“I’m not really religious, Rabbi,” Dave admitted. “I’m more of a cultural Jew.”
Long before Jon Stewart said that he was “Jew-ish,” we Jews have struggled with our identity. Are we a religious group or a people? Is being Jewish a cultural thing or an ethnic identification?
Most Jews, with the exception of Orthodox Jews, describe their Judaism in cultural or ethnic terms. Fewer, particularly men, call themselves “religious.”
Religion, according to Dictionary.com, is defined as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially as the creation of a superhuman agency… ” Being religious, then, has everything to do with God.
Prior to 1789, Jews self-identified as a People.
By being forced to live in ghettos, we were separated from the non-Jewish world; our customs separated us as well. We were also bound together by our own language, calendar, traditions, and norms. Belief in God was a given. Holy days celebrated within our national identity. Rabbinic authority defined our daily actions.
Along came Napoleon’s French Revolution, which abolished differential treatment of people according to religion. His 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guaranteed freedom of religion. This led to a revolutionary choice: continue to be French Jews – a separate identity – and we would receive nothing. Live as Frenchmen of a “Mosaic” persuasion (from Moses=Jewish), and we would be released from the ghettos and fully integrated. Some two hundred and twenty years ago, Napoleon’s offer led to a radical redefinition of the Jewish people: we became a religious group. Like Catholic and Protestant Frenchmen, we now had Jewish Frenchmen.
Today, Many Struggle with the “Religious” Designation.
We yearn to return to the peoplehood definition, which allows us to be culturally connected and bound by holidays and rituals. With a synagogue at the center, we nonetheless recognize that community – or peoplehood – binds us and defines us.
“Is it okay that I’m not religious?” you ask. I answer, “If you are connected to the Jewish community, it doesn’t really matter.”