Old folk at lunch

Monday, June 29, 2009

Die Judenfrage and religious identity



I originally wrote the post below for my DISSECTING LEFTISM blog but I think it has a place here too. "Die Judenfrage" is German for "The Jewish Question" and is an expression used by both Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler so there was an element of historical awareness in the title I chose. It was actually a bit of a tease. Most people seeing the title would have expected something antisemitic in what I wrote -- but, as you will see, they would have been disappointed

Most Jews must be heartily sick of being forever singled out for discussion and scrutiny but it seems that it was ever so and ever will be. And in my utter folly, I am once again going to voice a few thoughts on one of the most hotly contested topics among Jews: Who is a Jew?

My present thoughts arise from the "wise" British judges who recently decided that Jews are a race. Since there are Jews of all races -- including black ones -- that is arrant nonsense. Yet it is also partly true -- in that various genetic studies have shown that many Jews do still have in them some Middle Eastern genes. So for Jews as a whole it is true that Israel is their ancestral home as well as their religious home.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that Jews are a religion, not a race. And the test of that, it seems to me, is that Jews do accept converts. Try converting yourself into another race: It can't be done.

But many Jews are atheists or something close to it, so how can Jewry be a religion? The easy answer to that from an Orthodox viewpoint (with which I am broadly sympathetic) is that being Jewish is not a matter of belief but of practice. A Jew is someone who follows Jewish law (halacha). What you believe is very secondary. Deeds speak louder than words. Christianity is belief based but Judaism is practice based.

But there is also a much simpler answer: MOST religion is hereditary. And those who inherit it are often not zealous practitioners of it. My late father, for instance, always put his religion down on official forms as "C of E" ("Church of England") and had no hesitation in doing so. He in fact seemed rather proud of it. Yet in all the time I knew him, he never once set foot inside an Anglican church.

So why cannot Jews be the same? Even if you are not religious, you can still have a religious identity.

Because I am an atheist, I never bothered with getting my son Christened but I considered that a knowledge of Christianity was an important element of his cultural heritage so I sent him to a Catholic school -- in the view that Catholics still had enough cultural self-confidence to teach the Christian basics. And they did. And my son greatly enjoyed his religion lessons -- as I hoped he would.

When he was aged 9 however, he said that he wanted to become a Catholic, which of course I was delighted to arrange. So he was baptised and subsequently had his confirmation lessons and was confirmed. These days many years later his beliefs seem to be as skeptical as mine -- which I also expected -- so what motivated his desire to become a Catholic? He wanted to have a religious identity. There was no pressure on him but he was greatly impressed by some very faith-filled people in the church and he wanted to identify with that. And I imagine that he still puts himself down on forms as "Catholic".

So a religious identity can be quite a significant thing for many people, not only Jews. It is a part of belonging -- and that is a very basic human need. Jews in a way are lucky there. No matter what their beliefs are, they still know that there is always one place where they belong, if they ever want to acknowledge it.

Once or twice a year I still attend my local Presbyterian church (at Easter etc.) and I certainly feel that I belong there. I feel at home with all aspects of it. My mother was a Presbyterian of sorts so that was where I was sent as a kid for Sunday School -- and that has stayed with me even though I no longer believe. So, again, one can have and value a religious identity even if one's beliefs have very little to do with it.

And the lady in my life -- Anne -- is only very vaguely religious but her background religion is Presbyterian and there are many habits of mind she has which I know well from my own family, and with which I am therefore very much at ease. Sometimes when she speaks, I hear my mother and my aunties speaking too. She has a Presbyterian mind, or a Presbyterian way of thinking -- perhaps Presbyterian assumptions. I think that in a similar way, most Jews probably have a Jewish mind too. Attitudes and habits of thought may in fact be the most important parts of a religious heritasge.

I am sure that everything I have said above will be mumbo jumbo to most Leftists but, if so, that is their loss.

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