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Judaism, Essay Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2217

Essay

As both a religion and a cultural identity, the history of the Jewish people has influenced many other religions, including Christianity.  Currently, over 14 million people consider themselves to be Jews, a term which encompasses both religious practices and a way of viewing the secular world.  Judaism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, with the belief in only one God representing a primary tenet of the faith.  Judaism is typified by a rich cultural and religious diversity that encourages individuals to seek knowledge about themselves and their relationship with God (Chabad, 2011).

The primary text of religious Jews is the Torah, a written text that they believe was given to Moses by God through the Ten Commandments.  There are various movements within the Jewish faith which each carry their own set of principles or rules which can range from dietary restrictions to moral and philosophical values that instruct practitioners on how to live their lives.  Orthodox Jews are considered the most strict in their adherence to Jewish law, but have since given way to other movements such as Conservative and Reform Judaism, which tend to be more egalitarian and open to change (Religious Tolerance, 2011).  Despite variances in how they practice–or choose not to practice–their faith, most Jews maintain a deep connection to the land of Israel, both for its Biblical importance and the desire of the Jewish people to find a safe home after the destruction of the Holocaust.  Because Judaism has “no single founder, no central leader or group making theological decisions” (Fisher, 1997, p.216) it is characterized primarily by its diversity, the struggles of its people as a minority, and its common cultural identity.

As I discovered on first meeting Esther Kaplan, a member of the Congregation Shir Chadash in Lakefield, California, the history of the Jewish people is one that has contributed greatly to their development as both a religious, natural, and cultural group.  Ms. Kaplan stated that it is impossible to understand Judaism if one expects to find a unified body of practitioners.  “We encourage difference,” she told me prior to the Sabbath service at Shir Chadash.  “We’re taught to ask many questions, and challenge ourselves and those around us to discover new and better ways to reach an understanding of God” (E. Kaplan, personal communication, November 4, 2011).  Kaplan was quick to add that a person can be an atheist or agnostic and still consider themselves to be a Jew, even if they don’t celebrate any of the important holidays or attend a synagogue.

I was connected with Ms. Kaplan after calling the Congregation Shir Chadash, which I located through the Yellow Pages, and speaking to their office manager.  I was invited to speak to the synagogue’s Rabbi, as well, but I felt that I would be more comfortable speaking with a congregation member, as the discussion might be more informal and would give me a view of Judaism from the eyes of a regular practitioner.  Before our actual interview, I had the opportunity to attend the monthly Friday night Shabbat service.  Shabbat is the most important day of the Jewish week and begins on Friday night at sundown and continues until sundown on Saturday night (Religious Tolerance, 2011).  The ways in which Jews celebrate Shabbat are varied:  Orthodox Jews refrain from using modern conveniences and activities such as using the stove, turning on a television, and driving a car.  Conservative and Reform Jews may treat Shabbat as an opportunity to engage in quiet personal reflection or family-focused time.  The overall idea of Shabbat is to provide Jews with a break from their work week so that they might focus on their spiritual growth, family relationships, and understanding of God (Diament & Cooper, 2007).

The Congregation Shir Chadash was a Conservative synagogue for 50 years.  Conservative Judaism was a reaction to Orthodox Judaism and was founded by Americans who wanted a less traditional approach to their faith.  One of the big differences in Conservative practice is that men and women can sit together during religious services.  This practice is also carried on in the Reform branch of Judaism, which is also known as Progressivism.  For example, Reform Jews adopt modern styles of dress and the men and women do not necessarily cover their heads (as in other branches of Judaism) or wear conservative clothing.  Reform Jews may or may not practice dietary restrictions, such as avoiding eating pork and mixing milk and meat in one meal.  As well, the structure of the Reform movement calls for total egalitarianism when it comes to practicing faith and promoting education amongst men and women; there is absolutely no separation by virtue of gender (Religious Tolerance, 2011).  The open-minded nature of Reform Judaism is one of the primary reasons why I chose to use Congregation Shir Chadash for this research project.

Although I was nervous that I might encounter a totally foreign environment in which I would feel awkward and out of place, the Friday night service at Shir Chadash shared much in common with Christian and Catholic services that I have attended.  The synagogue itself was quite plain without many adornments or decorations, and attendees were invited to sit in a communal area of benches and chairs that faced the front of the synagogue where the Torah scroll was put on prominent display.  I learned afterwards that there also monthly Saturday services in which the Rabbi answers questions during the service and explains what is going on throughout.  This would have been somewhat helpful, as part of the service was conducted in Hebrew, a language which has both religious and cultural significance for Jews.

During the service, men, women, and children sat together with their families and participated in the songs and prayers.  There were several women who got up during the service and played tambourines and a guitar.  They also passed around cymbals and maracas so that those of us in the congregation could join in on the music-making.  Some of the men wore a kippah, a small round head covering, and some of the women wore hats.  All of the people were dressed conservatively but not outrageously so–the clothing of the assembled practitioners was similar to that which you might find in a Church during a Sunday service.  The prayer books that were provided had English translations so that I could follow along during the service.  While I tried to keep up, I found it difficult as I was preoccupied with trying to observe all of the details around me.  The overall atmosphere was friendly, welcoming, and very relaxed.  When I lost my page in the prayer book, the woman sitting near me helped me find it again, and many different people greeted me both on my arrival and at the conclusion of the brief service.  Although there was a Rabbi who led the service, many members of the congregation got up throughout the service to read prayers and sing songs, further increasing the sense of community and equality amongst this group.

After the service there was an informal gathering in the synagogue basement in which coffee and snacks were served.  Some of the members discussed upcoming synagogue events, and this also gave me the opportunity to sit down with Esther Kaplan to find out more about Judaism.  I found Ms. Kaplan to be an invaluable resource about Judaism, especially because her own history reflects the diverse number of ways in which one can practice this religion.  Ms. Kaplan was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and practiced many different religious rituals, including dietary restrictions regarding pork and other non-kosher foods, strict Sabbath rituals, and an adherence to clothing which covered her body from, as she stated, “ankle to neck” (E. Kaplan, personal communication, November 4, 2011).  This meant long skirts, long-sleeved modest shirts, and head coverings once she was married; Ms. Kaplan did not own a pair of jeans until she was in her mid-forties.  Although Ms. Kaplan found a great deal of spiritual meaning within the religion of her childhood, her community’s reaction to her divorce and subsequent remarriage to a Catholic man caused a schism within her family.  She was quick to point out that not all Orthodox Jews react so negatively, but added that the community’s history of oppression has led it to “not trust strangers and any evidence of difference amongst its members” (E. Kaplan, personal communication, November 4, 2011).

During the course of our interview, I learned that the most important Jewish holidays and rituals are universal to all branches of Judaism, although they may be practiced in different ways.  Two of the most important holidays are Rosh Hashana, a High Holy day which takes place in the autumn and is celebrated with prayers, family meals, and the blowing of a shofar–a horn that has biblical significance–and Yom Kippur, another High Holy day which is also known as the day of atonement.  During Yom Kippur, which happens in the spring and marks the beginning of the Jewish new year, Jews avoid eating certain foods and must approach each other to ask for forgiveness for sins that occurred during the previous year so that they might have, as Kaplan puts it, “a clean slate to start fresh” (E. Kaplan, personal communication, November 4, 2011).  Although Hanukkah is celebrated around the same time of Christmas, Ms. Kaplan explained that it isn’t a High Holy day and has been emphasized in popular culture more to give Jewish children a corresponding event to celebrate while their friends celebrate Christmas.

As in many religions, the Jewish people connect important life events with religious and cultural ritual.  They have special celebrations and rites that are associated with birth, death, marriage, and the reaching of maturity.  One such event is the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which marks the age at which Jewish boys and girls are seen to become responsible in the eyes of their community and faith.  Boys reach this age at 13, when they are entrusted to celebrate their Bar Mitzvah; for girls, this occurs at the age of 12, and is called a Bat Mitzvah.  According to Kaplan, a Mitzvah is a good deed that you do for another person without any hope of personal gain.  The ritual of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah involves extensive study, often with a Rabbi, so that the child may learn a particular passage of the Torah to be recited in front of family and guests in Hebrew on the special occasion.  In Jewish law, once a child has celebrated this event, they are able to form a minyan (a group of people needed to recite certain prayers), get married, sign legal contracts, and lead religious rituals (Chabad, 2011).

Ms. Kaplan told me that Judaism has affected every aspect of her life, but that it is something she doesn’t necessarily take into consideration on a daily basis because she has always been Jewish.  “It is as much a part of me as breathing,” she stated, “and I have no idea what it would like to not be Jewish” (E. Kaplan, personal communication, November 4, 2011).  Although she acknowledges that it can be difficult to be Jewish, especially when issues pertaining to Jewish and Palestinian rights are raised, she stated that “2011 is a good time to be a Jew; there’s much less persecution, and much more freedom to explore religion in the way that works best for you” (E. Kaplan, personal communication, November 4, 2011).

My experience at the Shir Chadash synagogue, as well as my research, demonstrated that Judaism is a rich and vibrant religion and cultural affiliation that can positively affect the lives of many people.  Although Hinduism might seem like an a religion that has no similarity with Judaism, they actually share some prominent features.  Both religions have a long history dating back thousands of years.  As well, Hinduism lacks a central religious leader or prophet, much like Judaism (Religious Tolerance, 2011).  I found that the manner in which Judaism can be taken on as a personal identity unrelated to God or religion is similar to the manner in which Hinduism connotates more of a lifestyle choice than a singular religious identity.  Both religions allow for the practitioners to adopt and adapt the morals and values of the religion to fit with their greater understanding of the world.  However, Judaism is much more structured than Hinduism in that it takes a monotheistic approach to God, has a single definitive text and a generally universal belief system that guides all Jews, whether they consider themselves religious or not (Religious Tolerance, 2011).  The defining concepts of Hinduism include the idea of karma, in which ones behavior can result in positive or negative results for an individual both in this life and in future lives (Fisher, 1997).  Although Jews don’t believe in reincarnation in the same way, I found that the accepting, open, and tolerant nature of the people I met at Congregation Shir Chadash,as well as their belief in mitzvahs, demonstrated a similar willingness to behave with kindness to all people.

References

Chabad. (2011). Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center. Retrieved from http://www.chabad.org/

Diament, A. & Cooper, H. (2007). Living a Jewish life: Jewish traditions, customs, and values for today’s families.

Fisher, M.P. (1997). Living religions: An encyclopedia of the world’s faiths. London: I.B. Tauris.

Religious Tolerance. (2011). Hinduism: The world’s third largest religion. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/hinduism.htm

Religious Tolerance. (2011). Jewish movements. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/jud_desc1.htm

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