Identity, Diversity and Belonging

Shabbat_Challos

Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;

 

Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.

 

Foundations of Identity and Belonging

Judaism teaches that anyone born to a Jewish mother is necessarily Jewish. This means that for most Jews no conscious decision is involved in being a Jew. In other faiths it may be necessary to take certain steps of initiation in order to be accepted as a member of the community but this is not the case with Judaism.

The only physical requirement of Jews is for all males to be circumcised at a Brit Milah (Covenant of cutting), usually done when the baby is eight days old (dependant on health). However, not being circumcised does not mean that the male is not a Jew. Similarly, although a large majority of Jewish boys have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, this is a tradition but not a requirement. Even if a Jew is completely non-practising and a non-believer it does not stop them being a Jew.

‘Belonging’ is an essential aspect of Judaism. To be a Jew is to be part of a community and a tradition as well as a religion. The Jews are G-d’s ‘chosen people’ and the individual is therefore part of their own family, their local community, and of worldwide Jewry. The necessity of living by the mitzvot and, in particular, the requirements of kashrut and of the Sabbath, mean that there are elements of Jewish life which can be lived only within the Jewish community.

Faith and commitment are intertwined through practice and tradition and almost every aspect of Jewish life is influenced by religion: eating; clothes; prayer; the structure of the week and of the year.

Although Judaism stresses the very important roles of the family and the community, the relationship with G-d is both collective and personal.

The community and the preservation of it and its traditions are central. Traditionally, if a person married outside of the faith, the father would rip his clothes and say the Mourner’s Kaddish because their child was now dead to them. This demonstrates the importance of the integrity of the community and the need to fulfil the first commandment in the scriptures: ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it …’ (Genesis 1:28a).

The Sabbath, the festivals and the sharing of rites of passage all serve to bring the community together.

The consequences of the 20th century Holocaust were the devastation of the traditional Jewish communities and the shtetls (small Jewish communities in eastern Europe).

The second half of the 20th century saw the re-establishment of Israel in the form of the modern state as well as new communities being established around the world. However, these communities have continued to shrink in recent years because of assimilation and intermarriage.

Religious / Spiritual Identity

In early Judaism the human personality was considered as a whole without a distinction between body and soul. However, by the Middle Ages, the soul was seen as the principle of life which could survive the death of the body.

Jews are expected to live an halakhic life, in accordance with G-d’s will and the 613 mitzvot. This should ensure a life lived in the sight of G-d and one lived with yetser hara (good intentions) rather than yetser yatov (bad intentions).

Many Jews may demonstrate commitment in a physical manner by regular attendance at a synagogue and also by the wearing of particular clothing in daily life. This latter might be a beard and a simple yamulkah or the beaver hat and long black coat favoured by Hasidic Jews.

However important these are they are only outward symbols of a Jewish life which is expressed in every aspect of existence.

Non-orthodox Jews may offer no distinguishing features in this manner but would deny that their personal commitment was any less or their moral code diminished in any way.

Although kashrut means that many parts of a Jew’s life might be lived separately from that of the gentile world, nevertheless, Judaism does not approve of a society which cuts itself off from the world. Therefore Jewish life can be viewed as being a demonstration of the faith in the secular world. The concept of a ‘chosen people’ is intended to present an example or role model to non-Jews of how G-d wishes people to live.

The moral code of Judaism based on the Torah is strict and required of all followers. However, in that it relates to others, Jews could not treat non-Jews differently from Jews. The same respect, honesty and integrity must be displayed.

Family and Community

Within a Jewish family, faith is demonstrated in the home through family life and worship as well as in the synagogue.

The home will have a mezuzah at every door except the bathroom as a constant reminder of the teachings of the Shema. There may be a small piece of wall unplastered or undecorated as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. The kitchen is equipped with separate sets of utensils, crockery and equipment for the division of meat and milk foods.

There may be daily family prayer in the home but the key event is the Sabbath. Each week the family eat the Friday night meal together as an act of worship, the Sabbath candles are lit, the children are blessed and a man will praise his wife for her devotion to him, the family and their faith. The family then stay together throughout Saturday, probably worshipping at the synagogue together on Saturday morning, until the service of Havdalah (separation) which marks the end of the sabbath and the return to the secular world.

Many Jews who may not be very observant during the week will nevertheless ensure that they are together as a family on the Sabbath.

Family attendance at the synagogue for festivals, but particularly for the weekly Sabbath brings the Jewish community together in worship and socially. The family has always been at the centre of Jewish life and one of its major strengths as it is often in the home that the faith is most observed, stories are told and tradition maintained.

Judaism is a belief system but also a complete way of life. As such it affects both individuals and the wider community. In many countries of the Diaspora Jews are found in fairly close communities, they share a religion, a culture, a way of life and sometimes even a language.

The effect on the wider local community may be minimal as often Sabbath attendance on a Saturday goes unobserved in the bustle of weekend life. The requirements of being able to walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath and also the need to have shops which sell kosher food means that many Jewish communities tend to be small and tight knit. However, in many countries there may be particular areas of cities where there are large Jewish communities with all the facilities needed for an halakhic life.

One of the major fears of Judaism is of younger members ‘marrying-out’ and effectively leaving the faith and the community. Also it is often a struggle for teenagers and young people in the western world to adhere to the strict requirements of the faith when their colleagues and friends may be going out on a Friday night or encouraging them to eat with them away from their home. The family and the community offer support and strength but many may find it hard to resist the pull of some aspects of modern life.

Jewish Diversity

Within Judaism there are many different groups: Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative (Masorti), Reform, Progressive, Liberal. (It is important to remember that some of these names have different meanings in the USA than in the UK.)

Differences between the groups derive from both belief and practice. There may be differences over the status of the Torah and also of the Talmud.

Some groups look towards a very traditional approach to the faith, believing essentially that nothing should ever change. Others are more progressive in their thinking and feel that Judaism should adapt to the world in which it finds itself and, importantly, that it is possible to do this without compromising the faith. Some Jews believe that the Torah can be questioned and may be interpreted for the 21st century.

There are differences over responses to the State of Israel.

There are also divisions over the extent to which kashrut (lawful in terms of food, clothes, money and objects) must be observed; over whether women can sit with men; whether women can read from the Torah in public; whether women can be rabbis; whether children with a Jewish father and gentile mother should be regarded as Jewish; whether a divorced woman can remarry if her husband does not grant her a ‘get’, a religious divorce document; over whether women can become rabbis; whether women must continue to visit a mikveh (ritual bath) after menstruation, and whether it is permissible to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath. These and many other issues continue to divide the world Jewish community.

Other Religions & Beliefs

In some respects Jews may find it easier to relate to other faith groups than to other Jewish groups.

According to the Talmud, after the flood, G-d made an agreement with Noah and his sons. This is called the Noachide Code and is based on the text of Genesis.

Judaism teaches that any religion which keeps the laws of the Noachide Code is an acceptable way for non-Jews to serve G-d:

1.  Do not worship images or idols
2.  Do not commit blasphemy or curse G-d
3.  Do not commit murder
4.  Do not steal
5.  Do not commit adultery
6.  Do not eat a limb of a live animal
7.  Set up a legal system and promote justice.

The Rabbis taught: ‘seven precepts were the sons of Noah commanded: social laws; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry; adultery; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal’ (Sanhedrin 56a).

Therefore, Judaism discourages converts because this teaching is that non-Jews who follow the code are already serving G-d as G-d wants.

Many Jews are, however, concerned about the number of young people who are ‘marrying out’ – that is marrying non-Jews who themselves are not converting to Judaism. They fear that this will mean more people leaving the practice of the faith and so weaken the community.

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