Should We Teach Judaism by Beliefs or by Rituals?

By Rabbi David Wolpe


Republished February 3, 2011.

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Question: What do you have to believe to be Jewish?

Answer: The short answer to this question is: nothing. But of course, that is just the beginning of the story.

There is a basic, and often misunderstood, difference between Judaism and Christianity. To simplify, Christianity is a religion. If one believes in the divinity of Jesus, one is Christian. If not, not. But Judaism is different. Judaism is an entity for which there is no good English word, since Judaism did not arise in Western lands. It is like a tribe, or a family. One can be born Jewish or convert to Judaism. One cannot properly be “born” Christian, since Christianity is essentially a faith statement. Judaism is a religious civilization, or a faith family.

As a result, although there have been many attempts throughout Jewish history to define Jewish “dogma”—that is, a list of beliefs that all Jews must agree upon—none has been successful in establishing itself.

Nonetheless, until the modern age certain elements were considered almost universal. First was the belief in one God. Another was revelation, the divine origin of the Bible. Third was ultimate redemption, that eventually God would, through the agency of a messiah, usher the world into a better time.

All three of these have been questioned in modern times. But it is an indication of how powerful these beliefs have been in Jewish history that even those schools of thought that question these bedrock beliefs find it necessary to somehow account for the theological holes left by their removal.

Belief in God has run the gamut among modern Jews, from downright atheism to a God very different from the traditional Sunday school conceptions. Moderns have discovered that many of the ideas of God in Judaism are quite subtle and profound, and many thinkers have begun re-examining what God might mean in a changing world. Does Darwinian biology suggest a God who works not by fiat but by gradualist guidance? Does modern physics intimate that God’s control of the world is far subtler, and even more lax, than the Bible’s characteristic depiction? What can it mean that other traditions conceive of God so differently?

Perhaps the first step in modern theology ought to be a declaration of humility—that God is larger than any single tradition’s depiction.

These theological conundrums are abetted by new discoveries about the Bible. For the last few hundred years, the weight of evidence has gradually accumulated that the Bible was either written entirely by human beings or at least had a human hand in its composition. Can one salvage a divine component to a text that shows the hallmarks of human authorship?

Many theories have been developed to maintain both ends of the Biblical spectrum: admitting human authorship but still keeping some of the authority of divinity. Several thinkers speak of the Bible as having been written out of divine inspiration, or as a reaction to a divine encounter. More radical proposals see divinity as being the highest part of humanity, making the Bible divine by reason of its origin in our best selves.

With such upheavals in ideas of God and revelation, how could the promise of the messiah remain untouched? Modern Jews who do not hold to the classically formulated belief often envision a messianic age without a messianic individual. There will be a better time for humanity; some believe it will be with God’s help, others that it will be humanly created.

Such broad sweeps again beg the question: Is there any belief universal among Jews?

Among those Jews who take their Judaism seriously, Judaism in our time is not characterized by beliefs as much as by preoccupations. As the philosopher Emil Fackenheim put it, an authentic Jew is one who struggles. Absent that struggle with the idea of God, the divine-human interaction, and the ultimate direction of history, there is little left to modern Judaism.

To define Judaism by belief alone is to betray its essence, however. Ritual, the glue of action that often is more powerful and lasting than belief, is also central to Judaism’s history. Ritual changes us, and changes the way we see our world. Even differences of outlook sometimes pale when voices can be lifted together in song, candles lit in the darkness, prayers chanted at dawn.

As any reader of the Bible knows, families are not smooth, untroubled units. Jews have believed and doubted, affirmed and denied, but rarely been indifferent. What has tied Judaism together is not only a shared memory but also a sense of shared destiny. If the glories and the depredations of the modern age steal those, Judaism would unravel. But do not place your bets too quickly; 3,500 years are a witness to the durability of this remarkable family of faith.

For more on the Jewish religion, see the Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide.


About Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe is spritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of many books, including Teaching Your Child About God.