I was brought up in a secular Jewish home. My grandparents were victims of the Holocaust. We celebrated the major holidays in a non-reigious way but with deep attachment to our Jewish identity, and perpetuating our family traditions. Can I consider myself Jewish in the full sense of the term?
You ask, "Can I consider myself Jewish in the full sense of the term?" You give a fairly mainstream history for a Jewish person in our times. Elders who, sadly, were victims of the Holocaust, celebration of major holidays in a non-religious way, deep attachment to your Jewish identity including perpetuation of family traditions, so I take it that for you, there's Jewish and then there's Jewish. You are writing, it sounds, as a seeker of greater fullness. It's difficult to infer from the written word, so I wonder if I am reading you right?
All that I can tell you is that Jewish "in the full sense of the term," is where the juicy, amazing, value for living within being Jewish can be found. For this our ancestors strove to sustain and evolve our traditions. When I worked for P'nai Or in Portland, Oregon and B'nai Or in Boston, MA, I found such communities. There is such a joy of having a Jewish community connection where people are kind to one another, where Torah study is non-dogmatic, deep, and spiritually profound. Look for where mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered living is the core ethos. Every branch of Judaism is worthy of your exploration, it takes some exploration, and you will find the places and approaches that are meant for your soul's journey.
There is another kind of fullness, it is finding where your talents, skills and ideas are needed on behalf of the Jewish and human future. The Jewish people is one of the longest continually existing forms of human organization on the planet -- despite all of the unwarranted persecution our ancestors experirenced -- we are still here! In creation that means we have adapted and remain for good reason. Is your role as a peacemaker? As someone who visits those who are ill? As a creator of new Jewish art? As an advocate for justice? As a Jewish journalist who highlights good news or opportunities to fulfill mitzvah needs? Here is a list of possible roles within Jewish life to consider for yourself. http://bmitzvah.org/teachings/holy-rolers-who-are-you-becoming-community There's an incredible fullness that comes from jumping in and being an activist member of the tribe.
Perhaps one of the reasons I was invited to be a commentator for this stie is that I've written a lot on the meaning, relevance and spirituality of Judaism for daily living. You might take a look at the many free pages I've written at www.ReclaimingJudaism.org, or any of the many books I've written that are mentioned there, as well.
with blessings for the fullness to which you aspire and a hearty l'shana tova, Rabbi Goldie Milgram
If you are descended from a Jewish mother and father and grew up thinking of yourself as a Jew then you are a Jew in the full sense of the term, no questions asked. You already know through your grandparents about the heritage of suffering and resistance to which you are heir. The fact that you are a Jew today is because of countless generations of people who made daily and sometimes life-changing, heartbreaking choices to make that happen. Perhaps you will be willing to do the same for your future generations.
You are also heir to a heritage that is incredibly rich and whose depths scholars have not yet plumbed. It is there waiting to be discovered anew by each generation. And, you are heir to a set of real demands—ethical, communal and personal-- that make no distinction as to whether a person considers him or herself to be secular or religious (those are such narrow, sterile terms), and that is where you need to decide just how “Jewish” you choose to be. Jewishness after all, involves membership in a family, but it is a very special kind of family because it involves not just a sense of history but one of ultimate destiny as well.
Jewishness involves membership in a series of covenants, or agreements between the members of the Jewish people with one another and with their God. A great scholar of the last generation (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his essay “The Voice of my Beloved Knocks”) observes that we can distinguish in this sense between the covenant of Moses, which includes all of the commandments and rituals of Judaism, and the covenant of Abraham, which involves an even earlier commitment to Jewish destiny and to a broad overarching ethical aspiration. Secular Judaism, to the extent that it considers itself Jewish, is bound most strongly to this covenant of Abraham and tends to neglect the covenant of Moses. Some religious Jews, sadly, do just the opposite. But our ultimate and overwhelming aspiration needs to be bringing them together in deep and binding integration. My responsibilities to the Jewish people and to all beings universally, my responsibility to Torah and to ethics in the broadest sense, must be made indivisibly one.
This is a complex task and it is the project of a lifetime with many challenges and many rewards. This may be more of an answer than you were looking for, but I want to provoke you. It is easy to say that you are Jewish in the full sense of the term. But the real questions is what you are going to do with that—build, nurture and develop it, or allow it to grow unused and eventually shallow. You are already a member of the tribe. But being Jewish in the full sense of the term as I understand it also includes the covenants of Moses and of Abraham.
The answer is: you are Jewish. Judaism is defined primarily by birth. If your mother is Jewish, according to Jewish legal opinion, you are a Jew. You are a Jew 'in the full sense of the term.'
However, being Jewish goes far beyond your birth status- Judaism is a system of practices, actions, and beliefs. 'Doing Jewish' is as much an important determinant of how a Jew is defined as 'being Jewish' or 'feeling Jewish.' While the occasional pastrami sandwich, Woody Allen film, and self-depricating joke may be hallmarks of American Jewish culture, it is meaningful acts within the Jewish community, such as tzedakah (charity), Gimilut Hassadim (acts of volunteerism or good deeds towards those in need) prayer, Shabbat, trips to Israel, Jewish study, and observing some or all of dietary laws of kashrut, to name a few, that define who you are.
It is convenient that you ask this question only a few days following the release of the latest survey of the American Jewish community was released this week. The findings (here at the NY Times, longer results at the Jewish Daily Forward) reveal that more and more Jews in America are like you- secular and culurally Jewish in nature. This, however, has the result of younger Jews becoming non-religious, and often not raising their children to be Jewish. 58% of American Jews are intermarried. 22% of intermarried Jews raise their children to be Jewish. My point is, statistically speaking, a secular Jewish life may make you Jewish, but it may have real consequences for your children and your grandchildren. Take of that what you will.
The simple answer is yes, you are fully Jewish. You were born to Jewish parents, you were brought up observing Jewish traditions in a way that was meaningful to your family and neither you nor your parents in any way rejected Judaism or accepted another religious tradition as your own.
The more complex answer is that all Jews, yourself and myself included, can be more fully immersed in our Jewish identity – no matter how deeply attached to it we are. Full immersion in no way means seeking out the most traditional or reactionary ways of following Judaism, but allowing your life to be infused with Judaism at both significant and ordinary moments.
The best way to start the process is to engage in the Jewish community in some way. For many, that engagement is through a synagogue. For other it may be through a JCC, involvement in a Jewish non-profit organization or through your local Jewish Board of Education or Federation. By getting involved you not only build up the Jewish community but you bring yourself closer to the rhythms, traditions and ethics of Jewish life that sustained so many generations and continue to sustain us today even in the diverse ways they are observed.
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