Religion. According to the dictionary it means
1. People’s beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life
2. an institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine
3. a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by…
This definition perfectly describes Catholics, Protestant, Muslims, Atheists, etc. But one can hardly agree that it describes the Jew. The term ‘Jew’ is associated with both those of religious affiliation and those without. This is no accident or fluke. The reason a Jew does not have to follow Judaism in order to be Jewish is simply because Judaism is so, so much more than a religion. Among other things (which require their own blogpost), Judaism is a shared history.
The historical relevance of Judaism is apparent throughout–well, throughout everything. The Holidays, the Torah, the Talmud, the commentaries; if it has to do with Judaism it has a historical significance. It is why tradition is so important to us. But one central theme can be found along the entire history: the Jewish nation’s belief in God and his centrality in our survival.
This is the same survival that Mark Twain admires in his essay Concerning the Jews:
… The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmaties, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
–Mark Twain, September 1897
And if you point me to those members of the Jewish nation who deny God’s existence, I will simply redirect you to those stories of those selfsame Jews in the holocaust who were willing to celebrate the Jewish holidays, declaring their belief that God would rescue them as he has saved the Jewish Nation for generations, only to throw off his yoke once they were saved. Something similar happened with the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
It reminds me of the joke said about an atheist desperate to find a spot in a parking lot, finally throwing up his hands in despair and praying “God, please help me find a spot.” Then, when a car pulls out of a spot right in front of him, the atheist says “Never mind. I found one.”
But I digress. The point is that God is a central theme throughout the Jewish nation’s history which, in turn, is central to Judaism; which the Torah calls “Life.”
‘Life’ is what we request on Rosh Hashanah. While it is easily explained as two separate meanings to the same word, I would like to propose a new idea. The ‘life’ we request on Rosh Hashanah and the “life” of Judaism are, indeed, one and the same.
Throughout the year we gradually fall in our faith in God. What was once “with God’s help” has become “sure, I can do that.” Our faith, while still alive and kicking, needs to be brought back up to the surface. We need to realize that everything is still only through God’s help. We need a reminder. This is the purpose of Rosh Hashanah. Besides for being a time for introspection, it is the renewal of our acceptance of God and our understanding that he controls the world.
I would like to wish everyone a wonderful New Year.
Lshana Tova Umituka (to a happy sweet new year)