The “Practicing” Jew
By Leon H. Gildin
In the Anglo‑Jewish press there are articles by young people who write of their decision to return to their Jewish roots. They describe their homes by saying that in their youth neither they nor their parents were "practicing" Jews. These articlesend with the writer returning to a denomination of religious Judaism, the conclusion is that belonging to a synagogue or temple is the definition of a "practicing" Jew.
The choices are many: Ultra Orthodox, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Wave, Humanist, the “independent" minyans, the "traditionalist" Jew and the "cardiac" Jew. The "traditionalist" belongs to a synagogue, attends only on the High Holy Days because he works on Shabes, does not keep Kosher and drives to shul. The "tradition" that he follows is unclear. The "cardiac" Jew, remembers his Bar‑ Mitsve, is relieved that his parents never made him return to Hebrew school, donates to Jewish charities, loves chopped liver, does not go to shul but deems himself a Jew because he’s Jewish in his heart.
Please understaAnd that the foregoing descriptions are not given humorously or in a derogatory way. However one conAsiders himself to be a "member of the tribe" is acceptable. But one must admit that the choices are overwhelming and for as unbelievable as it may seem the list is far from complete. The issue then becomes, do these choices raise more questions than they answer and do the additions to the list make finding an answer even more difficult?
Tacked to a bulletin board over my desk is a printed quote from a long forgotten source which reads: "Judaism is not solely a religion, it is a culture, an Ethic, a lifestyle, and a people."
Since we are familiar with the religiousaspect of a "practicing" Jew, how does the word "Practicing" change if we have to relate it to a Jewish culture, a Jewish ethic, a Jewish lifestyle and a Jewish people?
To answer that question we have to include in the ever expanding category of "practicing" Jew the secular Jew. Webster defines “secular” as: "A worldly view as distinguished from things related to the church or religion". It appears then that we have a conflict. If returning to a denomination of religious practice is what defines a "practicing” Jew, then where does the secular Jew fit in? The problem is magnified when you realize that statistics tell us that 46% of the Jews of Israel are secular, unaffiliated, beach goers on Shabes. A further illustration is the story of the enraged rabbi who rushed into a crowded movie house on the Sabbath and screamed at the patrons, " Shabes, Shabes." The movie went on and the audienceremained. Can we say that these millions of people living in the Jewish state are not "practicing"Jews?
The early 20th century immigrants who came from Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish, rebelled against the practice of religion, but established a Jewish social organizational, and cultural life in America that contributed more to the culture and economic structure of America than any other immigrant group. Can we say that they were not "practicing" Jews?
With many generations of Jews not falling into the accepted definition it appears that we must find what is lacking in that definition or examine what has to he done to expand the definition.
To accomplish either of the above let us go back to the first century, BCE and observe the response of the two great scholars, Hillel and Shammai when asked by a provocateur to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai, the strict constructionist, struck the man in anger for asking such a disrespectful question., while Hillel responded, "That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; now go study".
It is through commentary, that our sages could find a Biblical source for Hillel's one line interpretation of the Torah. To the ordinary reader there is no doubt that Hillel's response is one of the world's greatest ethical statements. As children we learned it as the Golden Rule and it was probably a child's first introduction to ethics.
What is meant by the expression a Jewish lifestyle? Eating "gefilte fish" and reading Jewish jokes on the Internet does not qualify. AJewish lifestyle and Jewish peoplehood can be combined into one when we go back to the Yiddish secularists of the early 20th century. It was not enough to be founders of an industry like the ladies and men’s garment trades; it was necessary found the trade unions that protected the Jewish workers. (The great socialist leader, Morris Hilquit, born Moishe Hilkvitz in Riga, Latvia came to this country at the end of the 19th century and was instrumental in the formation of the United Hebrew Trades, the first garment center union.)
It was not enough to form the trade unions to protect the workers; the worker had to have a decent place to live. From that arose organizational cooperative housing. If one couldn’t pay the upkeep on the apartment, one could go to a free loan society or Landsmanschaft consisting of neighbors from the old country who would help out. And if one passed away and had to be buried, that, too, was taken care of by the coming together of the Jewish community.
So we can account for the culture, the ethic, the lifestyle and the people. What needs further understanding is the admonition, 'Now go study". To do so, we must be willing to acknowledge that the learning of the "practicing" Jew must extend well beyond the prayer book.
My knowledge of the history, culture, ethic and lifestyle of the Sephardim is limited to enchanting Ladino songs that I have heard; trips to Spain and Majorca where tour guides spoke of the Inquisition and the horror that lead to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. A whole new aspect of the Sephardic culture has come to our attention, recently; with the introduction of the Conversos, Hispanic, non‑Jews whose recollection of Jewish customs and traditions remained with them and are now trying to understand their background and in many cases seeking to convert to Judaism.
There are tribes in Africa who pray using a Hebrew prayerbook and whose services are led by an ordained rabbi—the Ibos of Nigeria is a tribe seeking a rabbi to lead them. Jews from the Caucuses have immigrated to Israel and the United States bringing with them their own culture and lifestyle. Jews from Cochin, India have a long history and are, in some cases, said to be the "lost tribes" of Israel.
To us, here in America, all of this is remote. Nothing more than an interesting article in a newspaper or magazine—a restaurant with a different menu. The question is where do we come from; who were our ancestors and what have they left for us so that we can continue to be "practicing" Jews?
In the 19th century our Jewish forefathers came from Germany and brought with them Reform Judaism, a denomination which has found favor in this country. It is fair to say that most of us are the descendants of the Eastern European emigration of the late 19th and early 20th century. In many cases, these were the secular Jews, mentioned earlier in this article, who, although they might not have known of Hillel's admonition, were, nevertheless, followers of his direction, "Now go study".
For many of the adults it was night school to learn English. It was "folk shules" (Yiddish elementary school) for the children and then on to "mittishul" (Yiddish high school) to study Yiddish language, history, literature, philosophy, Zionism, Socialism, Communism, Yiddish theater, Yiddish newspapers and magazines. They joined Yiddish organizations attended Yiddish summer camps. It was a world of secularism—a world with one glaring omission.
The secularists usually were so anti-religious that they failed to understand that knowledge cannot be only that which is meaningful and relevant to one way of thinking. They refused to admit that to understand their culture, their ethic, their lifestyle and their peoplehood they could not discard that which they did not believe because of the pain it may have caused them or because of social or philosophical differences.
Just as the secularists failed to include any study of the religious aspect of Judaism in their education of their children, so too, does religious education fail to include the great accomplishments of the secular Yiddish world, of the world of Hebrew literature and poetry and of the great American Jewish contribution to the history, literature and sociology of this country.
How many students who graduate from religious institutions today, or their teachers, for that matter, know the names of the fathers of Yiddish literature? Mendele, I.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem; writers who described in beautiful detail life in the "shtetl", the pain and sorrow of those Jews who lived in Eastern Europe, in the Pale of Settlement. (Perhaps Sholem Aleichem is recognizable. The adults remember "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. To the children, it probably means nothing.)
In 1976 The State of Israel was honored when Samuel Joseph Agnon received the Nobel Prize for literature. Ten years later the prize was awarded to Saul Bellow, an American Jewish author whose work dealt with the American Jewish experience. Two years after that the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote only in Yiddish.
Throughout history Jews were in the forefront of economics, science, mathematics, philosophy, music and the arts. We should never forget the great accomplishments, militarily, socially and ethically that has resulted in Israel being the only democratic government in the Middle East.
Along with religion, the culture, the ethic, and the lifestyle are the all-embracing aspects of Judaism which unites us as a people. To negate the great secular world of Judaism divides us and leaves us with only a remnant of what it means to be a "practicing” Jew."Now go study", Hillel said. Look at how much there is to be learned. What choice do we have but to keep "practicing" until we get it right?