For as long as I can remember, I have always been the recipient of numerous questions pertaining to various aspects of Judaism.
During my earlier years of school, these questions usually came from fellow classmates who perhaps knew less regarding their religious roots than others and sought clarification, or else from others in my community who simply wanted an alternative viewpoint for information they already knew. As I grew up and my spheres of social interaction grew to include increased numbers of individuals from varying walks of life, these questions began to include more questions regarding the what’s, where’s and who’s of my religion. Now that I am in university and the company I find myself keeping more mature, the questions I receive have again grown and developed not only in number, but in their depth and the forethought they demand of me. All of a sudden, I am not only expected to explain the what’s, where’s and who’s, but also engage on the how’s and the why’s behind my practices and beliefs.
Being a journalist (well, a journalism student, at least) generally comes with the requirement that one is well-informed on the topic they are covering. The oversight of even the smallest of details can not only derail an entire story, but send a media establishment along the road to ruin. Of course, a journalist often becomes accustomed to being the one asking the question, but that’s a story for another day.
While I could never hope to know everything about Judaism, for such would require a devotion to learning and many, many years of study unknown to me, I will devote this and my next couple of posts to providing a concise explanation of Judaism to any readers who may be. I am no Maimonides or Rabbi Akiva, but I hope this information provides the answers you seek.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides): A 12th century Jewish philosopher who’s teachings as a Torah (old testament) scholar have significant sway in Jewish learning.
Image: Sarah Davidson (http://www.saradavidson.com/blog/tag/maimonides)
I have found that, even when dealing with ‘the basics’, there is a lot of information to address. And, believe me, I mean a lot. For this reason, I have decided to split this discussion over three different posts. For today, we will focus on the ‘what’ (and somewhat ‘who’) aspect of Judaism.
Simply, Judaism is a religion, a culture as well as a nationality. The latter two of these classifications are significantly more debated, however there is no doubt of Judaism’s legitimacy as a religion.
First and foremost, Judaism is a monotheistic religion with its roots in 19th century BC Middle East. Jews believe in a single, all-encompassing God who exists autonomously from the world we live in. We have a set of beliefs regarding our collective history and ancestry as a people, as well as a set of laws and practices which dictate how we should act as Jews. These laws include sections on our diet (things we may and may not eat), when, how and why we pray (observant Jews partake in prayers thrice daily, and four times on the Sabbath and other significant days), and what behavior we may partake in at certain days (for example, we partake in different activities and behavior on Sabbaths and festival days than on regular week days) among others.
Many consider Judaism to be a culture in addition to a religion. In order for there to be a Jewish culture, there would have to be clear cultural practices which can be separated from religious practices. While, in the case of Judaism, these two sets of practices overlap on many occasions, there is clear social evidence suggesting that Judaism does indeed constitute a culture. Practices indigenous to Jews, such as the consumption of various ‘Jewish’ foods and the use of Yiddish among Jews of European descent, occur even in circles which do not identify as particularly religious. Therefore, we see, a clear Jewish culture exists in addition to religion.
Chopped herring: one of the many traditional “Jewish” foods.
Finally, and most contentious, many consider Judaism to be a nationality. This, of the three classification, is the hardest to identify the religion with due to irregularities in Jewish practice.
Medically, there are specific genetic and physiological characteristics unique to people of Jewish decent. For example, according to a series of in-depth genetics studies, one in two Ashkenazi Jews (those of Eastern European ancestry) is a carrier for one of almost 40 genetic diseases found almost exclusively in Jews. These diseases include Tay-Sachs, Gaucher Disease and Bloom Syndrome. According to the narrative of Jewish history laid out in the Old Testament, all Jews can be traced back to the Middle East back to the time of Abraham, the first Jew, and have lived periodically in the area on and off since. This is corroborated in part by historical research which has proved the existence of Jews in Middle Eastern areas as far back as 1858 BC, and genetic evidence which has connected seemingly independent groups of Jews from across the globe to a set of common ancestors. This does not mean, however, that all Jews are probably connected, particularly through these chanels.
It is possible for one to convert to Judaism, quite unlike any other nationality that exists. This means that there are whole groups of Jewish, including those who are newly-converted as well as those who are descendant from a convert, or group of converts. This is one of the main counter-arguments to the case that proposes Judaism as a nationality. As much as more evidence is becoming known pertaining to this argument, for now this view remains up to the personal background and beliefs of individuals.
While all this information might seem extensive and tedious, it is important to understand the various dynamics and facets to Jewish identity in their entirety. Not all Jews identify with all of these aspects: some are religious and engage various facets of their identity, others are purely traditionalist and practice only some cultural aspects of their religion. There are also those Jews who advocate firmly that to be Jewish is to be part of a nation older than most current groups, while others will discredit this notion entirely. Nonetheless, to understand these ideas and facts is to understand the Jewish psyche better.
In the next post in this series, I will be discussing the where’s and the who’s of the Jewish religion. This can be read here, or by clicking bellow.
For now, adios! Or, as we say in Hebrew, lehitraot!