That Word… I don’t think it means what you think it means… (Jewish version)

This Shabbat, I got to spend time with Michon for the first time in several weeks, and we ended up talking about, well, Shabbat. Ze has been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel and it came up that I (and ze) have some cognitive dissonance talking about ‘the kingdom of God’ or ‘heaven’ because we both grew up with the Christian version of those ideas and the meaning Heschel (and much of Judaism) intends is so very different.

I had a conversation with another Jewish person last week who hadn’t learned much about the traditions and ideas behind Jewish practice and ran into (unsurprisingly) the same thing. Concepts that they thought they understood, they didn’t because they had been taught the Christian version.

Christian and Jewish thought is so often presumed to be the same (often framed as ‘Judeo-Christian). Part of the reason this idea has lingered so long is we use many of the same words. But we use them for different things. To steal a phrase, in English-speaking countries Christian and Jewish thought are separated by a common language. (This probably applies other places as well, but that’s out of my wheelhouse.)

That Word… It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means.

I’ve run into this issue for years now. Honestly, I could do a dozen or more blog posts on the many ways Jewish concepts, translated into English, lost critical meaning or were obscured by the Christian meaning of the English words. And, don’t fool yourself, if you are an atheist or a secular Jew, you are likely using the Christian meaning as well because that’s probably the only meaning you’ve been exposed to. Christianity and Christian thought have been extremely integrated into English-speaking society for over a thousand years. Christianity has literally helped make English what it is.

Here are is a shortlist that demonstrates what I’m talking about:

Satan — Yes, in Jewish tradition (and Jewish scriptures) there is a folk called ‘Satan’. Go read the Book of Job. Even in Christian translations, he’s not a banished angel nor a ruler of hell or devil. He’s basically the angel whose job is to ask God ‘are you sure that’s a good idea?’ In Jewish tradition, God likes when people argue back. God likes it even better when people win. (see Oven of Akhnai)

Repentance/forgiveness — Confession is such a lovely idea. Say 10 Hail Mary’s and call me in the morning. No. The Jewish word that is translated as ‘repentance’ actually means ‘returning’. It’s a whole process and does not, under any circumstances, require forgiveness. Part of the process is: You don’t get to seek atonement from God until you’ve made what restitution you can to the victim of your wrongdoing. Forgiveness on the part of the wronged is entirely voluntary and there’s no idea that ‘forgiveness is good for you so you should forgive!’ Everyone has their own path to healing. If yours includes forgiveness, great! Maybe mine doesn’t.

Lucifer — doesn’t exist. I don’t care that it says so in your KJV, your translation sucks. Even Christians are finally figuring this one out ( )

Sin — This is another translation fail. ‘Sin’ is an easy way to translate ‘fail to do a positive mitzvah/fail to avoid a negative mitzvah’. The mitzvah are the commandments. There are way more than ten of them. Lots of them are ‘Dos’, not ‘Don’ts’. ‘Sinner’ isn’t much of a thing. And certainly not ‘original sin’ People are fallible, we will sin, but that’s just the nature of being human. Try to do better. Maybe time for some teshuva (returning). “The soul you have given me lord, she is pure.” An inherent assumption in the goodness of humanity that flies in the face of so much Christian theology and philosophy.

Charity — the Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘charity’ is better translated as ‘righteousness’ or ‘being righteous’. Giving back to the community is a big part of being righteous, which is where the translation to ‘charity’ comes from. But ‘charity’ has overtones that have no place in tzedakah and is so, so much smaller.

Belief — doesn’t matter. Really. I don’t care, the Orthodox rabbi doesn’t care, God knows the Talmud doesn’t care. Belief, schmelief. What matters is what you do. “Do Jews believe…?” “Judeo-Christian beliefs…” etc etc. No. It wasn’t until the 13th century that anyone even considered ‘what should Jews believe’, and that was only in the context of ‘if you can’t live Jewishly, what does it mean to be a Jew’. Belief is a poor second to action.

Profane — just means ordinary. It’s not a curse, not some kind of evil. Sure, to profane a holy day or whatever is bad news. But something being ‘profane’ in and of itself is just… normal. Almost everything and most days are profane.

Holiness — holy objects aren’t a thing. Holy people are sometimes a thing. Times are holy. Holiness exists in time and of time. The first thing declared as holy was a day, the Sabbath. But there is no Jewish holy water, holy symbols, holy spaces, etc. Blessing something is praying over it/for it, not some mystical way of making the profane holy. Why are you worried so much about things, anyway?

Holidays — you mean holy days, yom tov. There are five big ones, a number of small ones. Hanukkah is one of the small ones. No Jews don’t celebrate Easter (I still can’t believe I had to spend 10 minutes convincing someone of this once). Yes, some of them are spent in celebration or feasting with family. Not all of them. They are times which are holy and respected and revered as such.

Scripture — The Tanakh, which includes the Torah. Also, the Talmud, which is sometimes called the Oral Torah. You may not have known that existed. It’s not something that got adopted into Christian Scriptures the way the Torah and Tanakh did. You don’t read Scripture, you study it. Preferably with a stack of references and commentaries. We have 2 millennia worth of commentaries, take the time to learn from them.

Don’t forget: ‘Judaism’ doesn’t mean what you think it does either!

I could go on, but that gives a good-enough starting point. Look, there are commonalities between Jewish and Christian thought. But not nearly as many as most people think. If you actually care, go learn more. If not, that’s fine. But please stop using ‘Judeo-Christian’ and similar terms. Or putting any credence in anyone who claims that ‘Judeo-Christianity/Judeo-Christian thought’ backs their position/argument. They are talking out their ass.

What Is Judaism? It Is a Tribe

I long ago lost track of how often this question comes up.

What is Judaism? People ask. Is it a religion? A culture? An ethnicity?

It is a question that only makes sense from outside of Jewry. From within Jewry, we don’t discuss ‘what is Judaism?’ We discuss ‘who is a Jew?’ We know what Judaism is. What we struggle with is how to explain it to everyone else.

Before I go any further, I want to give credit to Sam Morningstar, emsenn, and the book The Color of Jews, all of which have impacted my thinking in ways that shaped this blog post.

Interestingly, what took me several years to understand my father, when we discussed it recently, saw as obvious. Part of that is probably that he’s spent a much longer time living Jewish-ness than I have, but also I think he has spent over a decade speaking mainly Hebrew.

See, the word ‘Judaism’ doesn’t really translate from or to Hebrew. If you look at the etymology of ‘Judaism’, it started as the Greek for ‘Jew’. Somewhere in its evolution, it went from being a word for a person’s identity to a word for a philosophy or belief system, which is what ‘-ism’ denotes in English.

Among non-Jews, ‘Judaism’ is usually understood as something like ‘the monotheistic religion of the Jews.’ (from google). However, when you look for how to translate Judaism into Hebrew, you get “יַהֲדוּת” which literally means ‘people of Judah’ and is (approximately) defined as ‘Jewry’ or ‘Jewishness’. 

To Abba, after years of speaking Hebrew and living Jewish-ly in a Jewish society, the answer to what is Judaism was obvious. Judaism is a tribe.

Now, there are problems with using the word ‘tribe.’

It isn’t a very clearly defined word and has often been applied to people whether they wanted it or not. But the immediate association for most English speakers will be something like ‘a group of people joined together by heredity, culture, and beliefs/traditions.’

Tribal identity is conferred, not chosen. Someone can be adopted into the tribe, but can’t decide to become a member themselves. Most tribes have their own faith/religion/traditions which social scientist-types call ‘ethnoreligions’ because ‘religion tied to an ethnicity’ is the best they can understand within their Christian-shaped world view.

“But Jess, Jews can convert to Christianity, and then they aren’t Jews anymore!”

Christianity is just about the only religion a Jewish person can convert to and not be considered Jewish anymore. Islam being the other. Why? Because they both require people to renounce Judaism — to renounce their membership in the tribe — to convert. But someone can be a Buddhist Jew or an atheist Jew or a UU Jew and still be part of the tribe. There’s this whole argument about whether you can be a practicing Buddhist AND an observant Jew. But you are still a Jew.

There’s a reason orthodox Jews use the term ‘off the derech’ (off the path). A Jew who goes off the derech is still a Jew, a member of the tribe. They’ve just gone off the right path. That’s a completely different thing from renouncing and abandoning Jewry.

It didn’t occur to me to use ‘tribe’ for Jewry under I started following Sam Morningstar on Quora and emsenn on Fediverse.

Several times with both of them I have had conversations along the lines of ‘oh, our people do this the same! Isn’t it annoying how Christians/European-Americans never get it?’ The more I learned from them, the more I struggled to find words in English that encompassed ‘יַהֲדוּת’… eventually the two came together and I realize, ‘Oh, yeah, the word I’ve been looking for is ‘tribe.’

It’s not perfect — translations never are. But it’s way better than anything else I’ve come up with for trying to explain to Christians and atheists raised in Christian hegemony that ‘Judaism’ isn’t religion OR ethnicity OR culture, but some larger thing that sort of but doesn’t include all three.

Now, most tribal peoples are also indigenous. I want to be clear that I’m not trying to claim indigenity. I think we could have a good conversation about what being indigenous is and how it can/cannot apply to peoples who have been forced into diaspora. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Jews are/were a tribal people in diaspora.

As we have/had been in diaspora, different groups of us have evolved in different directions, developing new customs, traditions, and even languages.

Several other tribal peoples have been forced to survive in diaspora or partly in diaspora and the struggle to retain a cohesive identity as a people is another thing I have heard from others that resonates with Jewish experience.

Of course, there is a major split in יַהֲדוּת now — many of us are no longer in diaspora. That’s causing a whole lot of fretting, discussion, arguing, and lots of other synonyms for ‘people trying to figure shit out and always agreeing’.

Anyway, yeah. That’s my final answer. What is Judaism?

“Judaism” is a tribe.

A tribe in/from diaspora.

Jews are people who belong to the tribe. No matter where in the diaspora they come from. No matter if they were born to the tribe or were adopted (‘converted’) as adults.

It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Thanks to emsenn also for doing a sensitivity read of this post.