"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"We do not stress Judaism as a religion for we see it primarily as a culture. My son is a Jew in the same way he is an American of Russian and Italian descent. We try to teach him that G-d does not feel anyone to be better than anyone else. The Holocaust showed us the dangers of believing that any race is superior to another. We Jews above all others should not fall into that trap. 'Pure Jews' are not better than 'Pure Aryans.'"


I have heard your position stated many times by other Jews. I hope you won't take it personally when I say that I find such thinking to be the product of either shallow or escapist thinking.

How can Judaism be defined as a culture? What would constitute its identifying features? Cuisine? Language? Physiognomy? Geographic proximity? Come to Israel and you'll see Jews from all over the world eating different cuisines, speaking different languages, and having different physical features than those you most probably associate with Jews. That is, the majority of Israeli Jews don't like gefilte fish, don't understand Yiddish, and (many of them) have dark skins!

Today, there are some Jews that say, "Israel, Sephardim, that is the defining culture." Isn't that silly? Fifty years or so is not nearly substantial enough to get excited about in terms of trying to define our people. After all, for thousands of years, Jews never heard of kibbutzim, falafel, or Dizengoff Square and they still managed to lead complete Jewish lives.

There is only one thing common to all Jews in all places in every era, and that is the Torah and the relationship between Jew and G-d defined therein. The obvious and logical conclusion is that the only genuine cultural bond that connects all the Jewish people is the religion that was set out in the Torah and guided through the centuries by authentic rabbinical tradition.

However, Torah minus belief or Torah minus mitzvah performance does not equal "culture" either. Culture is supposed to add quality to life, not remove it. Take away the component of religious observance and you drain all Jewish meaning and vitality from the practices, customs, and languages that have sprung from the Torah. In the case of language, for example, we find very few Yiddish speakers among the descendants of the non-religious "Yiddishists" and even modern Israeli Hebrew moves daily farther and farther away from its Lashon HaKodesh ["Holy Tongue"] roots.

You teach your son that "G-d does not feel anyone to be better than anyone else...that pure Jews are no better than pure Aryans." Perhaps. Nevertheless, Jews are different than Aryans. After all, while hardly anyone would say that apples are intrinsically better than oranges or oranges than apples, no one would maintain that apples are not different from oranges. Nor, for that matter, is it conceivable that anyone would say that apples shouldn't be different than oranges. One of the beauties of G-d's creation is its variety. Real variety. And this variety manifests itself in different purposes for G-d's creations. A bee differs from a bird in purpose as well as in appearance. So too with human beings.

The Jewish people chose and were chosen at Mt. Sinai to base their lives upon the fulfillment of the 613 commandments of the Torah. Non-Jews have a different obligation towards G-d. To postulate that all people should have the same beliefs, moral values, and spiritual impulses while retaining cute little cultural differences is to mock G-d's creation. It is like saying that as long as apples and oranges look different, it is all right if they taste exactly the same.

You wrote that the Holocaust "showed us the danger of believing any race is superior to another." I don't know who you mean by "us", unless you mean this is the lesson for mankind in general. But given that the Jews of Germany then were as or even more assimilated than the Jews of America today, the Holocaust certainly has shown us Jews the danger of Jews thinking that one's Jewish identity is secondary or can be hidden by one's citizenship or cultural inclinations. A Jew, in essence, is 100% a Jew, and this transcends all possible cultural/anthropological tags.

I sincerely feel that you owe it to yourself and your son to invest a strong effort into finding out what being Jewish is really all about, and the best place to start is with the definitions that have withstood the tests of centuries of time. There are literally thousands of Jews, throughout the world and here in Israel, from every level of society, who have returned to the Torah-true Judaism of their forbearers, and other thousands who are investigating it. This is your son's heritage, too: please don't deny yourself or him this opportunity to know.

Yrachmiel Tilles

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