Some Thoughts on Judaism                        Back to Home

[This page follows logically after the essay Belief in God. If you're interested, you can start there.]

So how about me? How do I pursue my belief in an ever-present, incorporeal God? What is my religion?

I am a Jew. Technically, I am a Jew because my mother was Jewish and I have not repudiated my origin or adopted another faith. I have friends and family who converted to Judaism under the auspices of a rabbinic authority. I also have friends whose mothers were not Jewish and who did not convert into the fold, but whose fathers were Jewish and who embrace the Jewish faith. And finally, there is a growing cadre of people who enjoy association with Judaism and its people, activities, and institutions, despite their clear and self-acknowledged status as non-Jews. So, in my case, I was born Jewish, I lapsed out of practice for a while, re-entered, studied, affiliated strongly and broadly, and made the practice of Judaism a significant part of my adult life. Not the only part, but an important one.

In early times, one's religion was not subject to question. You were what you were born as or what you converted to (by choice or by force). Today, in modern, "Western" countries, no one is forced into a religion. All of us who are religious are essentially Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or whatever by choice, especially those of us who belong to a minority religion such as mine is (everywhere except in our ancestral homeland, Israel). Unless we choose to do something about our religious identity, its label is irrelevant. Almost. Usually. We hope.

So at a recent Jewish gathering, the facilitator asked participants "Why are you Jewish?" There were many answers. Here is mine, stated using a Yiddish word that has no precise English equivalent:

"You don't have to be Jewish to be a mensch.
Not every Jew is a mensch.
But in the history of civilization, we Jews have had an exceptionally high per-capita population of menschen."

The word mensch (plural menschen) denotes a good person, someone of noble character, someone to admire and emulate, someone who Does the Right Thing.

The scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." That familiar quotation probably inspired my response above even though I was not thinking about it at the time. I believe my concluding claim is true and the fact that so many Jews agree may be part of the reason that so many non-Jews dislike us. It seems rather arrogant, in retrospect, but it was what I was thinking at the time. Maybe we Jews should stop proclaiming self-righteousness. At least I was in sympathetic company when I said it. But since this essay is available to all, including those whose image of Jews may be quite the opposite, I feel obligated to defend it, at least gently. First, I admit that we have no exclusive on rectitude (menschlichkeit would be the better, Yiddish term). I have been privileged to know many menschen who are not Jewish. Second, I confess that we Jews have our bad apples and ordinary, unremarkable members. We reserve the word mensch for only our finest. Some severe religions seem to focus on everyone's status as a sinner. Some other religions (including some extreme branches of my own) seem more concerned with submission to stricture than with operational character. But mainstream Judaism, like some other denominations that I admire, seems obsessed with creating, promoting and becoming menschen. I like that. 

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of my religion is its focus on universal loving-kindness. "Love your neighbor as yourself," in various formulations, is the Golden Rule that originated in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible is replete with admonitions to treat kindly "the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan." We are directed to extend the protection of our laws even to the foreigner among us because we, too, were once strangers in a foreign land (Egypt before the Exodus). In the patriarchal societies of yore, widows and orphans were at extreme risk, unable to fend for themselves, to inherit, own land, testify, or enjoy even the most basic protections of law. So the three categories most vulnerable in pre-Judaic society are singled out in the Bible, time and again, for protection. But these are not the only vulnerable elements in society and in post-Biblical Judaism the formula became a short-hand for all those who are disadvantaged. Jews are just people and, like other people, we are imperfect. But our religion sets a high standard and implores us, teaches us, to strive for it. I like that, too. 

More later maybe...  Meanwhile, Back to Home