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Commentary :: Alternative Media

To be, or not to be, Jewish

Am I judgmental?
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To be, or not to be, Jewish that is

I have always described myself as a Jewish man, but Jewish by ethnicity not by religious belief. Spiritually I am an atheist and not religiously Jewish. At the same time I know where I came from, where my parents came from, and if you believe that the Bible/Torah is at least a loosely factual account of the history of the Judao-Christian world, I know where my people came from too.

I find that I regularly have to explain my position on my Jewish identity. I get asked: How do I segregate the history in the Torah from the religion? Why do I think Jews are an ethnic group, especially when someone could convert to the religion but couldn’t convert ethnicities? Why would I celebrate Passover with my family but not go to services at my local temple? Do I feel superior to others and look down on them for believing in god? Am I judgmental of religious people?

To begin, I believe that the Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible) is man-made. I think that it was written with creative license, and refelects religious men’s colored accounts of the history of their portion of the world. Although I accept that the books chronicle a history, I choose to stray from the flock by sidestepping the supernatural accounts, religious laws and customs intertwined into that semi-historical tale.

The roots of my ethnocentric definition of Judaism come from the story of the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Historical finds in Egypt and other non-religious texts support the idea that a group calling themselves the Hebrews probably existed in bondage and they fought their way free of that slavery (by their own hand, or by the hand of god). These people, in 12 tribes according to the Torah, moved throughout the world (the Diaspora) keeping as close knit communities despite an overall disbursement of tribes into different nations. It is in the general refusal of Jews to intermix with their host communities (by intermix I mean, Jews generally had children with other Jews), that I found my belief that Jews have remained an ethnic group from Exodus to modern times.

I don’t think that I am 100% purely descended from the 12 tribes of Israel, but I also don’t think that the random mixing-in of a non-Jewish person into the Jewish family tree wipes out the Jewish ethnicity either. Futhermore, Judaism is not a missionary religion, so there aren't scores of people being converted into the religion thinning out the ethnic pool.

In Fact, Jews have historically been persecuted for remaining a tight-knit community no matter where they are settled. Isn't it fair to assume that people will only be willing to die or be persecuted for the most core of values? I think it is fair to assume that the history of Jewish persecution is at least a partial reflection of a the Jewish commitment to preserving their ethnic lines.

Why is it so offensive or complicated to say I am Jewish but not religiously so? Why can’t I separate out the belief from the family lineage? I think that I can separate myself from parts of Judaism and not escape being “Jewish.” That is, I don’t speak Hebrew but many Jews don’t anymore. I don’t live in Israel, but many Jews live outside of Israel. Are we not still Jews?

Let me start by stating I don’t feel superior. I am not an atheist because I think I am stronger or smarter than the average religious person. Yet, I think that is the impression that inferred by others who hear me express my lack of faith. What I do think is that religion has always been used as a tool of man. A powerful, motivating, life changing tool that has been used to give both a purpose for life and explanation for everything in the world. We are a curious beast and I feel that religion is the tool used to assuage that curiosity. I also think that religion created a structure for civilization by creating laws not of governments (which are not static) but of god (who is static). In this capacity, religion offered stability to society. Furthermore, I think that religion not only deals with the laws of man but with the spiritual needs of man as well. For these reasons and many more, I think religion is a tool.

Religion is the wrong tool for me. That doesn’t make me better than anyone else, it doesn’t mean I think people who use or need religion are somehow weaker than I am. It simply means they have different needs and need a different tool.

My struggle is in how to be proud of who I am and keep up the customs of my people, when many if not all of those customs have a religions connotation to them. My answer is to shun Jewish customs because I can’t see beyond the religious need, Passover being an exception. I celebrate that holiday meal with my family, enjoy the telling of the Exodus and like having a yearly reminder of my history; both on a immediate familial level and on a historic one too. My people celebrated their freedom from oppression on this day and so do I. I also celebrate that my familial path is forever changed by their triumph.

Why do I celebrate Passover when I am a self proclaimed atheist? Why I would do it with my family if I have children? It is for the lesson that Jewish people changed their lives for the better against terrible odds, and so too can contemporary men impart change in the world. At the same time, to change the future, one needs to know the past. So I would celebrate Passover with my children to expose them to Jewish history. I also want my family to know one of the central stories forming my Jewish ethnic idenity.

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