Revealing the first myth of Judaism
Throughout my years teaching, engaging in interfaith dialogue and working with staff and professors at the University, I have come to realize that there are a great many myths that exist about Judaism. Over the course of the next few columns, I wanted to address some of these misconceptions that are held by many Jewish people as well as people from different religious backgrounds.
The first myth about Judaism is that it cannot really be called a faith or a religion.
The former President of Hillel International, Avraham Infeld tells the following story. Having grown up in South Africa and lived in Israel, he was surprised during his first trip to America when saw the following billboard.
“Families who pray together, stay together.” On the bottom was written, “Sponsored by the Council of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.” He was so shocked when he saw the ad he almost drove off the road. He could not figure out what Jews were doing on that signpost. In his words: “What is this nonsense – Protestants, Catholics and Jews. It is like saying Yellow, Green, and Round. Protestantism is a religion! Catholicism is a religion! Judaism is not a religion!”
While I am sure that Jews have nothing against the idea families praying together, Infeld is pointing out something important. Judaism does not fit cleanly into the model of a pure religion. Certainly faith and religion are part of Judaism, but there are other ingredients as well.
The Bible makes this clear in Genesis 12, in the nuance of God’s first promise to Abraham. The focus is not that he will be a great prophet or the father to a great religion, but rather the father of a great “nation.”
Later in the book of Exodus at Mt. Sinai, the Children of Israel are implored to be “a kingdom of priests and a Holy nation.” Here we see that God’s expectation is that Judaism has both a religious component as well as a peoplehood component.
We can also see this in some of unexpected content of the Talmud, the corpus of Jewish oral law. In addition to ritual law, moral precepts and theological ideas, we also find tractates focused on property law, damages, rules of testimony and roles of the court — all matters that govern not a religion, but a civil society.
In this way, historically, Judaism has really been an amalgamation of religion, culture, and peoplehood.
So why is this important?
For Jews, this idea is important because deep down, many of Jewish people feel this way but no one has ever articulated it. We say things like, “I am not a good Jew because I only feel connected to Jewish culture or Jewish peoplehood.” Even though, as a rabbi I care tremendously about both the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, not all Jewish people are going to connect in that way. Therefore, it is important for Jews to also understand the complexity of Judaism beyond its faith components, so that each person has the tools necessary to feel more empowered and more authentic. Guilt and inadequacy are not good motivators for a rich spiritual life.
For people of other religious backgrounds, this distinction is necessary for truly understanding a tradition different from their own. In trying to understand others, we cannot always find simple analogues between them and ourselves. Hanukkah is not the Jewish form of Christmas. An imam is not a Muslim rabbi. Each religion, including Judaism, has its own set of internal structures that are unique, wise, and profound in their own particular way. In order to really see the tradition of another person, we have to really understand it on its own terms.