, commandments, and behaviors cover the range from an abstract and monotheistic conception of an Almighty, to practices that are as pagan as can be found among the most simple of Christians, witches, shamans, and faith healers. Each rabbi can be an island unto him/herself, and there is great disagreement among the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else as to who have been, or are, are the religious leaders of this or recent generations.

Do Jews need Judaism in order to survive as Jews?

It’s an open question, argued at least from the time of Ezra.

It may be that the culture of Jews in the Diaspora requires a religious framework to teach young people Judaic values and traditions, and to provide centers for socializing, meeting life partners, and praying for those inclined.

Yet the communal feelings of Soviet Jews—most of whom continued to marry one another for generations, without benefit of rabbis or circumcision—makes that doubtful.

Israel provides a setting that in some respects is more challenging than the U.S. and other desirable Diasporas, but is also more conducive to a Judaic experience, with or without religion.

Israel’s secular schools and the media provide considerable material about the history, traditions, doctrines, and practices of Jews, religious and otherwise. Families that are a generation or two from traditional settings in Europe or the Middle East--and from the problems associated with those backgrounds--are powerful sources of instruction.

Something like 20 percent of the population gets its education from Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox schools, whose curricula is defined by rabbis, with the ultra-Orthodox isolated in part or completely from schooling about modern languages, mathematics, science, history, or civics.

One has no trouble finding the richness of Jewish pluralism, culture, and thought among secular Israelis. They, along with the Orthodox, face the struggle against adversity that has been characteristically the fate of Jews. It is the secular who are most likely to be free of dogma about territorial rights associated with the Almighty’s promise of everything between here and there, with the boundaries dependent on which portions of holy text are cited..

Not being hung up on religious dogmas that limit flexibility have helped secular Jews (who have dominated the key positions in Israeli governments from the beginning) to make our way and thrive in a complex and hostile neighborhood, and with others who claim to be our friends.

Among the confusions on the borders of Judaism and the culture of the Jews is the nature of Judaic doctrines. More than two millennia of rabbinical activity, including the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, have been concerned with ordering the life of the Jewish people. Topics range from who is a Jew to the minutiae of what may be consumed as food and drink to just about every other facet of daily life and relationships with non-Jews. Students in Orthodox schools study this material as holy text. Non-Orthodox rabbis have decided which continues to be relevant for their congregations. Members of Orthodox and non-Orthodox congregations, as well as Jews who consider themselves to be secular, decide for themselves what is appropriate for them.

It has never been easy for Jews to maneuver between the most humanistic of values associated with the biblical prophets and the occasional need to do ugly things in the name of self defense. That has been a Jewish problem at least since the sages proclaimed “When a person is determined to slay you, arise early and slay him [first].”

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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