A little while ago someone asked me to name something I did not like about Judaism. At the time I could not think of anything. My experience of Judaism has always been joyful and uplifting. Erstwhile, I put the same question to a Jewish friend of mine who had a number of grievances against Judaism and as a consequence had turned away from Jewish practices and avoided being identified as a Jew. I have had a thirty year connection with this man and I love this friend dearly, but Judaism has always been a point of contention between us, albeit one rarely spoken of. Hitherto, when I put the question to him; “what do you not like about Judaism”? His answer was clear.
“The idea that Jews believe themselves to be God’s chosen people, is highly abhorrent”, he said. He then went on to describe how he had dumped Judaism, but found solace in another movement; metaphysics, which meant he was interested in the Kabbalah, but not Judaism (a somewhat contradiction in terms). Nonetheless, the problem for my friend was simply, a term; the “chosen people”.
Clearly, if one person puts themselves above another, this would be abhorrent. However, most Jews I know feel quite embarrassed to be referred to as God’s chosen people. For me personally, I think taking this Biblical statement literally and out of context is a mistake. Speaking in the vernacular, being special or chosen as an individual, or a group, does not preclude the possibility that others were also special or chosen. There may be no record of God choosing others, but this does not rule out the possibility or probability of it happening. In God all things are possible!
God’s task for the chosen Jews was to spread His words of loving kindness among the masses and to grow the movement of Judaism. In ancient Israel the movement of Judaism did grow significantly, but as in any gathering or movement, historical or current; there are always those who want to hold onto power and keep it for themselves. Judaism’s gains and achievements became directed towards an elite. Jews became exclusive due to the desire of a few to maintain supreme power.
The perceived power that teachers and leaders held sway over others was not the way “chosen” or “special” was meant to be expressed. Indeed, it became a system of an “Othering”. To this end, those who decided to cling to the notion of being God’s only chosen people did not fulfill God’s wishes. Instead, the word chosen became synonymous with the word superior, which concomitantly caused a separation of the Jews from the rest. It is my belief that this was not God’s intention at all.
For me, one of the special things for me about (Reform) Judaism is we can all come to worship from different perspectives, or to put it euphemistically, there is more than one path to the top of the mountain. The meaning of being chosen in my life has had many avenues for exploration and like others before me, I was chosen to be many things, an artist, a writer, a mother, an environmentalist and much more. In addition, what I do has equal value to others doing the same, irrespective of their religions or conditions of birth.
Further, being caught in the semantics of a word has no real basis for the inter-subjective expression of Judaism either as an identity of as a follower of God’s Holy teachings.
What then do I find wrong with Judaism? Today, many people seeking to join a religious group would find it a lot easier to become a Christian or a Muslim than to become a Jew. I have heard it said that some Rabbinical cohorts will refuse an application to convert a Gentile to Judaism three times in the belief that those applicants will get tired of begging for admission into the faith and not return with the same request. Notably, if this practice happens (and I have never met anyone who has experienced it), I imagine it would be to make sure someone (an applicant) was making the right decision. After all, once becoming a Jew you are a Jew for life and historically for many that has been a very painful burden.
That said, there is also a lot of work involved in converting to Judaism, but there needs to be some form of demonstration towards commitment. Moreover, the task of learning how to become a Jew is not restricted to converts. Many secular Jews have missed out on such learning, as was the case for my friend. Life-long learning is one of the main tenants of being a Jew and it is a goal many non-Jews also aspire to.
Jews have maintained their connections to other Jews because they have laboured tirelessly over the voluminous traditions that include historiographies, theologies, liturgies and rituals as well as the daily practices of love and compassion. Most practicing Jews value these lessons highly and apply them to their lives as well as to their worship.
In a practical sense, beliefs and rituals can make life a lot easier and certainly more pleasurable. We all need to connect to the many aspects of the world around us, but if we connect only to the material things we lose touch with our inner being; our soul. True Judaism elevates the soul to a position of love, joy, and well being, is not about power or the labelling of groups or individuals, it is about being immersed in the glory of God, however that goodness might be translated into belief.