Summary Text of “What Should Any Teacher or Non-Jew Know about Jews and Judaism?”

August 16, 2016

What Should Any Teacher or Non-Jew Know about Jews and Judaism?

copyright by Rabbi Nadav Caine (

permission needed to reproduce in any form

Is Judaism a religion or a people?

The only line of Jewish creed is “God is one” (the “Shema”). This can mean almost anything. Free thinking a basic Jewish right. The religion defines its core as practices, not beliefs.

Those practices were mostly home-based historically: “religious” has meant “observance” of Shabbat (Sabbath), kosher laws, and holidays. Jews weren't “religious” or not, they were “observant” or not.

In America, Jews have adopted a Protestant Christian view of “religious” as “believing in a Supreme Being God” and “going to worship services.” Since only a tiny fraction of one percent of Jews attend worship services, most American Jews (even the 20% that affiliate with a synagogue/Temple) define themselves as “not religious.” Interestingly, the most ritually observant denomination, Orthodox, has been influenced by American culture and has become more “Supreme Being” centered and more “fundamentalist” in its ideology, not as a return to its roots (though most think that) but through the influence of non-Jewish fundamentalist culture.

Therefore the vast majority of Jews say they are not religious, by which they mean they don't believe in a big God in the sky and they don't go to services or keep ritual laws. (In fact, the religion traditionally might not have viewed them as on the outside of it, just as not particularly observant, but people today just view themselves as on the outside of it.) But they might see themselves as part of the Jewish people.

Can you be a Jew and not believe in God? Yes.

What are the main characteristics of the religion? 1. Rationality over Miracle. 2. Ethics over Theology. 3. Individual accountability to each other; communal accountability to God. 4. Situational (Applied) Ethics over Theoretical Ideals, and therefore legal reasoning and debate fundamental.

How do we read the Bible differently from non-Jews? 1. Critical thinking. Each word and sentence has thousands of meanings. TRADITION IS PASSING ON THE QUESTIONS, NOT THE ANSWERS. Questions are considered more important than answers. Literal understanding of the Bible is considered an offense against God. It would be reading a Divine text as Ordinary. 2. Prophets are not like Nostradamus: God's not dictating a Bible Code of the future. Rather, “a prophet is someone who feels what God feels and puts it into words.” The vast majority of the Prophets' messages are that the vulnerable in society (the poor, the immigrant, husbandless women, fatherless children, daily laborers, animals) are not being protected, and this explains why a Jewish society fails, but it can be recreated and tried again. God's job is to hear the cries of the exploited and vulnerable in pain, and humans' job is to go and help those in pain. Jewish theology is that when people who can help those in pain don't, eventually God will bring destruction on any society that allows that to happen.

What does it mean to be a part of the Jewish people? Think of it as a tribe. Conversion is not a religious transformation, but a decision to make the tribe one's new home.

Peoplehood, Persecution, and Israel

By and large, for about 2,000 years (c. 70 CE through 1800's) Jews were not permitted to be citizens of the countries they lived in. They were forbidden from voting, serving in any public office (city council, police force, military, school teacher, professor, mailman), attending public school, or free travel or residency. They did not have the right to legal protections. (During the Catholic Church's control of Europe, the suffering of Jews was considered God-ordained for being Messiah-deniers.) The only jobs open to them were peasant worker, merchant, and sometimes banking. Self-educated with high levels of literacy and legal/logic skills, they came to be considered money-oriented since they were largely merchants and bookkeepers, despite the fact that they were forced into these professions. This led to the anti-Semitic attack that Jews are money oriented (e.g. Dickens' Fagan) and that they “control the banking system.” The first citizenship for Jews came in the United States in 1776, France in 1789, Germany in mid 1800's, and Eastern Europe only in the 1900's. Still, there was a great backlash. After thousands of years of Jews being forbidden from attending public school, serving in public office, or serving in the military, anti-Semites accused Jews of being by nature unpatriotic and “with their loyalties elsewhere.” Hitler played on this to accuse the Jews of mysteriously being responsible for Germany's loss in World War One. In 1924, the U.S. Government passed the Immigration Reform Act, virtually illegalizing Jews from immigrating to the United States since they were mentally deficient and could never be real Americans. This law meant that Jews fleeing the Nazis were returned to Germany for slaughter: after WW2, Holocaust survivors were also denied entry to the U.S. as well as the rest of the world. In order for some place for Holocaust survivors to go, the United Nations voted in 1948 to establish Jewish and Arab states in the former British territory of Palestine, where both Jews and Arabs lived. Arab countries rejected the vote, and vowed to massacre all Jews therein, attacking in 1948, 1967, and 1973. In 1967, Israel's victory included taking control of the Jordanian West Bank, where Arabs had fled in 1948 during the expected speedy genocide of the Jews and had remained ever since (being denied re-entry into Israel). Israel still occupies that area, which had been designated as the land for a Palestinian state in the 1948 U.N. Plan. While there is no question that the plight of the Palestinian Arabs has been terrible, Jews largely feel it is unfair to blame their situation on Israel. Sensitivity to this issue is crucial.

Holidays and Jewish Rituals

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: The main “in synagogue” holidays (usually in September) recognize our need to collectively do better given our short span on earth and the commandment to leave the world a better place than we found it. More and more, parents are sending their children to school on these holidays, fearful their child will be at an academic disadvantage for missing. Teachers helping children preemptively “making up the work” would be much appreciated.

Hanukkah: Not really a religious holiday (the miracle of the oil is a folklegend), it's a historical commemoration of the human right to freedom of religion based on the war for religious freedom in 186 BCE. Two things to be sensitive about. First, since we are primarily a people over a religion, the notion that in-school Christmas celebrations about Santa and Rudolph, trees and Jingle Bells and the Grinch are not religious makes no sense to us. It doesn't matter that they don't mention Jesus: they are culturally Christian in our eyes. (By the way, the Supreme Court agrees with this: Santa and Christmas carols are Christmas.) Second, almost all public schools mistakenly fail to follow the rulings of the Supreme Court, which affirms the Constitution's statement that a state institution may not respect (or show preference for) one religion over another. Six Christmas carols/stories and two Hanukkah songs/stories is a situation considered by the Supreme Court to show respect for one religion over another.: 6 verses 2. Be mindful that whatever religions are represented by a teacher must be represented with equal time and equal songs/strories/attention. You can't do 6 of one and 2 of another just because the children are proportionally more one than another. Do you have to cover every religion? No. But of the ones you do, you can't do more of one than another.

Circumcision: Circumcision is a cosmetic surgery, not a mutilation. Having witness dozens, there is very little pain for the infant boy. The United Nations recommends circumcision for the proven health benefits of decreasing transmission of HIV and HPV, thus protecting women. It is hateful to compare it to something falsely called “female circumcision” which is not circumcision but a direct mutilation of female infants by cutting off the clitoris to prevent sexual pleasure when they get older.

Death, Burial, and Mourning: Jewish custom is that the body ought to be recycled into the earth, and that elaborate expenditures on burial are spiritually abhorrent. Jews are traditionally buried in a plain shroud or the cheapest pine box, all without embalming. Cremation is against Jewish law though still chosen by some Jews nowadays because it's cheaper. Jewish burial is therefore quick, followed by a mourning period (“shivah”) where mourners take leave from work or school for 3-7 days.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah: Jewish tradition is that the transition from childhood to adulthood begins at the age of 13. Simply put, this is the time when children become accountable for their actions, not their intentions, and therefore become full fledged members of a tradition in which cosmic judgment is based on action and not intent. Nowadays, this is often celebrated with a party and a service in which the child leads some prayers and delivers a speech.

Other Theological Issues

For most of history, it was common for Christians to understand Judaism as a religion focused on the angry God of Judgment rather than the compassionate God of love. This bears no factual relationship to our scripture, liturgy, or practice. It is a form of anti-Semitism and cultural domination. Similarly we bristle at the words “Old Testament” --which means that the Jewish covenant ('testament') with God is now superseded and replaced with another one, and hence it is invalid; and we are offended by the words “Judeo-Christian tradition” which is a much nicer way of saying the same thing, namely that Christianity is the natural continuation of Judaism, and has therefore incorporated all the good stuff from Judaism, left out the old bad stuff, and therefore replaces it.

Messiah. The word “messiah” refers to the political king of Israel. Every time the Israelite country was destroyed, there was hope for it to be reestablished, meaning with a new political leader/king. This happened numerous times in Jewish history, where Israel was destroyed by empires like the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Jews do not actively reject Jesus as the messiah, they fail to understand how the term can apply to anyone who does not politically rule an actual geographical country of Israel as their political leader. (I do not actively reject Kanye as the President of the United States, I just would fail to see how the term can apply to him, even if he applied it to himself, since he doesn't actually rule our country.)

Afterlife. Our tradition believes that death is not the end, but that any firm descriptions of the afterlife are likely a con game since “a soul returning to its home in God” is beyond human conception. According to Judaism, EVERYONE GOES TO THE AFTERLIFE. Those who are decently acting human beings go right away. Others go after a delay.