|Is there a single nation on earth like Your people Israel?|
|from Sabbath afternoon prayer|
Judaism has molded men and women and children in its embrace. The Sabbath testifies to it. On this day, Jews feel divinely endowed with an additional soul that gives them peace amidst storms and the quietness of heart to meditate on God's greatness and love. Thus does a faith reach into the depths of its faithful, to mold them and to form them, to give them vision and courage and the unconquerable determination to be God's co-workers, and to contribute to the progress of humanity in the shaping of a better world.
It is an error to speak of a Jewish "race." Jews of every race live in every part of the globe. Although most Jews are Caucasian, there are also African Jews, Indian Jews, Chinese Jews, and Japanese Jews. From the very beginning of Jewish history there has been a mixture of many families united by their common bond.
Are Jews, then, a religious group? They are a religious communion, but they are more than that. The faith has shaped the people. But there are Jews who do not uphold any religious doctrines yet are proud of their Jewishness and the culture Judaism has produced.
Are they a nation in a political sense? Some Jews find themselves organized as a nation. Israel is a sovereign nation on its own free soil. In the former Soviet Union Jews had to carry identity cards that designated them as Jewish nationals. And throughout history, the internal structure of Jewish communitieswith their guiding "officials," the rabbis, and well-developed legal, educational, and welfare systemsfunctioned in ways resembling a nation. But in the democracies of the West, where most Jews live, political government is not determined by religion. Ethnic identity and religious beliefs do not affect the rights and duties of citizenship. In the western world, the Jews, admitting ethnic values, consider themselves primarily a religion, and the synagogues are centers of Jewish life, with a variety of religious experiences finding expression in different religious branch movements: Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism.
Yet there is one element that elevates Jewry in all lands beyond the character of a merely religious fellowship: the kinship and concern that Jews feel for each other. No political bond joins Jews in various lands, only the spirit of belongingness. The Bible expresses the nature of the Jews when it speaks of Bet Yisrael, the House of Israel.1 Jews form a family linked by common experiences, a common history, and a common spiritual heritage. The family acquires its character by the spirit that unites it. The family unit includes those at home and abroad, those who have joined it by marriage, the children born to them. Whoever partakes of the spirit is part of the family. As the members share in common hopes and ideals, they develop the bond of love that holds them together. Like many families, world Jewry, composed of those who were born into it and those who have adopted it by choice, may be torn by disagreements, but love is its firm foundation.
The Jewish family spirit and will to survive has its roots in the conviction that the Jewish people are the people of the Covenant. Torah is the "Book of the Covenant," calling and guiding the people to function in a unique way for the sake of humanity as a whole.
At the conclusion of the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, Moses' farewell address, Moses summoned the people to enter into the Covenant as they had in connection with the revelation at Sinai (see Exod. 19:4-8 and Exod. 24:1-18). Now, in parting, he impressed upon the people that the Covenant, not linked merely to the generation that had witnessed Sinai, would endure throughout all generations:
You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your Godyour tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawerto enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as he promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deut. 29:9 -14)
Rabbinic interpretation offers us an insight into the meaning of Covenant. The Covenant will forever be an everlasting present, as alive as "this day." The Covenant is made not merely with the leaders, but with all, every man, woman, and child. It includes "those not with us this day," those yet unborn, and those who will affiliate themselves with the Jewish people in the future, the converts.
The Covenant created the bond between the Jews and God, thence between Jew and Jew. It has become so internalized that even those who may be unaware of its power have retained their allegiance to the Jewish people as its embodiment.
Covenant and Law
Out of the Covenant we come to understand the place and function of Jewish law. Law condenses the spirit of the Covenant into action. Law is both imposed and organic; it grew out of the encounter with God and out of the spirit of the Jewish people and its needs, hence it has evolved. Law has served as a unifying bond among Jews and contributed to their survival, deepening the spirit of unity and of purpose. Calling for an active response to the divine call, law has served as a life-giving force of self-identification and spiritual awareness. The law translated the Covenant into the deed, the Covenant's pledge into the reality of constant performance linking the Jew to Godhope becomes an action program that can lead to its fulfillment for the Jew and for humanity.
Contemporary Jewry in all its religious branches has affirmed the Covenant as the root element of its being. In 1992, America's leading liberal Jewish theologian, Eugene B. Borowitz, articulated Covenant theology in his work Renewing the Covenant. A living Covenant, it evolves out of the contribution of all the members of the Jewish people in all lands and at all times.
The Claim of Women
Jewish feminists have found in the spirit of the Covenant a strong foundation for the claim of recognition and equality. Every Jew, male or female, is equally embraced by it. The scriptural text, however, sees women as dependent on men, as wives following the children. At Sinai women were left out as equals. A distinction therefore has to be made between the spirit and the words. The text, which reduces the status of women, owes its formulation to the prevailing patriarchal character of Judaism and needs revisional interpretation. In the spirit of the Covenant, all hierarchical differentiation between the genders has to be abolished. In this spirit, women have claimed full recognition of their contribution in shaping Jewish destiny and have assumed full equality in the religious life. These claims need to be recognized; they may lead to a rewriting of Jewish history, and they have brought women equality in non-Orthodox Judaism.
JUDAISM AS AN EVOLVING CIVILIZATION
Women's claims and the response to them gives a living example of how dynamic Judaism is. Indeed, Mordecai M. Kaplan has defined Judaism as "an evolving religious civilization."2 Judaism is religious: without finding God, it would never have come into being, nor would it have continued beyond a few generations. It is evolving, constantly changing and growing. It is a civilization, for it includes not only religious doctrines and practices but encompasses art and philosophy, language and music, folkways and cuisine, as well as a way of life. It expresses itself for some in a homeland in Israel, for others in ethnicity, secular culture, and social service, and for the majorityas in Americain religion. All Jews feel a deep emotional bond with Israel, and a two-way street has been built between the Land and the diaspora. Judaism cannot be understood without Jews, its living servants, the molders of its civilization.
JEWS IN THE WORLD
Numerically a tiny minority in the world, Jews have had a significant impact on the spiritual, intellectual, social, and economic life of every country they have inhabited. Of the approximately 14.5 million Jews, close to 6 million live in the United States of America, the largest Jewish community in history. They have become the leaders of world Jewry, giving it support and aid, offering spiritual guidance, and at the same time building a unique form of American Jewish religious life. (Canada has almost 300,000 Jews.)
Israel, with 4.5 million, is the second largest Jewish community. As a free and creative Jewish commonwealth, it is a focal point of the Jewish spirit and of Jewish hopes. It has been a spiritual magnet to Jews all over the world who have "made aliyah" (literally, have "ascended" to it) in the conviction that a full Jewish life was possible only in the Jewish Land, and it has offered a home to all Jews yearning to be free from persecution. American and Israeli Jews are closely linked.
In Western Europe, Jewish life is free, active, and flourishing but shows the tragic consequences of the Holocaust. The largest number live in France, 530,000; 320,000 live in England; 32,000 in Belgium; 32,000 in Italy; 26,000 in the Netherlands; 20,000 in Switzerland; 15,000 in Sweden; 10,000 in Austria; and 6,000 in Denmark. Approximately 80,000 Jews have settled in Germany, where the Jewish community may continue to grow due to the influx of Russian Jews.
In Eastern Europe, once the spiritual and numerical center of world Jewry, the number of Jews was tragically reduced as the result of the Holocaust. In the former Soviet Union live 1.75 million Jews; 60,000 live in Hungary; 19,000 are the remnant in Romania, only about 4,000 are left of the millions who once lived in Poland.
In Africa, we find flourishing congregations in the south totaling about 125,000, of whom the majority (115,000) live in the Republic of South Africa. The Jewish population along the Mediterranean coast is poor and decreasing.
On the Asian continent, outside of Israel, a Jewish community of about 20,000 exists in Turkey. Iran's once substantial Jewish community has dwindled to about 20,000, and in India live about 4,000 Jews. In Syria, the Jewish population of several thousand was held hostage by the country's dictators from the time of the establishment of the State of Israel; their release was begun in the fall of 1994, allowing them to settle in Israel.
South America has a substantial Jewish population, with a well-organized, active Jewish life: 220,000 Jews live in Argentina; 100,000 in Brazil; 35,000 in Mexico; 25,000 in Uruguay; and 15,000 in Chile.
Australia has 85,000 Jews, and New Zealand 4,500.3
Is there a single nation on earth ... like Your people Israel?
1. In the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, we often find the term B'nai Yisrael, the "Children of Israel," signifying an even closer family unity. The term House of Israel occurs most frequently among the prophets of the Babylonian Exile, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
2. See Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), pp. 173-85,209. The idea is basic to all of Kaplan's writings and to the Reconstructionist movement, of which he is the founder.
3. These figures are based on American Jewish Year Book, copyright The American Jewish Committee and The Jewish Publication Society, New York and Philadelphia. They are adjusted annually.
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