We are a People, not a Faith
By Anthony Frosh
It’s time that we as Jews change the language around Jewish identity. We need to stop letting ourselves be classified as a religious, or even worse, a faith group. It is fairly self evident to anyone who understands the nature of the Jewish people that we are a tribe, or a collective or related tribes, far more akin to how one would classify Indigenous Australians, rather than Christendom or the collective of Islam.
Yes, our tribal collective has a religion, Judaism, unique to its members. However, not all members of the tribe significantly practice the religion. And even then, many or even most of those who do practice the religion do so primarily from the desire for continuity of tradition, rather than from faith. Indeed, Judaism emphasizes behavioural aspects over belief, especially when compared to Christianity which emphasises the importance of belief/faith in Christ over behavioural aspects, particularly ritual observance. I have heard it said by a very learned and well known rabbi/scholar that Judaism is not really a religion (in the Christian or Islamic sense); rather, it’s a relationship with a text, and dare I say it, a magnificent relationship that should continue l’olam va’ed , forever and ever.
Regardless of how you describe Judaism, it is clear that Jewish identity and the Jewish people are larger than their religion. There are far more conceptual parallels between Jewish Australians and various tribal/cultural/ethnic groups than with Christian Australians. Let’s look at two diverse examples. Along with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, Greeks have a unique religious denomination, Greek Orthodox, to which Greek Australians might or might not practice to varying degrees. But who would seriously describe the Greek community in Australia as a religious or faith group? I am sure there are many Indigenous Australians today who participate in the various tribal rituals and religious practices of their rich cultural tradition, but do not necessarily literally believe in animism. Hence, no one would classify them as a religion or faith group.
You might ask what need is there to correct the common misconception that the Jewish people are a religious group. For one thing, as the fallout from the Enlightenment continues until this day, religion has come to be seen in ever more marginalised terms. Fairly or unfairly, religion and faith are often seen as the spectral opposites of science and reason.
I’m not proposing that we should reframe the public understanding of Jewish identity purely for marketing purposes. Rather, we should reframe the public understanding because it is currently a misunderstanding. The fact that correcting this misunderstanding will result in better marketing merely provides another compelling reason to do so.
As an example, in the future, it will become increasingly more difficult to have what is, erroneously termed (in the case of UJEB, for example) “religious” education programs in government schools. The programs UJEB run are not even close to a parallel of the programs run by Christian groups in state schools. In state run institutions, the door will likely open for “cultural” education (which is better description of most Jewish education) as the door for “religious” education closes.
Another area that will benefit from reframing the wider community’s understanding of Jewish identity is outreach. There are many completely assimilated or disaffiliated Jews, who by nature of their complete assimilation, share the wider community’s misunderstanding of Jewish identity. Since they think being Jewish means “believing in stuff” that they don’t really believe in, they allow their Jewish identity to whither. Reframing their understanding of Jewish identity as a result of reframing the wider community’s understanding will do no harm in terms of rekindling their interest in their heritage.
Finally, as I’m sure some people are thinking this, “what about converts?” As the old sales adage goes, “I’m glad you asked!” Rabbi Daniel Gordis and other wise Jewish thinkers have argued that conversion used to be more about one’s willingness to throw one’s lot in with the Jewish people. Think of the biblical Ruth, for example. In recent times, conversion has become about the ability to pass exams (increasingly ridiculous exams in the case of the Melbourne Beth Din). We need to put the emphasis back on a prospective convert’s willingness to throw one’s lot in with tribe, and away from their ability to memorise an enormous amount of information that most Jews-from-birth would have severe trouble remembering off the top of their heads, if they ever knew the content in the first place.
So next time you hear someone use the term religion or faith to describe the Jewish people, or boil Jewish identity down to a matter of belief, I hope you will politely but assuredly educate them as to their misunderstanding.
Anthony Frosh runs a consumer and social research consultancy.