“What is Judaism?”

Over the past month, I’ve been asked some difficult questions.  For example, each week, Rabbi Federman and I meet at a coffee shop for chevruta study, wherein we talk Torah, and interpretation.  In our discussions about the divine nature of the Torah, I often speak about the scholarly and literary view we can have of our sacred writings, learning about the multiple authorship of the Torah, its evolution, its editing, its borrowing of near eastern legends.  They are difficult ideas for more Orthodox Jews to hear. For Rabbi Federman, the idea that the Torah did not come down from Sinai is not something easily stomached.

And so he asked a question of me, a question to which I am giving serious thought: “If we do not see the Torah as divine, meaning we do not see it as having come from Sinai, written by God, given to Moses, etc, is Judaism therefore just an intellectual exercise?”  It’s a tough question and it also speaks to a larger question that I was asked by one of my students at this month’s Torah Study event, and that question is, “What is Judaism?”  That question is difficult, too.

In the face of such a question, is the most basic, and readily available answer is, of course, that Judaism is a religion. But Judaism is not just a religion.  True, there are very religious Jews, Jews of all denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform.  But, there are also secular Jews, there are non-practicing Jews, there are cultural Jews.  Indeed, a great deal of Israel—the Jewish state—practices what we would call secular Judaism.  There are plenty of people who are Jewish, but who don’t practice it as a religion.

So if Judaism isn’t a religion, what is it? A race? We’ve been called a race many times before, and sometimes not in the best of contexts.  Should we define being Jewish as a race?  Certainly not. There are African Jews, American Jews, Indian Jews, and Asian Jews—Jews of all colors and all kinds of backgrounds.  This means that Judaism spreads across races, and therefore is not a race itself.

Then there are those who refer to Jews as a nation.  But a nation involves a group of people who inhabit a particular country or territory.  And we know that wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish.  To illustrate, there is a wonderful song I grew up with in camp that goes like this:

Wherever you go there’s always someone Jewish, You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew, So when you’re not home, And you’re somewhere kind of ‘newish’The odds are–don’t look far–‘Cause they’re Jewish, too.”[1]

There are Jews in every country, and on every continent, so we are not a nation.

Okay, so what about a culture?  Well sure, but Jewish culture is different depending on where you are Jewish.  Spanish and Mediterranean Jewish culture is known as Sephardic, while Eastern European Jewish culture is known as Ashkenazic.  And there are more in the world besides these two big ones.  And each culture reads Hebrew differently, wraps the Torah differently, lights wax candles or oil candles, eats rice on Passover or doesn’t.  So, no, Judaism cannot be contained in the world “culture,” because Judaism spans across cultures and has many cultures within it.

What about the word people?  Unfortunately, even that is problematic.  Jewish descent can come from the mother, or the father, depending on what denomination you are.  Plus, you can convert to Judaism, and become a part of the people, so Judaism is not just defined by bloodlines.

So I ask again, what is Judaism? As it turns out, if we turn to our parsha this week, Behar, we find an answer. Among the commandments regarding the Jubilee, are a few verses of note, which refer to Jew by the word Ach.

(Al To-nu et Achiv)[2]

(Ki, Yamuch Achicha Umachar)[3]

(V’Chei Achicha Imach)[4]

“You Shall not wrong your Ach

“If your Ach is impoverished”

“Let your Ach live with you”

We know the word Ach.  We sing it in the words of Hinei Mah Tov.  Hinei mah tov u’manayim shevet Achim gam yachad.  Behold how pleasant when we Achim dwell together.

The modern understanding of the word Ach is brother or relative.  But in Biblical Hebrew, the meaning is not so literal.  It’s meaning is really untranslatable from Hebrew to English, but the gist of what it means in Leviticus is “your fellow Jew.”  We know this from context:

“You Shall not wrong your fellow Jew

“If your fellow Jew is impoverished”

“Let your fellow Jew live with you”

And of course, “Behold, how pleasant it is when we kinsmen, relatives, brothers dwell together.”  Our parsha, to be sure, is not referring to your actual brother, but rather the familial understanding of one Jew to another, to your fellow Jew.  The Torah viewed two Jews as Achim “brothers,” but not really brothers, fellows within a family.

So what does it mean to be a Jew? What is Judaism? Well, we are members of the same extended family.  We are not a religion, a culture, a nation, a people, a race.  We are something closer than that. We’re Mischpacha.  We’re family.  And we see this in all aspects of who we are.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks stated on this topic,

The concept of family is absolutely fundamental to Judaism. Consider the book of Genesis, the Torah’s starting-point. It is not primarily about theology, doctrine, dogma. It is not a polemic against idolatry. It is about families: husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters.[5]

On Yom Kippur, we cry out “Avinu Malkeinu,” our Parent, our Ruler, expressing us as children of the same parent.  And when we bring someone into the fold, when someone converts to Judaism, we don’t call them a converted Jew, just as you don’t call your adopted son adopted.  We call them a Jew.  They’re part of the family.  Judaism is a family.  And that makes sense considering how much we argue, how much we talk, how we can love one another, but every once in a while be so annoyed with one another.  And when the crap hits the fan, Jews are there for one another.  We know our shared history, we know that we stand alone, together; we are responsible for one another, we defend one another, and we act like family. That is the Jewish way, and it spans across cultures of Jews, across geographic divides and secularism and orthodoxy.

I for one am looking forward to my study session with Rabbi Federman next week. Because when he asked me this week, I could only meet him with quiet pondering. But this week’s parsha offered the answer I was searching for. If certain Jews view Torah in a scholarly way, a literary way, and do not view it as been having passed down from God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, Judaism is not just an intellectual exercise. No, it’s just another family matter.






[2] Leviticus 25:14

[3] Leviticus 25:25, 35

[4] Leviticus 25:36

[5] http://www.rabbisacks.org/family-feeling-behar-5776/


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