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3. In Judaism, deeds take precedence over creeds.

In terms of “belief statements”, Judaism does not have creeds that must be accepted by all Jews, which would parallel the ways that Christians accept Jesus as the Christ/Messiah.  The closest example to a creedal statement is the Biblical verse, “ Hear , Israel , the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” [or the Lord is one].14

Heschel taught that: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.”15   Zucker observes: “although now, ritualized daily prayer as a way to consciously engage in dialogue with God is a regular part of my life - as it is for many Jews, there was a time when I did not follow this practice – along with many other Jews. I remember mentioning this to an Episcopalian colleague one day following an interfaith ministerial meeting.   He looked shocked, or perhaps disappointed, and then he turned to me and asked, ‘how then do you keep in touch with God?’  It was an important lesson for me, because I had to articulate what I already knew in my heart which was that I keep in touch with God through my daily actions that attempt to improve the world and not, through what I believe.”

Jews are considerably less concerned than Christians are about the state of their belief. In fact, a seeming contradiction within Judaism as a religion is that non-belief in God, and certainly the lack of a systematic belief system, is not incompatible with being Jewish.   According to contemporary theologian, Rabbi Neil Gillman, “Most Jews . . . have never given much thought to clarifying just what we believe about God, nor do we feel that our religiosity is any the worse for it . . .  .”16 Clarifying and systematizing what Jews believe in has not been as intrinsically important to Judaism as it has been to Christianity. Although space here does not allow for a full explanation, one can be Jewish, and belong to a synagogue, and still not have a firm belief in God.

The late Harry Kemelman brings this point home in the popular weekday “Rabbi-as-detective” series.  In a wonderfully illustrative point in Monday the Rabbi Took Off, fictional “Rabbi Small” is asked if he believes in God. “Rabbi Small” replies that “It’s a difficult question” to answer because “it involves three variables.” These variables include, “do you mean at this moment in time, or the I of yesterday, or the I of three years ago? And what do you mean by ‘believe’? That’s another variable. Do you mean in the same way that I believe that two and two make four? Or the way that I believe that light travels a certain number of miles per second, which I myself have never seen demonstrated but which has been demonstrated by people whose competence and integrity I have been taught to trust?… And finally, the third variable – God. Do you mean a humanlike figure? Or an ineffable essence? One who is aware of us individually and responsive to our pleas for help? Or one who is so far above us that [God] can have no interest in us?”  The “rabbi” concludes with this statement: “I suppose I have the feeling of belief and certainty some times and lack it at others.”17

In another weekday novel, “Rabbi Small” explains that Jewish people can walk in God’s ways and still have doubts about God’s existence.  “After all, you can’t always control your thoughts.”  Further he says, faith “is not a requirement of our religion. . . I suspect it’s a kind of special talent that some have to a greater degree than others.”18

Since belief in God is not a sine qua non for being part of the Jewish people, a Jew who claims to be “not-religious” may still be recognized as fully Jewish by other mainstream Jews.  Non-Jews should not underestimate the power of Jewish cultural and ethnic ties. When Jews say they are “not-religious”, it does not mean that they are assimilated into our Western, Christianized world and certainly, it does not mean that they are open or ripe for conversion.  It may simply mean that they are observant of some Jewish rituals and not observant of other Jewish rituals; for example, they may not keep the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) or they may not light Sabbath candles on Friday or Holiday evenings.  

© 2004 , Bonita E Taylor & David J. Zucker

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