Thoughts on being Jewish – more intellectually, less traditionally


Thoughts on being Jewish? What thoughts? In the course of Jewish history the rabbis and other religious authorities had created so many definitions on Jewish identification that it looks like no new thoughts on being Jewish could be generated. 

That’s what I thought about 35 years ago upon arrival to the USA from the former Soviet Union. There, in the former Soviet Union, I knew I was Jewish but didn’t know what it means to be Jewish – the Soviet citizens were punished for even trying to learn something on the subject. I had no doubt that in the USA rabbis will tell me what does it mean to be Jewish and I will begin living in accordance with Jewish tradition after I get in touch with them. However I was wrong.

My association with synagogues and traditional Torah studies there failed to create a concept of being Jewish – the concept I was looking for: I was looking for a concept of being Jewish as a part of the united Chosen Jewish people while in synagogues I was taught how to be a part of a separate denominational Jewish group which believes its interpretation of being Jewish is the only valid one, and all other interpretations are wrong. I discovered that an orthodox synagogue creates a local spiritual citadel for defending its “cut in stone” unchangeable Torah interpretation while a reform synagogue makes a Torah interpretation so flexible that is difficult to distinguish it from a civilian (pagan) interpretation. And both of them don’t go beyond the criteria of being Jewish as “being born to a Jewish family” while my scientific intuition (I am a scientist) told me it is not enough. That’s why my association with a synagogue I belong to these days is purely traditional – spiritually we are far apart from each other.

That’s why I have created my individual concept of being Jewish. I have done it by going back to the Torah and discovering the essence of being Jewish on my own. I hope many intellectual Jews may find this concept to be very close to the traits of their own Jewishness.

And here are my discoveries.

  1. The Torah is the only reliable foundation for being Jewish.
    That is immaterial whether the stories described in the Torah are facts or fiction – those stories created us the Chosen people. That’s immaterial whether Abraham and Isaac lived about four thousand years ago – Abraham and Isaac are us today. That’s immaterial whether God made us the Chosen with clearly defined responsibilities in our world or the history made us the Chosen – we are the Chosen today and carrying on this mission with all rewards and punishment.
    There’s nothing else but the Torah to make us even a people.
    We don’t have a common language – we speak Hebrew, English, Russian, German, French … We don’t have a common culture – Ashkenazim culture is different from Sephardim one, American Jewish culture has nothing in common with the culture of Ethiopian Jews, Russian urban Jewish culture is different from Russian mountain Jewish one … We don’t have a common territory – we are spread all over the world including the Promised biblical land in Israel to which not everybody is ready to relocate …
    We believe the Torah is given to us by God Himself. We believe God is above all of us and therefore we have to obey His commandments without questioning the reason behind them. We have different individual interpretations of His commandments – and we follow them creating a great diversity among us the Jewish people. We know intuitively (even if somebody considers himself an atheist) that the belief in the Supreme Being is beneficial for us since such belief helps us resist a human leader who is trying to become a human god-dictator.
    To live by the Torah is the true meaning of being Jewish.
  2. We are created in the image of God and that is who we are – Jews and non-Jews.
    All of us are created in the image of God – the Jews and the non-Jews. God is One Almighty “Individual” – not a collective. That means we are created to be individuals, not a part of collective. We are created as individuals with a codex of moral values in us which we are codifying in recognizable words in the course of our formal education. We the individuals are establishing various collective organizations (families, circles of friends, religious institutions, nations, corporations, etc.) based on closeness of our individual moral principles and professional interests. So we the individuals are creating collective organizations – not the other way around.
    We select those places of worship the spirituality of which is close to ours, we join a political party the ideology of which closer to our understanding of social justice, we form a circle of friends among the like-minded people – we create a collective, not the other way around.
    To live as an individual created in the image of God and not just as a part of a collective is the true meaning of being Jewish.
  3. As unique individuals created in the image of God we have the inherited ability to reach our own spiritual/intellectual heights.
    As unique individuals created in the image of unique God we are granted individual ability to interpret the guidance of the Torah for our unique individual life situation and work along the lines of the guidance to realize the maximum of God-given abilities.
    God is a system of governance above us and therefore we are required to follow His guidance while trying to figure out what is the justification for this guidance. We are trying to reconstruct such justification – without such reconstruction, without clear understanding of what is behind all that, following the God’s guidance is difficult for us. Therefore each of us creates his/her own interpretation of God’s justification for His guidance – in other words, our own individual Torah interpretation tailored to our own life situation. Then we may go to our rabbis to ask their advice on whether our own interpretation lies in the framework of the interpretation of our sages.
    Although rabbis are best prepared to do this they may be creative and destructive – a creative rabbi would work with you to make your individual Torah interpretation consistent with the thoughts of our sages while a destructive rabbi would try to convince you that you’re wrong – they will tell you there’s only one true interpretation and this interpretation is by the sages.
    To individually interpret the essence of God’s guidance for individual life situation is the true meaning of being Jewish.
  4. All peoples are unique – we the Jewish people are unique in our God-given mission of the Chosen people.
    So says the Torah and we agree with this – God had assigned to us a special mission to do something what other people are not supposed to do. However in regard to what we are supposed to do there are three different interpretation of the Chosen-people mission.
    One interpretation – we have to live righteously Torah-way in a sort of spiritual ghetto without bothering the others. The others will see our righteous behavior – in some mysterious way – and will imitate it.
    Another interpretation – we have to live semi-righteously among the others without bothering them (semi-, because life among the others requires adjustment to other’s life tradition), and they will imitate our behavior.
    And the interpretation which follows from my understanding of the concept of One God and His guidance – the Chosen mission is to assist Him in spreading the knowledge of Torah and its spiritual (moral) principles among non-Jewish peoples to encourage everybody to live by those principles.
    And that is the true meaning of being Jewish.
  5. Being the Chosen not just by the fact of being born to a Jewish family but by the fact of fulfilling the mission of the Chosen.
    When asked about the most important trait of being Jewish most of the rabbis can agree only on one trait, and this trait is being born to a Jewish family (to a Jewish mother). It’s easy to understand the rabbis – the Jewish people are so diverse that another unifying trait is hard to find. Many rabbis believe that being born to a Jewish family makes you a Jew forever even if you don’t want to be Jewish, even if you convert to another religion, even if you do nothing along the lines of the mission of the Chosen.
    It should not be so.
    We are created in the image of God and the Torah is describing this image as God-Creator – He created everything in the Six Days of Creation and He created everything not as “frozen” and unchangeable but as changeable and developing further. If it’s so our mission of the Chosen assigned to us by God should be the continuation of His creative work to make our world a better place for everybody – Jews and non-Jews. Prayers and rituals are needed for who need them but they are not the mission of the Chosen. We the Chosen have to work among non-Jewish peoples instead of creating a spiritual ghetto – with the only one important purpose which is to bring the others to the Torah and God’s commandments.
    Following our creative mission of the Chosen in all spheres of creative human activities (science, arts, industry, economics, politics, social justice, etc.) is a very important trait of being Jewish.
  6. Being the Chosen means to nourish the God-given ability for distinguishing between GOOD and EVIL, for supporting the GOOD and for fighting the EVIL.
    As the Chosen we the Jews have to be everywhere – in all spheres of human creative activities to move everything toward a better world for everybody. A better world is the world where GOOD is being supported and developed and EVIL is being condemned and suppressed. GOOD and EVIL should be defined in accordance with the Torah (Old Testament) guidance that is a foundation of Judeo-Christian spirituality. Since human life in contemporary democratic societies is significantly affected by the government through its legislative activities the Torah-based Judeo-Christian morality (spirituality) should guide the legislative activities. That means the true definition of the State-Church separation should be the separation of formal religious authorities of any religion or denomination – but not the separation or Judeo-Christian morality as the anti-religious groups are insisting.
    So supporting the Judeo-Christian spirituality as spiritual foundation of any legislative work is a part of being Jewish.
  7. Anti-Semitism is a strange acknowledgment of our good God’s work as the Chosen.
    Anti-Semitism is an acknowledgement by the non-Jewish peoples, who are on the way from the pagan-based spirituality to the Torah-based spirituality, that we the Jews are successfully guiding them in this direction. They resist our efforts to bring them closer to One-God spirituality since this spirituality requires personal responsibility for your own actions. It’s much easier to live in the pagan world where a god (a president, a prime-minister, an authoritative ruler, a dictator …) is responsible for your misfortunes – not yourselves. So anti-Semitism is a positive thing for us the Jews and we should not be afraid of it – we have to be explaining to the non-Jewish community the call from One God to do this for the benefit of all peoples created in the image of God – Jews and non-Jews, including those who are anti-Semites
    Acceptance of anti-Semitism as an acknowledgment of your good work along the lines of the Chosen’s mission is a part of being Jewish.
  8. The Christianity is our positive development.
    What unites Jews and Christians and creates a single Judeo-Christian civilization are the rules and laws of the Torah, or the Old Testament in the Christian title. And what separates them is the interpretation of these rules and Laws given in the Talmud for Jews and in the New Testament for Christians, and in many of the subsequent versions of the Talmud and New Testament. But what divides Jews and Christians is no more essential than what now divides Jews into many conflicting groups. Judaism includes two contradictory elements at first glance. On the one hand, all peoples of the world cannot be chosen and followers of the Jewish faith (individual cases of conversion to Judaism from other religions do not change this situation), and on the other hand, all peoples of the world must accept the basic rules of behavior “from God” according to which Jews live. This contradiction can be resolved only by creation of other religious branches which follow the rules of behavior “from God,” such as Christianity, which really has happened.
    Therefore accepting the Christianity as one of the greatest achievements of the Jewish people in the course of fulfillment of their Chosen’s mission is a very important part of being Jewish – in spite of all hardships of that.
  9. We believe in Religion and Science working in harmony.
    Our world was created by someone or something not as a static and unchanging something, but as a dynamic condition, changing constantly in space and time according to some kind of laws (physical and chemical, electromagnetic, social and spiritual, etc.). The work of scientists consists of the study of these processes and the usage of laws discovered by them in building the Better World – a Better World “according to God,” though the majority of scientists, most likely, don’t even think about it. It seems there are no differences between religion with God and science with scientists: religion and God deal with the creation of the universe’s processes, and science with Scientists deals with the study of these processes.
    Many maintain that science is incompatible with religion, that is, with the Torah. But in reality, this is entirely untrue. In reality, evolution occurs both “according to Darwin” and “according to God.” As has been mentioned already, the most diverse content can be concealed by the word “religion.” All adherents of the theory of religion and science’s incompatibility suggest such a definition of religion that really is incompatible with science. But their definition does not affect the fundamental, one may say scientific, essence of religion, which makes religion compatible with science.  Therefore, it is necessary to recall the definition of religion in order that it be understood immediately what we are talking about. The main thing in religion is belief in the existence of some kind of higher power controlling man and all the world and giving everything that surrounds us, and what we study, a beginning. Thus, in religion there are two fundamental elements – faith and the beginning. Faith is the only thing that the adherents of the incompatibility of religion and science notice. But faith does not unite religion with science, but the beginning. Science starts from a beginning. The beginning is a religious concept; it is from where science begins its research. No matter how far Science has penetrated, it always hinges on some kind of basic initial element, from which all development begins.
    So the friendship of religion and science is as well at the core of being Jewish.
  10. The Ten Commandments is not a slogan or symbol – It is a practical foundation for the united Torah-based world.
    There are 613 mitzvoth that all religious Jews are trying to follow – in their individual interpretation based on the thoughts and discussions in the Talmud. Among those mitzvoth are Ten Commandments that are mandatory for all Jews and non-Jews who follow the Judeo-Christian spirituality. The 613 mitzvoth in their entirety split the Jews from the non-Jews while Ten Commandments unite everybody who are made in the image of One God. Unfortunately Ten Commandments have become just a slogan and a symbol of our Judeo-Christian heritage – it is not anymore the guidance to our everyday life. We have to restore the true meaning of each of Ten Commandments in application to our contemporary life for every individual in his/her creative activities – be it labor, management, arts, economics, science, family, community or whatever an individual is doing.
    And that’s an important part of being Jewish as well. 


About Vladimir Minkov

Vladimir Minkov Ph.D. is a nuclear scientist, published author and writer. He is the co-author of "Nuclear Shadow Boxing", a scientific history of the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and USA during the cold war and is the author of "The Jews and Their Role in Our World", which explores his personal journey to discovering Jewish identity. Having lost much of his family in the Holocaust and finding his search for spiritual development stifled in the Soviet Union, Vladimir migrated to the United States in the late 1970s.

Posted on March 1, 2012, in English-language posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Dear potential readers and debaters,
    I would appreciate greatly any your constructive comments aimed at defining the “being Jewish” not just on your human feelings but on your intellectual interpretation of the Torah as well.

    Like

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