A personal taxonomy of jewishness

Leah’s and my wedding. Credit: Roman Grinev Photography.

Race, ethnicity, and anti-Semitism

Belief in the theology of Judaism is not how Jews decide who is and isn’t a Jew —it is not even a little bit relevant. It’s not relevant to American Jews, in Israel, or anywhere else. It’s especially not relevant in post-Soviet countries where religion had long ago been eliminated but Jewish identity remained strong.

A shared concept of the divine? Only in the negative.

The popular (but incorrect) American understanding of Judaism is that it is a world religion, rather than more accurately an ethnicity, and so whether a shared concept of god is what brings Jews together is something else to consider. Judaism has a canonical answer for what is God, which my rough understanding is: There is one, it and the Jews have an exclusive commitment to each other (the “covenant”), and it has not and will not manifest as a person on earth. This concept of God is central to Judaism as a religion and holds across observant and god-believing Jews, but what does that mean for the ~30% of Jews in America who don’t believe God exists?

Jewish practices and the meaning of tradition

My best man David explained to me many years ago that Jews are a tribe. I was familiar with the expression “in the tribe” (Jews use this indirect expression to talk about whether someone is a Jew), but I hadn’t really thought about what that meant —that there is something beyond religious belief that brings Jews together.

A serving utensil for latkes — a gift from my mom.
Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz is fantastic

Commitment to a Jewish practice

In the lead-up to our wedding, Leah and I met with our rabbi —the amazing Rabbi Aaron Alexander at Adas Israel — several times, as one does. Rabbi Alexander asked us to consider different perspectives on what Judaism says about having a Jewish life and a Jewish married life. I couldn’t help but put Rabbi Alexander on the spot: What is the core principle of a Jewish life? If not god, for me, then what? Rabbi Alexander shared with us a rabbinical teaching of six key acts in life, among which giving one’s fellow the benefit of the doubt was raised to just about the same level as Torah study, at least according to this one old rabbinical teaching. Being Jewish isn’t only being religious.

The codified practices

Judaism is a religion of law. The body of Jewish law is called halacha, and it derives from the biblical rules of Judaism. Recorded debates between rabbis over the last few millennia about halacha is the defining aspect of post-biblical Judaism. Toward the end of the Passover Seder is a line, roughly translated, “Passover is now completed according to the statutes.” (If you know me, you can see how I would love that.) Am I doing it right? is what most debates around Jewish law seem to be about.

Jewish institutions and political movements

Beyond the personal practices that I wrote about earlier, there are also many Jewish institutions that one can participate in: endless charitable organizations, youth groups and service organizations, schools, for Zionists the civic institutions in and about Israel, and of course synagogues and everything you might call “organized religion.” As with other practices, practices related to these institutions may look religious on the surface (such as a Jewish education in school) but likely have a more personal meaning to those who participate beyond just connecting with God (synagogues are valued as a hub for communities). Taken together and with a historical perspective, these institutions form the Jewish civilization. These are in a sense civic Jewish practices.

Study of Jewish text

It’s one thing to have a cultural practice of debate over millennia, but it’s another thing for those debates to be a single continuous conversation about the same few books. Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, introduced me to this entirely distinct perspective of jewishness: That it is, essentially, a peer-reviewed field of study. “We were not a people because we thought so and so, but we were a people because we read so and so,” Oz and Oz-Salzberger wrote, paraphrasing another author (emphasis is in the original).



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Joshua Tauberer

Joshua Tauberer

Civic hacker/entrepreneur. Changing democracy. Changing myself. f/stop. https://razor.occams.info