Culture vs. Faith in the Jewish World

I knew a man who said that while his father recited the Sh’ma (“Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) every day, he was an atheist. When asked why he recited it, he said it was like the Pledge of Allegiance for the Jewish people.  Sylvia Boorstein, author of That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. summarized the book’s purpose in its subtitle, “On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist.” Boorstein calls herself a “devout Jew” even though her religion is Buddhism.

Many people are shocked to find out there are many rabbis that don’t believe in God. But that doesn’t make them any less zealous about their profession or the Jewish people. So how does all this work? Doesn’t being Jewish mean that you believe in God and Judaism? Well . . . not always.

Most traditional cultures are wrapped around religion to some extent. Jewish culture is very closely linked to the practice of Judaism. Many Jewish people as well as people from other cultures make an unconscious separation between their culture and their faith. They experience the cultural aspect without giving thought to the actual faith implications of what they are doing. I have friends who love celebrating Passover because of the food, family and fun. The faith aspect is simply not important to them. They would say, “We don’t care about the religious stuff.”

How then do I have my child experience Jewish traditions?

I am not advocating stripping these cultural forms and practices from all faith and belief, but I am saying that it happens. Some people want to experience the cultural aspects and the connectedness to a tradition apart from the actual content. This can be problematic. In general you always want to know what you are doing. It’s like singing along to your favorite song on the radio, and then actually reading the lyrics and being horrified by what you were singing.

I am not posing a solution to this problem as you pursue giving your child an understanding of their Jewishness, but it is an issue you will have to deal with. First, you are probably going to have to figure out what your beliefs are. If you do not believe in God or even are very hostile to issues of faith, you will want to enjoy the cultural aspects of the traditions and not teach about Judaism. But one of the challenges is that most of the feasts and celebrations do celebrate something from the Bible or about God. But as my book Comfortably Jewish:  Practical Ways to Enjoy Your Family Heritage suggests there are also many things that do not relate directly to anything religious.

If you are a person of faith, you will find Jewish culture, because it is so closely linked with the Bible, can form a great bridge to experiencing your faith. For instance, if your spouse or you believe in Jesus, Jewish culture does not have to be in conflict with your faith. In fact, it can enhance your faith when you discover that most of the people in the New Testament are Jewish, and that Jesus celebrated the Passover and the other Jewish holidays. Many New Testament teachings, perhaps even all of them, have their basis in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jewish celebrations in particular are closely tied to Christian belief. In fact, many Christian churches use some traditional Jewish forms of worship because they find it enhances their faith.

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