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Prometheus Books
Jews Without Judaism: Conversations with an Unconventional Rabbi / Edition 1

Jews Without Judaism: Conversations with an Unconventional Rabbi / Edition 1

by Daniel Friedman


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"It may fairly be said that religion plays virtually no part in the lives of most American Jews." So begins Daniel Friedman's provocative discussion of American Judaism. Friedman, a rabbi for almost forty years, has counseled thousands of Jews on the meaning of being Jewish. From this wealth of experience he has created this fascinating series of fictional conversations, each of them a distillation of many actual conversations.

Should Jews marry outside the faith, and if so, what are the likely consequences? How should Jews cope with anti-Semitism, or evaluate their tense historical relationship with Christianity? Can one be Jewish without being religious; without belief in God; indeed, without Judaism? Are all values relative if one does not believe in God?

In contemporary society these timely questions are of great importance to both practicing and nonpracticing Jews. Each of the fictional conversations thoroughly explores these issues with sensitivity and offers much valuable advice culled from Rabbi Friedman's many years of thinking about what it means to be Jewish in a secular age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573929240
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/01/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 125
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.27(d)

About the Author

Daniel Friedman (Lincolnshire, IL) has served since 1965 as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Or, a humanistic temple in Deerfield, IL. One of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, he serves on the editorial board and is a regular contributor to the journal Humanistic Judaism.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Judaism That Is No More

Judaism ended some two to three centuries ago with the arrival of modernity—that is, with the Enlightenment and Emancipation; the rise of modern science and the Industrial Revolution; the emergence of democracy, equality, and, perhaps above all, when reason replaced faith as the dominant mode of truth seeking in the Western world. Together, these powerful forces created a new understanding of humanity and the universe. No longer viewed as the helpless pawn of supernatural forces, humanity achieved an unprecedented sense of power and dignity as the species able to understand aspects of reality previously unexplored and thereby able to control what was hitherto beyond control. Modernity undermined Judaism's basic assumptions and rendered it obsolete.

    It is important to review the Judaism that is no more in order to understand clearly the present condition of the Jews and of Judaism. Judaism begins, in the biblical text, with a belief about the Jewish people: The Jews were created by the divine decision that they are a special people whose purpose is to obey the divine commandments (mitzvot) as they are revealed in the holy Torah, and to bring the truth of God's revelation to the rest of humanity. This concept of the Chosen People (am segulah) is central to the biblical saga. It was on the basis of an agreement between Yahweh and his Chosen People that they were to know themselves as a holy people (am kadosh), a people covenanted to act in certain specific ways that would make them distinctive. They were to be different from otherpeoples. Their diet was to be different. Their males were to be circumcised. They were to observe the Sabbath and other holy days and festivals. A host of additional prescriptions and prohibitions would separate them from other peoples and make them holy.

    In return for upholding their part of the Covenant (i.e., in return for loyalty to Yahweh and obedience to his laws) various benefits would accrue to the Jewish people: a land of their own was promised to them; their enemies would be vanquished; their flocks and fields would be protected; they would prosper; their descendents would multiply. Both the purpose and value of the people, Israel, and of its commitment to Yahweh were thus clearly delineated in a text held to be divinely authored.

    In the postbiblical rabbinic period, the time during which the Talmud and other major rabbinic works were written, the rabbis created the halacha, a vast and complex body of law that would govern the Jews for over a thousand years. The halacha greatly expanded the purpose and value of the Covenant. It was now the duty (and privilege) of every Jew to observe not merely the mitzvot contained in the Bible, but the much larger number of laws, the halacha, as ordained by rabbinic authorities. These laws, too, it was believed, were divinely authoritative. Virtually every one of an individual's acts and decisions thereby came under the authority of Jewish law, from the first words recited and the actions performed upon rising in the morning to those in the final moments of consciousness at night; from dress to diet; from the marital relationship to commercial activity. Included, of course, was the elaborate regimen of ritual activity governing the day, the week, the month, and the year. In return, the individual would earn God's blessings, his favor, and a benefit not included in the biblical Covenant—eternal life. The rabbis added bodily resurrection and life in the world to come as God's most precious gift to his loyal and obedient servants.

    The individual's eternal destiny depended upon the extent to which one was faithful to the sacred law as it was meticulously articulated in holy books, the study of which was itself a sacred duty. Among life's most serious tasks was the mastery of the sacred texts in order that one would be fully aware of the prescribed and prohibited activities upon which one's salvation depended.

    It is important to understand that Judaism comprised a doctrine not only about God, but about the Jewish people. It offered clear and cogent answers not only to the questions: What is God and what does he require of us? but: What does it mean to be a Jew and how does one fulfill one's responsibilities as a Jew? Judaism asserted that being Jewish offered benefits granted to no other people, and that Judaism required separating oneself from others and their false beliefs in order to demonstrate God's authenticity and the truth of his law.

    Furthermore, Judaism may be seen as a justification for the plight of the Jews, a rationalization for their being in exile, an explanation for their ostracization and persecution. That is, Judaism answered the question that would weigh heavily on the people over the centuries: Why do the Jews suffer? The answer is reiterated in various rabbinic texts and throughout Jewish liturgy. Just as the Israelites were allowed to suffer for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt in order that Yahweh could demonstrate his might to the Egyptians; and just as the Israelites were taken through the wilderness of Sinai on their journey to the Promised Land so that Yahweh could prove to them their total dependence upon his grace and prove to other nations his extraordinary power to keep alive an entire nation in a desolate desert, so their current travails and all of history is preparation for the eventual and inevitable triumph of Yahweh's power in the "end of days," when all people will acknowledge his power and sovereignty. In the meantime, if Jews suffer, it is for two reasons: their suffering is caused by evil people and nations who have not yet acknowledged the truth of Yahweh and the holiness of his people; and it is the divine punishment brought upon all Jews for the failure of some to be loyal to his law.

    For fifteen centuries, Judaism was a cogent and compelling answer to questions of a powerless, subjugated, and homeless people. Judaism's answers required not only observance of a daily regimen of sanctified acts, but offered a comprehensive philosophy of life, providing answers to all questions about life's meaning and purpose. It set forth a complete theory of the value of Jewish existence. All this in addition to its rich calendar of holidays and festivals.

    In the course of fulfilling the requirements of Judaism, of the halacha, the Jews created a distinctive culture (although it was not their conscious purpose to do so). Their food, clothing, language—not to mention their "religious" behavior—were different from other peoples'. That which we today consider Jewish culture was a by-product of Judaism, the result of the community's commitment to what it believed to be a sacred body of law that governed every aspect of life.

    We must not overlook the fact that underlying every halachically required action and decision was a single and sufficient reason: because God commands it. I do this not because it will be spiritually uplifting, or because it will promote family or community solidarity, or because it will be good for my children, or because it will help the Jewish people survive, but because it is God's will that I behave in this way. It is both my sacred obligation and privilege to behave thus. I dare not, nor would I wish to, disobey God's sacred instructions.

    This all-encompassing way of life came to an end approximately two hundred years ago. Today, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and modernity, all but a tiny minority of Jews stand outside its authority and influence. For the vast majority of Jews today, being Jewish has nothing to do with observing the halacha, and the rationale for being Jewish provided by Halachic Judaism is utterly unpersuasive. Today, Jews, by and large, do not experience themselves as a people in exile, as strangers in others' lands. On the contrary, especially in the United States of America where the largest proportion of the world's Jewish population is concentrated, Jews increasingly feel "at home" in a culture that they have had a disproportionate role in creating. The Judaism of exile, suffering, and exclusion no longer speaks to them. It belongs to a different universe of belief.

    Most Jews derive their actual beliefs about the universe, nature, life, death, interpersonal relationships, morality, and politics not from the Bible, the Talmud, or any Judaic text or source, but from popular culture, science, and philosophy. They experience reality in secular, not religious, terms.

    This is not to suggest that Jews are necessarily atheists. Some are, and some are not. The reason that so many Jews are estranged from Judaism is that even those who do believe in God no longer accept the classical definition of the Jews as the divinely chosen people whose sacred responsibility is to obey the halacha. Yet they continue to identify themselves as Jews. They wish to maintain their connection to the Jewish people and to the history of the Jewish people. They are proud of that history and see no reason to cut themselves apart from it.

    Their pride explains the continuing need that many Jews in this postreligious age experience for synagogues—not as places of worship, but as educational and social centers where the history and meaning of Jewish identity and experience may be explored objectively and celebrated (the modern purpose of Jewish holidays). For the synagogue to be responsive to this need, it is necessary to see today's Jews neither as loyal inheritors nor as wayward betrayers of an ancient faith, but as they really are: contemporary members of an ancient people who no longer share the beliefs of their ancestors. They are Jews without Judaism.



Steve: Hello, Rabbi, I'm Steve and this is my fiancée, Christine.

Rabbi: Hello. I understand you are planning a wedding.

Steve: Yes, and we're hoping you will officiate.

Chris: Because I'm not Jewish, but we were told you officiate at interfaith ceremonies.

Rabbi: I'm curious. Why do you want a rabbi to officiate?

Steve: To tell you the truth, Rabbi, I'm not very religious. I'm doing this for my parents. They would have a fit if we were married by a priest.

Rabbi: Do they object to your marriage?

Steve: Not at all. They love Chris. They just want a Jewish wedding.

Rabbi: And how do you feel about it, Chris?

Chris: I like the idea. We attended a Jewish wedding a few weeks ago and it was nice. Actually, I am more religious than Steve. I go to church occasionally. He never goes to temple.

Steve: Like I said, I'm not very religious. But being Jewish is very important to me. I don't need to go to services to be Jewish. I believe in God and I believe in being a good person. Isn't that what being Jewish is all about, Rabbi?

Rabbi: How about you, Chris? Do you believe in God and in being a good person?

Chris: Sure. I keep telling Steve: There's more to being Jewish than that. If that were all there is to it, I'd be Jewish, too, and I'm not.

Rabbi: Chris, what more is there to being Jewish, in your opinion?

Chris: Well, Steve's family's rabbi told us you have to go temple and observe the holidays and bring up your children as Jews.

Rabbi: And you don't agree, Steve?

Steve: No. None of my Jewish friends go to temple. The most any of us ever do is have a seder or go to services on Yom Kippur. Sure, I want my children to be Jewish. But I don't care if they're not religious.

Rabbi: Tell me, Chris, do you believe in Christ?

Chris: I guess so.

Excerpted from JEWS WITHOUT JUDAISM by Rabbi Daniel Friedman. Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Daniel Friedman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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