Shlicha's/Shaliach's View

The great debate: Is Judaism a religion?

Guy Gelbart
Guy Gelbart

Is Judaism a religion or is it not? This is the question I posted on my Facebook page, Tucson Shaliach Guy Gelbart, with the intention of creating a thought-provoking discussion. I shared a link to a YouTube video of a talk by my friend Avraham Infeld, president of the Chais Family Foundation and president emeritus of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Infeld visited Tucson as the guest speaker for a Federation campaign summit a year ago.

In the video, Infeld, an observant Orthodox Jew and Israeli immigrant, claims Judaism is not a religion. He tells the audience about an argument he had with the CEO of a large Jewish federation: Of course Judaism is a religion, said the CEO. When Infeld asked if he eats kosher, the CEO replied, “Sometimes I do, if there is nothing else available.” When Infeld asked if he himself is religious, the CEO answered, “G-d forbid.” “So are you Jewish?” asked Infeld; “Of course I am, what kind of question is that?” asked the CEO.

This conversation reflects one of the largest issues regarding Jewish identity, connection to Israel and relationship to fellow Jews. If Judaism is simply a faith, why should one care about his or her fellow Jews? Why should one be connected to the land of Israel or to the Hebrew language? So is it or is it not?

“I’ve learned that Jewishness is more than mere religion. It embraces one’s entire culture and personhood,” replied Sarah Ann Pruitt Johnston. “Maybe it’s an identity, a set of cultures, a racial/cultural confederation, a compulsion, a club, a diagnosis, a neurosis, a worldview, a pact, a nation/people, nationhood/people-hood, a proto-religion, a bunch of people who think the same, a bunch of people who disagree, an idea, a set of religions, a set of beliefs or something else. Or all of the above, some of the above, or none of the above,” wrote Marty Johnston, bringing the discussion to new levels of confusion. Both Sarah and Marty are active members of Young Jewish Tucson.

Chava Gal-Or , youth education director at Temple Emanu El, added: “I believe

Judaism is absolutely a religion; however, it encompasses so much more than religion. It’s about the food, the culture, the humor, the many faces, and it’s about Torah and all that she encompasses.”

Rabbi Ben Herman of Congregation Anshei Israel wrote: “In college I went to a number of Hillel conferences where Avraham Infeld gave this speech. I found it entertaining, but I believe Judaism is a religion. It is also a people — one is not mutually exclusive of the other — but without the religion there would be no Judaism, as we would not have the central guiding principles and teachings on how to live our lives. I do not believe that Judaism is an ethnicity, as some assert.”

University of Arizona Professor David Graizbord contributed a more academic reply: “It depends on what one means by ‘religion.’ If by ‘religion’ we mean ‘traditional theology, faith and worship’ only, then Jewish culture does indeed entail ‘religion’; but then it also excludes people like David Ben-Gurion and Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, both of whom were atheists. In fact, such a ‘religion’ excludes most Jews who have lived since the 1800s … yet even Halakhah does not posit that non-observant Jews are not ‘Israel’ … In other words, ‘religious’ belief and observance (going to shul, davening, etc.) are not essential to the definition of ‘Israel’ even according to traditional, rabbinic terms. Historically, Israelite and Judean (‘Jewish’) cultures are not ‘religion’ in the narrow (Western, mainly Protestant, post-Enlightenment) sense I’ve sketched above. To my knowledge, neither the Tanakh nor HaZaL ever referred to our culture as a ‘religion,’ and they certainly did not call it ‘Judaism.’ By contrast, our Torah (Written and Oral) includes numerous terms for the people called ‘Israel’ (e.g., ‘Beit Yaakov,’ ‘Bnei Israel,’ ‘Goy Kadosh,’ etc., not ‘Jews’). The Jewish canon also describes the ideal and actual culture of that people in terms of behavior and collective experience …”

This Facebook discussion came as a follow up to a talk I gave at Temple Emanu-El as part of our “Israel Past and Present” series. The title of the talk was “The Prayer of the Secular,” based on an Israeli song by Kobi Oz. He opens his song with a prayer, “Father, oh merciful Father, Be to me a trusted soul-mate, Cushion my heart in your faith, Lend to me awe at the sound of your name.”

Oz is praying, asking a very specific one G-d, a G-d he does not believe exists, to give him the one thing no G-d can give: faith.

I was left without an answer: Is it or is it not?

Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.