What IS Judaism?

We ALL know what Judaism is don’t we? After all, if we didn’t we wouldn’t be in the middle of keeping Pesach right now, we wouldn’t have cleaned all our homes out, removed the chametz, and be still enjoying the cosy glow of our Seder. Everyone knows what Judaism is, right? Judaism is what Jewish people do! But that only throws up yet further questions of who IS a Jew, questions of identity and community markers and borders, ethnicity and conversion. How can such a simple question be so contentious? And would you know a Jewish person if you met one? How? By what they wear, what they say, how they pray, what synagogue they go to (or would never go to!)? Is Judaism only to be understood and recognised in its Rabbinic form (and its later extensions)? Is this what Judaism IS? Certainly those in the more modern forms of Rabbinic Judaism would strongly wish to self-identify with this core concept of singular validity and authenticity. But Is this what the Torah tells us that Judaism is? Maybe Judaism is wider, maybe we should include other forms: Reform, Liberal, Masorti, Reconstructionist or Modern Orthodox. Each one of these forms has its own value base, interpretational paradigms and intellectual structures that it functions within, but then so does Rabbinic Judaism too… It is precisely at times of national, cultural and spiritual renewal that it is vital to examine exactly what makes us tick, what drives us, motivates us, what makes us actually Jewish, and whether what we are actually doing IS Judaism.

It would of course be a challenge to define Judaism in even one sentence let alone a paragraph, but the Prophet Jeremiah (7:22-23) creates a tension in one of his many words to us that should help us to begin that formulation. Adonai, through Jeremiah, says ‘I did not speak to your fathers or command them in the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them saying ‘Obey my voice and I will be your G-d, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the ways I have commanded you.’ ‘. The obvious tension and deliberate contradiction is to highlight something we are meant to think about, to be challenged about. Clearly G-d DID command us concerning sacrifice and offerings, yet we seemed to have missed something: the command to obey His voice. As a nation we set about doing things, fulfilling the commandments and yet we are reminded by the Prophet that listening to G-d’s voice in all this was/is missing. The contradiction points to a sad condition of spiritual deafness that even today should cause us concern. Doing is not the same as listening and obeying. If Jewish renewal is going to mean anything then it has to be a return to a focus on listening to G-d, hearing His voice through Torah and tradition, knowing how through the application of His righteousness alone we are to live out the mitzvot. We can, and should take this analogy even further: to listen implies two parties who are alive and understand each other, in fact, to have a living relationship where communication is not impeded. Judaism surely stands on the reality of the G-d of Israel’s existence and His ability to communicate to us even today as He has in the past through our Fathers, the Prophets and Mashiach. It stands on relationship.

Ask most people outside the borders of Judaism what Jewish people are defined by and you will get the comment ‘they do X, or Y’. It is highly unlikely that we would ever hear the comment ‘Jewish people are people who listen to G-d, have a relationship with Him and obey Him.’ In whatever form of Judaism we are, and however we may self-define that Judaism, surely we should allow G-d to speak to us through Torah once more and challenge us to submit to its teachings alone.

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