Everyone Wants to Be Jewish

jewish christian muslimJudaism is in fashion in the U.S. — and in Canada, too.

Non-Jews are happy to join Jewish families. Christian communities want to explore their Jewish roots. A television show features a Christian bar mitzvah celebration. The current U.S. President has a Jewish brother; the previous democratic president has a Jewish son-in law; the Canadian Prime Minister loves Israel.

The old-world European questions about how Jews might break in to non-Jewish society have been replaced. New questions arise: to what extent should we allow non-Jews to break into Jewish society? Should a rabbi perform an interfaith wedding? Accept a job as minister of a Unitarian church? Allow non-Jews to accept honors during the synagogue service?

Over the centuries, Jewish intellectuals developed a theological vocabulary for talking about the old issues of inclusion and exclusion. We spoke of “universalism,” Judaism’s messages for everyone, and “particularism,” Judaism’s practices designed just for Jews. Using these concepts, we asked questions and we answered them.

Medieval Biblical scholar Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), living in Muslim-ruled Spain, asked, “What will change the damaging view of Jew as Other?” Nothing less than a theological revolution, he answered. Jew and non-Jew alike must recognize that the god Jews call by a particular name is not just a Jewish god. Rather, this God governs the universe we all share.

Modern Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) wrote in Germany as liberal democratic ideals gradually opened citizenship to Jews. He asked, “How can Jews be accepted as equals to Christians in a new, secular society?” People need to know the true history of democratic ideas, he thought. By teaching monotheism, Jews gave the world a particularly special gift. Belief in one God, who legislates a universal ethical code for all humanity, makes justice and peace possible.

And contemporary blogger, Laura Duhan Kaplan (okay, it’s me), living 15 years ago in the buckle of the U.S. Bible Belt, asked, “All around me, Christians seem to be transformed by their authentic spiritual experiences. Can I, a Jew, access genuine spirituality?”

At that time, my young children were in bed by 8:00 pm, and I looked forward to a quiet break before working in my home office. But quiet would not come. Inside my thoughts and feelings I heard a knocking. Something insistent begged for recognition. When I listened, my imagination showed me a door.  On one brightly lit side, I stood in a narrow hallway; on the other, shadowy side, a hidden spiritual force waited.

After about 90 nights of this, I finally confessed to my Jewish husband, a cognitive scientist. “Someone is knocking on a door inside my mind,” I said. “What if I open it and it’s…Jesus? … If it is I’ll deal with it, but my parents won’t be happy!”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “It won’t be Jesus. Your spiritual experience will come to you in the Jewish symbols and metaphors that have shaped you.”

He was offering encouragement, not scientific truth, but it was enough to push me through the door. One universal spiritual truth, I found, underlies all experiences: God is energy, and so are we. This truth is shared through particular concepts, emotions, and actions. Jewish literature, music and rituals can be beautiful agents of this giving and receiving. My experiences through these media are authentic.

Many voices in our spiritual tradition say it clearly: Judaism is part of a larger whole. The whole is greater than any of its parts. Judaism offers a theology, a language, and many symbols that point to something greater.  We are one finger pointing at the moon.

In North America right now, many serious seekers find that finger beautiful, or welcoming, or strangely familiar. They want to ride it to the moon, so to speak. Sometimes, we make it so difficult for them to get on board.

Is there a justifiable theological reason for our reluctance?

Image: uanews.com. Cross-posted at Rabbis Without Borders at My Jewish Learning.

Categories: General, God, Jewish Renewal, Kabbalah, Philosophy, Political, Spiritual Growth

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15 replies

  1. Good article, except, there were no Jews living in Muslim Spain (711-1492). They’re called YAHUD, or the people who followed Moses’ Law – and not Talmud. A few year ago, Jewish historian Dr. Shlomo Sand als confirmed that “Jew were invented in the late 18th century”.

    Rabbi Moses Maimonides was born in 1138 CE. His name in his mother tongue of Arabic was Musa ibn Maymun al-Qurtubi, and he is universally considered the most important Jewish thinker in the last 2,000 years. Please note the similarities between Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa: both were born in Cordoba in Al-Andalus; both became “philosopher/theologians” and the foremost interpreters of Aristotle within Islam and Judaism, with both attempting to harmonize the truths of reason with the revelations of the Holy Qur’an and the Torah; both became jurists and authorities in religious law (the Sharia in Islam, the Halakhah in Judaism) that is still central to Muslim and Jewish observance; both lived part of their lives in Fez in Morocco; and both became court physicians to their local rulers, Ibn Rushd to the Caliph of Cordoba, Rabbi Musa to the great Salah-ah-Din in Egypt.


    • Thank you, rehmat1, for writing about Jewish and Muslim theologian-philosophers. I have read excerpts from Ibn Rashid and also Ibn Sina about their contrasting theologies – both coming from love of Qur’an and love of philosophy.

      Thank you for reminding us that social and political definitions of “Jew” or “Israel” as many called themselves have changed over time, place, and context. Keep in mind when you read, though, that “Jew” is the English translation of the Hebrew “Yehudi.” And, yes, technically, Ibn Ezra was born in Navarre.

  2. Shalom Rabbi! I found interesting your article about the fashion of being Jewish in the U.S. and Canada.
    In Brazil, there is a somewhat different process, which involves two stages:
    1st. The movement of abandonment of Christian rites and adopt the Jewish rite by evangelical churches movement that came from the U.S. to Brazil. This movement made ​​to appear “synagogues” Christian, the movement called “Messianic”, which aims to convert Jews to Christianity and that is causing serious conflicts with the Brazilian Jews.
    2nd. Many family anusim or crypto-Jews are beginning to make his return to the Jewish womb, despite opposition from the Orthodox movement, especially the Chabad and Haredi. Most families anusim in Brazil are Sephardic and Moroccan origin. It is estimated that 10% to 15% of the population are anusim, giving a total of 20 to 30 million of anusim.

  3. The only rabbi who has been helping the return of anusim is Rav Jacques Cukierkorn of Brit Bracha. He is Brazilian by birth but lives in the USA.

    • Aguinaldo, thanks for educating us here about events in Brazil. We have some deceptive Messianic congregations here as well, but most are Christians discovering their Jewish roots, with no intent to proselytize to Jews. We also have many anusim living in the Southwestern United States who, as you point out, have Jewish identity that does not fit into mainstream Ashkenazi categories.

  4. >>>
    Is there a justifiable theological reason for our reluctance?

    Of course not!

    The issue isn't "theological" — it's _sociological_. We've been shaped by 2000 years as "outsiders", and we have a tribal past before that. Our tradition is deeply suspicious of outsiders:

    . . . "The righteous of all nations have a place in the World to Come",

    but that doesn't mean they're welcome in our synagogues as equals.

    I will finish this later . . .

    • It’s later . . .

      Larry Berger hits on a point I was going to make:

      . . . Judaism has both a universalistic thread, and a particularistic (“tribal”?) thread.

      How we weight those, determines how we treat “outsiders” who want to join us.

      For the “particularistic” rabbi, every convert represents a risk:

      . . . Will this person dilute, or contaminate, the Jewish community?

      And he (or she) makes it hard to become Jewish. In the extreme (Israeli) case, you only get to be Jewish if you commit to following halacha, and your conversion can be revoked if you don’t..

      For the “universalistic” rabbi, every convert represents an opportunity:

      . . . Will this person enrichen, or strengthen, the Jewish community?

      And he (or she) makes it easier to become Jewish — because there are a _lot_ of good people in the world, who _can_ strengthen our community. The “risk” of a musical convert setting one of the Psalms to a Christmas carol is deemed to be acceptable, compared with its benefits.

      So you pick a spot, on that spectrum, that you’re comfortable with.

      I think the idea of a rabbi serving as the head of a Unitarian church is a real hoot! It certainly tests the limits of “openness”, on both sides.

      I’ve been waiting for somebody to start a really aggressive Jewish proselytizing campaign. Why leave all the “uncommitted” people to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons and the Evangelicals?

      . . . If our religion can stand on its own feet, against all the others,
      . . . let’s explain it to the world and invite people in!

      I know, I know — we don’t do that, haven’t done that for 2,000 years. But are we still so afraid of the Other that we can’t even think about it?

      . Charles

  5. I hesitate to leave a “theological” comment, because the word connotes a specialized field of study in which I am not trained. I think that the Tanakh is a historical, almost archeological document, with many layers. In some of those layers, that which we now call Adonai or God is not a universal god but a tribal god, and some of the things that he tells us to do are to separate us from other people. In some of those layers, Adonai or God is universal, or at least the things that he tells us to do are rules or guides that are of universal application. I think that the people who in 2014 call themselves Jews include some people who are more inclined one way or the other. I am personally not interested at all in the tribal god, except as part of history, and others still are.

  6. Well I don’t want to be Jewish. I am much more interested in trying to understand what I am rather than trying to be something that I am not. I am very interested in Judaism however because I am very interested in the subject of God. For me Judaism provides a very solid foundation from which many of the ideas about God that I have had to confront in my life have arisen from. I do not think that it is possible to ever understand these things apart from Judaism and I don’t believe that they were ever meant to be understood apart from Judaism. Many of my thoughts about God are much more in keeping with Judaism than they are with Christianity, but this does not make me Jewish. That there are people, such as myself, who are not Jewish and who are not Christian that believe in God, is something that just makes it all the more interesting to me. It is unfortunate if I am viewed as someone who is trying to invade your space, when I am sincerely just trying to understand.

    • Thanks, Maureen. I don’t really think everyone wants to be Jewish, obviously. The essay is written like that because the blog it’s cross-posted on wants us to write in a controversial style, which I am not used to. My point, in the resolution at the end, is exactly like yours: people who want to participate and learn and offer the same in return should be welcomed. Spiritual teaching comes in lots of languages.

  7. I am the Campaign Chairman of the Weed Out Hate Initiative, a global outreach program. Non-Jewish people see things in us that we do not see in ourselves. Case in point, right now there are over ten thousand people, mostly non-Jewish attending a kabbalah congress in Tel Aviv. This is not simply a question of fashion it is a mindset that we should learn to internalize for ourselves.

    We must learn to out spiritualize our enemies. In the same manner that other Nations of the World drill for oil and hoard it for themselves, we must learn to weed out hatred and drill for Light and share it.

    Whereas others regard us as ‘Infidels’, we must illustrate to the Nations of the World that the genuine enemies are the ones from within and they must be irradiated and illuminated out for the benefit of all of us Others give the illusion of peace and love, Israel must draw peace and love through our spiritual roots and radiate this outward to the Nations of the World. When others terrorize us, they try to draw out our hatred and this makes us appear that much worst in front of the rest of the world.

    There are thousands of community gardens springing up throughout Gaza, providing food life lines to the citizens there. We should be supporting these efforts. This could become a new mission for the IDF: to defend our Jewish Spiritual Roots through such outreach projects.

    We should be challenging all of our enemies to come to the Jerusalem Gardens for extracting the first weed of hatred. This is how we can systemically arm the Tree of Israel against attacks. The same Tree that cause our enemies (the inner hatred from within them) certain death, illuminate the righteous to experience that once forbidden, seductive fruit connection to the Creator.

    It the international community wants to come to our aid, then help us build the kind of geo-spiritual park gardens in which children and adults root of weeds of hatred together, will ample opportunity to plant sunflower seeds of peace in fields of hopes and dreams. Gardening is a universal ritual, rooted in all religions and philosophies. It can help otherwise competing interests find commonality. Taking this action to the geo-political or better said, geo-spiritual level is the first step to relieve the international tension. When we begin to root out our inner weeds, we stop being perceived as enervating weeds to others and begin to be recognized as the spiritual inter-connective Jewish roots, we were created to become.

    In 1968, a half a million hungry stardust souls descended to Woodstock to find the meaning of life. Things are worst today, We are still stardust wanting to find our way back to the Garden.
    What is it exactly about our Jewishness that makes us so special. Like the Wandering Jew namesake, we extend our vines throughout the Nations of the World, with the ability to tap our roots anywhere. We attach ourselves to gardening and kinder-gardening cultures throughout the world for illuminating eight billion stardust golden souls back to the garden.

    • Marc, thanks for telling us about this initiative. Just as the prophet Zechariah hinted when he talked about the annual interfaith harvest festival, we can come together over the need to grow and eat food. Of course, you’ve gone beyond that to share beauty and deep symbolism.

  8. My still-evolving understanding of Jewish history is that, until the time of Constantine, Judaism was a proselytizing religion. It’s a wonderful tradition with so much to offer as a complement (and sometimes antidote) to modern life. As a Jew by choice, I have met so many people interested in the Jewish spiritual path who have some “lost” family connection or personal connection to Judaism. I feel there are people who have a Jewish neshamah and whose lives click into focus when they discover that spriritual path. Sharing that part of ourselves is a mitzvah and perhaps the most intimate gift we can give. While I would shy away from active “proselytizing” (I am picturing “Moshe’s Witnesses”), those who are attracted to Judaism need to feel welcome to explore and embraced when they make that choice.

  9. Kazem, thanks for this passionate statement about finding a Jewish spiritual path.

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