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15 December 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:33am

The rabbi responds

In her final blog, Janet Burden responds to a question from reader Adrian Cangado

By Rabbi Janet Burden


‘I’ve found your article lovable. I share with you the idea that Judaism is more than mere religion. It is religion (“an evolving religious civilization” is a good definition), but it is religion that generates culture. Rabbi Leo Baeck thought the Jewish people as two interconnected cores: Israel and the Diaspora. But I (humbly) believe he was wrong. I think there’re two interconnected cores, but they are Identity and Creed+Religion+Faith. I call the first “Jewishness”, and the second I call “Judaism”.One cannot live without the other. Some people prefer the first one (they are not very practising, some even non-believers), but they feel a very hard connection with other Jews: through art, music, language, or the State of Israel. Others (and I include myself here) consider that they form a part of a universal religious brotherhood, they share that sentence of I. I. Mattuck, when he said: “we are a people of religion, but surely not a nation”. For still others (the majority I suppose) being a Jew is the sum, the perfect sum of both aspects, reaching a point where they cannot separate them, because they live their Judaism in the border, in the connection actually. Identity and Religion are a perfect sum in the Jewish community. We Jews cannot dissociate one from the other. That is the reason why a Jew that converts to another faith is no longer a Jew. And why other Jews, religious Jews, cannot forget or kill in themselves the familiarity, the sense of community with other Jews, even from really distant parts of the world: because we are a community beyond religion but from religion. Maybe, some of us don’t pray, or study the Jewish texts, or go to synagogue.. but maybe he pays the light-tax, or has painted and designed the windows of the temple or the Holy Ark.

Janet responds:

The existential ‘cores’ that you identify (‘Jewishness’ and ‘Judaism’) will be recognised by many people. I fear, however, that every individual Jew reading your words would understand them differently. For example, are our ethical teachings part of ‘Judaism’ – or have they, at least for some, been internalised into ‘Jewishness’?

I have many friends who reject ‘Judaism’ who are more ethical than those who seemingly embrace it. Equally, I know many people who practice Judaism who regularly admit that they have little ‘belief’ and even less ‘faith’. They would say that the synagogue allows them to express their ‘Jewishness’. That is why I think Mordecai Kaplan was right to formulate a model that transcends this bifurcation: the evolving religious civilisation.’

I was puzzled by your assertion that a Jew who embraces another faith ceases to be a Jew, as the thrust of your argument seemed to be implying otherwise. Although I don’t like the overtones of the terminology, such a person would be an apostate Jew – but a Jew nonetheless. Some would say a covenant of history (others would say a covenant of fate) binds us, whether we will it or no. I believe both suggestions are useful. When I converted, I made a conscious choice to locate myself within Jewish narrative history AND to share a Jewish fate. In so doing, I joined others who had no choice whether or not to be part of these covenants; their Jewish identity was determined by their birth. As I said, our experiences are different but the end result is the same.

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I don’t personally accept the mystical notion to which I think you allude, that all Jewish souls, including those of future converts, stood together to receive the Torah at Sinai. I don’t think my soul found its way back to a primal home. With all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, I chose a NEW home. May I always live in such a way that I honour it.