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    I just want to comment on your paragraph regarding Jews who see themselves as disconnected from any Jewish identity because they don't believe in God. I think that a good part of the problem is that, as you say, they've internalized the Christian standard of religious identity. But I think it goes deeper than that: It's the definition of Jewishness as only a religious identity. For a couple of centuries, Jews in Germany and in Western Europe as a whole generally emphasized that Judaism was "just a religion." They wanted to gain acceptance into liberal or liberalizing societies that were beginning to hold out the promise of social mobility.

    In fact,I think it's common sense to see Jewishness as a religion, culture (however diluted these days), and ethnic identity rolled into one. DNA studies have shown a common descent for all Jews, no matter what country they're from. In eastern Europe, it was obvious that there was a self-contained Jewish community that was based on religion, but also had a distinct culture, cuisine, and language, even a literature (i.e., many of the attributes by which we define a nation or people).

    I remember reading in Le Monde several years ago of a meeting between the president of France and representatives of the French Jewish community. (I think the president was Mitterrand). Anyway, the president made a reference to a mutual influences of French and Jewish cultures in France. The Jewish rep corrected him by saying that "there is no such thing as a Jewish culture." More recently, a representative of some British Jewish organization said something to the same effect. I remember his saying that he was "ethnically English." Maybe culturally he was. I don't know.

    Anyway, by defining Jewishness as just a religion, two insidious things are accomplished:

    The first is that Israel's legitimacy is undermined, since very few people would support a state based on religious exclusivity. I've heard this point made about Israel many times. This also helps to support the view that Israel is a "theocracy."

    The second is that the Jewish community, especially in Britain, will go into demographic freefall. Why define Jewishness as only a religion when all religions are in massive decline in Europe? You're asking for trouble. And while Britain's C of E or the Catholic Church in France and Italy may attract few active adherents, Christianity as a foundation of European culture will always remain because it is part of the underpinning of Europe's cultural and intellectual heritage. But the Jewish religion is too minoritarian to leave much of a mark, especially in Britain. I understand that Britain used to have 450,000 Jews and that the number is now down to 300,000. If the only way to be a Jew is to honestly believe in the religious tenets of Judaism, then that fall will continue at an accelerating rate.

    Here in the U.S., Jews have for several decades been accepted as individuals, but Judaism and Jewishness have been accepted, as well. I get the impression that, in Western Europe (especially in France), Jews are welcomed and accepted as individuals, but at the price of dropping their Jewish identity with the exception of polite religious worship. Of course, now I'm touching on the assimilation vs. multiculturalism debate, and that's a whole other ball of wax.


    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Joanne. I think that "Judaism is just a religion" is also another piece of Christian-analogy thinking. Because that's what Christianity (and especially Protestantism is)-- ie a set of theological-cultural practices and beliefs that can be taken up, selected from or discarded at will. The whole Jewish-assimilationist project of Europe was, as Herzl said, based on the idea that the Jews would in every way merge with the ways and the practices of their neighbours, save only for their "religion". But of course, the neighbours weren't too keen on having it that way...


    I've always felt that Judaism requires one to be skeptical of everything, even the existence of God. If you learn Gemora you come to a mode of thought where nothing is taken on faith: every statement is immediately challenged. I believe that there is no inherently Jewish concept of faith in the Christian sense, ie a blind belief against reason. All of our beliefs should be rational ones (at least a common-sense rationality, not an "absolute proof" rationality as practised in academic philosophy). And actions have always been more important than belief. I think this makes Judaism sit pretty uncomfortably in the modern world, where belief seems to count for everything, and everyone is labeled and judged on the labels.

    Regarding Joanne's post, when I first moved to London five years ago I found the extent to which most Jews hid their Jewishness to be quite strange: in South Africa even non-observant Jews are a distinct and visible social grouping. This may have something to do with the fact that everyone in South Africa is a member of some group or tribe, with the possible exception of the English-speaking whites of English ancestry. Thus there is no dominant culture to assimilate to, and everyone is very aware of cultural differences, and expects them to exist. In any event, I now feel part of a forgotten and ignored minority, in contrast to South Africa, where I felt I was part of a sometimes valued, sometimes pilloried, but never ignored part of the rainbow nation.


    Stephen, I think that the UK Jews' hiding of their Jewishness has partly to do with there being a state Church (the Church of England) and required teaching of religion in our schools, plus an official state broadcasting system. Most children's first understanding of the world beyond their family comes through their schools. There is a legal requirement for schools to conduct a daily act of worship. A huge proportion of secondary schools ignores this requirement, but most primary schools don't . I know it was thousands of years ago, but when I first went to primary school aged four, I had to say the Christian "Lord's Prayer" every day. I don' think my refugee parents were aware of this. Plus there were regular hymn singing assemblies and annual carol services in both my primary and secondary school. I still know a huge number of Christian hymns by heart.

    The Anglo-Jewish hierarchy which presided over the English Jewish community till relatively recently did their best to model English synagogues and religious organizations on the practice of the Church of England. The rules they used to enforce on their rabbis until very recently were amazing. They had to wear "canonicals"(based on the dress of CofE clergy). They instituted the office of "Chief Rabbi" which now seems completely familiar, but was based on the Archbishop of Canterbury. And he was originally supposed to be the only rabbi. All the other "rabbis" had to be called "reverend"-- like vicars of the CofE. That has now changed. But the continuing presence of CofE prayer ceremonies in so many of our national institutions, such as the daily sittings of our Parliament, continues to make Jews feel that Jewishness isn't really part of the body politic. US Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason and Woody Allen make their Jewishness central to their work. Here, we have some very successful Jewish comedians like Sasha Baron Cohen, Arnold Brown and Ben Elton who are practically silent on their Jewishness. Though predictably a fair number of them do the usual thing of coming out "as Jews" for anti-zionist campaigns.


    As a child growing up in the melting-pot USA, I thought identity was defined by citizenship. Neat categories like "race" and "religion" were subordinate to citizenship in those days. It wasn't until I made aliyah that I realized how artificial and simplistic this model is. Categories may be useful for politics or marketing campaigns, but the infinite dimensions of identity are as fluid as history. "Jewish" is only a beginning.


    A fully observant Jew will always ask of another Jew not "Does she believe in God" but "Does she keep Shabbos?"

    As an agnostic Jew, I find it difficult to follow outdated rituals established thousands of years ago.

    We don't keep the sabbath, keep a kosher home or go to synagogue.

    We do have our children in private Jewish school, so that they can learn Hebrew and our traditions.

    I ask myself how I can still consider myself a Jew, and have a difficult time answering.


    Well, everyone finds it difficult to keep to a discipline, regardless of when it was first instituted, but it does get easier with practice. Why are you not proud of the fact that our tradition goes back further than that of any other people that we know of? What causes traditions to become "outdated"? Could the current fad of valuing contemporary rituals more than ancient ones itself become outdated, do you think?

    I think that one of the most rewarding aspects of being Jewish is passing on the tradition to one's children, but don't leave it to the school. Take your kids to schul, let them live the tradition. They might be amazed!


    Earl-- I am always very wary of thinking I can answer questions like yours.

    It took me over thirty years of thinking and learning about aspects of Jewish practice and belief I first rejected as a pre-adolescent, and then went on rejecting till I was in my mid-late thirties to reach where I am now in terms of Jewish practice. I love and enjoy the rituals I do. So I think it would be arrogant of me to think I could provide instant answers or solutions for anyone else. For many of the rituals/practices I now enjoy, I never thought I would.

    One of the Jewish primary schools my daughter went to ran evenings for parents where the Headteacher talked about how she and her family celebrated their Judaism at home, and she used to suggest similar things parents who were not used to Jewish practice could try at home. She also used to bring books and artefacts for people to look at. I know many parents who had previously not thought of themselves as enjoying doing Jewish practice who then did enjoy following up her suggestions. The children loved that too.

    Yes, a succah, for example, is a terribly "outdated" ritual. But it's one of the most beautiful things to put together and there are very few families that don't enjoy that.

    Of course Christmas Trees and Halloween rituals are equally outdated, but our Christian neighbours and friends don't let that worry them. In fact they enjoy themselves doing them so much, that sometimes Jews who have abandoned their own rituals as outdated just can't resist joining in and celebrating those rituals instead of their own. Think about it....


    Shabbat is not "outdated." The concept of taking one day a week off from work was invented by the Jews, and was scoffed at by other cultures in the ancient world, who called us lazy. So if you think it's outdated do you want to work 7 days a week?

    Other rituals use very powerful symbols to convey sophisticated concepts. If literature and theater can do this, why do you assume religion (from which those sprang) is literal? Even ultra-Orthodox Jews understand that they are shot through with symbolism.

    I have more on this here:

    Also if you think Jewish traditions are so outdated, why are you having your kids learn them?


    Judy: The succah reflects the harvest and is still relevant today. The same as other holidays that commemorate special events in our history. What I have problems with, are the rituals which were created out of necessity or some obscure interpretation of the Torah. Food rituals like pork, seafood or the mixing of meat & dairy. The construction of a local eruv. The exclusion of women from a minyan. Selling your chometz (
    These things are no longer necessary or relevant. In fact, I would say that some of them undermine the Jewish religion and shed a negative light on the practice. At least the Roman Catholic church had the sense to drop 'Fish on Friday'.
    Yehudit: I want them to be able to read, write & speak Hebrew. I want them to understand the history & traditions and be able to choose for themselves. I don't want them to blindly follow the rituals and have to answer 'because' when they ask why.

    There is obviously a huge range of jewish observance - from the secular Israelis to the Ultra-Orthodox. It begs the question: How observant does a Jew have to be, in order to consider themselves a Jew?

    I don't have the answer, yet.


    Regarding Judy's post:

    I met someone several years ago who was a teacher at a school in Gosport, Hanks. He told me that they had a couple of Jewish students in the school. When the school had its [Christian] prayers, the Jewish students were allowed to leave the room or auditorium or whatever. I guess this policy was meant to show sensitivity to these students, but I think that it probably made them feel even more marginalized. Of course, I don't know what a good alternative policy would've been.


    Regarding another post by Judy:

    So that's where the title "Chief Rabbi" comes from. It seemed strange, since there is really no Jewish hierarchy, like in the Roman Catholic Church. There is no Chief Rabbi here in the States, that I have ever heard about. Of course, Jews here could never get together and agree on one.


    Earl -- the thing about rituals in any culture is that they go far beyond what might be thought "necessary", such as food hygiene. They are ultimately arbitrary.

    And for that reason, the more ancient they are, and the more they are handed down from generation to generation, the more they become that which makes the culture survive.

    Sprinkling with holy water isn't any more or less rational or unnecessary then rules about milk and meat. It's just there as a key practice in the religions that use it. The feelings of Christians about the baptism of their children are probably as profound as the feelings of Jews or Muslims who would consider eating pork with horror.

    If you expect a religion-- or any national or ethnic culture--- to contain only useful or "up to date" elements, you are looking at what the former Soviet Union used to do. Utilitarianism is not and never was the basis on which communal and religious cultures were built and developed.

    Joanne-- It depends on what provision was made for the withdrawn students. For example, there could have been a pleasant room, with reading materials. That could have been positive. There could have been a prayer room. Even better. In my old grammar school, withdrawing students from assembly was not made easy, and to my great chagrin, my mother refused to let me exclude myself from our specially provided Jewish assembly when I became something of a militant atheist aged circa 14 (just shows you,doesn't it? I plead the mentality of an adolescent...)

    My daughter's (private) school was a Church of England foundation, but they had a weekly Jewish assembly. And it became extremely popular with non-Jewish girls who didn't like the regular assembly. So my daughter used to have me falling about laughing with her tales of this assembly with its Hindu Jews, its Jain Jews, its CofE and RC Jews and its plain old atheist Jews. In the end, the number of pseudo Jews using the Jewish assembly as a refuge from the main Christian assembly was so large it began to really make an impact. And they took to having teachers come in to police it, so they could turf out the non-Jewish Jews....It's a wonderful story, isn't it?


    Yes, Judy, that is a nice story. And that would certainly make the Jewish students feel more included. The idea of non-Jews opting for a Jewish assembly is neat. I guess it's easier to fit in if one were not the only minority. If there are also Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, etc., then one feels like just a member of one group among many

    This sort of reminds me of a story of a classroom at St. John's University, a Catholic uni in New York City (where I am). The Catholic professor was happy to let his Jewish students off for the high holy days, but didn't want anyone taking off who wasn't entitled. He asked for all the Jewish students to stand up so he could know who'd be legitimate. Three-quarters of the class did so.

    Either a lot of people were lying or (as does happen) there were just a lot of Jews in the class. After all, St. Johns' is in New York.

    Daniel Richter

    Hi Judy

    Great and moving story about about Henia. It touches me especially, because my grandparents also are from this town Sudowa Vishnia (born 1891 and 1900) between Przemysl and Lemberg. Have you finally been there as you mentioned? What's the name of this local historian who has all the records? Pictures of your visit?

    Please answer me, I'm very, very interested.

    Daniel, Z├╝rich (Switzerland)


    Daniel: thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately I haven't yet been able to do the visit. I could look up the name of the historian. You can email me via the link at the top right of my home page. If you do that, I'll try to email it back to you.

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