From My Readings: Judaism as Adult Community and Identity

22 Iyyar 5774

I’m finished with Isaacs (although I’m going to keep his book as a good reference) and I’m now working my way through To Life! by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. First, I assume that the title, translated into Hebrew, would be L’Chayim!, a very common Jewish toast to happy times and events. I love this as a book title; it expresses the underlying optimism I find in Judaism over and over again, in so many ways.

The first chapter of the book is titled “Life is the question, Judaism is the answer.” This appeals to me on a number of levels. But in order to put this particular post into context, I need to talk about the Christian approach to the issues I’m going to discuss so that I can show why, for me, Judaism is a) not like that and b) a much better fit for me than Christianity.

Today, those issues are: childlike belief vs. adult understanding, and inclusion based on belief vs. inclusion based on community.

In my experience, modern Christianity tends to have a bias towards childlike understanding of the world, and of G-d. This really bothers me, and always has. It’s the source of “don’t ask those questions,” in my view and experience. The fundamentalist statement “G-d said it, I believe it, that settles it” is another expression of this. “The Bible says…” is yet another. When I hear someone say “The Bible says…” I know it’s going to be followed by “this rule, which we’re not allowed to question or break, end of story.”

I think most of this comes from the way Christian children are raised, combined with the basic processes of learning that every child goes through, no matter their religious background.

When you’re a child, you learn by rote. You memorize and parrot back what you’re told, without much understanding of what it is you’re memorizing and parroting. Children tend to take things “on faith,” intuitively, when they’re very young – say, between two and six years old. This stage is what Piaget called the “pre-operational” stage, where magical thinking and animism (attributing souls, motivations, and personalities to inanimate objects) are prominent, and where cause and effect are not really understood yet. In this stage, children learn symbols (such as letters, words and numbers) by rote, without inquiring into their meaning.

Most Christian children between the ages of two and six are taught Bible verses and Bible stories as if they were literal truth. At this stage, they have no ability to understand that many of the stories they are taught were probably fables (told to express an underlying truth of the human experience), not facts. So they take them as factual, long before they have the ability to question whether or not they actually are. This becomes a problem later, when they reach the concrete operational stage.

I read an analysis once, and I can’t remember where I read it, that said that most conservatives today have the analytical abilities of a seven-year-old. Piaget called this time in a child’s life, from seven to twelve years old or so, the “concrete operational” stage. In the concrete operational stage, children cannot solve hypothetical problems or use thought experiments. “What if?” is not yet a question they can understand or process. Everything is very tied to the concrete – what you can see, feel, touch, hear, taste, etc. While children in the concrete operational stage can use inductive reasoning – looking at a few examples and seeing a pattern – they cannot use deductive reasoning, or predicting an outcome from a known pattern, because that process requires analytic, “what-if?” thought.

And they love, love, love rules. Rules are great. Rules are important. Rules are necessary. The problem is, since all they can do is concrete thought, their understanding of the rules is limited to “these things are okay to do” and “these things are forbidden.” The only “because” that enters the equation is “because the rules say so.” Why the rule says so is not something people in the concrete operational stage can figure out yet, because that requires abstract reasoning. As a result, children in this stage are very literal-minded.

Now, let’s combine the two so that this makes sense. In the pre-operational stage, they have learned what they intuitively understand as “facts.” Now that they are in the concrete operational stage, those “facts” become literal, concrete reality to them. They don’t yet have the ability to question those “facts” or interrogate them in any way. Not only that – they are not allowed to. They are expected to remain “like a child” in their understanding of their religious beliefs.

Most Christians seem to fall into the concrete operational stage, to me. Now, be aware that I’m not speaking of all Christians everywhere. There are certainly Christian theologians who have gone beyond the concrete operational stage – C.S. Lewis, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg – but your common or garden Christian tends to say “What do the rules/the Bible say?” and to take it concretely (aka literally), without questioning it further.

Judaism isn’t like that.

Within the first five pages of To Life!Kushner is already saying “Though there is much in Jewish life that children can enjoy and be thrilled by, and though children can read and respond to biblical tales, the real stuff of Judaism is a system of great power and subtlety. It is meant to be confronted by adults, not children. Becoming Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen was meant to begin, not conclude, the process of learning what it means to be a Jew.”

When I read this in Kushner’s book, I damn near cried. Just finding out that this was a religion for adults, who question, criticize, interrogate, and argue – that’s a big, big deal to me.

Kushner follows up a few pages later with this observation: “Rule One: Any time we ask a question ‘What does Judaism say about…?’ the only correct answer will always begin: ‘Some Jews believe as follows, and other Jews believe something different.’ The reason for this is not just that we are highly individualistic, independent-minded people. The main reason is that we have never found it necessary to spell out exactly what we are supposed to believe […] because Jewish identity is not centered in belief. It is centered in community and history. We can tolerate great diversity of theological opinion, because […] Jews have something that binds us together beyond, and more effectively than, common belief.”

In Christianity, what you believe about G-d is paramount. It’s the first and most important thing. The fact that you identify as a Christian may not fly with people who think that their way of believing in G-d is somehow superior. This is why we have so many sects of Christianity, all of which believe they have the right way to believe in G-d. Whether it’s a divide about the right date for celebrating Easter (which split the Orthodox and Catholic churches) or the right way to talk to G-d (which split Protestantism off from the Catholics), or an argument about whether the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus or if that was just symbolic (hello, split between the Catholics and the Episcopalian/Anglican churches) – every time a Christian disagrees with his current church, he has to split off and create a brand-new Christian church so that the rules are consistent with his beliefs.

Judaism isn’t like that either. Except for the ultra-Orthodox haredi (who don’t like the other movements of Judaism very much), a Jew is still a Jew whether he’s Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or somewhere in between. She’s a Jew whether she attends synagogue or not. He’s a Jew whether or not he observes Shabbat or wears a kippah. She’s a Jew regardless of her orientation.

This is because Jews, Kushner tells us, were a people first. The religion part came later. They were (and are) a community, a culture, and a way of life before G-d ever said “OK, folks, here’s what I’ve got for you” at Sinai. This means that Judaism does not demand a specific set of beliefs or a creed the way Christianity does. The closest we probably get is Maimonides’ thirteen Articles of Faith, and even some of those are argument points among Jewish scholars.

Kushner tells us that in Judaism, the emphasis is on devotion to the Jewish people and its community, not on religious observance. It is more like being part of a family than being part of an organized group dedicated to a cause.

In many books, I’ve run across the statement (or variations on the statement): “What one Christian does is what one Christian does. What one Jew does reflects on all Jews.” And thinking about it, this is true. It isn’t just outsiders who tend to blame all Jews for one Jew’s behavior. Jews take pride in the success of other Jews in ways that Christians do not acknowledge the success of other Christians, and Jews feel shame when a Jewish person does something wrong in ways that other Christians do not feel about Christian wrongdoers.

I think that if I were to ask a Jewish person their feelings about Bernie Madoff (who bilked many of his fellow Jews and others out of $30 billion over a period of thirty years, running the biggest Ponzi scheme known in history) they would express shame and disappointment, because regardless of how bad he was and is, he’s one of the Tribe, and so what he did reflects on everyone in the Tribe. But ask a Roman Catholic about their feelings on Charles Keating (the Roman Catholic who was behind the big S&L collapse and scandal of the 1980s, and they’d probably say either “Who?” or “He was a bad person” or, if they knew he was a Catholic, “He was a sinner.” But none of them would probably feel any personal connection to Keating or feel that Keating’s crimes reflected on them as a Catholic.

In the same vein, Jews thrill with tribal pride when a Jew does something noteworthy. Ask any American Jew to list the most well-known or influential Jews of the 20th century, and you’ll see names like Einstein, Freud, and Chomsky come up in conversation. Jews feel a visceral connection to Jewish success stories. But I don’t think that most Lutherans feel the same kind of pride about the accomplishments of Steve Jobs or Johannes Kepler. While they’re part of the same group, they’re not part of the same Tribe.

As Kushner says, “Judaism is less about believing and more about belonging. It is less about what we owe G-d and more about what we owe each other, because we believe G-d cares more about how we treat each other than He does about our theology.” (This spelling of “G-d” is not original to Kushner’s text.)

For me, this means that theology is secondary. Yes, I’ve wrestled with G-d and largely come to terms with what that means – but I will never stop wrestling. But it also means that I don’t have to stop wrestling. I will not be shunned or put down or shoved away because I disagree with a point made in the Talmud, or even in the Torah. I will not be ejected from the Tribe just because I have a different opinion about what G-d wants.

It’s a Tribe I really, really want to be part of. I just hope that I’ll be worthy of it.



Filed under Identities, Judaism

3 responses to “From My Readings: Judaism as Adult Community and Identity

  1. Donna L.

    Here again you say more elegantly what I’ve always said more simply – first, what attracted me to Judaism among other things was that the G-d of Moshe Rabbenu and Avraham Avinu wants me to relate to Him/Her as a grown-up; and, second, what leads most Christian sects down the garden path is attempting to answer the unanswerable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dawn Davidson

    Now I have an ear worm. :).


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