Friday, October 1, 2010

Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.

The media is all abuzz about the new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Depending on how you read the results, it's either really bad news for the future of American religious life (because we Americans apparently don't know anything about religion), or really good news (because we apparently know a lot more than you might expect us to).  (You can take the quiz - which was the basis for the new poll - yourself by clicking here.)

For me, the most interesting part of the survey was the data about how much American Jews know about Judaism.  To find this information, you have to dig for it.  Check out pp. 26-ff of the full survey report.

The survey asked two questions about Judaism: when does Shabbat begin; and what religious tradition was Maimonides associated with?

We Jews get an A Plus for knowing when Shabbat begins: 94% knew the correct answer!

Regarding the Maimonides question: not so much.  Almost half of the Jews surveyed did not know that Maimonides was Jewish!

Now, I'll be the first to tell you that Maimonides is right up there - in terms of the top 3 most important and greatest rabbis of all time IMHO.

But is even an elementary knowledge about Maimonides indicative of general Jewish knowledge?  I'm not sure.

More to the point: what are the most important things that Jews should know about Judaism?  That's the question that has been on my mind ever since the Pew results came out.

It's an especially relevant question given that Simchat Torah was observed this week.  Simchat Torah isn't just a celebration of Torah in general.  It is, more particularly, our celebration of Jewish knowledge - of the transmission of Jewish learning from one generation to the next.

So, in that spirit, this week's posting is meant to get you talking: about what you think the most essential elements of Judaism are.  The really essential things that you think we should all know a little bit about.

There's so much to choose from!  Maybe you think that our Jewish identities are focused around the notion of "love your neighbor as yourself."  Or maybe, for you, the key part of Judaism is the way in which our religious values can speak to the way we think politically - whether we situate ourselves on the left or on the right.

The beauty of this exercise is that there's no right answer.

If I were asked to compose the Jewish elements of the next Pew survey, these are the 3 things I would ask about.  (Ask me tomorrow and I'll probably change my answers!)

1) GOD.  Jews believe in God.  Okay: many (most?) American Jews aren't certain about their belief.  And we're definitely not very comfortable talking about it - we'd rather define our Jewish identities ethnicallyA few have taken the bold step to absolutely refute God's existence.  But all that being said, I would assert that a central tenet of the Jewish tradition is that God exists.  One God in fact.  But Jews don't just believe in a "supernatural" God - a God that absolutely hears our prayers and answers them; a God that performs verifiable miracles; and a God that can directly intervene in our personal everyday lives.  For more than a hundred years, many (most?) Non-Orthodox Jews have believed in a less supernatural (more rational) God/Presence in the world.  Many of us (myself included) think of God as the Force (or conscience) that impels us to do good in the world (see Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan).  And others think of God as being the Profound Byproduct of two people that are genuinely present and caring for one another (see Martin Buber).  More than Maimonides, Kaplan/Buber/the other great names of contemporary Jewish thought are the essential theologians that Jews should know about today: because they give us the vocabulary to speak about what it might mean to believe in God in the 21st century.

2) TORAH.  Speaking of Simchat Torah...It is absolutely essential, in my opinion, that Jews today understand that there is a big spectrum of belief that exists about the authorship of the Torah.  Sure, there are some in our community that still believe that God dictated every word of it to Moses.  But it is devastatingly sad to me that so few Non-Orthodox Jews realize the tremendous scholarship that has existed since the middle of the 19th century regarding a more scientific or academic approach to the authorship question today.  Not only can one be a good Jew and believe that human beings wrote the Torah.  But in my opinion, that is the most authentic belief to have, if one has made the choice to live a Non-Orthodox life.  What I wish more contemporary Jews knew about Judaism is that we behave Jewishly in the world, today because Jewish ritual and values speak to us, validating our past and present, and charting a meaningful way forward into our future.  And I would want everyone to know that we should never do something Jewish because we erroneously believe that God wrote something down on a piece of paper, and that we'll be punished (here or in the afterlife) if we don't follow the rules. 

3) ISRAEL.  Jews have an inalienable claim to the Land of Israel.  But what I wish more Jews understood is that that claim doesn't come from the Bible (a man made document as I argue above).  It comes from the fact that my and your Jewish ancestors have been screwed by history. We have been discriminated against - just because we're Jewish.  By every major Western empire and civilization for the last 2500 years, with the exception of America.  Time and again, crazy people have tried to wipe us off the face of the Earth.  Hitler just happens to have been the most successful, and most recent example, of a much larger phenomenon.  But Theodor Herzl, who understood the reality of anti-Semitism more than three decades before Hitler came to power, dreamed up an incredible answer to this persistent problem: a homeland.  A Jewish homeland.  The one place in the world where Jews would be guaranteed to be free, and safe from discrimination and genocide.  And from his dream, the State of Israel was born.  And even though Arab countries have sought Israel's destruction since before its birth...still we believe, and still we hope, in the possibility for peace in the Middle East.  Because what other choice do we have?  What I want every Jew to know, and to pass on to their children, is this: that we can't necessarily make anti-Semitism disappear from the world.  But we can stand up for ourselves, and demand a right to be safe, and to exist.  Even after all of these years.

God, Torah, and Israel.  The Big Stuff.  That's what I wish we Jews knew more about. 

What about you: how much of this stuff did you already know?  More importantly: what parts of Judaism are most important to you?  If there were only three things, or values, that you could pass along to your kids what would they be?

Shabbat Shalom.

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