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.”
Why wouldn’t Mordecai bow?
Many Jews suspect that it was because the hero of the Purim story would not bow to any man–only to God.
Clearly, whoever made that rule didn’t tell the other patriarchs and matriarchs that bowing to other people was forbidden:
When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present which was in their hand and bowed to the ground before him. (Genesis 43:26-28)
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.” (Genesis 49:8)
Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him…. (Exodus 18:7)
And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground and prostrated himself. (1 Samuel 24:8)
Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10)
The real reason has to do with Haman’s lineage. In the Book of Esther Haman is called “Haman the Agagite.” He’s understood to be the seed of Amalek, the group that attacked the Israelites in the desert.
In this day and age we like to believe that it doesn’t matter who your parents were, or where they came from, or what they did. For one example, we may know about Henry Ford’s despicable behavior in the 1920’s, but that doesn’t mean we hold his children and grandchildren responsible for their ancestor’s actions–in fact, we honor them for their contributions to the Jewish community. In this day and age, we tend to believe that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t dictate what you become, or how you are viewed by others.
But even if we disagree with Mordecai’s principles, perhaps we can admire him for standing on principle. A contemporary equivalent might be choosing not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And another example comes to mind that may be a bit more a propos.
I don’t often attend traditional Jewish worship services anymore. But I grew up in that world and I remember when people started bowing during the Bar’chu and the Amidah, and also towards the end with the words Va’anachnu korim u’mishtachavim u’modim. I was always pretty uncomfortable with this and, needless to say, on that rare occasion now when I find myself in a Reform or Conservative service now, I don’t bow.
So you might say, I’m following Mordecai’s example–except I take it one step further.
His name has practically become synonymous with “genius.”
And that’s not all.
He was perhaps the first great scientist who was also a great moral philosopher.
A German Jew by background, Albert Einstein was a believer in humanity with a universalist worldview. In 1935, he wrote: “In the last analysis, everyone is a human being, whether he is an American or a German, a Jew or a Gentile.”
His idiosyncratic religious beliefs remain a subject of controversy, a subject on which the Israeli physicist and philosopher Max Jammer sheds some light in his 1999 book Einstein and Religion. On at least one occasion, it seems the famous scientist was comfortable referring to himself as “religious,” and many of his quotations referring to the force or entity he called “God” are well-known.
But Einstein rejected the concept of a personal God, or a God who responds to the prayers of individual people and intervenes in the world:
“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals. . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.
Einstein’s views earned him some strongly-worded responses from some American religious leaders in his time. These remarks were often clothed in the ugly language of antisemitism. One such leader wrote, “we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.” Another offered, “In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.”
Perhaps aware of these critics, Einstein was less than comfortable using the term “atheist” for himself. He said instead, “you may call me an agnostic,” and wrote, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being.”
Christopher Hitchens described Einstein as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism.”
Sounds good. That’s what I want to do too.