This is not comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. I can do another or add things later if asked.
I am not trying to convert you.
We don’t do that. One of the reasons we have such a tiny population is that we don’t seek converts. Why not?
We don’t believe you have to be Jewish to get into Heaven, so conversion wouldn’t save you from anything.
We want to make sure that anyone who joins us is serious. In fact, if you were to ask a rabbi to handle your conversion, it would be traditional to refuse you. Three times. If you go for four and the rabbi agrees, the studying starts. This isn’t exactly a matter of baptism and done.
So what’s so involved? In the more observant branches of Judaism, there’s a huge lifestyle change involved with a whole lot of requirements about everything. There are a lot of commandments and traditions that guide your life. But, even in the less observant branches (like my own Reform branch), as of the moment your conversion is complete, someone somewhere would welcome the opportunity to kill you. Welcome to Judaism!
There are, I suppose, some who think the reason we don’t seek converts is that we don’t have anything worth converting them to. To believe that, you’d essentially have to believe that Jews can’t sell. I’ll let you consider that for a moment…
OK, back to reality.
The disclaimer comes first because I want to make it clear that I am informing, not recruiting.
This isn’t about teaching the vocabulary of Judaism, though I might include some. It’s about teaching the nature of Judaism, particularly in ways that it differs from Christianity, and there are probably more of those ways than you think.
Speaking of nature, let’s tackle the first question first. Are you old enough to remember the Certs commercial? “Certs is a candy mint. Certs is a breath mint. It’s two! (click) two! (click) two mints in one!” So, are Jews a people or a religion?
Nowadays, ethnicity and religion are not the same thing in most cases. When Judaism originated, each people/tribe had its own religion, so the question was initially moot, though it obviously is of current interest. My best answer is that we’re a people who can be joined through our religion. This is strictly my own conclusion.
We're also a people who can be left by converting to another religion. This doesn't cover agnosticism/atheism, this strictly applies to alternative religions.
In any case, we are not now nor have we ever been a “race.”
What to expect from Judaism, random points you might not know:
In Judaism, conduct is more important than anything. Including faith. (To a lot of Christians, this is a complete non-sequitur, like eliminating the sun and expecting there to be heat and light left over.)
Judaism is more about what you’re supposed to do than about what you’re supposed to believe. (There is no Jewish equivalent to the Apostles’ Creed.)
Two points about the Chosen People thing:
1. We were chosen for the privilege of the work. There are no perks past that.
2. We were chosen when the competition was all pagan. Now the competition is mostly God worshippers. Christians and Muslims weren’t rejected; neither of them existed yet.
Don’t tell us we’re arrogant because we believe that we’re right and that everyone else is wrong to the extent that they disagree with us. Every religion is like that. The only way to believe anything is to believe that people are wrong to the extent that they disagree with you. If you have a religion, it is like that. We do not have a monopoly on arrogance, but we often have a monopoly on being criticized for it.
Judaism mainly ignores the afterlife. Life is the main event. Life is absolutely not Death Prep.
To us, Satan is a minor figure, much more of a devil’s advocate than an actual devil. Believing in a counter-entity to God with powers that He would find threatening comes dangerously close to bi-theism, and we are strict monotheists. Also, blaming Satan for anything is a great way to avoid responsibility and Judaism is, first and foremost, about responsibility. See Flip Wilson’s Geraldine. (“The Devil made me buy this dress!”)
Judaism has no original sin.
In Judaism, God does not take the authority to forgive you for what you do to other people. That you square on your own. No “God has forgiven me for what I did to you.”
Though Jewish scripture is mostly what Christians call the Old Testament and we call Tanakh, don’t assume that Christianity and Judaism are all that alike because of that. There are at least a few critical differences:
· I’ll start with the obvious: we don’t follow the New Testament.
· Judaism has oral law, called the Mishnah, to go along with written law. It was eventually written down when the Romans controlled Israel because we were in danger of losing it altogether. Christianity doesn’t have this law.
· There are, from what I understand, some minor text differences, but there are also translation differences. Jewish biblical scholarship is all based on Hebrew sources, which in itself gets complicated. Hebrew words are based on three-letter roots, which have their own translations and implications. Biblical Hebrew was written without vowels, so a few written words could be more than one spoken word and all have to be taken into account. In annotated Hebrew Bibles, the text can literally be smaller than the footnotes. Christian biblical scholarship can be based on Greek translations or the King James Version. The KJV is a good translation (from its sources), but into English that’s roughly 400 years old. The meanings of some English words have shifted in that period, so we literally have the issue of English to English translation.
· We each read scripture through our own lens. This difference is critical. The Christian lens often looks at the Old Testament as preamble for the New, so Daniel and Jeremiah, fairly minor to Jews, are huge to Christians because of being viewed as pointing toward Jesus. If you look at the Binding of Isaac story, one lesson that Jews derive is that God will never require human sacrifice, while Christians view it as a foreshadowing of a later sacrifice of a Son by a Father. I’ll elaborate on the Jewish side of this separately:
The best way to describe Judaism from a doctrine standpoint is scripture through a rabbinic lens. The lens is critical; I may be going out on a limb here, but there are times I think the lens may differentiate Judaism more than scripture does. The influence of that lens is enormous in Judaism, both from a religious standpoint and from a cultural standpoint. The main thing the lens focuses on is the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament/Tanakh. The Torah is a guide to living. As such, literal truth is less of an issue than moral truth is. The main question about any given biblical event is not whether it took place but what moral lesson we can learn from it.
The lens is extremely thorough. Rabbis have, for millennia, gone through the Torah, Mishnah, and each other’s opinions in fine-toothed-comb detail. Word by word. Mishnah plus rabbinic commentary is what makes up the Talmud.
Torah study was, for an extremely long time, the most prestigious activity in which a Jew could engage. So, it became male dominated and the center of our world. (Less central now, except for the Orthodox, or most observant Jews.) That led to high literacy rates, a lot of people with good reasoning skills, and a love of learning in general. There are a lot of Jewish lawyers and judges, partially because legal analysis is pretty close to Torah analysis.
The lens itself is mostly devoted to getting it right, interpreting as justly as possible, and interpreting as humanely as possible. A lot of interpretation is taking the ethics of Torah and seeing to it that those ethics are applied through the law even when it’s not obvious how at the outset. Some of the rabbinical solutions feel like they’re contradicting the letter of the law. For example, the law says that violating the Sabbath is a capital crime. The rabbis say that not only doesn’t this apply when you have the opportunity to save a life, but in that case you are obligated to violate Sabbath. There are other capital crimes but, in biblical period practice, a death sentence was extremely, extremely rare, which is not the impression you’d get from scriptural text, and the lens is why.
Jews as a people have a tendency to be justice-obsessed. That’s one reason more of us are Leftist than Rightist (I’m not taking a shot here) and one reason we have very heavy rates of political activism. (We are represented beyond our numbers in Congress and the Supreme Court to a serious extent.) This concern with justice is drummed into us from a religious standpoint.
The truth is that our obsession with justice may have as much to do with our circumstances as our scripture. My own take is that you value the scarce commodity. In our case, that’s usually justice. In other cases, like American Blacks and a whole lot of the population of the Middle East, it’s respect. (That’s why “dissing” in the wrong neighborhood can get you killed.)
I’ll end with a list. Some characteristics
· Strict monotheism
· No images of God
· Descent from Abraham
· Jerusalem a holy city
· Male circumcision
· Ceremonial adulthood at thirteen
· Obligatory charitable giving
· Dietary law that forbids the eating of pork
· Veneration of Moses
· Name of God is physically sacred in print or written
· Day of rest