Not A Religion
What does it mean to be Jewish? What is Judaism? If the High Holiday season triggers existential questions, this would probably be one of the foundational ones? And furthermore, is there a God? What or who is the God that dominates the pages of the prayer book and the Torah that we will engage with for hours at synagogue during the holidays? If God exists, then why is She/He/It so illusive? If God doesn’t exist, why do intelligent people spend so much time and energy celebrating a delusion? And furthermore, why so many questions? Why am I so ambivalent in my relationship to my religion?
Here is why! Because we think like Christians. You are Jewish but you are most likely thinking about yourself like a Christian would.
What do I mean?
The late, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi of Boulder Colorado, used to say that we are like pickles. Our lives turn out to be like the pickle juice we marinate in. In America, in a Christian majority society, in a Christianity dominated culture, we have all been marinating in Christian pickle juice, as it were.
what is the mental framework we have available to us for understanding our own Jewish identity? Yes, a Christian framework. Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling? When it comes to understanding our own identity, many of us are ever so subtly the Swan gosling among the ducks. No wonder we are ambivalent.
What is the hallmark of Christian identity? “Religion”. Christianity is a religion, by definition. It is based on a person’s relationship to God. Jesus, the son of God, died on the cross on our behalf, Christians claim. You will attain your Salvation, spiritual satisfaction, your “enlightenment”, once you accept Jesus’s love into your heart. You will be a good Christian once you follow the god-Jesus as a role model. A Christian’s relationship to God defines his or her identity, a religious identity by definition. The culture we marinate in, is thus obsessed with the god-relationship as a mark of personal virtue and religiosity.
What defines a Jewish person’s identity? Bloodline. You are either born a Jew or you choose to join the blood lineage. When a person converts into Judaism he or she are not asked to accept God into his or her heart. The convert is asked to step out of his or her birth-lineage and enter the Jewish lineage by taking on a new name, “so-and-so, son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah (our original ancestors)”. Whether or not you believe in God or have a relationship to God is irrelevant to your being Jewish, bloodline is.
How do Christians view Jews through their framework? As a variation on Christianity, another kind of religion, an outdated religion at that, but nevertheless a religion. There is the Christian religion, the Muslim religion, other religions and Judaism is in that lineup.
How do Jews identify as being Jewish? As a people - unless of course you are a Jew who has primarily marinated in a Christian dominated culture. Judaism is not a religion, it is a peoplehood. I submit that you and I are not interested in attending Rosh HaShannah “religious” services. Our deeper interest is in having our “Knesset”, our gathering with our Jewish brothers and sisters to connect with our history and our traditions.
Whether you believe in, comprehend of, worship, or love God, or whether you disbelieve in, object to, ridicule, or even hate God, is immaterial to the purpose of attending High Holiday services. And furthermore, it is irrelevant to your Jewish identity. As a Jew you are a member of the Jewish people, and it is an unwavering identity.
As a people we have the three “L”s in common: land, language and legacy. The land of Israel, the Hebrew Language and our collective legacy, our story of origin, the Torah. We will attend services this year to tap into the 4000 year long flow of our shared land, language and legacy, together with our tribesmen and tribeswomen.
And sometimes when we gather, God may show up in our midst as well - or not. We may touch upon a sacred moment at services - or not. But whether or not we do, I feel that we always successfully dip our minds and hearts into our people’s collective lifestream and draw nourishment from it.
This Rabbi will be so bold as to permit you, at least during this season, to ignore the majority culture view of you. No, your Judaism is not a religion. Instead I invite you to explore your identity on your own terms, as a tribesman/woman with a 4000 year old land, language and legacy. It is literally your birthright. About that, please have no ambivalence.
May you have the sweetest and happiest Jewish New Year.
Shannah Tovah U’Metukah,
Rabbi Reuben Modek