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A bit of Jewish culture and philosophy and why it matters

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

A boy reading the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah. Credit: Eli / Flickr

I came of age on the last day of spring break. If you didn’t know, a Bar (or Bat, the feminine version) Mitzvah is a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony that usually happens around the age of thirteen or fourteen. People typically spend upwards of a year practicing for the ceremony: picking what Torah portion to chant, learning how to read in Hebrew, memorizing the melody of their portion, and writing speeches. It takes quite a bit of work, and it's a key event in many Jewish lives. I’m agnostic, however, and I’ve never felt a strong connection to the religious aspects of Judaism. The belief in and praising of God has never been a factor in my connection to the religion and the Jewish people.

I do, however, feel deeply connected to the culture and tradition of it, and because Judaism has been one of the main things occupying my mind for the past couple weeks, I thought I could write down some of what I know.

Wikipedia defines Jews as “an ethnoreligious group, including those born Jewish, in addition to converts to Judaism.” Jews, as a people, are an ethnic group, and one definition of Judaism is purely cultural. In this way, you can be Jewish without having set foot in a synagogue or believing in God. Judaism is also a religion, and there’s a broad overlap between religious and ethnic Jews, with a lot of Jews having been raised religiously and wanting to preserve the tradition of their family. Converts, however, must go through a complicated process to become Jewish (as defined by their rabbi). While converts don’t have an ethnic tie to Judaism, they’re no less Jewish and should be treated as such. Many non-religious Jews still feel a connection to holy texts, synagogues, and religious traditions, due to the cultural or ethnic factors tied in to the Jewish religion.

The Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers), also known as the Torah, are the most recognizable Jewish holy text and the most important. Torah also refers to the collective works of scripture. There are other books too: for example, the Megillah (which I read at my Bat Mitzvah because I like it) which tells the story of Queen Esther; or the Talmud, which is a book of collected commentary on the Torah and the word of God.

A Torah at the former Glockengasse Synagogue. Credit: Willy Horsch

The center of Judaism is thought-- not faith, per se, but an intellectual approach and study of God’s word. Jews believe that God commands us to question him, and to strive to understand his teaching. Asking questions about tradition, the Torah, and anything related to Judaism is highly encouraged. A rabbi is a teacher and a cultural leader; someone who has spent the majority of their life studying the Torah and knows how to communicate its teaching as well as someone who’s older and wiser, has a strong connection with the members of the temple, and gives good advice. The rabbi doesn’t lead the service–the person who does that is called the cantor, or the chazzan (in Hebrew).

Jewish culture and tradition has adapted so much throughout the years that much of it is entirely modern and based on history, not the word of God. A huge part of American Jewish culture is the idea that Jews are essentially nomads: kicked out of quite a few countries, often on the run (yes, Israel is technically our country, but I and many others really don’t want to associate with Israel at the moment). We’re often scapegoated, and certainly a minority in America. Like the mandatory awkward Holocaust unit, or being “othered” and made into an implicit third party when learning about religion in school, certain undeniably Jewish experiences have only come about because of modern American history and the way Jews are perceived by gentile America.

American Jewish culture isn’t without its subtle dose of anti-semitism, though. We’ve seen it in the Neo-Nazi attack on an Anne Frank memorial in Idaho last December, or the various synagogue shootings in the past couple years, but we can also see it in sneakier ways: namely, the Shylock character, or antisemetic depictions of implied-Jewish villains in modern film. Shylock refers to the character of Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” a greedy and cruel Jewish money-lender who takes a pound of flesh from the Christian protagonist when he can’t pay back his loan. While not much can be this outright antisemetic anymore, certain villains in modern films are clearly implied to be Jewish. For example, the goblins that work at Gringotts Bank in Harry Potter, The Penguin in classic Batman comics, or Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Most of these characters feature long, hooked noses, are greedy and cruel, and are some kind of money-lender (or, at the very least, are fascinated with money and wealth): all antisemetic stereotypes that are easily applicable to modern media as well as easy to hide.

Images of the vandalism in Boise, Idaho. Credit: Wassmuth Center for Human Rights

It’s impossible to talk about anti-semetism without talking about race, though. Jews are not a race, they’re an ethnicity: which means that white Jews need to recognize their privilege before going too in depth on issues regarding anti-semitism. Jews have not been largely oppressed in America for a long time, so my whiteness will protect me from far more than my Jewishness could ever bring about.

Personally, I’m fascinated by culture, identity and the nature of individuality. Judaism is a familiar label and community, and a solid one that serves as a mental-emotional place of rest and certainty for a lot of people. The way that people can come together to form one coherent identity, one that can grow and adapt so much depending on the individuals within it and means different things to different people, is clearly visible to me in Judaism, even if it’s just one of many pockets of culture surrounding us. If nothing else, it’s an interesting thing that I know a lot about, and I’m happy to share a bit of what I’ve learned.

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