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Religion is Ruining Judaism
by Avi Lazerson
It is an accepted concept in the world that Judaism is one of the three great religions. This implies agreement that Judaism is a religion. Strangely, the labeling Judaism as a religion is not only incorrect, but also does great harm to both Judaism and the Jews.
Let us examine this concept a little bit deeper.
What constitutes a religion? Most will agree that religion is basically a group of people that share common beliefs and rites. Although this is also true of Judaism, Judaism should not be classified as a religion, as will now be explained.
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There are three basic modes in which people are joined: religion, nation, and family.
The religious type of relationship is one in which the person is allied with those who share his beliefs and rites. There is not a necessity for a territorial relationship or familial bond. Through religion, an Austrian in Austria and an Irishman in Ireland can share a common bond although their national allegiance is different and there is no family relationship. Through their beliefs, they are connected and establish a mutual responsibility between one another.
The second mode of relationship between people is that of a nation. The very fact that a group of people occupies a certain parcel of land and share in the burdens and advantages of its development establishes a relationship between each other. The French, as an example, share a common land although they may profess divergent religious beliefs or none at all. It is the land itself which they occupy and inhabit that gives them a national meaning and causes them to have concern for their common welfare. However, if a Frenchman were to settle in the USA and another in Mexico, then, ignoring their common cultural childhood experiences and language, since their new land of abode has become their land of existence, then these two hypothetical former Frenchmen would have no obliging relation between them. The relationship between Frenchmen exists because they have a common bond based on the territory which obligates one to the other.
Now the Jews also have a unique relationship that is land based. That is the relationship between the Land of Israel and each Jew. Since G-d gave the Land of Israel to the Jews, it is their national home. This applied during the long exile when we waited and dreamed of G-d permitting us to once again return to our national soil. The Jews of the Diaspora, because of their unbreakable connection to a land that most never saw and who lived in poverty, would continually donate money to support those who were pious and energetic enough to actually go and settle in the Land of Israel. Now that the Land of Israel is under Jewish sovereignty, and automatic citizenship is conferred upon any Jew who comes to Israel and desires it, how much more so are we Jews joined through the Land of Israel.
The third manner of bond or connection is that of the family. It is obvious that people who are of a common parentage have a relationship that joins them together in a manner firmer than those who do not possess a family connection. The concept of family extends beyond the concept of parents and children; it includes also cousins. The concept of a "cousins' club" is not unheard of, in which not just first cousins but also second and third cousins keep in touch and met on various occasions.
Since Judaism, basically consists of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Jews are also a "cousins' club", albeit a 42nd or 72nd "cousins' club", not a club of first second and third cousins. True, converts are allowed to join, but a convert intermarries and so their descendents are also distant cousins.
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Now Judaism is a combination of all three. It has the aspect of religion since it does have a core of common beliefs and rituals that are shared. It has the aspect of the nationalistic bond since the Land of Israel is ours, irrespective of whether we live there or not. It also has the aspect of familial relationship, as mentioned, since Jews are related through our common ancestors.
Now to reduce the "being" Jewish to a mere religious experience is to reduce the Jew and Judaism to that level of the gentile. A gentile can be measured by his adherence to his religion. If a Protestant decides to leave his religion and become a Hindi, then he effectively has broken with his Christian belief and is considered in the eyes of his former group as a one who has left the fold. He is no longer connected with his community, and more likely, he will be ostracized for leaving. However his family relationship with his cousins remains, as does his citizenship.
In an another manner, if a Brazilian Catholic were to leave Brazil and renounce his citizenship and accept the citizenship of another country, such as English citizenship, he would cut his national relationship with Brazil and establish a new one with England. However, he would maintain his religious relationships to his fellow Catholics.
The familial relationship, however, is one that is impossible to sever. It is one that is created by birth to a family and exists with or with out the consent of the two parties involved. Although the concept of disinheritance does exist, this is only the monetary or personal aspect that exists between people. Even if a father, as an example, disinherits his son, the relationship which was established via birth, meaning father and son, and those in his family can not be undone. No one can select his father, nor can a son be acquired (although adoption can cause a legal relationship, it does not give birth relationships).
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Judaism is a combination of all three: religion, national, and family. Therefore, the relationship between the Jews is inherently stronger than a mere religious bond of two Hindus, as an example. It may be that the two co-religionists can determine and rate his fellow in accordance to his observation of the precepts of their shared belief. Yet, sadly we find this rule applied by our own fellow Jews. The basis for judging another Jew should not solely be determined by his religious observance. This is not to depreciate religious observance but to place it into the proper focus.
Judaism is not just a religion which has no relationship to a land. Judaism is also a nationality and is land based. The Land of Israel has been given by G-d to each and every Jew, not because of any external reason, other than G-d promised it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to their descendents. Since the attachment of other nationalities living on a particular parcel of land is not divinely given, the relationship of the inhabitant is associated to his living in that specific land. Leaving that territory will effect a break in his mutual relationship with the inhabitants. Judaism is a national identity, of supra patriotic consequence and independent of the fact of whether the Jew lives in Israel or not. His nationality is inherently related to the Land of Israel since G-d granted it to him as a descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and therefore irrevocable.
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The consequence of the terrible tragedy imposed upon we Jews by those who have adapted gentile understandings of their own essence is the rating system of religious performance. Understanding Judaism as a religion, gives birth to the various groups that vie for predominance as the best form to express religiousness. Yet we never found in the Tanach, (the five books of Moses and the Writings and the Prophets) any mention of religion. True service to G-d is extolled, as is the performance of the mitzvoth, but there is no mention of religion. Idol worshippers were put to death, but each Jew had his personal relationship to G-d that being a part of an organized group could not supplant. Even the Hebrew word "dat" which is used today to represent the gentile word "religion", is a borrowed word, having meant law or custom but later reconstituted for our modern usage to mean religion.
Judaism is not merely a religion! Judaism is a total essential being. This is not to negate or depreciate the inherent value of the religious aspeof Judaism; it is obvious to all, that with out this religious aspect, there would be no Jews. Conversely, accepting only the nationalistic and familial aspect with out regards to religion would be disastrous. But it must be realized for greater understanding that Judaism includes religion yet combines it with nationhood and family, and like a family, whether you like Uncle Joe or not, he is your uncle and it can't be changed. This inherently makes Judaism more than just a religion.
Hence, the current concept that equates a Jew according to his religious beliefs is rooted in error and causes separation and tension between Jews. Whether a Jew is religious or not, he is a Jew - period. He can not be dismissed for lack of observance as is done in other religions. The uniqueness of a Jew is not to be given to evaluation by gentile standards. A brother is a brother, irregardless if he is considerate, intelligent, wealthy or not.
A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. The grouping of Jews into religious groups is perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks to unity amongst the Jews. No where in the Bible do we find that there is a concept of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. A Jew remains a Jew irregardless of his performance of religious rites, participation in Jewish causes or knowledge of the Jewish history. Since Judaism is a essential part of the Jew, which relates to his G-d given soul, no matter how low he may sink, he remains a complete Jew, ignorant perhaps, non observant perhaps, or even not interested in the Land of his heritage.
It is this gentile concept that causes such troubles within Judaism. When a Jew believes that Judaism is a religion, then his particular group or allegiance becomes the standard bearer for judgement. Had Judaism been merely a religion, perhaps there would be some truth in this idea. However, since Judaism is also a family, and family relations are not measured by a member's similarity in thought, therefore, the Jew shortchanges himself by using a gentile's standard for measurement.
More so, when this terrible comparison is applied, then it succeeds in separating one Jew from another Jew, and for what benefit? Jews are not merely bound by religious beliefs, they are mishpacha, family, and the family ties exist perpetually and are not given to be broke by rhyme nor reason. A healthy family stands united and accepting the differences in its members. Even more so, because of the divergence of its members, a healthy family grows, because due to the inherent divergence one member is able to help the other with his lacking. This is Judaism - a dynamic family relationship that includes a national territory and belief in the one G-d.
Who else is like our people, Israel?
from the October 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine