Continuing commentary on the article briefly mentioned and linked in the previous installment, Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?, Moment Magazine (emphasis added):
Judaism is not a religion and was not a religion until the emancipation and our encounter with modernity. Rather, it’s the culture of the Jewish people. Like most ancient cultures, it was a religious culture, and the relationship between God and the Jewish people as a whole—not the individual Jew—was an integral part of the basis of that culture. Does an individual Jew have to believe in God to be a part of Judaism? I don’t think so. I believe that practicing Judaism demands recognition of the fact that you’re part of a culture with a narrative that has God as a central player, part of a people that have had a love affair with God for thousands of years. The narrative of this relationship is probably the central theme in the culture of this people. Being a people means identifying with a shared memory and narrative and having responsibility for its future, its renaissance, its well being. That’s what Jews are. It’s like asking “Can a Frenchman be French without being Catholic?” Of course he can, but he has to understand that being French was built on the Catholic tradition. We are taught that a Jew—never mind how he sins, even in the sin of apostasy—always remains a Jew. Jewish culture is not based on the individual Jew’s relationship to God, but rather on his relationship to his community and the community’s relationship to God: We pray in the plural. We need a minyan.
. . .
Membership in the people is the necessary condition for being a Jew (I don’t know if it’s sufficient), while saying, “your God is my God,” is not a requirement.
. . .
Avraham Infeld is a senior scholar and advisor at the NADAV Foundation and President Emeritus of Hillel International.
The concept of Jewishness as a religious affiliation is a recent one. It’s a post-World War II American idea, which will take years to unpack, but essentially it’s a cultural reaction to the need not to think of Jews as an ethnicity. The rest of the world thinks of Jews as an ethnic group, and to maintain a separate and cohesive population it’s useful to have a religion, but it’s not necessary, as other groups have demonstrated. The Roma have adopted whatever religion is dominant in the society in which they’re living, an unusual story for a small population in the diaspora, but possible. Same with the secular Jews of the Soviet Union. For nearly seven decades, Jews maintained a separate identity without religion and without a common language. The common experience of discrimination forged a common identity that bound them together.
. . .
Masha Gessen is a Moscow-based journalist and the author of several books, including Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene.
It is difficult to conceive of Judaism as a long-term, sustainable tradition without belief in God, or, at the very least, belief in the Jewish people. For example, one of the questions about Zionism is whether or not, as a belief in the Jewish people outside of God, it is sustainable over the generations. I’m not sure it is. I’m not saying that all Jews do believe in God, and I don’t think God fills a void in any kind of easy way, but the notion of God gives some kind of trans-historical, or trans-subjective dimension to why we think we ought to do what we ought to do. The question comes down to what it means to sustain a belief in God in Judaism, and that’s a complicated issue. One interesting example of someone who struggled with this issue is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He rightfully recognized that defining Judaism just in terms of God was problematic, and he also claimed that, in many ways, modern science made notions of God obsolete. But he continually struggled to think of a notion of God that infused Jewish peoplehood with meaning.
The question is, why be Jewish? One thing I think most Jews would agree on—and there aren’t many things—is that it’s not easy to be Jewish alone. It’s communal. So what sustains the community? Answers about history and culture are important, but without a God that somehow transcends human history, Judaism becomes just one cultural option among many. It becomes like ice cream flavors; different people like different flavors, but why should we force our children to like our flavor? Without God, arguments for Jewish continuity—that there should be Jews in the future—end up resorting to ethnic chauvinism.
Leora Batnitzky is chair of the Religion Department at Princeton University and author of How Judaism Became a Religion.
Jack M. Sasson
Especially before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, belief in God was generally not a troubling issue for Mizrachi Jews in the Middle East, as there was little differentiation between the religious and social spheres.
. . .
The Latin word religio (from which we derive “religion”) has to do with connectives, attaching people together. In that sense, an increasing investment in communal acts—synagogue worship and joyous occasions such as engagement, marriage, bar-mitzvah and brit milla—give moments in which members of the community renew their commitments to each other as well as distribute rewards to loyal members.
Jack M. Sasson is the Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Vanderbilt University.
In this article even the jews arguing in favor of God do so ultimately out of their concern for the jews, not God.
The consensus in response to the question, “Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?”, was yes, of course. The respondents seemed to interpret the question as: Can the jews continue to exist without Belief in God?, or, Is God good for the jews? The whole point of the exercise was to examine the two most fundamental questions of group identity: Who is us? What’s best for us?
Jewish peoplehood, Wikipedia:
Jewish peoplehood (Hebrew: עמיות יהודית, Amiut Yehudit) is the awareness of the underlying unity that makes an individual Jew a part of the Jewish people.
The concept of peoplehood has a double meaning. The first is descriptive, as a concept factually describing the existence of the Jews as a people. The second is normative, as a value that describes the feeling of belonging and commitment to the Jewish people.
The first significant use of the Peoplehood concept was by Mordecai Kaplan, a 20th-century Jewish thinker, who was searching for a term that would enable him to describe the complex nature of Jewish belonging. Once the State of Israel was founded, he rejected the concept of nationhood, as it had become too closely identified with statehood, and replaced it with the Peoplehood concept.
Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as “an evolving religious civilization” illumines his understanding of the centrality of Peoplehood in the Jewish religion. Describing Judaism as a religious civilization emphasizes the idea that Jewish people have sought “to make [their] collective experience yield meaning for the enrichment of the life of the individual Jew and for the spiritual greatness of the Jewish people.” The definition as a civilization allows Judaism to accept the principles of unity in diversity and continuity in change. It is a reminder that Judaism consists of much that cannot be put into the category of religion in modern times, “paradoxical as it may sound, the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.” In the sense that existence precedes essence and life takes precedence over thought, Judaism exists for the sake of the Jewish people rather than the Jewish people existing for the sake of Judaism.
Kaplan’s purpose in developing the Jewish Peoplehood idea was to create a vision broad enough to include everyone who identified as a Jew regardless of individual approaches to that identity.
Kaplan saw and struggled to serve the best interests of the jews, collectively, as a people.
The term “jewish peoplehood” is found wherever and whenever jews advocate and discuss their group interests.
The Impact of Strategic Philanthropy
Here is an example of rich jews, selectively investing in what they think is good for the jews. Their two main “Grant Program Areas” are Initiative on Jewish Peoplehood:
Love of education. Respect for hard work. Appreciation of community. And pastrami on rye. Mix together in equal parts and you have the makings of a people – the Jewish people.
For thousands of years, the concept of Jewish Peoplehood has inspired, intrigued, vexed, and perplexed Jews and non-Jews alike.
Why the Jewish Community Should Fund Peoplehood, by Misha Galperin, Forward.com:
Prominent Jewish sociologists have identified the declining bonds of peoplehood as one of the most significant challenges posed by modernity and by a culture of universalism. Having been raised in a world of pluralism and tolerance, Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving.
What’s the difference between jewish peoplehoodism and “racism”? “Racism” is White peoplehoodism, which is demonized and pathologized by jews.
The Shelf Life Of Jewish Peoplehood, The Jewish Week:
Leon Wieseltier once wrote that being Jewish is not like other identities, and “perhaps there is a relief in allowing it to be different.
“I think to be Jewish is not to be an American or a Westerner or a New Yorker,” he wrote. “To be a Jew is to be a Jew. It is its own thing. Its own category; its own autonomous way of moving through the world. It’s ancient and thick and vast, and it’s one specific thing that is not like anything else.”
Wieseltier’s articulation is both comforting and obfuscating. It implies in a privileged, almost condescending way that we are beyond explication. We can almost hear an adolescent whine: “But no one understands me.”
Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic, a putative “liberal”.
Jewish World Homepage. The source for the image above.
The podcast will be broadcast and available for download on Tuesday at 9PM ET.