Despite their relatively small community in South Africa, and indeed their minority status in a lot of places around the world, the Jews have made a big mark. Hostile to outsiders, lavish in giving advantages to its own kind and filled with a persecution complex (all of which, it may be argued, have at least some rational basis), the Jewish community is a complex animal, as is the religion on which it is based.
(I was born to Jewish parents; however, regular Thought Leader readers will know that I am a firm enemy of all organised religion and religious beliefs, to which this is no exception.)
What makes Judaism complex is that it isn’t one thing: it’s not merely a religion, since many people who would call themselves Jews participate only nominally in the demanding rituals and practices prescribed by the religious texts. It’s not a race, per se, or even an ethnicity, since Jews after the so-called “diaspora” (Jews, I find, are fond of these proprietary historical labels) split off into quite distinct ethnic groups. It’s perhaps a cultural group, though what “culture” really means in this day and age isn’t easy to say.
Perhaps the closest thing one can say is that it’s a group that is linked by common ancestry and the self-defined boundary of the maternal line. The Jews, in what I have always found a supreme act of arrogance, state that a Jew is born with a “Jewish soul”. Try what you like (I offered to donate mine to a friend some years back), that’s what you are in their eyes. They might hate you for “assimilating” (another trendy catchphrase), but once a Jew, always one.
Judaism, I will say, is a religion with a strong scholarly and intellectual tradition. Unlike many strains of Christianity — particularly the abominable evangelical sects that have sprung up all over the place — that are based on the Bible alone, Judaism has countless secondary texts that are studied by the devout in depth and ad nauseam. The Torah — the Jewish scroll that contains the first five books of Genesis in Hebrew — is interpreted in many different ways.
Debate and discussion is deep and complex and engaging. The clever angle that Judaism has taken, however unconsciously, is that it can be an intellectually satisfying pursuit. This means that you will find scientists and philosophers and economists and all kinds of boffins poking around in the “yeshivas” (the religious colleges) marrying their core intellectual knowledge with their religious beliefs.
Let it be said that the underlying religious beliefs are no more inspiring or coherent than those of any other religion and, in many cases, sound more like the writings of JRR Tolkien than ancient spiritual practitioners.
There is still a God, the renowned Yahweh (sometimes called Jehovah), whose acts and attitudes in the Old Testament are a case study in brutality, xenophobia and cruelty. He routinely has entire nations slain, swallows up people into the Earth, drowns, burns, turns into salt and so forth. He is ruthless with even his most ardent disciples. (Example: Moses is denied entry into the “promised land” after countless years of wandering around looking for it with only God as his rather dodgy GPS, because he hits a rock instead of speaking to it.)
Leaving God aside, there are all kinds of bonkers stuff going on within the Jewish belief system. For example, they believe that the “oral law” was given to the people gathered at Mount Sinai by God via Moses and was memorised, word perfect, and then handed down through a gazillion generations until it was finally committed to paper thousands of years later.
Unlike their Christian descendants, the Jews don’t try to pretend that the writers lived concurrently with the key events. They insist that not one word was lost during all these years of broken telephone, and that this process itself proves that God exists because all the people at Sinai experienced this event. The circular logic here seems to trouble no one.
As one typical explanation goes: “Jews say that we have kept the Torah for thousands of years, not because of miracles or any other supernatural phenomena of Jewish history, but because we all stood at Mount Sinai and heard God speak and for generation after generation that very fact was passed down.” Apparently shared delusions are inherently impossible, according to this logic.
Likewise, there is the shady concept of “Amalek”, the shady archetypal enemy of the Jews, who (some argue) are embodied by present-day Arabs. They are told they must take from them a ring of power, and throw it into a volcano … well, not really, but it does get pretty weird.
Jewish mystical books also state that one can fashion a person-shaped pile of mud into a walking monster (called a golem). They contain prophecy like crazy, including (supposedly) a built-in prophecy machine in the Torah, a complex system of numbers that predicts all kinds of stuff (like George Bush and Saddam Hussein, for example). This has been dubbed the “Bible Code” by popular authors.
In fact, they believe the Torah contains, somehow, the entire universe (the “word is God”). It is so magical an item that there is nothing that is not in there if you know how to read it.
As wild as this all sounds, the fact is, most Jews don’t spend a lot of time on this stuff. They have adopted a lighter form of Judaism that primarily involves family events and their particular choice of friends and social circles. Since Jews are honour-bound not to intermarry (this they share with other faiths, but it is particularly strong in this community) they tend to stick together — Jewish socials, Jewish dating sites, even primarily Jewish suburbs.
My most ardent criticism of Judaism has been, ironically, that there seems to be a profound hypocrisy at work. Again, nothing too unique there, but it’s always shocked me that there is a strong pressure to attend, say, synagogue on Friday nights or Saturdays, but that most of the time is spent chatting about business between recitals of Hebrew prayers only vaguely comprehended, if at all. In fact, all religious events seem about as devoid of religious or spiritual content as a night at the movies.
In fact, Jews have packaged Judaism into something that is doable and acceptable in the modern times. Not all — there is a worrying fundamentalist resurgence in Judaism too — but many. That means they have dropped whatever bits of the religion are just too inconvenient to follow, or too embarrassing, or frankly would contravene human rights. No more stoning of men who work on the Sabbath or adulterers, for example.
For all that, there are some primitive rituals and beliefs that have taken a firm hold. Not eating pork, for example, is something adhered to with almost maniacal sincerity. “Because it’s unclean,” comes the explanation, whatever that means. Chickens that are bred in the kind of filth and disease that is beyond compare are famously made into virus-healing soup, no problem.
And then there’s male circumcision: the so-called “bris”. A barbaric act from a different age that is not only tolerated but also actively celebrated with cakes and snacks and cheers of pride. Typically performed in the parents home by a “moyle”, he of the sip of red wine and a trusty pair of snippers (real anaesthetics are apparently not part of God’s plan), it is a frightening event to behold. And the truth be told, everyone knows it. The mother cowers in a corner or in another room, and the women look faint as the child screams its poor lungs out.
Judaism, however, is under threat, certainly in its true form, but even in its loosest one. Many Jews are simply abandoning the religion, intermarrying and moving on. They may retain a cursory link to their “tribe”, but this religion is struggling to reinvent itself for a post-modern age. In a way, it’s too smart for its own good. Unlike reborn Christianity, whose childish and simplistic message can rouse people into a frenzy of irrationality, Judaism tends to be altogether too serene and dull. And many intellectuals use it as a stepping stone toward a more personal spirituality that doesn’t oblige them to tie little wooden boxes to their heads.
Assimilation (intermarrying, basically), I’ve heard it said, is “finishing Hitler’s work”. If that’s not the frightened call of a belief system fading into obscurity, I don’t know what is.
I cheer on its demise, simply because I find its insistence on separateness self-defeating; its notion that Jews are “the chosen” insulting to others and at odds with the kind of integrated world we so desperately need; and the mindless support of the brutality and violence of the state of Israel unconscionable.
And because, despite all the intellectualising, it’s still a belief in a single God, who judges, who listens to our prayers, who punishes the wicked. And that quaint fairytale, dressed up however you like, is an idea whose time has passed.