Thursday, October 28, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.1)




Amongst the world’s major enduring religions, Judaism is easily the smallest with only 14 million adherents worldwide. At the same time, they are unquestionably one of the most important influences in the history of Western culture. Historian Thomas Cahill boldly proclaims that in the West, “The Jews started it all…without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.” It has also been frequently noted that some of the most significant figures in the West have been Jewish: Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Mel Brooks, and Stephen Spielberg. In North America alone, Jews have a huge influence in politics and business that far outweighs their numbers, which makes up less than 2% of the overall population. What is often underappreciated (especially by Christians), is how Judaism provided much of the theological tools for the development of both Christianity and Islam – the world’s two largest religions. One may justifiably ask: where would the world be without the many “gifts of the Jews?” As a Christian who has been fortunate enough to be brought up with a partial understanding of the invaluable contributions of Judaism, I have always felt a strong sense of reverence for this faith, but also a sense of shame for the way in which my religious ancestors have treated them. With this in mind, I will explain my understanding of Judaism as both an ethnicity and a religion, as well as highlighting how I believe Judaism contributes to and challenges my own Christian context.

In the academic study of religion, few traditions are as difficult to categorize as Judaism. The complex relationship between ethnicity and religion in Judaism is usually considered to be the first major challenge in understanding this great faith. Throughout most of their history, ethnicity and religion in Judaism were essentially inseparable from one another. However, as religion scholar Catherine Albanese explains, post-Enlightenment modernity brought about a division between “Jewishness, an ethnic and cultural identity, from Judaism, a religion.” This is not to imply that Judaism was one monolithic entity until modernity – indeed, there have always been many Judaisms – but that with the arrival of modernity, the question of who qualifies as a Jew was significantly heightened. This question only became more challenging to answer with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which highlighted a third category of nationality in Jewish identity that had been minimized for centuries. The state of Israel has even gotten involved in the debate over who is technically Jewish by siding with the Orthodox branch of the faith. It can be observed that in every period of Jewish history, ethnicity, religion, and nationality provide the basic ingredients for Jewish identity. It must therefore be recognized that what Judaism means in a given context depends greatly on the order of priority given to these three ingredients.

An important question one must ask in regards to these three ingredients is what is meant by Jewish ethnicity when there seems to be such ethnic diversity amongst Jews. While distinct Jewish ethnic groups certainly exist in the sense of common ancestry (Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, African Jews, etc.), some scholars argue that Jewish ethnic identity should be focused more on a shared sense of community. Community life is reinforced through rituals and holidays for the observant, while the long history of Jewish suffering and oppression has developed an even wider umbrella to unite the Jewish community, both observant and unobservant. Tragic events such as the pogroms in medieval times, and especially the Holocaust of the 20th century, have promoted an important sense of Jewish community, particularly in the present context. In addition to a shared memory of the Holocaust, the majority of modern Jews unite around the state of Israel, further reinforcing a sense of Jewish communal identity.

Jews sometimes seem to share common patterns of living that distinguish them as a unique community – but is this just a stereotype or is it verifiable data? Some sociologists have pointed out that Jews often live together in neighborhoods and frequently share particular kinds of occupations. But even this observation does not do justice to the incredible diversity of the Jewish community. As Jacob Neusner argues, Jews “do not share a common set of ethnic or social or economic or political traits…” So who is a Jew then? On this issue, there seem to be as many opinions as there are Jews. Perhaps all the impartial observer can say is that a Jew is whoever claims to be one, and at least in the contemporary context, this also generally involves a great concern for the memory of the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Whatever brings this diverse group of people together under one big tent, it seems clear that this varies throughout history. While religion may have been at the center of Jewish identity for most of their history, it is certainly not the most important ingredient today. Within the contemporary context from a scholarly perspective, it may be stated that while not all ethnic Jews are religious Jews, all religious Jews are automatically considered ethnic Jews (when ethnicity is broadly understood as communal identity).

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