Who Defines Judaism?
Should Jews allow others to define them, or should they take this responsibility upon themselves? Throughout much of history, non-Jews often took this role upon themselves. Motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs, they did not limit their concept of the Jews to those who professed the faith of Judaism and complied with its tenets. In some cases, people who did not consider themselves to be Jewish, who looked upon Judaism with disdain as an archaic religion, were labeled Jews and practitioners of Judaism just the same.
In April, 1933, the German Third Reich decreed that a person was Jewish as long as he or she was descended from at least one Jewish parent or grandparent. This is a more inclusive interpretation than the traditional Orthodox requirement, which stipulates that one must be born of a Jewish mother to be Jewish. Of course, the Nazis had their reasons to expand the delineation!
Clearly, Jewish people should take it upon themselves to define the concepts of Jew and Judaism. In fact, Jews have been considering this subject for centuries, and today it remains a point of argument and controversy among Jews. As mentioned in the introduction, it is beyond the scope of this book to decide who is Jewish and who is not, but we will attempt to examine the definition of Judaism.
A Religion for a People
First and foremost, it must be remembered that Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Though over the centuries Jews have dispersed among the nations, a strong sense of kinship has remained among them. Some Jews like to think of themselves as “the tribe”; for instance, the Yiddish word landsman (countryman) is used fondly to refer to another Jew. If you are not a religious Jew, you might still identify with this sentiment of belonging to the Jewish people.
This explains why some Jews feel a connection when introduced to someone who is also Jewish, feel a sense of pride when a Jew is honored for a major accomplishment, or bear an inordinate sense of loss when learning something terrible befell a fellow Jew. As Amos Oz, an Israeli writer, observed, “To be a Jew means to feel that wherever a Jew is persecuted for being a Jew — that means you.”
What is the current world Jewish population?
It is estimated that at the beginning of the new millennium, there are thirteen to fourteen million Jews in the world. Of these, five million live in Israel and another five million in the United States. Two million Jews reside in Europe (including Russia); 400,000 in Latin America; 350,000 in Canada; 100,000 in Australia and New Zealand; 60,000 in South Africa; and 50,000 in Asia.
The “Chosen” People
Judaism teaches that God made an eternal covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel), and that every Jew participates in this covenant as one of the Chosen People.
However, being “chosen” by God does not in any way impart a notion of superiority. In fact, according to one rabbinic interpretation, the Hebrews were not the first to be offered God's covenant and to receive the Torah — this took place only after all the other nations turned it down!
Don't go looking for the word “Judaism” in the Bible or in early rabbinical literature — you won't find it! Hellenized Jews introduced this concept in the second century
Judaism is a living religion that functions in terms of many relationships: between God and the Jewish people; between God and each individual Jew; and among all humans. Judaism is not practiced in a cloistered environment — it is a religion of the community. This is why, as you shall see in Chapter 7, prayer takes place in groups of ten or more (a minyan), and holidays are celebrated in the home, where family and friends gather together.