March 30, 2021 - 1:30 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)
As we celebrate Passover, I find many folks asking me about Judaism and being Jewish, not understanding how it all works. So I wrote this Judaism 101 piece. Read it if you want to understand the basics of Jews and Judaism.
The Jews first began as the Hebrews during the Bronze Age 5,000+ years ago. They became the Canaanites and then became Jews with Abraham, the “first Jew” and the father of the Jewish people, who lived in 2000 BCE (before common era, i.e. BC). Later, the Jews became a united nation under Moses, who brought the Jews out of Egypt where they had been enslaved for 400 years. Moses took them into Israel in 1300 BCE and brought forth the concept of a monotheistic religion, based on the 10 basic rules for leading a kind and moral life. The Torah is the 5 books of Moses. It is claimed that Torah writings were started during the Moses journey to Israel, and then completed later, along with the subsequent Prophets and the Writings. Together, these books are the “Tanach” (the “Jewish Bible”). Originally written in Hebrew, then translated into Aramaic, and then into Greek, Latin, and working up the chain more recently into English in the King James Bible in 1600 CE (common era, i.e. AD). I have read it in Hebrew, and it loses a lot in translation. First, in Hebrew one can see that many. many different writers wrote portions over long periods of time, as the language changes. Second, the translations are often poor. Did you know that in the Jewish Bible the word for God starts with “Gods,” yes plural, moves into “My Lord,” and ends with the word that cannot be spoken for God – it is the present tense of the verb to be in Hebrew, so it literally means “the state of be-ing.” God is not anthropomorphized and is not in human form. And in the beginning, there wasn’t “a void” as stated in English, there was “chaos,” and from it came order. Big difference. And it’s not “vanity, vanity, all is vanity”; it’s “futility, futility, all is futile” – rather existential.
The 12 tribes of Israel were delineated, and the Jewish kingdom began with David’s conquer of Jerusalem and King Solomon in 1000 BCE, when the First Temple was built in Jerusalem, starting the Jewish Biblical era. It went through the 6th century BCE, with the fall of the Temple by the Babylonians and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. 400 years later, the Jews returned to Israel and built the 2nd Temple and a new era of Jewish renaissance began again, with Greek (Hellenistic) and Roman influence. This period ended with the fall of Jerusalem by the Romans, the destruction of the 2nd Temple, and the dispersion of the Jewish people again from the land of Israel in the 1st Century CE. In 1948, after the Holocaust, the Jews re-established the nation of Israel yet again with the birth of the modern State of Israel, once more bringing together and connecting the Jewish people with the land of Israel, and engendering yet another Jewish return from dispersion and a new Jewish renaissance. Jewish history is a series of destruction, death and dispersion (slavery, confinement, etc.), return, renaissance, followed by destruction, death and dispersion again, repeating the cycle until 1948. For Jews, the yearning for return to the land of Israel in freedom is indelibly etched into our psyche, with the goal of ending the ongoing cycle and living permanently as a sovereign people in Israel.
Here’s the crux of Judaism: There are two critical writings that came to be after the Biblical period: the “Talmud” (“Mishnah” and “Gemara”) and the “Midrash,” and Jews have for thousands of years defined ourselves as Talmudic, not Biblical. This is the key and must be understood in order to understand Judaism. The core of the Talmud and other writings and books of Jewish thought and prayer is that Judaism is not about “faith,” but about questioning and debate, interpreting and challenging. Great minds over the millennia (the great Talmudic scholarly Rabbis in Judaic history) would debate the meaning of the Jewish Bible, and its relevancy throughout the centuries. The Talmud is like Facebook. One great Rabbi writes an interpretation and another disagrees and another joins in the debate, and so on, and these debates go on for centuries with new great Rabbis adding their viewpoints to the discussions and counter-discussions. So, living strictly by the Jewish Bible had long passed with the fall of the Jewish Biblical era. Instead, Jews came to understand the Jewish Bible as a series of stories (what my Rabbi calls Jewish mythology), to be interpreted and used as a foundation for debate on issues, without right or wrong answers, without absolutes. And God is contemplated as conceptual, and not human. It is in the process of debate (as shown in the Talmud, et. al.) that we come to understand what makes sense in a changing world.
As I once asked a learned Orthodox Rabbi many years ago, “Do we believe in afterlife?” He responded, “We don’t know, but if it helps you to believe in that, go ahead; if it doesn’t, then don’t – you need to decide what makes your life fulfilled and what gives you purpose.” I also asked him if we believe that the Jewish Bible is true and factual. He said, “Who knows, but that’s not the question. The question is what can you learn to improve your life by the stories? How do the stories inspire you?” I even asked him if there is a God, to which he replied, “There is no answer to that – you can choose to believe or not believe, and you can define God in a way that fulfills you. You need to answer that question for yourself.” Finally, I questioned why God would have asked Abraham “where are you?” Wouldn’t an omnipotent, all-knowing God know? The reply I received was simple: Do you think God asked this as a matter of physically finding Abraham, or is this more interpretive, in that we each must each ask ourselves “where am I and how do I fit” in this complex world? I’m often asked if Rabbis (which means teachers) have the answers. No, they are highly educated people who have the questions and the understanding of The Jewish Bible, the Talmud, et. al. to guide us with the debate to help us each determine the meaning of these texts in our own lives. For Jews, religion is about finding meaning and relevance, not about absolute answers. Attend a Jewish synagogue service (as J.D. and I often do each week), and you’ll hear the Rabbi’s interpretation and questions about the weekly Torah portion and what it might mean to us. Not dictums, not imperatives, but personally interpretive, and always up for debate.
Jews have 3 languages: Hebrew, the ancient Jewish language, ubiquitous to all Jews, and hence the language that was re-introduced as the spoken language with the creation of modern Israel; Yiddish, the common language of the European Jews – Ashkenazi Jews (Ashkenazi means German) – based on the German language; Ladino, the common language of the Spanish, African, Middle and Far Eastern Jews – Sephardic Jews (Sephardic means Spanish/Portuguese and Moorish, with ties to the Arabic world) – based on the Spanish language. They all used the Hebrew letters, and Yiddish and Ladino were developed by the Jews in the diaspora after the fall of the 2nd Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people. As an example, my father, first generation American, born in New York City but spoke Yiddish as his first language, and at family gatherings when I was young, Yiddish was the dominant language, although they also spoke Hebrew, but that was for synagogue. When both sets of my grandparents were together, they would often communicate in Yiddish (and read the Yiddish newspapers).
From the original Hebrews 5,000 years ago, through the Biblical period, to the 2nd Temple period, and then to the diaspora (dispersion), and the recent creation of modern Israel, Judaism and our people have evolved (and certainly we have wandered). Many think that Jews think and live according to the Jewish Bible as in the Biblical period of the 1st Temple. We do not and haven’t for the millennia (except for the Chassidism – the ultra-orthodox who wear the black coats and hats, which is a recent movement which began in the 18th Century in the Ukraine as a spiritual revival sect that broke-away from mainstream Judaism to attempt a more “Biblical” type of living). There are three things that ultimately bring Jews together: the 10 Commandments, which are good rules for living a moral life, and the “Shma,” in which Jews state the core belief in the singularity of God. These are the two foundations, along with “Tikun Olam” (fix the world) – the belief that each Jew should seek to continually improve the world, generation to generation (“L'dor V'dor”), and move humanity forward.
We are a progressive people, and we celebrate life ("Le Chaim” – to life); we are in the present, not worshiping death or reincarnation, not worshiping ancestors nor worshiping the here-after. The only rewards are those during our lifetimes and how we improve the lives of those around us. And we believe that joyfulness, such as enjoying family and friends, sex (yes, sex), good food and drink, laughter, music, dance, or other ways to experience happiness, are positive and should be pursued. Life is meant to be enjoyed, shared, and fully lived without fear. “Sin” and retribution is not a Jewish concept, and hasn’t been for a long time. We believe that we have been given the ability to experience joy in so many ways, and we should not shy away from it.
For American Jews, who came to America from the 1820’s to the 1920’s in the millions, these immigrants changed the face of modern Judaism, and the face of America itself in music, art, literature, education, social and physical sciences, technology, medicine, law, politics, and progressive thinking. These Jews created new American Judaic movements (e.g. the Reform Movement) and the American Jewish renaissance, which adapted Judaism to the new and modern world in our hemisphere where intellectual and educated discourse is generally admired.
So, when non-Jews present arguments utilizing the Jewish Bible as “fact,” I point out that it’s our Bible, and we look at it from an altogether different set of lenses. If they want to understand an issue, read the Talmud, et.al. and see how the great Jewish minds have debated the issue from different angles, rather than quoting the Jewish Bible as literal and definitive. Think of it, how often do you hear a Jew quote the Jewish Bible as literal to advance an opinion? I know this is hard for folks who think in terms of religion as absolutes and the writings as verbatim. In Judaism, it’s all up for debate as we take nothing on face value nor on “faith” – faith is a concept foreign to Jews (let’s repeat that, faith is a concept foreign to Jews) – but on thoughtful and intellectual questioning and discussion as to how things fit, or don’t fit, into our lives as things change, often with inconsistencies, nuance, and ambiguities, which is part of the process of ongoing Jewish learning and debate. We learn from the past, but we don't live in the past.
Jews are also a people of law. For thousands of years we have had our own sophisticated court system and sets of laws upholding justice. We believe in written law and adjudicating in Jewish courts in peaceful ways. Even in the U.S. today, Jews have our own separate court and legal system, consisting of groups of Rabbis as judges who can settle issues between Jews in areas of marriage, divorce, family and other matters, based on Jewish law. These judges also convert people as part of the conversion process. I went before the “Bet Din” (Jewish court) in Oregon to finalize my divorce many years ago. J.D. went before the Bet Din for his conversion. And, J.D. and I were married by our Rabbi according to Jewish law long before same-sex marriage was legal in the U.S. Many aspects of the U.S. court system are based on the Jewish system (e.g. juries, evidence, defendants, etc.) which Jews have used over the millennia.
And, in Judaism we do not proselytize (and we don’t like when others try to proselytize us). Being Jewish is traditionally matrilineal (although today it has changed to be either matrilineal or patrilineal). It’s a birth right. Converting to Judaism is a very rigorous course (need to learn Hebrew, Jewish history, the Jewish Bible, Talmud, et. al., and need to discuss and debate with a set of Rabbis), and Rabbis will only convert those who genuinely want to become Jewish and understand the complexities and layers of the religion, the culture, and the people. It takes years of study. Once Jewish, by birth or conversion, one cannot stop being a Jew (we can’t make ourselves not Jewish). Moreover, Jews have the “right of return,” which means that any Jew who emigrates to Israel is an automatic citizen of Israel (if they want). That, too, is part of our birth right (and conversion right), so that Jews know that there is a “home” in which they will always be accepted and safe.
Jews have multiple first, middle and last names. We have our names in the nation in which we live (e.g. American names), but we also have our Hebrew names (and for some, Yiddish or Ladino names as well). My Jewish marriage license ("Ketubah") lists J.D. and me according to our Hebrew names (mine given at birth, J.D.'s at conversion), and we signed the license in Hebrew with our Hebrew names.
Judaism requires literacy, as every young adult (or convert) must study, debate and read from the Torah to the congregation, and provide their own interpretation of the Torah reading to the congregants, demonstrating literacy and command of Judaism and interpretative skills for bar/bat mitzvah. I remember one day when my youngest daughter came home from evening Jewish school. I asked what they did in class. She told me that they debated the question of the existence of God in a post-Holocaust era. She said it was a good discussion, and of course, without conclusion, and she did not come to any conclusions herself but would continue to think about it. We still debate that question.
Finally, and of great importance, Jews don’t expect others to think about religion as we do. We’re different, we appreciate that religion is very personal, and we’re tolerant, as we know that Judaism is not the best fit for most people (and really, we’re good with that, and we don't like the term Judeo-Christian as we are a unique and stand-alone religion, not incomplete, not tied to other religions), and we think that religion of all kinds does not belong in the secular space. We do not impose our religious beliefs into secular law, and clearly distinguish between our religion vs. the secular world in which we live. For Jews, religion is a private matter. At the door to my house, there is a "Mezuzah" on the doorpost (you'll often see those at Jewish homes). It's a small case that contains words from Torah. It signifies that one is leaving the secular world and entering a Jewish home, giving clarity to the distinction and separation. Coming home, one often touches it as a symbol of recognition of an understanding of the secular outside the door, the Jewish inside the door.
And, perhaps most importantly, we appreciate that Judaism far transcends religion – it’s also a people, a shared 5,000+ year history, a rich culture, cuisines, rituals, languages, and a plethora of ideas and customs that make Jews different and that unify us in giving our lives purpose. We have Jews of all kinds, from all nations on the globe, of all colors (yes, there are many black and brown Jews from Africa and the Middle/Far East), with differing ideas about their individual views and practices of Judaism, yet all one people. We talk about ourselves as “Am Yisroel” (the people of Israel), as we define ourselves as a singular people in ways well beyond written texts. I did my genetic test and it came back 99% Jewish of Ashkenazi background (with 1% “other”). Oy, for that I spent good money? And I still want to know what the “other” 1% is!
Mind you, there are certain Jews who may disagree on some of the points here, and that’s good. We love to talk amongst ourselves. As we say: discuss (and we are a talkative bunch who do not subscribe to the notion that silence is golden – remember Tevya in “Fiddler” debating with God and questioning God’s role, and ultimately tossing aside tradition for a new way of defining Judaism for himself?).
So, for Passover, as we celebrate the exodus from Egypt, we are thankful for our freedom. Was there a Moses and did he lead the Jewish people across the sea and through the desert? Who knows. But the better question is what do we learn from the story of the Exodus? For Jews, we learn to abhor slavery and we celebrate the coalescing of the Jewish people and a religion founded on the rights of all peoples to be free from tyranny and injustice.