Is Jewishness Possible Without Judaism?

One thing I don’t understand is why so many Jews think that in order to be Jewish, you have to be Jewish from a religious perspective. Here in Canada, there are a lot of Jews, including many members of my family, who think it is necessary to at least be members of a synagogue.  I think the reason for this is that many Jews living in Canada or elsewhere in the Diaspora believe that if they don’t join a synagogue and attend services at least on the so-called High Holidays, they’ll forget they’re Jewish.  Personally, I think this is silly.  Moreover, I believe that it is possible to be Jewish and have little or nothing to do with Judaism.  I understand that although the Jewish people and Judaism are heavily intertwined, they are not synonymous.

In fact, Jews from ancient times right up until today have remained Jews with precarious ties to Judaism, or none at all.  In ancient Israel, for example, it was not uncommon for Israelites to worship pagan gods in addition to the God of Israel.  One interesting tidbit from Biblical times is that King Solomon, one of the most significant figures in Jewish history, both from a political and religious perspective, was not as strict about intermarriage as many Jews are today, which is why he had no problem marrying the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, even though the Egyptians at that time worshiped pagan gods.  Fast forward to the 19th century CE and you’ll find one Jew who wanted nothing to do with Judaism or any religion for that matter: Karl Marx, the founding father of communism.  And he would not be the first Jewish person to swear off his religion while remaining aware of their Jewish identity.  Indeed, Jews have historically been very well-represented in communist movements, from the days of Karl Marx to the days of Leon Trotsky.

I would also contend that Israel exists today because someone, namely Theodor Herzl, believed that the Jews were a people, not simply a religious denomination.  Had Herzl interpreted Jewishness as being something solely attached to Jewish religiosity, he probably would not have founded the nationalist movement that we call Zionism, and we wouldn’t have a State of Israel today.  I also think that if Herzl could see the State of Israel today, he would be quite upset at the kind of power and influence that the narrow-minded religious establishment has therein.  After all, he wanted Jews to have a country that kept its rabbis in their synagogues just as much as he wanted one that kept its army in their barracks.  I believe, therefore, that if he were alive in Israel today, he would probably be one of those Israeli citizens who, like me, would like to see the Chief Rabbinate and other state-religious institutions abolished so that Israelis could do things like take a bus on Shabbat and marry whomever they please regardless of their national or religious identity.

Now I hope that while you’re reading this, you don’t think that I hate people who consider themselves to be observant or religious Jews.  On the contrary, I respect the right of all Jews to live as they please, regardless of how they choose to observe Judaism, or not observe it.  In fact, I especially admire the people that call themselves religious Zionists because even though they are strongly committed to their Judaism, they are just as strongly committed to the State of Israel, and they contribute significantly to the state’s defense and prosperity.  What I resent is the fact that some Jews try to impose their version of Judaism onto me and anyone else who would prefer to maintain a Jewish identity that is more cultural than religious.

Why does being Jewish always have to do with synagogue and prayer?  It doesn’t.  It is just as possible to be culturally Jewish as it is to be religiously Jewish.  Take our holidays, for example.  Many of them have just as many historical and cultural roots as they do religious roots.  Passover, for instance, is as much about celebrating our ancestors’ freedom from bondage and freedom in general as it is about God’s covenant with Moses and the divine events that led to the liberation of the Israelites.  Shavuoth, which falls not too long after Passover, actually has its roots in a harvest festival, hence its significance is not solely related to when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel.  How about Rosh Hashana?  Although it is considered one of the so-called High Holidays, there’s no reason it can’t be celebrated as a secular holiday, the same way as New Year’s Day is celebrated in much of the rest of the world.  My point is that Jews can choose how they celebrate their Jewish heritage.  They can choose to celebrate it culturally, religiously or both.  Why should Jewishness only be measured by one’s commitment to Judaism?  My answer is that it shouldn’t and that we as Jews ought to broaden our perspective on what being Jewish means.

About the Author
Jason Shvili was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area. He studied at the University of Toronto and now aspires to make a living as a writer after spending more than a decade running his own business. He is proficient in Hebrew and also has working to advanced knowledge of Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.
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