I hear this a lot.
The claim is, that Judaism is at its essence a religion, a set of beliefs about the world. I myself lived under this assumption for years.
But what are these beliefs?
There’s no “Jewish Pope” who can tell us. For one example, though, we can look to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith:
1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
2. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.
4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.
5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.
6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.
10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts, as it is written, “Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions” (Psalms 33:15).
11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.
13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, Blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.
Pretty serious stuff. I guess, by this definition, if I don’t believe all of these things I must not be a Jew.
But I think most people don’t look at Jewish identity this way.
Religious observance may be part of it for many people. But other kinds of observance, such as political activism and attendance at Jewish cultural events, may be just as much a part of it for many people. Still others seldom, if ever, participate in any kind of organized Jewish life, but still feel a connection to their Jewish identity. A well-known 2013 Pew Research Center study shows that one-in-five Jews describe themselves as “Jews of no religion,” identifying on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
One way to square this, is to look at Jewish identity from the perspective of Jewish peoplehood. The Jews in America have traditionally been known as a religious denomination, but throughout their long history, the religion of the Jews has been only a part of their rich cultural life. Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine explores these themes in his book Judaism Beyond God.
The Jewish people today, Wine asserts, represents an “international family” and a “‘civilization'” of many national cultures.” Citing the Bible itself as evidence, he expands further on these themes in a lecture series on the roots of Humanistic Judaism:
“Before there ever was a Jewish religion…there was this entity called “the Jewish people.” If you go to the Bible, the Bible does not regard the Jews as a religious denomination. The Bible refers to the Jews as an ‘am.’ The word ‘am’ is people. You could translate it as nation. When the Jews started out, they were as a collection of families, clans, and tribes. And if you put two Jews in a room, you got five philosophies of life, from the very beginning. Because any family has diversity. You don’t kick people out of the family because you’re a Republican, and I’m a Democrat, you’re a member of the family….The Jews are a people…and throughout our history, the belief systems of our people have changed.”