My Obviously Imperfect Take
People approaching Judaism for the first time tend to bring assumptions from their own religious upbringing, incomplete as that might be. For people raised in majority-Christian culture, that means the first thing they might want to know is What do Jews believe?
I got pretty far along the path towards conversion before I understood that in important ways, this is kind of a non-question. Not wrong to ask, not offensive or anything, just trying to make Judaism fit into a space it isn’t really meant to occupy.
The real question is ‘How do Jews try to live?’ Judaism is less a set of beliefs than a way of living in the world, of being mindful. Mindful that everything and everyone around us springs from the creative will of a single, divine Being to Whom we are bound in an ever-unfolding relationship of deep mutual need.
To live as a Jew is to never stop trying to live out this mindfulness and everything that flows from it. Do not do to others what is hateful to you. Lift up the poor. Welcome the stranger. Savor each moment. Count your blessings and be thankful for them. Learn to understand what is holy and keep it holy.
So whether Jews believe in heaven and hell (Heaven? Yes. Hell? Maybe, maybe not), or a messiah (It’s complicated), or original sin (No, for the most part) isn’t the most interesting or important thing to learn.
What Is Important, Then?
From the first moments of recorded history, almost three thousand years ago, Jews have lived in the company of an ever-developing set of shared ceremonies and sacred texts. Their reach and depth and richness, if understand them even a little, will break your heart wide open.
The most widely known observances outside the Jewish world are also the most ancient — the ritual circumcision of baby boys, the shared springtime feast of Passover, prayer and fasting on the Day of Atonement.
But there’s much more than that. Over the centuries, tradition has grown around the ancient ceremonies to encompass virtually every aspect of life, every major rite of passage from birth to adulthood to marriage to death.
What you might come across first are the blessings, b’rachot in Hebrew, that intersect with dozens, if not hundreds, of different events. You recite them as the events are happening or about to happen. There’s a blessing for drinking wine, for eating bread, for comforting the sick, and there’s even one to say when you’re in the company of at least six hundred thousand people.
One of my favorites: The blessing you say when in the presence of some natural wonder — a rainbow, a beautiful sunset, the Grand Canyon: Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit.
The literal translation: “Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe, creator of creation in the beginning.”
What it means to me: The wonders we see around us didn’t just happen. Whether you believe in a deity that creates every blade of grass or, as I do, in a being that created a universe that creates itself, seeing it all as an echo of a singular, divine will makes it all the more wondrous.
And Then There’s Shabbat
By far the biggest single observance, one that goes all the way back to Moses, is Shabbat, the Sabbath, the day of rest.
Here’s what it boils down to: Whatever you do for a living, you stop doing it at sundown on Friday and you don’t start again until after the sun goes down on Saturday. You don’t clean, you don’t cook, you don’t do anything to alter your surroundings.
You rest, you pray, you worship, you eat, you sleep, you have sex with your partner, you visit with friends and family. You take leisurely walks, lazy naps, and long, slow meals.
In short, you do all the things none of us ever has enough time for.
All of this is done to make us mindful of two things. The first is the divine act of creation itself. By resting, by stepping far back enough from everything to say “It is good,” we remember the point in the Genesis story when G-d rested from the creation of the universe. And we remember, by the blessings we recite and the bread we eat, the story of the Exodus, the journey from slavery to freedom.
This is spiritual genius of the highest order, handed down thousands of years ago and lovingly cared for every week since then.
Sacred Texts. Sacred Learning. Sacred Disagreement.
Most everyone knows that the texts of “The Old Testament” are central to Judaism: the five books of Moses, the historical writings of the ancient Israelites, and the books of the Hebrew prophets.
What most people don’t know is that those texts were only the beginning, only the ground out of which a overflowing garden has grown over more than two thousand years. For every word in the books of the Hebrew scriptures, there are thousands of words of interpretation, commentary, and commentary on commentary, all lovingly preserved in an unbroken chain even as history took the Jews through one calamity after another.
What’s remarkable is that in all this recorded thought, there isn’t much more agreement than there is today. As Christians slaughtered each other over matters of belief, century after century, the guardians of Jewish learning preserved, and even nurtured, a diversity of viewpoints.
Reading and learning are central to Judaism, as central as communion is to Catholicism. And everyone who reads the sacred texts is allowed — even required — to question, to dispute, to wrestle with the words and come to their own conclusions.