A Question of Judeo-Pagan Values

I am a member of an ancient, nature-based religion that celebrates the cycles of the harvests. We believe in the supernatural. We count the passing of the year by the cycles of the moon; we dance under it just a few days before it is full and new moons are times for reflections and re-creating ourselves. For a great many of us, environmentalism is a large part of our faith.

We gather to honor The Queen with fire and feasting, singing and ecstatic trance. Our bodies flicker like the flames of candles as the energy of the divine feminine alights upon us.

In the Autumn, heralded by circumambulation and chanting, we beat the leaves off of willow branches even as the branches above us are beginning to loose their foliage. We remind ourselves thereby that Autumn is a time to let what is no longer needed pass away, making room for rebirth.

When times get tough, really tough, we have our customs. Trinkets to ward off the evil eye, talismans to improve our fertility, incantations from the Kabalah to bring prosperity, rituals of purification to renew us when we feel the touch of death.

We are Jews. We have more in common with Pagans than you could possibly imagine.

Orthodox Jews don’t try to convert people. It’s hard to convert to Judaism. It requires study and initiation, and we are still arguing about lineage. We are a religion of practice with very few unifying beliefs, and the beliefs we have aren’t generally about the spirituality of human-kind, but the ethno-spiritual nature of the Jewish people.

Similarly, I hear Pagans debate about lineage. Beliefs are not uniform. Certain practices may constitute a unifying feature across Paganism, but each sub-group has its own interpretation about how those things should be done. The debate continues, in Pagan circles, about what parts are universal and necessary.

Yet, for reasons beyond my comprehension, Judaism finds itself standing under an umbrella with two expansionist, proselytizing faiths that would, if they could, devour us whole. The decision was made to prevent persecution, but has had worse ramifications for the Jewish people than I can possibly describe.

I am tired, dead tired, of hearing about “Judeo-Christian” values. Any generality about these will, simply by the numbers, result in speaking exclusively about Christians. Standing in a circle painted around us as Abrahamic faiths, Jews are mute and anonymous to the point that we even forget ourselves.

It’s time to blow this popsicle stand.

Before you firmly draw a boundary around Paganism, and exclude us entirely, I have a few questions to put to you. Let us call them “questions of Judeo-Pagan values.”

 

The Wheel of the Year

“We look to the moon and the sun for the signs of our seasons… people think our holidays are foolish.”

File:Wheel of the Year.JPGI will never forget the “Fox and Friends” tirade about how Wiccans have “twenty holidays.”

Hearing this, I was instantly furious. Their estimate on the number wasn’t what was so wrong. Wiccans have eight Sabbats and thirteen Esbats for a total of twenty one. What made me so angry was the implication that this was somehow unreasonable.

After all, I celebrate the wheel of the year, too. Twelve days of my year are harvest related holidays, during which time I have observances that require me to take off work, effectively equivalent to Wiccan Sabbats. Then there are 52 weeks in the year, and a Shabbat every week. Not including Hannukah, Purim or Yom Kippur, that’s already 64 days.

If they are going to fault you for 20, if they win, my co-religionists and I are surely next. In a 24-7 society where nothing is sacred, any attempt to set aside sacred space or sacred time is automatically under siege.

I have had to quit jobs, or have had my hours cut so drastically that I may as well have been fired, because I was celebrating non-Christian holidays. I see Wiccans and Pagans forced to observe their sacred days on the nearest weekend, or not at all, because they are afraid to ask for days off of work.

We are fighting the same fight.

 

Monotheism and Polytheism

“I looked up the dictionary definitions, but I don’t fit a category.”

Jews may have pioneered the field of monotheism, saying “Shema Yisroayl Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” but the dictionary definition no longer fits what Orthodox Jews mean by the word.

If you include Kabalah in any aspect of your practice, if it informs the way you look at whatever mythology you happen to be looking at, if it shapes your worldview in any significant way, you already have more in common with Orthodox Jews, theologically, than Christians do.

Many who identify as Pagans aren’t hard polytheists, or monotheists, but fall somewhere in the mushy middle, believing in some sort of unity, and some number of manifestations thereof.

There are Pagans, of course, who are hard polytheists. I notice, though, that some are strongly considering dispensing with the label “Pagan,” largely because just as Jews are outnumbered and voiceless in a sea of “Abrahamic faiths” that misrepresent them, polytheists are frustrated about being represented by people who are, by and large, not hard polytheists.

If you listen to Jews talk about divinity long enough, you’ll realize that standard ideas of gender and number sort of fall apart in our (incredibly diverse and pluripotent) theology, as do confines of time and space. It’s more complex than just “one” or “many,” “male” or “female,” or even “before” or “after.” Our deity is, “a spark of impenetrable darkness which split and did not split its aura.” (Zohar, Bereshit)

To fully explain this, I’d really need to write a several hundred page book. However, I don’t have time to write that, nor do you have time to read it. An analogy will have to do.

When I write a story with many characters, I am plural. The old man, the young woman and the precocious child are all me. They are all who I would be if I was in that set of circumstances, at that stage in my life. The characters in the story see one another, interact with one another. They may even interact with supernatural creatures that I put there, but those supernatural creatures are all me, too. That doesn’t mean that I’m not an individual. It doesn’t mean I’m the only author there is. It doesn’t mean that my book has to have the same metaphysical rules as any other book. In our analogy, I am the Hebrew God. The book is the Hebrew egregore. The people reading the book are Jews. Their minds are, for the time that they are reading, fully immersed in that imaginative world, but completely cognizant that I am the author. The characters in the book are the names of God, aspects of God, angels and heroes of the mythos.

There are many names of this Jewish divinity. There are many personalities, too. They are all One. She/He is plural. If you are relying on non-Jews to tell you who the Deity is, I assure you, you will be mislead about how Jews think about that deity. Perhaps, then, this singleplural, pluralsingle, henotheistic, aniministic, panentheistic, gosh it’s just too hard to explain really, weebly-wobly-deity-weity STUFF is a Judeo-Pagan thing, too?

As well, the Jewish umbrella allows for beliefs that are animistic (the Moon talks to God), henotheistic (angels are lesser deities, deities we don’t directly worship, but deities), panentheistic, mystical or rational. It allows for a plurality of beliefs about the after-life which include reincarnation, eternal non-physical existence, or no after-life at all.

Leaving room to think. Leaving room for people to decide for themselves how the metaphysical universe works, and being united by common practices so as to allow for many beliefs without disturbing unity. Allowing for unifying practices to be interpreted in many different ways, defining them broadly so as to create freedom in that, as well. Is that a Judeo-Pagan value?

What about the need to see the whole of divinity as plural gendered? There are aspects of our deity that are male (Ayl), female (Adonai), hermaphroditical (Tzvaot) or genderqueer (YHVH). Some of them swap genders depending on circumstances, becoming fully male, or fully female (YHV). Do you not likewise value the representation of multiple genders within the Divine? Might this also be a Judeo-Pagan value?

 

Ethnic Religions and Expansionist Faiths

“My truth doesn’t have to be your truth.”

Orthodox Jews have an extremely ethnocentric view. The laws and taboos have nothing to do with non-Jews. Why would they? The Torah is our cultural book, and it is full of laws for Jews. In order to join Judaism, you need to be initiated, essentially acquiring Judaism as your ethnic identity. When a proselyte joins Judaism –after years of study and an extensive investigation examining their ability to keep the traditions — it is considered that our ancestors become their ancestors. Only by spiritually sharing these ancestors can a person become Jewish. Only by having Jewish ancestry can you worship the ancestral deity.

Hellenic polytheism, Celtic Reconstructionism, British Traditional Wicca, Babylonian Polytheism, Kemetic Orthodoxy. These are faiths that don’t speak too much about what is universally true, but rather, focus on what is true and right for people who personally, mystically identify with those cultures. Jew-daism is not different.

Expansionist faiths, on the other hand, believe that they have the truth, the really real truth, the literal truth. Anyone who does not agree with them is wrong. Everyone, once they “wake up” will obviously convert, since they are offering metaphysical certitude. All other religions are “superstitious.” They do not mean to speak for themselves, or their culture, they mean to speak for all of humanity. Many sects of Christianity and Islam have this “absolute human truth” thing going on at the core of their faith. This is not a Jewish idea, however. It’s not a Pagan idea, either. It disturbs me that I am beginning to see traces of this in some sects of Judaism. If my reading of recent articles in your community is any indication, you are fairly disturbed by it when it crops up in your community, too.

The instant Jews start talking about beliefs in terms of the world, and not the Tribe, what is right for humans, rather than what is right for those of Jewish faith, how to get non-Jews to join, rather than figuring out how to entice Jews to stay, they realize that they must abandon our “superstitious” ideas that may not apply to all people from all cultures. These ideas, of course, are at the core of Orthodox practice.

Reform Jews, like Christians, believe that Judaism should be universal. They have the belief, like Christians, that Judaism should be based on specific beliefs, rather than practices and consequently, don’t know very much about the tribal customs, on the whole. They are leaking membership, and not seeing significant growth. They are probably the only Jews you know about. They say that their religion is just like Christianity, and they are correct. Unless they reject faith-based notions about Judaism, and get back to the ethnic roots of the religion, they won’t exist in a hundred years. Yet, they are terrified that by being different than Christianity, they won’t fit into “Modern” (read:Christian) society. Christians tell them what the “Old Testament Laws” demand of them, and how unreasonable it all is, little realizing that the central book of Jewish Law (Hallacha) isn’t the Tenakh, but the Talmud.

File:First page of the first tractate of the Talmud (Daf Beis of Maseches Brachos).jpgOrthodox Judaism is not primarily concerned with issues of universal truth (though you have to feel like you know how the world works to practice magic) or universal morality. Rather, it is concerned with being true to our ancient tribal customs, which we are proud to have continuously changed and updated to suit our needs, rather than mindlessly following whatever laws we think people followed in the stone age. Modern, ancient, changing, unchanging, it matters little, it’s ours. It’s not ours a thousand years ago, it’s ours in this very moment, as I sit here typing. We want only the right to follow our cultural religion without being discriminated against. I suspect the desires of Pagans are not different.

Is respecting the right of small, ethnically-based religious traditions to worship the Gods of their genetic or adopted Ancestors a potential Judeo-Pagan value? Might we also be able to say that it isn’t one to be expansionist and declare that your truth is the best and only truth?

 

What I’m Suggesting

I’m not suggesting that Judaism is a kind of Paganism, actually. I don’t know how I can suggest that, when really, Paganism has yet to acquire a definition that all Pagans are satisfied with.

What I am suggesting is that your relations with other religions outside of the Pagan umbrella are important, and they can’t all be negative.

The next time you write about what “Abrahamic” faiths believe or do, consider whether your comments sincerely apply to each and every Abrahamic faith. Does it apply to the Sufi? The Jews? The liberal sects of Christianity? Do you know enough to be able to say whether it does or not? If you are mad at mainline Christianity, maybe your beef ends there. Does a particular religion have to be incorrect for yours to be correct?

If you share even one of those things I mentioned with my particular idiom of Judaism, you might find that there are many other points of connection about which you were previously unaware. Might there really be Judeo-Pagan values? Christo-Pagan values? Even Islamic-Pagan values? By finding commonalities between Pagan and non-Pagan religions, you might just find allies. Fair-minded folk of other faiths might take up your cause and help you begin, in small part, to step out into the light of a broader, better world: one where you participate on equal footing with all other faiths.

 


Aliyah Bat Stam is a kabalist, Jewish educator, ceremonial magician and Torah Observant Jewitch. She exists primarily for the purpose of irritating people who like to put things into boxes (literal or physical), and secondarily for the purpose of making people of all ages think. In her spare time, she likes to study Greek and Hebrew mythology, and jump up and down shouting at the guy on the O.U. Daf Yomi recordings. For more of Aliyah’s writing, check out her blog, Jewcraft.

  • Steve whiteraven

    thank you for this its certainly given me a lot to think about and some more research :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    I once had a rabbi explain it as “Judaism is the indigenous religion of the Hebrew people.”  “Judeo-Christian” is a mostly-political construction of the mid-20th century United States. 

    Modern Paganism already has ties to Judaism through our mainstream culture and through the Western Mystery Tradition.  As we try to figure out what we’re going to be when we grow up, we could do far worse than to look to Judaism for a model.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1603966786 Lisa Radocchia

    Thank you for writing this. 

  • NyxShadow

    And, you are not alone.
    Thank you for summarizing this so beautifully.

  • http://www.miraselena.com/ Heather Greene

    Being Wiccan with Jewish Heritage, I agree with your assessments.   

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

       ^ +1 :)

  • Kenneth

    I agree that Judaism and Paganism may well have common political cause in our respective fights for autonomy and religious freedom. We share some similarities such as a nature-based calendar and traditions of mysticism. That said, I see a chasm between Judaism and Paganism that is as wide and deep and unbridgable as those between us and the other Abrahamic faiths. Orthodox Judaism is not expansionist, and that is an important distinction. That is helpful, but it does not establish that Judaism is Paganism with a different tribal god, and there is no realistic way to look at Orthodox Judaism and conclude that it is theologically compatible with Paganism or even well disposed toward it. 

    In thousands of writings over thousands of years, Jewish law and interpretation has built a solid granite wall between Judaism and Paganism.  Many of the requirements of Kosher law, especially those dealing with the preparation of meat and wine are clearly designed to avoid the remotest association with pagan traditions or idolotry. The first of the Noahide laws prohibits idolotry upon pain of death, and is believed to be binding upon all people, not just Jews.

     We can attempt to massage that point by looking at different rabbinic interpretations of what amounts to “idolotry”, but I have yet to see any authoritative opinion which says neopaganism is cool by Judaism or that its even ok for Jews to associate with us as a general matter. I’m also more than willing to concede that I’m not well plugged into the Orthodox Jewish world and that I may be wrong about that. Recognition of angels and knowing one G-d through various aspects and identities is not polytheism. Nor are all neopagans polytheists, but Judaism’s absolute proscription of polytheism is a fundamental difference between your folks and mine. 

    There are also big differences on other theological and cultural questions. Again, I’m open to correction or nuance on this, but I have not been able to find any daylight between the position of Orthodox Judaism and Evangelical Christianity vis-a-vis the question of LGBT rights.  To the extent that’s true, Orthodox Jews and Pagans are not going to mesh well at the macro level. 

    I agree wholeheartedly that over-arching labels like “Abrahamic” gloss over important distinctions and should never dictate relations between people. As a pagan, I know that some of the best allies I find will be wearing the “enemy’s” religious uniform, and some of my worst enemies will be wearing my own.  My premise of interfaith work is that we cannot reconcile one religion with another, and it is unproductive to even try.

     For all their diversity, Abrahamic faiths, in their official mainstream consensus forms, are fundamentally different than most of Paganism. I don’t think Judaism is a good fit under the classification “pagan”, as loose and shabby a definition as that is. That’s not because I don’t think you’re one of the cool kids, I just don’t think it’s an accurate or productive model. By the same token, if I happened to incorporate Kabbalah in my pagan practice, and kept Kosher, and worked on all 613 mitzvah, that wouldn’t make me a Jew, and I wouldn’t break a lot of ice by approaching rabbis with talk of “our people.” (Nor, as per Seinfeld, would I be properly qualified to tell Jewish jokes! :)

     The productive discussion starts with asking “how does MY Pagansim and YOUR Judaism inform us each to act in the world, and where can we work together?” 

    • Aliyah Bat Stam

      Kenneth,

      I’m going t reply to *most* of your comment by quoting the article to which you are responding: “I’m not suggesting that Judaism is a kind of Paganism, actually. ”

      I am not Pagan. Why am I writing here? Because you need to hear this. I used to be Pagan. I was Pagan for many years. I worshipped many different gods and goddesses. Then, I decided not to, for reasons that are deeply personal. I still care about the Pagan community, I want you to succeed, and you can’t do that while you do not have positive interfaith relations with religions you don’t follow. 

      I’ll say this again, because it is important: Paganism cannot succeed as a religion without having positive interfaith relations with non-Pagan religions. 

      How many Orthodox Rabbis have you talked to, personally, about the LGBT question, and how much of your understanding about the issue, from a Jewish perspective, comes from reading articles on the internet? I interfaith relations starts with actually directly talking to people who follow a religion about these issues in a way that is reasonable and non-hostile. 

      Go to a Chabad, if you will, and ask, “What are the Jewish laws about how I, as a non-Jew, should conduct my sexual activities?”

      You will find, rather promptly, that there are none. 

      • Kenneth

        Paganism’s “success” has not and will not hinge on having positive relations with other religions. It has succeeded to this point for the better part of a century despite the fierce hatreds and bigotry of many other groups.

        Our religions, like any other, will succeed or fail based on how they speak to the hearts and souls of their followers. The history of the Jewish people is ample proof of that. If success was determined by the goodwill of others, Judaism would only exist in archaeology texts. If currying the favor of others was a reliable strategy for survival as a minority faith, Israel would probably never have been re-established as a sovereign state. It certainly would be what it is today. I do think you’re onto something though. We will never be able to assume our full place in civil society unless we make ourselves known and establish some key alliances with other religions.  Those relations should be established with honesty about where we stand, where we agree and disagree, and the vast ground of issues we can agree to disagree upon and still work together for fruitful ends.  Your work is valuable here for that reason, because Judaism is less well known in its nuances to most of us than is Christianity. 

        I am interested in talking to more rabbis and others. I’ve interviewed rabbis of every stripe on many different issues, and just never had cause to inquire about this one. I can say that I’ve never had a boring or uninformative discussion with any rabbi. I’m open to expanding my understanding of Jewish perspective on LGBT rights. 

        From the admittedly modest amount I have seen, I’m not quite convinced the Orthodox position is “live and let live” where non-Jews are concerned.  Orthodox Judaism, at least in the United States, has taken a very vigorous and consistent stand against gay marriage. Not gay marriage in Judaic law, gay marriage for everyone. The Orthodox Union is on record for that going back years, and has fought against legalization of gay marriage and if I’m not mistaken, supported a constitutional amendment to preclude the states from legalizing it. The National Council of Young Israel takes much the same stand, from what I can see.

         I get that there is no singular “Jewish Vatican”, but these are not bit players in the American Orthodox world.  To the extent that Orthodox Judaism may be actively opposing the civil liberties of gay and lesbian Americans, it’s going to make the whole “positive relations” thing with this pagan, and many other, difficult. Not impossible, but it’s going to be an uphill climb. 

        On the last point, I’m also interested in talking to a rabbi or two. It would appear that the Jewish law against adultery among the Seven Laws of Noah is held to apply to non-Jews as well.  I don’t imagine that any rabbis or rabbinical courts want to police that. 

        • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

          I have talked to Jewish people from different traditions about LGBT issues. One Jewish guy told me that it is a sin to refuse a pleasure, so if same-sex relationships are a pleasure to someone, it would be a sin to refuse that pleasure. I know a gay Orthodox Jew whose family and rabbi are fine with his being gay.

          There are multiple interpretations of every verse of the Torah (it’s well known that yeshiva scholars enjoy sitting around discussing the finer points of Torah interpretation). Also, it was decreed quite a long time ago in rabbinical circles that interpretation of the Torah must be done in a loving manner, so if there’s a non-loving interpretation of a verse, it is not valid.

          And why do some Pagans insist on holding a grudge against the Jewish people for stuff that happened back in the Bronze Age, if indeed it happened at all? The historicity of the Tanakh is fairly hotly disputed.

  • http://www.alwayssababa.com/ lishevita

    High fives! You’ve just said what I’ve said to people about a gazillion times. Thank you for saying it here where (hopefully) more people will pay attention.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000451145781 MrsBs Confessions

    What a beautiful post!  I know several people who consider themselves “Jewitch”, so I’ve heard some of this before, but not all at once and so eloquently stated.

    Perhaps Judaism isn’t Pagan, but more “Pagan-adjacent”, a term I blatantly stole from Hal Sparks, who considers himself not gay, but “gay adjacent”.  =)

  • http://www.amanamission.com/ Amana Mission

    This is an incredibly well-put analysis…we feel Paganism, in essence, is the plurality of all means to apprehend the pure divine Principle of Harmony.
    All belief systems are valid, up to the point where they invalidate alternate models.

    Perhaps you will enjoy our point of view, please feel free to be in touch!

    http://lyrics.amanamission.com/
    http://www.amanamission.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam.

    During the Exodus, the children of Israel were pāgānus, no longer urbānus.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gcram Glen Cram

     Just looking at your interesting and insightful blog, and it appears we have a lot in common. I am currently trolling the net drumming up interest for my novel in progress, The Acts of Simon Magus, and you looked like someone who may find it of interest. It’s an epic historical fantasy from the point of view of the first Gnostic, from a Canaanite pagan background but surrounded by Judaism and the multiple religions and philosophies of the Roman Empire, who became Christianity’s greatest enemy. The story examines the events and characters responsible for the rise of Christianity and its consequences for the world. It has been an exhilarating trip trying to get inside the mind of people from that time, so different from and so alike ourselves, with an eye to providing a unique perspective on modern issues such as abortion ( http://simonmagus.com/readings/derdekea-trouble ) and same-sex passion and repression ( http://simonmagus.com/readings/unorthodox-jew/ ). Here is a draft for my upcoming Indiegogo campaign, including video and link to some readings. All comments and suggestions welcome! http://simonmagus.com/indiegogo http://simonmagus.com/readings-2

  • Sara Regensburger

    I am culturally Jewish.  I was born and raised in reform Judaism (as my father is a militant atheist and my mother is an agnostic so that was the only branch they comfortably fit in), and practiced some aspects of conservatism with my larger family.  However, it never QUITE fit, and after beginning to study mythology in high school, I declared myself a polytheist.  Perhaps not a hard polytheist like you mentioned in your article, but a polytheist nonetheless, as I was never quite comfortable with the term paegan.  Yet, my Judaism and heritage still play a large part in my life, identity, and awareness of the world and my polytheism.  This article says, so eloquently, what I have never quite had the words to say as to why the two meld so easily in my mind and in my heart, and why I am okay with having my Judaism bleed into my polytheism and vice-versa.  They just make sense, they just fit to me.  So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

    • kittylu

      They do fit. Throughout the Torah the matrilineal line is passing down these pagan concepts. They have to be discreet so that they get away with it.

  • Sunweaver

    You’re my favorite. 

  • kittylu

    In the old Testament all the women worshiped Isis. They all practiced pagan religions and then there were even the Osiris/horus rituals about the golden calf. Then I think it was Moses (I’ll have to read Genesis again to be sure) who commanded the women to stop worshiping pagan idols and they wept and were very upset and their fertility totems were all destroyed. That doesn’t happen till like half way through Genesis.

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  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    It always upsets me when people talk about “Judaeo-Christian” values and beliefs as if they were the same thing, or talk about “the Abrahamic faiths” because in my experience, Judaism is much more like Paganism than it is like Christianity. And furthermore, in interfaith circles in the UK, it’s often the Jewish, Unitarian and Hindu members that stick up for the Pagans and argue for us being included.

    And look at the centuries of persecution of Jews by Christians. That in itself should be a big clue that Judaism is very different from Christianity.

    I have argued previously that Pagans would do well to emulate the Jewish relationship with food, and make eating a sacred practice. We already do this to some extent, but it could be expanded upon.

    I love what John Beckett said below, “As we try to figure out what we’re going to be when we grow up, we could do far worse than to look to Judaism for a model.”

  • http://www.afmarcom.com/ Angelique

    Do you have any information about that beautiful wheel of the year that illustrates this post?

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