David Weinberger wrote a fascinating post yesterday in Joho The Blog: “Some ways Jews are different from Christians.” It’s worth reading carefully. He gives permission to repost, so I’m going to quote extensively from it:
Jews are a people
You are a Jew if your mother was a Jew. Even if you despise all Jewish beliefs, you are a Jew, just as you would be an Italian even if you rejected every aspect of Italian culture. (Even the cooking? What are you, crazy?)
This is one good reason we generally have not evangelized our religion. You can’t convert to Italian. Exceptions can be made, however. So, if you go to a rabbi and say you want to convert to Judaism, he will send you away. On your third try, he’ll probably agree to start you on some instruction. If you do convert, the fiddle is that we assume your soul must have been at Mt. Sinai back at the revelation, so you were really a member of the people all along.
Note that this means that Judaism is not a religion based solely on belief. You are a Jew even if you lack Jewish beliefs — you’re probably not a particularly good Jew (as I am not), but you’re a Jew. This is way different from Christians who believe that you come to their religion by deeply accepting a set of propositions.
Judaism is not a matter of faith
The caricature of religion put forth by atheist ranters such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is entirely wrong about Judaism. They portray religion simply as a belief in impossible things, belief against all evidence.
Now, there are elements of faith in Judaism, if only the beliefs that the Torah was given by God to Moses, and that it is a guide suitable throughout all of human history. But Jews also believe that God gave us minds and hearts so that we can progress in our understanding, and we need to apply His gifts to our understanding of the text he gave us.
Jews also believe that if forced to make a choice, it’s better for Jews to act in accordance with the Law than to believe in God, although it’s of course best to act well and to believe.
Arguments about the Torah are not signs of failure but of health
We do not think there is one right interpretation of the Torah even within any one time or community. An interpretation that does not acknowledge the wisdom of contradictory interpretations will gather little respect.
This is why Jews are argumentative.
It’s always why we make such good lawyers.
(My wife adds that Jewish thought has vacillated over time, sometimes stressing the power of differences, and sometimes aiming for a consolidation of interpretations.)
The golden rule is not enough
People looking for a universal religious core sometimes cite an anecdote about Rabbi Hillel, who lived during the time of Jesus.
Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai [a friend with whom Rabbi Hillel often disagreed], and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”
This is close to the Christian’s golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But there are two differences. The first is often noted by those citing Hillel: The Jewish version is cast in terms of what you should not do, rather than in terms of what you should do. But the other difference is I think more important. Rabbi Hillel does not conclude with this rule. Rather, he continues by telling Jews to study the Torah. My understanding of this is that humans are not wise enough to be able to conduct themselves according to one general rule. We need the details of the divine text, we need a community, and we need a tradition of wise but divergent interpretations with which we can engage. Life is more complex than that, and humans are too small and weak.
Of course Christians also don’t think the story begins and ends with the Golden Rule. Yet it seems to me that Judaism favors complexity in a way that few religions do. But about this we could have a good argument!
One thing that particularly struck me about Weinberger’s piece was the explanation of Jews as a people, as an ethnicity, not as a religion based on belief. There’s a danger here, of course: it can fuel the kind of anti-Semitism that was embedded in the opinions of those in the 18th and 19th Centuries (and 20th!) who said that Jews were “a race.” I know Jews who practice Buddhism and Jews who practice Unitarian Universalism and Jews who practice Ethical Culture; some of them still consider themselves Jewish, and some don’t. When I was growing up in the Civil Rights era, a big deal was made of the close working relationship between Jews and African Americans (now, sadly, mostly a thing of the past); this was a union of two ethnic groups that had both suffered severe discrimination. It was never a union between a religion and a race.