Monday, March 06, 2006

Does Judaism have a Catechism?


by Seth Ward

"What I propose to do here is to outline a few basic beliefs that are both part of Judaism and are apparently shared by a majority of Jews. I do not wish to reduce Judaism to a few simple beliefs: others have done this far better. Nor do I propose that this is a comprehensive statement, or even that such a statement is possible. And it should be clear that this is an attempt to delineate a list of shared beliefs of Jews, not a system of Judaism. I do wish to put this in the form of beliefs, to answer the claim that Jews really do not have any deeply-held beliefs.

...

Does Judaism in late-twentieth Century America have principles of more orless common belief? I offer the following eight, and have grouped theprinciples for convenience in traditional categories: God, Torah, Israel.

GOD

1. We believe it is right to act as believers.
...
2. We deny all polytheism, idolatry, and irrational beliefs. Or: Thou shalt not be a Christian.
...

TORAH

3. We believe in the shared Torah: Jews share a heritage of beliefs, practices, literature and history. The classic, Jewish name for this heritage is Torah.
...
4. We believe that Torah, which means "teaching," demands education.This perhaps should be put more strongly: study of Torah, widely defined, is part of our religion.
...
5. We believe that Mitzvot matter.
...

ISRAEL

6. We believe the Holocaust is an event of unique importance and meaning for us as Jews and for all people.
...
6. We believe in the Land and Language of Israel (I know, he wrote two sixes. Maybe he miscounted.)
...
7. Kol yisrael arevim ze lazeh: We are one: Judaism is a corporate, communal identity.
...
8. We believe in salvation through survival.
...

These eight beliefs do not create a fully articulated system, but underscore the degree to which Jews share attitudes towards God, Torah and Israel--to give traditional terms. Judaism, like other religious systems, has to do with believing, behaving and belonging, and the principles articulated here I hope will help contemporaries do just that.

We are the people who recite "Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One" and--even for those who do not entirely believe this, or do not believe it at all, act at least in part as if they do. We staunchly deny alternate systems, including and perhaps especially Christianity; while there is a bit of self-definition by negation of the other involved here, it also reflects an age-old antipathy to polytheism and idolatry, rightly or wrongly applied. We believe in our shared heritage, we believe in a mandate t o educate, and we believe that our actions matter, perhaps more than our beliefs. We believe in our people, its history, its languages, its land, and in the importance of the Holocaust and of the Land of Israel. And we believe in the necessaity of "Jewish continuity"--the corporate survival of Judaism, perhaps giving this concept some of the great power associated with the notion of "salvation" in other religious traditions.

Not all Jews subscribe to all these principles the same way. But many of us do, and multiple ways we relate to God, Torah and Israel help define the ways we differ from one another. But the universality of the elements of this discourse also define a commonality which exceeds the forces which divide us."

I'm not making any big statements on this essay. Read the full thing here. I just thought it was an interesting perspective and wanted to share.

2 comments:

David said...

What does "We believe that Mitzvot matter" mean? What distinguishes it from "mitzvot are obligatory"?

Orthoprax said...

David,

The author was looking for general principles under which all or most Jews could find themselves agreed. That Mitzvot are important differs from obligatory would distinguish the Orthodox approach from almost any more liberal opinion.