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.