DISCUSSIONS in the playground of my non-Jewish primary school rarely touched on matters of theology. But occasionally I was asked questions such as “What is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas?” or “If you don’t believe in Jesus then who is your saviour?”
The first was easy to answer -— obviously Chanukah was the Jewish Christmas -— but the second left me stumped.
Such questions assume that Christian concepts can be transferred to the Jewish context. That’s the mistake.
In fact Chanukah, which commemorates the ideological victory over Hellenism, is not the “equivalent” of the celebration of the birth of God in human form; it is precisely the opposite.
And the concept of a “saviour” is predicated on the Christian belief that we are all tainted by original sin from which we need salvation. But Jews declare each morning that “the soul that [God] gave me is pure”. No-one saves me because I do not need saving.
Such playground banter had no harmful effects (except one seriously confused Jewish child), but the problem of defining Judaism in non-Jewish terms is widespread and, on occasion, damaging. In most of the western world even “secular” countries, such as Australia, are replete with Christian practices, such as the Lord’s Prayer as Parliament opens each day, Easter and Christmas as public holidays, and no less than four crosses on the nation’s flag.
Additionally, the social and legal frameworks invariably consider Judaism to be of the same species as Christianity, only with the absence of Jesus and with the addition of some funny eating habits.
Judaism is not a “religion” or a “faith” like Christianity. It differs in at least two fundamental respects.
As the British educator, Clive Lawton, once wrote, Judaism is not an “ism”; it’s an “is”. It’s a philosophy, a value system and, above all, a way of life rolled into one, based on a covenantal relationship with God, which obliges us to live according to a set of laws.
This differs fundamentally from Christianity, which believes that the Old Testament has been replaced by a New one; faith in Jesus has superseded the need to live by the laws of the Torah.
While that distinction may seem to belong to the realm of esoteric theology, the other difference affects us all.
A non-believing Christian is a contradiction in terms. But millions of Jews who would describe themselves as non-practising, or even non-believing, are absolutely as Jewish as the chief rabbi. We do not define people as Jewish on the basis of their religious observances; a Jew is simply someone who is a member of the Jewish people.
This concept is unique; neither genetic nor religious and yet with elements of both. A Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother, or one who has converted to Judaism. There are Jews of all nationalities and races (testifying that Jewishness is in no way a racial characteristic), yet linked to each other by the common thread of “peoplehood”.
Many outside the Jewish world, judging Judaism as a religion in the same mould as their own, cannot understand this crucial component of our identity.
I meet principals from other denominational institutions who are astounded that many students at Jewish schools are not observant, since they assume that anyone who is Jewish (and especially if they are committed enough to attend a Jewish school) must be a professing and practising adherent of the Jewish “faith”. They don’t “get” the concept of the Jewish people.
The latest example of this failure to understand what it is to be Jewish comes from the Court of Appeal in London. Three judges (one of whom is Jewish) have ruled that the admissions policy of the UK’s largest Jewish school, which gives preference to applicants who have a Jewish mother or have converted, is a form of racial discrimination and hence, illegal.
This ruling, unless overturned by the Supreme Court, will require Jewish institutions in the UK (including schools, synagogues, nursing homes and any Jewish association) to define Jewishness on the basis of observance, such as synagogue attendance.
Not only will that deny the entire notion of Jewish peoplehood and re-classify Judaism as a faith, it stands in the face of the inclusive outlook of all mainstream Jewish organisations — that welcome Jews, irrespective of their level of observance.
Fortunately, the law as it stands in Victoria cannot be used to de-legitimise criteria of Jewish identity in this way. But the case remains a stark example of what happens when others fail to understand that Judaism cannot be treated as just another religion or faith.
It might be comforting to talk of a “Judeo-Christian ethic”, but in reality Judaism cannot share a hyphen with Christianity. Jewish ethics, Jewish identity and the Jewish way of life are in a class of their own.
Rabbi James Kennard is the principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.