Everything I Never Knew about Judaism: Introducing a Panel and Calling for Questions

I grew up reading stories from the Old Testament about the Jewish conquest of Canaan and the wickedness of King Ahab, and stories from the New Testament about the Pharisees or Jewish dietary requirements. As a result, I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about Jews and Judaism.

At some point in college I put the label “tentative” on essentially everything I had thought I knew and set out to reexamine the things I’d been so sure of growing up. My knowledge of Judaism was one of those things, but it was also on the back burner and I didn’t think much about it until the day I learned about Lilith. You know, Adam’s first wife. Before Eve. In fact, some stories actually hold that Adam had three wives, one after the other, Eve being the last. And that is when I really realized how very little I actually knew about Judaism.

But it’s not just me. The United States has had such a Christian flavor for so long that I think a lot of people’s knowledge of Judaism, whether they are Christian or not, springs chiefly or even exclusively from the Bible. As a result, there is a lot of real ignorance about the actual teachings, beliefs, and practices of Judaism, both today and in the past. This is a problem on many levels, but I want to focus on two of them. First, Christianity was developed against the backdrop of Judaism, and when we don’t understand first century Judaism and its history we can’t understand the origins of Christianity. And second, Jews today are not identical to first century Jews, or the Jews who settled Canaan. Judaism has had a full two millennia to continue developing, and develop it has.

And so I had an idea. I’ve asked some of my Jewish readers if they would mind participating in a panel and answering questions about Judaism, and a number of them have agreed. The panel of participants I have put together includes individuals whose backgrounds and current beliefs and practice vary, meaning that this panel has the potential to effectively showcase the large variety of belief and practice within Judaism. This panel presents an opportunity to learn more about a religious tradition most of us know very little about, and also an opportunity to learn once again just how much more complicated life and belief is than the simple stories many of us were taught in Sunday school.

What I’m going to do is create a list of questions, and then send one question at a time to the panel participants. I will then post their discussion of that question as a blog post. Here are some sample questions:

  • How is it possible to be Jewish, and yet also atheist or agnostic? Why would someone want to be both?
  • What are the main “denominations” of Judaism, and what sets them apart?
  • What does Judaism teach today, and what has it taught in the past, about the afterlife?
  • What were the Pharisees, and does the New Testament portray them accurately? How about the Sadducees?
  • How do Jews interpret and understand the creation story?
  • What is the Jewish position on abortion/gay rights/other issues?

Feel free to suggest additional questions and things you’re interested in learning about, and I’ll narrow things down and divide things up and put together a list of questions.

Below you’ll find a list of panel participants, with an introduction from each, in order to help guide you in thinking about what questions you might like to ask. Remember, the object of this panel is not to give readers an opportunity to be critical of Judaism or to call out what may look strange to us but rather to offer readers the chance to gain a more accurate and nuanced understanding of Judaism, both past and present.

Panel Participants


I was born in Israel in the late 1960s to parents who immigrated there from Romania. My father’s parents were Orthodox (non-Hasidic) and my father had a religious upbringing. My mother’s family switched to a mostly secular lifestyle when my mother was a child (during WWII) though they still celebrated the many holidays. The Romanian government closed down Jewish schools in the late 1940s so Jewish upbringing was only possible within the home. As adults in Israel my parents lived a mostly secular lifestyle, with religion showing up typically during holidays and major life/family events.

Starting from the age of 2 I attended state and private schools, all what would be called secular in Israeli standards (which means my education was a lot more religious than what one sees in the US public school). I also spent 3 years in Europe, from 5 to 8, during which time I attended international schools.

Though my father tends to be nostalgic for his own religious upbringing and expected us to have knowledge of Jewish traditions and customs, he never spoke of his personal beliefs (or lack thereof). In my various Israeli schools I learned much of the Hebrew Bible, midrash, bits of Talmud, some of the writings of Maimonides, became familiar with the main prayers. (We didn’t pray at school, but we studied the texts of the prayers.) As a child I accepted that these teachings somehow described something objectively true about the world. But whatever that something was, it could not be something that contradicted demonstrable facts. I was bothered by the contradiction between our secular lifestyle and all the religious studies—if there is a god who commanded Jews to live a certain way why are we not living that life? I was planning on adopting some version of a full Orthodox lifestyle when I was old enough to leave home. Meanwhile I did my own reading, well beyond school requirements. I was looking for ways to have a consistent life-stance—where I could apply the same standards of evidence to all statements of fact, and where I applied the same moral standards to rules of behavior, regardless of source. By the time I turned 17 I realized that anything recognizable as traditional Jewish religion and religious beliefs failed both tests. That’s when I became a full-fledged non-believer.

Nevertheless, I am an atheist of Jewish flavor. When I think of how believers and non-believers can interact within a society, the believer I have in mind is usually an Orthodox Jew. My thinking about justice and fairness has at least some of its roots in Jewish thought. On the other hand I am not personally involved in any Jewish community now that I live in the US.

Areas in which I am most likely to make contributions: Conflict between religious and secular individuals and communities in Israel (though my first hand experience is a bit outdated); religious education in a secular school, in a country that does not separate religion and state; and the significance of praxis rather than beliefs as the measure of Jewish identity and identity within Judaism (Do you know that to this day I’m not quite sure what my parents believe about religious claims?). Also, I think we need to have a discussion about the Pharisees. They are vilified by Christians, but are heroes to Jews. At least to Orthodox ones. Perhaps this discussion should be part of the ‘praxis vs belief’ context.



My name is Alexis. I’m 20 years old. I was raised in a small Conservative Jewish congregation in upstate NY. Because we were so small, we could only afford to hire rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary for most of my life. As those students graduated they’d move on, so in my lifetime we’ve had 6 rabbis. Our congregation has always been very egalitarian, in terms of everything from gender (the rabbi when I was born, the rabbi when I had my Bat Mitzva at 13, and the only cantor we’ve had during my lifetime are all female) to sexual orientation (the cantor’s sister is lesbian) to environmentalism and social justice and child raising and beyond.

For a huge part of my life, that community was like a second family to me. I was kind of the entire congregations’ baby (literally—I started attending services when I was 4 weeks old and went almost every week until I was 17). During the last prayer of the services on Friday nights when I was a toddler, I would get up and dance in the aisles because the melody was catchy, and I would find out later that for many of the people there it was the highlight of their evening.

So I guess to me, being Jewish always meant being part of a family. It always meant having a warm, caring, loving place to be with warm, loving, caring people. And it meant a connection to a tradition that went back thousands of years. I always felt a very powerful connection to the history we called our own, with the story of Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus from Egypt, the wandering through the desert. One of the most beautiful parts of Judaism for me was always the Torah scroll itself: the same techniques used to create these sacred items of beauty for hundreds and hundreds of years, by hand, passed down from one generation to the next. And yet I always loved how the Jewish tradition (at least the congregation I was raised in) was still able to change over time, to adapt to changing cultures and social values.

I use past tense to describe all of this because when I was 11 I began having a ‘crisis of faith’ that came to a head when I was 18. I started to question a lot of the laws I had been taught (especially the ones about women), and I began to feel that despite the fact I was raised in such an accepting community, this patriarchal culture was still where Judaism came from, and I began to feel uncomfortable with identifying as Jewish. While that was happening I began learning about the Pagan traditions around the world and feeling a connection to them, so by the time I was 18 I began identifying as Pagan with a foundation in Judaism.

In terms of what type of questions I’d be interested in, I’m pretty much open to anything. I really love talking about the Jewish perspective on things like abortion/contraception/LGBTQIA issues/sex/feminism/social justice/etc., and also about the major differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions. Another big point is that I’m always try to keep in mind that I don’t know everything there is to know about anything, so I love learning as much as (if not more than) talking.



When I was growing up, Judaism was something we pulled out of the mothballs a few times a year (Hanukkah, Passover, occasionally Rosh Hashanah or Purim). When I turned 18, I started attending services at a Conservative synagogue, but didn’t really follow anything else. However, when I was 22, I started becoming more observant. When I was 24, I moved to New York and took the plunge into Orthodoxy (how stereotypical, right?). Most of my neighbors are hard-core Hasidim who are trying to outbreed everyone and have a limited secular education. Today, although Judaism and Torah observance are an important part of who I am, I cannot say the same for the community I live in. I try not to let the hypocrisy get to me, and I still consider myself Orthodox and would not break Shabbos.

I am happy to answer questions on anything ranging from Torah to comparisons between modern-day fundamentalist Christianity and Judaism.



I grew up in a very strongly Jewish-identified family. My mom was an advisor for the youth group (USY) at the synagogue, so we were always going to events, dances, conventions, and religious services. My brothers and I all attended Hebrew School, and in middle and high school I was an active participant and leader in the youth group. I attended Brandeis University for college, which is not Jewish-affiliated but had, at the time, a 66% Jewish population. I’ve been to Israel twice, once during college and once on the Birthright program.

Now that I’ve given you my Jewish credentials, I should explain that I’m a bit unusual. Practice-wise, I’m a Conservative Jew. I belong to a conservative synagogue, where I read Torah regularly and attend services, and where I spent 5 years as the youth group advisor. My (non-Jewish) fiance and I keep kosher at home and celebrate only Jewish holidays. Belief-wise, I’m a Humanistic Jew, a total atheist. This difference between belief and practice has sort of come to a head this year as I’ve been planning a traditional yet atheist wedding ceremony with my non-Jewish partner, who has the same (lack of) belief as me.

I’d love to talk more about why/how I could be a practicing Jew without the belief, as well as the issues around intermarriage and cultural vs. religious Judaism in general. I would also love to talk about American Jewry’s history of liberalism and how it feels (at least to me) like it is changing currently.



I’m a Reform Jew in the upper Midwest, and my experience living as a Jew has been greatly shaped by balancing my religion in an interfaith family formed by conversion. My father was born Jewish, the grandson of Russian immigrants, and my mother was born Catholic, the great-granddaughter of German immigrants. She left Catholicism before she met my father, raised aJewish family with him and converted to Judaism. I grew up with my extended Catholic family, celebrating Hanukkah at home and Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s. When I fell in love with my partner Penny 13 years ago in college, I gained in-laws who were liberal Protestant clergy in the Presbyterian and United Church of Christ denominations. Penny converted to Judaism of her own accord and we were the first same sex couple to have a wedding ceremony in the main sanctuary at our temple, with the senior Rabbi officiating. I am still an active member of the temple I grew up in. Reform Judaism is at the liberal edge of the range of observances, with women rabbis since the mid 1970′s, acceptance of mixed-married families and children, and an increasing acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. By design it is a form of Judaism that can both fully integrate into mainstream society and preserve a strong Jewish identity, with a strong focus on social ethics.

What I love about being Jewish is how it connects me to this world. A lot of the religious rituals bless and connect us to this world, in the here and now, our daily lives and real bodies. With Shabbat, and the calender of 13 holidays we sanctify time rather then space. Listening to the shofar (ram’s horn) being blown on the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, reciting the blessings over Shabbat candles, and saying Kaddish/memorial prayer every year for the Yahrzeit/anniversary of death of family members, all of this connects me through time with generations past. Being a part of a congregation gives me a place to go to, a spiritual home to be Jewish with people I know where I’m not a stranger, employee, or customer. It’s a place to connect, study, meet friends and make new friends, celebrate, and turn to for help when there is a death or illness. I also love the intellectual traditions of learning and study, and the strong emphasis on ethics and civil engagement. I’m very grateful for the hard work of Jewish women and men to develop a feminist, egalitarian Judaism that has women as rabbis and cantors, where I am a fully welcomed member of the congregation as a woman, lesbian, and the daughter and partner of a Jew by choice.

I would be happy to talk about some of my experiences living in such a mixed family, Reform Judaism in general, and Jewish feminism and GLBT acceptance. However what I’m really interesting in explaining are some of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, and theJewish acceptance of non-Jews. One of the most frustrating things I run into on atheist blogs is the attitude that there is no difference between the three Abrahamic religions, and that is not true. I don’t know enough about Islam to speak for it, but I’ve lived my whole life balancing between Judaism and Christianity, and there are some profound theological differences between them that effect our different ways of living in the world and dealing with people outside our respective religions. I personally believe that the biggest difference between Judaism and Christianity isn’t belief or not in Jesus Christ as Messiah, but our different understanding of creation in Genesis and sin. Jews do not believe in Original Sin, or that non-Jews are damned to hell.

I’ve been studying the Gospel of Matthew with a Christian friend, and at the same time learning about the Jewish side of the story, our history in those critical two centuries after Christ. So I’d be quite happy to talk about some of what I’ve learned about Jesus, Paul, the Gospels, and the Pharisees. The Pharisees where the only Jewish denomination that survived that time period, and are the forerunners of the rabbis and basically all modern Judaism of the past 2,000 years. They do not deserve the reputation they got in the Gospels, and I would love a chance to set the record straight in some small way. Finally, I know many people have serious and legitimate concerns about a lot of the violence in the Torah. I’ve been studying Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac, looking at the different interpretations, midrash, historical understandings, and thinking about my own understanding about that story. I think Abraham both passed and significantly failed that test and I have some traditional commentary to back me up, so feel free to ask me about it.


Ki Sarita

I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, within an ultra-Orthodox enclave in the New York city area, schooled in parochial schools, with almost no exposure to the world outside the community, not even via media. I am not Hasidic—Hasidism is a movement of its own. Culturally I am still loosely tied to that world although my belief system is largely secular.



I’m from about as stereotypical an American Jewish family as you can get.  All my great-grandparents immigrated from Russia, the Ukraine, or Poland through either Ellis Island or Galveston.  My paternal grandmother grew up in an Orthodox home, but everyone else seems to have been fairly lax about religion, and both my parents grew up in Reform households.

When we lived in California, we went to a Conservative synagogue.  It was pretty religious- we went to Friday night services almost every week, though my dad only went to the potluck afterwards most of the time.  The services were almost entirely in Hebrew and they didn’t leave things out, though the rabbinical sermon was in English.  They had Israeli dancing after services sometimes which was a lot of fun.  I was in Sunday school starting in kindergarten, and starting in 4th grade I added Tuesday night Hebrew lessons with the goal of being able to read and understand modern Hebrew (and my eventual Torah portion) by the time I was 13.  If we’d stayed there, in 6th grade there would’ve been Thursday night Hebrew lessons as well.  At home, things were relaxed—we didn’t keep kosher, we didn’t keep the Shabbat rules, we ate potatoes and corn and rice during Passover, and for Yom Kippur we stayed home and fasted but spent most of the afternoon playing bridge or poker instead of spending all day at shul.

We moved to Texas when I was nine and my parents took awhile to find a new synagogue.  They didn’t like the Reform or Conservative ones, but eventually found a small Reconstructionist/Renewal group they liked.  I hated it at first!  I loved the traditional services and Israeli dancing and the shul with stained-glass windows that was a special space in the old temple.  This was a group of, well, hippies :).  They played guitar at services and they skipped a lot of the Hebrew and they sang the prayers differently (wrong!  wrong I tell you!) and they substituted personally meaningful poems or songs for some of the sections of the service.  We met at the UU church because it was too small a group to have a building, but that meant it wasn’t a “Jewish space”.  I knew more Hebrew and more prayers than many of the adults there, who were mostly raised Reform or weren’t Jewish at all.  The group welcomed ‘mixed marriage’ couples (one Jewish, one not), GLBT couples, and really anyone at all who wanted to come.  It grew on me—the rabbi of that group is the one who married me to my (atheist of Catholic background) husband.

At my Bat Mitzvah I was still very much Jewish.  I believed in God as a given- the whole Torah said so, the people around me said so, and while I was fully aware a lot of people didn’t believe at all I decided that I did, even if I didn’t believe a lot of the obviously apocryphal or fictional stories.  By the time I was 15, I called myself a Jewish agnostic.  I wasn’t sure there was a God at all, but I was pretty sure if there was one it was the Jewish version.  The only other god I’d really been exposed to was the Christian one, and that one obviously didn’t make any sense.  Adonai was vicious, jealous, cruel, and sadistic.  Made sense to me—if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and since God is supposed to have infinite power … You did what God said because God said to do it, not necessarily because it made sense, and you got benefits from following the rules.  God gets to beat you up but no one else does.

As I write that, I realize it’s a very twisted rationalization for God, but that’s where I was at the time.  I went to a high school full of evangelical Baptists, and since I didn’t hide my religious beliefs I might as well have painted a bullseye on my back.  I had a ton of fun pointing out that God was Not Nice, that I wasn’t afraid of Hell because I didn’t think it existed, and that no I didn’t think Jesus was anyone special.  In college I completed my arc to atheism, mostly by talking to my then-boyfriend (now husband).  I would argue on some point or other that Christianity made no sense but at least Judaism did, and he’d point out that I was oh-so-very-wrong.  And I was.  None of it made any sense.  I sometimes still call myself a Jewish atheist, though, because I’m still marked by that cultural background and a somewhat different way of looking at the world than a lot of ex-Christians.

The questions I’m most interested in have to do with Jewish-American culture and how to reconcile Judaism with agnosticism/atheism.



I don’t look ‘Jewish’. My skin is pale, covered in freckles, and burns after even the briefest exposure to the summer sun. My eyes are closer to the color of a clear sky than a mug of hot chocolate. I didn’t grow up speaking Hebrew, or celebrating Chanukah. Yet, here I am, an adult Reform Jew, with a b’nei mitzvah certificate and a ketubah hanging on the wall. I have written a letter in a Torah, fasted on Yom Kippur, eaten matzah for Passover, and become an expert dreidel spinner.

How did I get here? How does the first-born daughter of two Protestant pastors discover that she has a Jewish soul?  I was baptized and confirmed. I went to vacation bible school and Christian summer camp. To be honest, it started quite simply. I love stories – especially real ones. As I grew up, this love of stories became an obsession with the forgotten parts of history, the stories not written in the official versions. In college, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the faith of my childhood. I couldn’t come to terms with worshipping a human being and I was uncomfortable with the notion that creed was more important than action. As part of my confirmation studies, six years earlier, my class had visited a synagogue, and so, perhaps naturally, as I began looking for a new spiritual home, my feet wandered in that direction. Of course, meeting Hilary at school didn’t hurt either as it was yet another enticing glimpse into the Jewish world. However, I want to be clear, I did not convert for Hilary or for anyone but myself. The formal conversion process lasted for two and a half extremely full years (I was in college at the time), and I was 22 years old when I was officially and formally accepted as a member of the tribe.

Why Jewish? I am fascinated by Hebrew and Torah study. A natural sleepyhead, I make it a point to be a regular at Shabbat morning Torah study. The music speaks to something deeper than rational thought inside; a klezmer clarinet is more attractive to me than the most beautiful rendition of Ave Maria. The rhythm of Jewish prayer and Jewish time comes naturally to me, though I don’t keep strictly kosher, and I appreciate the notion that I don’t have to be perfect to be good enough. I don’t worry too much about the mitzvot I can’t do yet, every mitzvah I do, however uniquely, is one step closer to repairing the world. I can’t do everything, but I can do something, and I’m responsible to God for what I do and don’t do with the time I have been given. No intermediaries, no absolution through the death of some savior, just a solemn promise, a covenant between me and my creator, and for me that’s enough.

I am happy to answer questions about what I believe, Reform Jewish perspectives in the Upper Midwest, and about the details of my journey to Judaism. I am not willing to speculate on how my family feels or felt about my decision. I am not qualified to speak on their behalf. I will not generalize about the experience or feelings of converts as a whole; in my limited experience, each journey is unique to the person making it. I don’t think there are any stupid questions, and I will freely admit when I don’t know something. I look forward to learning more about my fellow Jews, and sharing in this exciting opportunity.


Petticoat Philosopher

My background is a little complicated. My mother is Jewish, raised by a mother who rejected the Orthodoxy of her childhood in her young adulthood and raised her own family in a very progressive, egalitarian Reform temple. My father was baptized Catholic but raised primarily in the United Church of Christ, a very liberal Protestant church.

My parents never made a conscious decision to raise my sister and me Jewish. It was just something that kind of happened because my mother feels strongly about her Jewish identity and family traditions, while my father, by the time he married my mother, could not have cared less about anything Christian (except for his very secular family Christmas). My father never officially converted to Judaism but he admires it as it is practiced by my mother’s family and so he participates enthusiastically—and cooks most of the traditional foods better than my mother does.

Growing up, Judaism was always a positive thing in my life. We didn’t belong to a temple because my mom could never find one that satisfied her (now that I’m an adult, I know what she means) so my extended family was the Jewish community that taught and nurtured me, led by my grandmother, who remains one of my biggest heroes and who I often refer to as “my rabbi.” My Jewish upbringing sat on the fence between secular and “liberal religious,” which is not an uncommon experience for many American Jews. We did not keep kosher, and my mother’s policy towards many aspects of Jewish practice was to tell us about them and allow us to decide for ourselves if they were important to us. Both my sister and I, for example, fast on Yom Kippur and keep the Passover dietary laws (to an extent) because we’ve both decided that they have personal meaning for us, even though my mother herself does not do these things. As far as God goes, my relatives run the gamut from insistently atheist, to various types of agnostic (that would be both of my parents), to somewhat unconventional theists. I’ve sampled from all camps throughout my life and am not sure I’m finished yet.

This does not really cause any tension however because the things that were valued most didn’t really have to do with God—God was simply an interesting philosophical question. I would say that the greatest theme in my Jewish upbringing was a constant emphasis of social justice teachings. My grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor gave her a powerful dedication to human rights and the temple she raised my mom and her other daughters (she had only daughters) in, like many of its kind in the 1950s and 1960s, was very much involved in the Civil Rights movement, which was a very formative experience for my mom. There was also a big focus on egalitarianism. My grandmother embraced feminism after chafing against the limitations placed on women in her own Orthodox upbringing and my mom and her sisters all came of age during the second wave feminist movement and were quite committed to it. This focus on justice and equality played a big role in the formation of my own political and social conscience and views. If I could sum up the take-away message of my Jewish upbringing, it was that Jews, as a historically oppressed group, have a responsibility to empathize with and fight on behalf of other oppressed groups. I still believe this very strongly and it’s a big part of my identity as a Jew and a progressive.

Of course, as much as Judaism is a powerful part of my identity, my experience growing up as a child of two cultures, my mom’s family’s Jewish culture and my father’s family’s mostly-Irish culture, is also a powerful part of my identity. People often identify me as “half and half” but I’ve never really thought of it that way. I’m just more than one thing. I notice that I tend to have an affinity for other Jews who are products of mixed marriages (and even just other bicultural people in general) and who understand the unique challenges and rewards of that experience. Because of this, in addition to topics like God, halakha, the Bible etc. (which people are always very curious about), I’m also interested in talking about things like intermarriage and mixed-culture/religion families.



I was raised in a Conservative home, was sent to an Orthodox day school until I was 12 and chose to leave, worked at a Hillel and in various interfaith movements post-college, and I’m not sure if I really belong within a formal denomination at the moment, though I’m likely to join a Conservative synagogue in the new few years. I keep kosher and read and speak Hebrew, but I use electricity on Shabbat and don’t think it’s immoral for gay people to have sex, so . . . I’m aware I’m picking and choosing here.

I believe one of the most important concepts in Judaism is “tikkun olam” (which is a relatively late concept in Judaism, but let’s not get ahead of outselves), which means literally, “to repair the world.” A lot of the commandments in Judaism are at their heart about being good to one another (and to the earth!). The point in doing good deeds is not for a heavenly reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.

One of my favorite things about Judaism are the contentious and conflicting commentaries on every last word in the Torah and other books. This makes up the bulk of the Oral Law, passed from judge and teacher to student throughout the generations. We don’t interpret the Torah text on its own: rather, the commentaries help explain and contextualize the text. This appeals to the academic in me. ;)

I’m interested in talking about and explaining Judaism, and also in talking about the Jewish-Christian relationship: despite growing up in the suburbs of NJ, I grew up with quite a negative image of Christians and didn’t have any Christian friends until I was 11 or 12, and was threatened with disownment if I so much as dated a non-Jewish boy. (Dating a Jewish girl, on the other hand, would have been fine. After all, we could adopt.)

What questions do you have?

On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
Red Town, Blue Town
A Letter from Hell, and Self-Reinforcing Beliefs
My Kindergartener Knows What It Means to Be Transgender (and the Sky Hasn't Fallen)
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • John Small Berries

    First, thanks to everyone willing to answer questions, and I hope this one isn’t too stupid.

    One thing I’ve been curious about ever since I learned about it involves the eruv. I have a basic understanding of what it is, and why it’s used; I’ve just never seen the whole “getting around God’s rules on a technicality” aspect of it explained.

    Is God seen (within communities which use an eruv) as so easily fooled by what seems like a transparent deception? Or gleefully proud of people who find ways to circumvent his various prohibitions while still technically obeying them?

    I suppose it leads into a larger question, which is how do Jews decide which Talmudic laws must always be obeyed, when it’s okay to violate the spirit of the law while adhering to its letter, and which ones can be outright ignored? (For example, I’ve never heard of Orthodox communities in the US stoning anyone to death for working on the Sabbath.)

    • Anat

      What is the spirit of the law? For a minority of laws in Torah there is a reasoning that is mentioned explicitly. Mostly the law is stated, and it is up to the reader to decide what the purpose of the law might be, if there is one, or what elements of the law are essential. Many laws are arbitrary, or at least appear so. Perhaps it isn’t the specific law that has ‘spirit’, but the entire system has a meta-spirit. Some possibilities for what this meta-spirit might be:

      - To create a shared identity of the Jewish community that sets it apart from other communities – making assimilation of Jews into the general culture difficult.
      - To create habits of discipline in everyday life, to teach people self-control.
      - To add an aspect of holiness to daily activities.

      Just for instance. In neither of these cases does it matter what the law specifically demands as long as Jews agree on the specifics among themselves.

      As for how Jews commonly think God views their interpretations of the law, they believe he laughs that his children have bested him yet again. But this is a very important idea in traditional Judaism. It stems from the transition Judaism underwent when the second temple was destroyed and the sages established their new center in the academy of Jamniya. That was when it was determined that the law will no longer be determined by God’s word (delivered either as a (claimed) Divine Voice or by a prophet) but by majority rule of the sages of the generation. It is told as a story in the case of The Oven of Akhnai.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yeah, the first point Anat mentioned about “meta-spirit” is VERY important. After the Diaspora, how to maintain a distinctly Jewish identity while living as a minority in other lands was a big concern for Jews. It’s not dissimilar to the issues that many displaced peoples have faced and continue to face today.

        And I think one thing that’s very important to understand, that lots of people who don’t know much about Judaism don’t understand is that, Jewish Law, in large part, is a very complex, human-made legal system, not unlike other society’s complex, human-made legal systems, and involves a lot of concepts–like precedent–that are present in many other legal systems. Judaism is a lot more “earthy” than Christianity this way. Even the most traditional Orthodox Jews do not believe that every single rule is Handed Down From On High. That’s just not how the system works. So, of course people are going to find “loopholes.” That’s just the nature of people’s relationship to their societies laws. It’s part of the game.

        I do want to emphasize that, while these explanations are important, they only apply to Jews who consider the Law to be binding. For liberal and secular Jews, Jewish Law is not really central to Jewish identity and experience, although some may follow parts of it by choice.

    • Anat

      Continuing my previous post:

      Early on (roughly 1st century BCE to 1st century CE) the sages came up with rules according to which new laws can be derived from known laws. Methods of generalization and deduction and so forth. So if a new situation arises (for example because of new technology) rabbis look for which known category of laws the new elements fall under. For example electricity was considered a form of fire. One is not allowed to light a new fire or put out a fire on Shabbat, but one is allowed to use a fire that was already lit before Shabbat. This ruling was applied to electrical devices – no turning switches on or off on Shabbat, but OK to use electrical devices that were on since before Shabbat, or to set a timer before Shabbat to turn a device on during Shabbat.

      Rabbis who make convincing arguments gather a following and become regarded as an authority. But it is also possible to have different communities following different interpretations by different rabbis.

      Specifically regarding death penalty, there was a trend to limit its use (by requiring high standards of evidence). Eventually with the disbanding of the sanhedrin there was no body with the authority to apply death penalty.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      Any and all laws can be ignored to save a life (except maybe acknowledge another God?). You can eat forbidden things, break the Sabbath, etc in order to save a life. It’s why Orthodox doctors can still be on call on Saturdays, though of course they prefer not to be. It’s part of that meta-spirit Anat talked about- you have all this arguing and nitpicking about the details, but there’s some overarching principles involved that can’t be forgotten.

      The rationale is that the person who saves a life saves all that person’s future actions and offspring. It is as if s/he had saved a universe. That’s way more important than not picking things up on Shabbat.

    • Alexis

      There’s a common idea in Jewish communities that if you put six Jews in a room and ask them all the same question you’ll end up with seven answers at least. Growing up I learned this: Jewish ‘law’ (such as it is; Anat makes an excellent point about how it tries to adapt to changing times) has two parts: Halakha and Minhag. Halakha is the literal law contained in the Torah, Talmud, and other Rabbinic texts. The Ten Commandments, for instance, are Halakha. Minhag, on the other hand, is basically a word for the local customs and precedents of a given Jewish community. As an example, is was the Minhag of the congregation I grew up in that if we needed to turn a light on in the restroom on Shabbat (because someone forgot to turn it on before the beginning of Shabbat at sundown), we would use our elbow rather than our hand as a symbolic way of obeying the Halakhic law regarding mot starting fires. After all, it’s really not possible to start a fire with your elbow. These local customs differ from place to place, and from what I know the customs of the eruv generally count as Minhag which is heavily influenced by Halakha, rather than pure Halakha.

    • kisarita

      You’ve hit upon a strong difference between Judaism and Christianity- Judaism is a legal system with the Torah as its starting point. Christianity doesn’t have law. If you study Talmud and Jewish legal responsa you will see it has a lot of similarities to other legal systems. Like other legal systems, it often considers itself bound by previously written statutes and precedents. But unlike other legal systems, because it claims a divine source, there is very limited mechanism to abrogate or change a law that has already been adjudicated. Hence, the loophole idea. Loopholes exist in every legal system, but they’re especially necessary in such a system.
      To the specifics of an eruv: The Rabbis interpreted transporting items from one place to another, to be a form of work forbidden on the Sabbath. Reasonable so far, right? The question is, how far do we interpret “transporting items”? if its a tiny little object that fits in my pocket, does it really matter? The Talmud chose to choose a very strict interpretation on this issue, making it necessary to find a loophole. The loophole was giving a very loose interpretation of what counts as one domain or not. The eruv supportes contend that if its under one eruv, its one area.

  • http://afterabrokenwrist.blogspot.com/ Janice

    This will be interesting. I actually was on a path to conversion in my early twenties. I worked as a kindergarten assistant in a conservative Jewish grade school in a vibrant Jewish community in North Carolina. I loved that Jewish people (in general) have no interest in convincing others about Judaism. They have no want or need for converts and actually are generally unconvinced when you offer your desire to become a practicing Jew. This attitude is totally opposite of the missionary, soul collection view of certain (most!) Christian groups. I hate that aspect of those groups SO VERY MUCH.
    I read this book http://www.amazon.com/How-Run-Traditional-Jewish-Household/dp/0671602705 and enjoyed the rules even though it seemed to make no sense in some ways, but in others it seemed very meditative and reassuring. I had a couple converting friends that went to services and Hebrew lessons with me. One officially converted and married a very conservative Jewish man. They now have 5 children. I didn’t end up converting as I moved and never found another embracing community….and just got distracted but I will admit I have a love affair with the Jewish culture and religion. I was drawn to my (now) husband at a party because he looked very ‘Jewish’. Alas he was a non-practicing Catholic.

  • ScottInOH

    I’ve been looking forward to this series ever since the possibility was mentioned several months ago. Many thanks to Libby Anne and to the contributors.

    Libby Anne’s exposure to Judaism sounds essentially like mine, so I have a million questions. If you have a chance to talk about one or two of them, that would be great. Thank you.

    1. Is “Jewish” a religious or a cultural identity? (I know. The answer is “yes.”) It’s possible that this is the same question: How can one be an atheist Jew? “Atheist Catholic,” for example, is not a term you hear very often.

    2. How do Jews interpret the creation story? Are there differences among the subsets of Judaism?

    3. What are the founding texts of Judaism? As a Christian, I learned that the first five books of the Old Testament was essentially the Jewish Bible, which was then completed (or something like that) by the New Testament. But I understand there are several other sacred texts. Can you help clarify?

    4. How do Jews view Jesus? It always seemed to me that he was either the Messiah/Son of God or he was a horrible blasphemer, but Jews don’t seem to put him in either category.

    • The_L

      #4 sounds like C.S. Lewis’s false trilemma of “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” If it helps, here are all the possibilities about Jesus that I’ve come up with:

      1. He was both God and Messiah.
      2. He was Messiah, but not a god.
      3. He was lying (this would be the blasphemer category, I presume).
      4. He was insane.
      5. He was a wise man who never made any extraordinary claims, whose followers misinterpreted/misremembered some of the things he said and thought he was Messiah.
      6. He never existed, and some of the Jewish people made up a Messiah in the 1st century.
      7. He never existed, and his movement grew out of the Essene movement from a couple centuries earlier.

      • Anat

        There’s Richard Carrier’s version of mythical Jesus: The Jesus Paul and the apostles knew wasn’t a human being who lived on earth, died, and rose from the dead on earth, but an angel-like being who lived, died and resurrected in heaven, and who appeared to Paul and the apostles in visions only. Carrier likens this Jesus to Gabriel in Islamic tradition or the angel Moroni in LDS tradition. A few generations later some believers gave Jesus an earthly historical context. Carrier compares this process to the development of other myths in the Roman Empire (for instance Romulus was once believed to have been a celestial being, but later came to be believed to have been the founder of Rome).

        I suppose this can be seen as a version of your #6, but I think the details are necessary for judging plausibility.

      • DataSnake

        #5 is almost certainly true. Fun fact: in older texts, Jesus always refers to the “Son of Man” in the third person, as a separate person. Bits where he describes himself as the Son of Man were added by medieval scribes to “clarify” (think how Winston Smith “corrects” the news in 1984) the church’s position that they were one and the same.

      • kisarita

        All except # 1 & 2 are considered acceptable beliefs within mainstream Judaism.

      • Anat

        To kisarita: There is even a view expressed in the Talmud that many messianic claimants were legitimate, and that some messiahs are messiahs for a short time (for instance Bar-Kokhba for some 3-4 years). Some version of Jesus might even be worked into this framework, though his story fits more the category of false messianic claimant (which isn’t quite the same as a blasphemer, IMO).

    • Yoav

      1. Judaism was initially a tribal identity, the religious aspect became more significant during the centuries jews lived as a minority group. The pendulum is currently shifting back to the national identity side with with movements like humanist judaism or with israelies who, being part of the majority culture, feel they can be jews even if they haven’t seen the inside of a synagogue in decades. On the other hand you have haredi group who retreat deeper into the religious element as a shield against the scary modern world.
      2. Generally, the most common is some form of the day-age idea, it’s much simpler for jews then to christians since judaism already accept that the plain text is just the first level of meaning.
      3. The first 5 books or the Torah are considered the basis of the law. The jewish bible (Tanach) contains more or less what the christian old testament does (there are some books included in one but not the other). On top of that you have the Mishna and Talmud and millennia of rabbinic literature trying to interpret what the fuck it is the bible say about how long you need to wait between eating meat and dairy or what to do with an egg that was laid on a saturday.
      4. when jesus is even mentioned he’s portrayed as a heretic, although these mentioned are from a much later period and may be influenced by the writers holding a grudge over all the crap christians put jews through. He certainly don’t fit the jawish messianic concept, which involve a king that will restore jewish national independence and would rule the restored kingdom here on earth.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Re: Jesus as heretic–yeah, but that’s in rabbinic literature which doesn’t really speak for the way most Jews think today. (To give people some idea of numbers, Orthodox Jews are actually a minority. The largest Jewish sect in American, which has the largest Jewish population of any country by a lot, is the Reform sect (very liberal) followed by the Conservative sect (which is not actually conservative in the way that word is usually understood. They ordain female rabbis and stuff. Yes, it’s very confusing and I wish they’d change the name.) There are also plenty of secular Jews in America and most Jews in Israel are secular, although the Orthodox minority is very powerful and growing (through very impressive breeding…). There is a tendency to position the Orthodox as the norm, because they’ve been around the longest but that’s not just not true in this day and age.

        So I’d say most Jews’ opinion of Jesus is *shrug.* He’s just not important. Also, I think the “He was a wise man who never made any extraordinary claims…” explanation often applies. In my mother’s day in the Civil Rights era, there was a lot of effort on the part of many liberal jewish congregations to connect with liberal and Black churches in order to movement-build (Martin Luther King actually came to speak at my mom’s temple). So, as a kid, my mom and other members of her temple were encouraged by their rabbi to think of Jesus as an important Jewish thinker and social justice teacher (although, obviously, not divine) that connected us to the church communities that Jewish communities were marching with. But that’ not an idea I’ve heard a lot in my own times. I think mostly he’s just not really someone Jews would really think about much if so many people weren’t always trying to do wacky stuff in his name.

  • Jasen

    What do you think when politicians use the phrase “Judeo-Christian values”?

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      I might go into this later, but a short answer for now: red, red rage and wanting to shake the politician until he (it’s usually but not always a he) comes to his senses.

    • Hilary

      It depends on what values they are trying to push, and what mood I’m in. Usually my response is “Eyeroll, facepalm, wince, shrug.” If the politicians are using the phrase in refernce to things I agree with, like better food support for low income people, or mortgage forclosure reform to keep people in their houses, I’m more like, shrug, whatever, it’s tacky but at least what he’s trying to do is good. Although it’s not like only Jews or Christians care about these things, and I wince a little for all the atheists, Pagans/Wiccans, Muslims, and every body else in the audience.

      But when it’s code for ‘right-wing conservative Christian values’ take your hyphen and shove it up your ass. One of the most important of the Judeo values for me is respecting my neighbor’s right for freedom of and freedom from religion. Whatever I may believe about God and whatever inspiration I find in the Torah, **!!ANYTHING!!** I intend to bring to the public square *HAS TO* pass a secular sniff test. Example: I may (and do) believe in every human being as created B’Tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and I may read over and over again in Exodus “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having been yourself a stranger in the land of Egypt.” But if I take these beliefs and inspiration to consider the problem of helping immigrents and refugees in my city, any application of my beliefs has to be rational by legal, secular arguement.

      Respecting your neighbor’s religious boundaries and making sure your application of religious values can stand muster to secular arguement seem to be utter kryptonite to the type of polititions who most use “Judeo-Christian values.” Hence my sugestion of where they can stick the hyphen in that phrase.


      • Carys Birch

        For the record, non-Wiccan Pagans usually get a pretty good squirm out of “Wiccan/Pagan.” We’re aware we’re a small group taken all together, but even so, we’re not interchangeable.

        I hope this isn’t a double post, the site seems to be eating comments again.

      • Nathaniel

        I fully realize that the person using that phrase is both ignorant and full of shit.

      • Hilary


        I know that Wiccan and Pagan aren’t the same, but to be honest I’m not too sure of the differences. What would have been appropriate – using a comma instead of a slash? Wiccan, Pagan?

      • Hanan

        >One of the most important of the Judeo values for me is respecting my neighbor’s right for freedom of and freedom from religion

        How is that a Judeo value?????? Anyways, to answer the initial question, I would say it depends who you are asking. If you are a Liberal Jew, you will appreciate Judeo-Christian values to mean any progressive value. Orthodox Jews are rather fond of Judeo-Christian values because they talk about those OTHER values that people don’t want to hear about: Belief in God is necessary for a healthy society; Marriage and children shouldn’t be something that is on the list of things you “might” do in life after you find your career, but THE most important thing one ought to do with ones life, sexual ethics. etc etc. etc.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Well, Hanan, many self-identifying Jews do not believe in God and many more do believe in God but don’t particularly care of other people do or not. Most Jews fall into one of these two categories at this point. Likewise, some Jews do not wish to get married or have children and plenty of the Jews who do wish to do so or have done are happy to acknowledge that, although it may be a very important thing to do in THEIR lives, maybe even THE most important thing in their lives, it doesn’t need to be that way for everybody. And the majority of Jews these days do not accept the Orthodox account of “sexual ethics.” (which appear to not be particularly concerned with sexual abuse in many closed Orthodox communities…)

        So while you can say that these are YOUR values, Hanan, or even that they are ORTHODOX values, you can’t really say that they are “Judeo” values, if most of the Judeos that are actually living and breathing and walking around today don’t endorse them. Because we are Jews, Hanan, whether you like the way we do Judaism or not. And I know it hurts but the Orthodox don’t get to speak for us all, even if your buddies on the Christian Right would prefer it that way.

      • Carys Birch

        Hilary – sorry for the late reply, my phone won’t let me reply to a particular comment, so I had to wait to get back to a real computer… and I don’t want to derail the actual on-topic discussions in the thread, but saying Pagan/Wiccan is ROUGHLY like if, whenever people talked about the “Abrahamic faiths” they said “Abrahamic/Christian” as though the largest, most noticeable of the religions under that umbrella required specific mention. Paganism is an umbrella term with a lot of very small religious groups under the umbrella (and some people who identify as Pagan but don’t belong to any of the other small groups.) Wicca is the largest and most well known of the modern Pagan religions.

        As for how to say it… We’re so diverse you’ll probably get fifty answers from thirty Pagans, but a comma would work for me. :) “Wiccans and other Pagans” might work, or just “Pagans” since the vast majority of Wiccans also identify under the Pagan umbrella.

        To bring it full circle – I used “Abrahamic” as an umbrella term earlier, as the earliest of the three big monotheisms, how do Jewish folks feel about that term?

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      HATE IT!!!!!! Stop appropriating something you know jack shit about to make yourself seem more inclusive while promoting an agenda that, most often, most Jews want NOTHING to do with! Leave us Judeos out of this! lol

      Noticing a theme here? Just…don’t use that term. :-P

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Oh, and I want to make clear that my screed was directed at Hypothetical Politician Dude, not the asker of the question. haha

      • Hanan

        I think you are conflating so many different things I am not sure where to start. You act as if I insulted you in some way. I didn’t. So relax.

        1) Judeo Christian is not a dirty word to every Jew because….of what I explaining. Disagree with it’s meaning, but you can’t disagree over the shared values between traditional lifestyles of the more right wing elements in both religiouns. So I am well AWARE there are Jews that want different things, but I SPECIFICALLY mentioning those that align more with the orthodox that have no real issue for all intense purpsoes with Judeo Christian. THis isn’t a negation that other Jews don’t fit within those communities. It’s a negation that all Jews are hyper sensitive about the term.

        2) By criticism of “Judeo” is in relation to the quote ” One of the most important of the Judeo values for me is respecting my neighbor’s right for freedom of and freedom from religion. ” This is an excellent value, but one cannot say it is “Judeo” just because Jews like it and keep it. If EVERYTHING is a Judeo value, then nothing is Where in Jewish sources do you find these values? In fact, one of the main criticism of Judaism from the outside is that it lacks these sorts of liberal values.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

    Is it ok to post answers to those questions in the comments, later, as a way to continue the panel discussion?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Yes, continuing discussion in the comments is fine—and encouraged! I know you expressed interest in being involved in the panel yourself, so I emailed the address you use when you comment but didn’t hear back from you. If you are interested in participating in the panel, email me a bio like the ones above and I’ll add you. My address is lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

        Ah cool. I realized the email I used is an old one that I don’t actually check very often; time to change it to the real one!

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        I thought that might be the case. Feel free to email me if you’re still interested!

  • meri

    Awesome – I love learning about other traditions, and Judaism is particularly interesting to me. I had a very similar experience to Libby Anne; I thought I knew “all about” Judaism until I attended an open house at a local reformed synagogue and realized it’s nothing like what I thought it was. I have had *1* Jewish friend in my whole life, and I try not to constantly assault her with questions, so it’ll be good to have another outlet – especially for the dumber questions ;)

    Having come from the same background as Libby Anne, I find all of her Qs interesting, as well as the following:
    1. What do the various branches of Judaism think about Zionists? What about Christian end-timers who promote Israel to bring about the Second Coming of Christ?
    2. Similar to the question about sacred texts, what would Jews consider to be the source of authority/how is doctrine determined and propagated?
    3. Have you observed or experienced any discrimination due to your Jewish heritage?
    4. What would you say are the most important tenets of your branch of Judaism? (e.g., for evangelicals it would be “personal relationship with Jesus”, for Catholics maybe “observing the sacraments”)
    5. My fundamentalist upbringing taught me that Jews are very legalistic, it’s all about following the Law. What is your actual experience with what Christian fundamentalists call “the Law”? What role does faith or belief play in your tradition?
    6. Dumbest question of all: why don’t Jews do animal sacrifices at a temple any more?

    Thanks so much for being willing to correct my ignorance!

    • Hilary

      Number 6 isn’t dumb at all. Trust me, you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last person to ask a modern Jew about the ancient sacrifices. I’ve had people ask me far dumber questions with a straight face. And really, any question asked sincerely out of a genuine desire for greater understanding isn’t stupid. So, ask away!


      • kisarita

        The Jews did not have access to the Temple since it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, until 1967 upon winning the war.
        During that period of time, sacrifices could not be practiced and therefore fell into disuse.
        Nowadays, most Jews who are urban folks and therefore not accustom to slaughtering meat, as well as being modernized, don’t relate to sacrifice as a spiritual practice, and aren’t interested in bringing it back. This includes Orthodox Jews, who although they believe in practicing the law, believe in practicing the law as it was passed to them, and not in instituting such a huge change. They justify their position by pointing out (correctly in my opinion) that they have lost the knonwledge of the ritual technicalities and are waiting for the messiah to explain it to them. so long as he doesn’t show up, they’re in the clear.
        There is a small fringe who is interested in practicing the Paschal sacrifice but they are prevented by the Israeli government who isn’t interested in dealing with any more Muslim/Jewish clashes than necessary.

    • Rachel

      I really can’t wait to get to answer some of these (and hear other people’s answers as well), and I am chomping at the bit to get to them. So, because I can’t restrain from answering questions, I’ll answer #6. Which is not dumb at all! It’s incredibly important.

      #6 is actually both very straightforward and a defining moment in the direction of Judaism: we are only allowed to make sacrifices at the Temple. The Temple is destroyed, so there’s no place to offer sacrifices. We are not allowed to offer sacrifices anywhere but the Temple. When the Temple is rebuilt, when the Mashiach comes, we’ll offer sacrifices again. (When I say Temple, with a capital T, I mean the Bait HaMikdash, the structure that the Western Wall was part of, which was located exactly where the Dome of the Rock is currently. Yeah, I’m betting you’re sensing some difficulty there…)

      So instead of sacrifices, we have prayers: three prayer services a day, four on holidays, five on Yom Kippur.

      • kisarita

        The temple area is now under Israeli sovereignty. If we chose to enact sacrifices today, we could. See my post above.

      • Hanan

        Don’t forget Samaritans actually offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice as is directed in the Torah. From people that have been there, they said it’s quite a site.

    • Hilary

      I can’t stay away from this question either. It’s not stupid, if most of your exposure to Judaism has been through reading the bible as a Christian, well there is a lot of attention spent on sacrifices in Leviticus, so it makes sense that you would think it was of major importance. Then when you meet real Jews who just shrug and say, ‘We haven’t done that in a few thousand years,’ I can imagine it would be a little weird.

      But IIRC during the first major exile to Babylon, when the people of the southern kingdom Judah where taken in captivity, they needed some way to keep a national/cultural/religious identity without making the sacrifices. Instead they started the nucelous of the system of prayer and study to remember who they were in exile. When they came back to rebuild Israel and the Temple, the custom of having a house of study and prayer kept developing alongside, and sometimes in compitition with, the Temple. Also, a lot of people stayed in Babylon, and there were other cities with large Jewish populations. So while a Jew from say Greece or North Africa might make a few specific pilgramiges to Israel, for the most part there needed to be something to do at home that would take the place of the Temple. I’ve read evidence of this in the New Testiment, about Jews making a special pilgramige to Jersualem for Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost) and Paul being kicked out of different Jewish synagoges on his travels.

      With the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE (Commen Era) all of these alternatives to the Temple became vitally important in developing a new way to express atonement for sin. Here’s a story from the Talmud about part of that developement: Once, as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was returning to Jerusalem after the destruction, Rabbi Joshua followed him and beheld the Temple in ruins. “Woe is us,” he lamented, “that the place where Israel found atonement for its sins is laid waste.”
      “Do not greive, my son,” said Yochanan. “We have a means of atonement equally good – deed of loving kindness, as it is said ‘It is steadfast love I desire, and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).”

      Keep in mind sin isn’t a state of being, it’s something we do, or fail to do. So prayer (t’filah), repentance or return to correct behavior (teshuvah), and reparative action or justice (tzedakah) is sufficent to atone for sin. Also, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a Pharisee, so this story from 70 CE would take place after Paul’s work spreading the news of Christ, and about the time of the earliest Gospels being formed. I know the Gospel of Mark is considered the earliest and is about the same time as this story, as far as it is possible to date any of this material ~2,000 years later. “God desires acts of loving kindness, not sacrifices” are the words of a Pharisee who survived the siege of Jerusalem and is standing at the ruins of the Temple.

      I hope this helps you understand a little better.


    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Okay, I don’t have time for all of these and I’m guessing some will be topics for future posts but here goes:
      1.) The thing about “Zionism” is that it means so many things to different people that it’s become practically meaningless. My grandmother grew up in a Zionist family, in a place and time when Zionism was simply a belief that there should be a Jewish homeland. It seriously wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that, to many people, “Zionism” specifically refers to the political agenda of the Israeli Right and those who support it. This kind of bugs me, but I don’t think there’s any squeezing the toothpaste back in the tube now…

      So, as for the first definition I named, well, yeah, I guess I’m a Zionist because shit just seems to get too real when we don’t have a state. Of course, I see the entire idea of nation-states, even states at all, as pragmatic solutions to the fact that we humans haven’t figured out how to play nicely together. In a perfect, utopian world, I would love for there to be no need for states at all. But we are very, very, very far from that world so, meanwhile, I think Jews are as entitled to a state as any other ethnic group. Of course, as a bicultural person, I don’t really feel like I can ever really belong in any nation-state (though I have loved my visits to Israel and have lived in Ireland before) but that’s a topic for another day, I think.

      As for the second definition of Zionism, what I will say for now is that I strongly support Palestinian statehood and condemn the actions of the Israeli government towards Palestinians, and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement of the West Bank. I believe that oppression of others is antithetical to Jewish values and seeing it happen pains me more than I can express. Not that the situation is simple and I do understand the psychology that leads many decent people to support the rightwing agenda, even if I do not condone it. Okay,this could get really long so Imma stop for now.

      3. Yes, I have. I won’t claim that anti-semitism is comparable to, say, anti-Black or anti-Latino racism in this country (not even close) but it’s out there. I grew up in a fairly provincial, medium-sized rustbelt city with very few Jews and there were definitely a few instances in middle school (where I was the only Jew in my class) of being called a kike and other nice things. I’ve also had a drunk person ask me to personally apologize to him for killing his lord. That was… interesting. Mostly though, you get more covert anti-semitism. A lot of people making hilaaaaaarious “jokes” about how greedy Jews are and then doing the “lighten up, can’t you take a joke?” thing when you don’t laugh. And I think Jon Stewart did a pretty awesome job of calling out the dog-whistle anti-semitism that was all over the place during Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation a few years back. I’ve also travelled a lot in Europe and lived in two European countries that are historically Catholic (though increasingly secular). The Catholic Church is responsible for a lot of institutional anti-semitism in Europe and it hasn’t done much to redress it, so it can be a rather disturbing part of the ambient culture in a lot of Europe, even among people who are not religious and don’t realize it.

      6.) The others have done a pretty good job explaining it, but I just want to make clear that these are historic reasons and not adhered to by all Jews. There are plenty of us who have no interest in ever sacrificing animals or rebuilding the temple and are not counting on the Mashiac showing up. haha. One thing you should remember when asking questions of us is that a lot of us are going to have really, really, really different answers depending on our background, level of observance etc. That’s one of the reasons Libby invited such a diverse sampling of Jews for this panel. There’s an expression “10 Jews, 11 opinions.” Just sayin.’

      • Rachel

        I think that joke is vastly understating the number of opinions. It should be exponential. 10 Jews, 100 opinions!

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I guess that does make sense, considering that there are issues within Judaism that I have, like, 10 opinions on all by myself.

    • Uly

      If you’re interested in animal sacrifice, the few remaining Samaritans still do make sacrifices on those occasions. They are, of course, related in their religion to Judaism.

      If you want information without asking people there’s always jewfaq.org, but they have a pretty Orthodox bias.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        haha, yeah, and there’s already enough Orthodox bias out there…

  • JuneBug

    I hope this isn’t an offensive question to ask -

    I had a friend growing up who came from a conservative background; the expectation for marriage was that it would be with someone not only of the same faith, but who was racially Jewish as well. This was treated as very culturally normal. I later had a friend who was raised atheist Jewish, but the expectation was still that he would marry a racially and culturally Jewish girl.

    Is this common? Are interracial or interfaith relationships treated differently, or discouraged?

    • Nathaniel

      It depends on the community. My father is Jewish and my mother is a Protestant. No one except one bigoted great aunt cared. For other families, its a huge deal.

    • Rachel

      It depends, unfortunately — on one side of my family, my mother lied to family members to avoid telling them I was dating a non-Jew, and on the other side, my aunt married a non-Jewish guy in the 1970s and no one cared. There’s a lot of variety — I hope this question goes to the panel!

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yeah, as a child of a mixed marriage, I have a lot to say about this so I’m going to save this for panel.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      My parents made it clear that whoever was fine, but Jewish was better. Me dating mostly non-Jews in high school and college made my grandmother very uncomfortable, and she was NOT happy that I married an (ex-)Catholic. She’s always liked him as a person, she just … wishes he were Jewish. It’s gotten much better since we married since he’s officially family now. My grandfather always wanted someone to carry on the family name Jewishly- that is, a Jewish grandson from one of his sons marrying a Jewish woman and having Jewish great-grandbabies.

      Interfaith marriage is very discouraged by the rabbinate from my experience. Finding a rabbi to marry us was hard- there’s one guy in Dallas who’ll do it, but he charges like $2,000. My rabbi from my old congregation did marry us and didn’t give us a hard time about it, but he’s also been threatened with revocation of his rabbinical ordination for doing interfaith marriages before. I was really surprised it was as big a deal as it was in the congregations I’d go to for High Holy Day services in college.

    • Hilary

      It depends, with a wide range of reasons. Judaism counts religious inheritance through the materinal line – if your mother was Jewish, so are you, full stop, no matter what. If your mother isn’t . . . . until 1983 neither are you, full stop, unless you convert. You can imagine how humiliating it can be to asked to ‘convert’ to a religion you’ve been all your life, or not be considered authentic. In 1983 Reform Judasim allowed for patrilinial decent, that a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who was raised as a religious Jew would be counted without having a conversion. It was a HUGE to-do and controvery, which I remember quite well as a child.

      There are some legitamet reasons behind the bigotry, IMO, and most of them come down to survival. For hundreds of years in Christian and Moslem countries conversion to Judaism was a death sentence for both the convert and the rabbi, and a lot of other people if the Christian neighbors used it as an excuse for a pogrom. We have five holidays that at some level touch on an attempt to uttery destroy us, three of which are historically verifiable: Hanukah, Tish B’Av the anniversery of the Temple being destroyed, and Yom HaShoah, holocaust rememberence day – remembering something still in living memory. Purim is ahistorical but fun, and Passover/Exodus is too far back in history to fully prove or disprove. The point I’m trying to make is that we always live in the shadow of violence and survival, it’s never not part of the background even though sometimes we can get good at just looking past it to focus on better times.

      A person who marries out of Judaism threatens that survival because usually the children of that marriage don’t stay Jewish, and thus are lost to the tribe. Somebody marrying in might be prejudiced, or not understand what they’re getting into marrying into a relgious minority. Or they might be nice enough but other family members are prejudiced. It’s one thing to not get along with your in laws, it’s another for them to be anti-semetic. Sometimes I think there is a little internalized shame invovled – who would want to join us? Why would a Christian give up the position of privalege to become Jewish? Don’t they have any idea of what our history with them is like? Why would a non-Jew want to raise Jewish children?

      It still hurts for the families involved, or people caught on the edge of this prejudice. This can bring out the more tribal side of Judaism over religous one, and when a key part of tribal identity is bloodline and heratige, nothing a convert can do will change their past.

      I know the past 3 decades Reform Judaism has worked hard at welcoming mixed families and encouraging conversion. Marrying a non-Jew and bringing them into the tribe is now so common that I never assume what a person’s Jewish background is – 4 Jewish grandparents, 2 Jewish grandparents, no Jewish background, or not even Jewish but married to one. Personally I think this has been a success for my denomination, bringing in a lot of amazing and wonderful people, and keeping a lot of Jews from leaving if forced to choose between their partner or their religion. (hi mom and dad!) Still, each rabbi has personal descretion if they want to do a mixed-marriage wedding or not. I think our rabbi only changed his mind on doing interfaith weddings maybe 6-8 years ago, when he realized that every kid in the conformation class was committed to staying Jewish and was also willing to date a non-Jew.

      Sorry if this is longer and a little rambling. I think all you guys reading these answers and latter posts are going to get used to “It depends, and here’s 3-5 different answers and interpretations.”

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

        Sorry if this is longer and a little rambling. I think all you guys reading these answers and latter posts are going to get used to “It depends, and here’s 3-5 different answers and interpretations.”

        Yeah, probably. It’s the Jewish thing to do. You have heard about the two Jews marooned on a desert island? After they had basic survival needs taken care of, one turned to the other and said “we should build a synagogue”.

        “Sure,” said the other, “but we don’t actually agree on anything. We need to build two, one for me and one for you.”

        “Well in that case,” huffed the first, “we need three. You get yours, I’ll get mine, and we’ll boycott the son-of-a-bitch up the hill!”

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Hmmm, it’s definitely not been my personal experience that children of mixed marriages do not identify as Jewish. Growing up, all my parents “Jewish” friends were actually mixed couples like themselves, all of them with a Jewish husband and a non-Jewish wife, and all of the kids grew up identifying as Jewish. My parents didn’t want to encourage me to question other people’s identities that were important to them and so I seriously didn’t even KNOW about the matrilineal descent rule until (non-Jewish) kids at school asked me about it! I asked my my own mom about it and her response was “Yes, some Jews believe that.” I replied “But that’s silly? Why should it matter which parent it is?” She replied “Well, yeah, that’s what I’ve always thought.”

        Me too.

        It can be hella frustrating to always be telling people “Well, my mom’s Jewish, my dad was raised Christian and I was raised Jewish” and to have people respond “Oh, well, of course, since it’s your mom that’s Jewish!” The truth is, that’s not why. It just worked out that way. And if it were my father, not my mother, that contributed my Jewish heritage, I would consider myself just as Jewish. Sometimes I have the energy to explain that, sometimes not.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

        When I asked my mom why it was matrilineal, she told me that Jewish women were often raped in pogroms across Europe. Since you often couldn’t be sure who the father of a child was, Jewish descent became matrilineal for tribal survival. If you claim all babies born to Jewish mothers as Jewish, regardless of their fathers, the tribe grows and the mothers aren’t faced with having to consider some of their children outsiders.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Well, yeah, matrilineal descent made plenty of sense in the time before there was a sure way of knowing who the father of a child was. Jews are not the only ethnic group that have this rule, btw–most Native American nations have the same rule (although a few have patrilineal descent). It just doensn’t make much sense now.

      • Rachel

        I actually did some research on this — there’s a book out there called The New American Judaism, author is a humanistic Jew, rabbi, last name starts with a B — and generally the kids of intermarried couples will be Raised Jewish. Will they be accepted by the Jewish community? That’s another basket case.

      • Anat

        M, the way I know that joke there was one Jew on an island, he built two synagogues. One to attend and one in which to never set his foot.

      • kisarita

        Matrilineal descent begins way before jews stepped foot into europe, during the time of the inauguration of the second temple when the people who had married babylonian women were told to divorce these women- along with there children, back to babylonia. it seems though that this was not heeded across the board.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      In theory, a convert is accepted as a born Jew. Practically speaking, however, converts (geirim) are usually mistreated in terms of marriage. Over the years, I have had several friends who became converts, and those that converted while single had a very difficult, if not impossible time, finding spouses. Many are still single to this day.

    • Alexis

      Re: Status of converts within Judaism: Because I was adopted, my mother had me converted officially to Judaism when I was a few months old. The only way this affected me growing up was that when I was about to have my Bat Mitzva (coming of age ceremony at age 13) my rabbi took me aside and basically said “You were too young to make a fully informed decision about whether to be Jewish when you were originally converted, so this is your chance to decide otherwise.” Now I was converted as an infant, so that’s definitely a factor in my experience.

  • Ann

    On a lighter note, there was a video a while back of a Jewish woman, I think a college student, trying to describe Christianity based purely on her pop-culture knowledge. It inspired my husband to make a similar video of a friend describing Star Wars, which shed never seen. I’ll keep trying to find the link. Sometimes a little cultural ignoance, taken with a grain of salt and good humor, is pretty hilarious.

  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    Interesting project. I would definitely like to know what they believe about hell. what they believed in the past, and if that’s changed today, how so. I’ve read that it is not what most evangelical Christians believe.

    • saraquill

      From what I can tell, what happens after death isn’t a major part of the religion. The sentiment is “Why worry about the later (death) when there’s so much to do in the now (life)?”

      • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Basketcase

        I love this sentiment.
        I think its going to be my new mantra.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      The short answer is that we don’t.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      I’ve seen mentions of Heaven and Hell in jokes, a few times. I know in one of my books of Jewish fairy tales, there’s a story of a man who dies and goes on trial to see if he gets Heaven or Hell. It’s actually pretty funny- it’s a full trial. There’s a prosecuting angel, a defense angel, and a judge angel wrangling over where this guy goes after he’s dead. There’s no sense that this is anything but a story, no sense that Heaven and Hell are anything but plot tools. We live, we do good and are rewarded for it or do bad and are punished for it, and then we die. And that’s it, basically.

  • http://thewordsonwhat.wordpress.com/ Rob F

    Maybe this question is really about all religions, but what about the Jewish equivalent of fundamentalists? What is being done to help those who “escape” from them (analogous to QF/CP, etc)?

    How do the various theories of how/when the Bible was written/who wrote it (for example, the Documentary Hypothesis) affect your beliefs and how you practice Judaism, if at all?

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      I live right in the heart of fundamentalist Judaism. Currently, there is an underground of escapees, who are known as being “off the derech” or OTD. (Derech is the Hebrew word for road or path) The blog Unpious and the OTD Facebook page are online support sites. There is also an organization called Footsteps that helps Orthodox Jews who want out. They help with everything from education and employment to basic social skills.

    • Rachel

      Ooh, I hope this one goes to the panel. Short answer: the DH blew my mind as a concept, am not sure if I trust it as a real thing.

      • Anat

        It should be obvious that the text we have today is a redacted text that was written centuries later than the time it claims to describe, and that it was written from a POV of the authors’ various time periods. Original Wellhausen DH is probably too neat. When we include archaeological discoveries we also know the story told can’t be factually true as simply understood. What exactly the kernels of fact in it is a matter of debate.

  • Carys Birch

    I’m very very interested in this! Mostly everything in my early education had a very Christian-centric cast to it, and I’ve only recently realized that being raised fundigelical did not actually make me an expert in Judaism (embarrassing that, especially since I realized it didn’t make me an expert in Catholicism long ago, and failed to make the connection.) Anyway, this twisting of other people’s beliefs through the evangelical lens strikes me as suspiciously akin to interpreting other people’s motives through an evangelical worldview “because it must be that way.” [Example: my mother thinks straight people who support marriage equality do so because they don't want to be told "no" when it's their own pet sin, so they don't say "no" to other people's. Because that makes sense in her twisted fundy worldview. The idea that people might actually believe what they say they do, for the reasons they say they do, is lost on her entirely.] This mindset that everything can only be looked at through a crazy evangelical lens is so very very skewed, I’m hoping a little facts about ACTUAL real Judaism might tip my scale back toward sanity again.

    I also had managed to miss that some of the regular commenters I’ve been reading for ages have a Jewish background. I’m really looking forward to reading this!

  • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Basketcase

    This might be too “big” a question, and would rely on our panelists having a working knowledge of the Christian creation story (which I assume some at least would!).
    How does the Jewish creation story differ from that told in Christianity?
    In fact, I’d love to see a series of articles comparing not neccesarily the biblical / talmudical (?) phraseology of the original myths, but how they are taught or generically understood in the two cultures (which can be quite different I guess)… Things like Adam & Eve, the flood and the ark, Cain & Abel, the handing down of the commandments.
    If I make any sort of sense? A comparison of the two holy books say X and Y and the two usual cultural understandings (or even three if you count how non-Christans and non-Jews think they know the story) say A and B. And how they are used as teaching points in the various cultures.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      I know I learned a very different interpretation of the Adam and Eve story than the Christian version. For one thing, Judaism has no concept of original sin. Anyways, it’s a coming-of-age story. Adam and Eve were children in Eden. They were taken care of and given rules to follow, like children, but the Tree of Knowledge was placed there on purpose. When they ate of that fruit, they were grown up enough to take care of themselves. They’d broken the rules, so they had to be punished, but a lot of that was just the breaking of ignorance (if ignorance is bliss, then knowledge is …?). The angel with the fiery sword represents our inability to go back to a childlike state of ignorance and dependence. The part about childbirth pain and backbreaking farm labor was sort of hand-waved away.

      I don’t know how widespread this interpretation is in Judaism, because A) I haven’t studied Midrash and B) the rabbi I learned the most from is considered pretty unorthodox in a lot of ways, so I don’t know how much his interpretations line up with standard Jewish teachings.

      • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Basketcase

        This is awesome for starters :)
        Thinking about that in particular, I guess the lack of “original sin” is because that was something that the Catholic church introduced, which carried across in to the rest of Christianity… (At least, thats the impression I got from my christian history paper I did a few years back)

      • kisarita

        this is a mainstream interpretation- one of many

    • Hilary

      This is a great question that will probably get it’s own post to go over in-depth. But to back up what M said, I also got “growing up out of innocence, the world is hard, being an adult is hard, and you can’t go back.” and more on “No original sin” later – its important.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yeah, I pretty much have always heard the same thing about it as the others who have commented–but a lot less often! I think one thing that’s important to emphasize is that, because of the lack of belief in original sin (which is basically the concept that post-Constantinian Christianity hinges on), this story does not loom nearly as large in Judaism as it does in Christianity.

    • Anat

      Since others replied regarding the second creation story, I’d like to answer about the first.

      First, there is no reason to think even the authors thought it described how the world was formed. A more likely way to read it is as an expression of admiration of the order the authors saw in the natural world. Which is why there is such an emphasis on everything being good. The creation is a process of 3 parts: Days 1-3 are days of partitioning, days 4-6 are the filling in of the partitions (in the same order as before) and day 7 is the completion of the project. In this light, questions like ‘how could there be night and day if the sun was only created on day 4?’ are meaningless.

  • http://thewordsonwhat.wordpress.com/ Rob F

    Me again! (I hope I’m not hogging all the question space.)

    Do you or did you have any difficulties reconciling feminism with your faith? Did feminism enhance, strengthen or drive you towards Judaism, or change how you practiced it and approached it? Or vice versa? Or, if you are no longer a theist, did feminism play any role in your leaving the religion?

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      Nope, questions are good! Keep them coming. This is something that really needs to be a full-fledged panel question, I think, but I’ll give it a shot for now.

      Both Conservative and Reform Judaism are very liberal in a lot of ways. Feminism, LGBT rights, racial equality- all of this was considered good. We had been oppressed for millenia, and we knew what it was like, so it was our responsibility as Jews to fight for everyone who was oppressed. The same arguments could be, and had been, used against the Jews. “I was a stranger in Egypt” was a big, big deal; stranger doesn’t have to mean traveler but can also mean anyone dispossessed or feeling estranged. The stories of Esther, Deborah, Ruth and Naomi, Miriam, the Queen of Sheba, and even Rahab were held up as examples of strong women who lived their lives and were sometimes even prophetesses and wisewomen. Note that there is a strong culture of Jewish women working outside the home to support their men who are studying Torah, so the idea that *gasp* women might like working wasn’t such a shock to the Jewish psyche when Second Wave feminism started.

      Orthodox Jews have the standard patriarchal view of women, and the Hasidim are even worse. My sister does call herself an Orthodox Feminist, so it’s apparently possible to reconcile the two. I never felt a conflict between Judaism and feminism. While the Torah’s literal meaning is terribly problematic, Jews have no problem handwaving or explaining out of existence a lot of problems with it.

      • Alexis

        “We had been oppressed for millenia, and we knew what it was like, so it was our responsibility as Jews to fight for everyone who was oppressed.”

        Exactly this! My congregation growing up was very involved with ‘Tikun Olam’ (lit. ‘repairing the world’). In my community there was always the sense that we were supposed to make the world a better place for everyone.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yes to everything you said! This was my experience too.

        And, yeah, I’ve heard of “Orthodox feminism” too. I was open to being convinced that such a thing is possible but, frankly, nobody’s managed to do it. I ain’t buying it. Orthodoxy and feminism don’t mix.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Well, I’ve sort of already answered this and I don’t really describe my Judaism as “faith,” but I can’t resist: No, I did not have any difficulties reconciling feminism with Judaism. I’ve known as many female rabbis as male ones in my life, not to mention plenty of strongly Jewish-identified feminists (both secular and religious). And the Judaism I was raised with had a very anti-authoritarian bent to it (so did my grandmother’s personality and those of her daughters…) and, like I said, there was a huge focus on standing up against oppression. Obviously, this dovetails pretty well with feminism so I feel like my Jewish ethics contributed to my feminism. Plus, my grandmother was reacting against her Orthodox upbringing (she had a happy childhood and was very close to her father, who was actually quite a bit more liberal towards his daughters than one would expect an Orthodox rabbi in the 1920s and 30s–or many fathers from that place and time–to be, but she still really struggled with the sexism of Orthodoxy growing up) so there was always a conscious effort to make our Jewish practice very feminist and egalitarian in ways big and small. The Passover Haggadah we used was from the 60s and very progressive in most ways but, unfortunately, still too old to have gotten the gender-neutral language memo so “four sons” got turned into the “four children,” for example–except the year my 12-year-old cousin took it upon herself to read that part as “the four sea sponges” because “They’re not boys OR girls!” Giggling about “The Sponge Who Does Not Know How To Ask” still happens sometimes…

    • Hanan

      Depends how you define Feminism. Is it absolute Equality in all actions? and maintaining a system to allow for that, than within Orthodoxy it isn’t. Orthodoxy sees a difference between issues of justice/ethical behavior vs. ritual responsibilities. So for example, you will see plenty of women in orthodox synagogues that have PHD’s or other careers, but you will ritually, they don’t share in the same responsibility.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        And by “responsibility,” you mean “opportunity.” The opportunity to be a rabbi, for example, among many other things. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “Patriarchy is good for women because men have sooooo much responsibility, you don’t want to share in that, do you?” Jewish style!

        What you are saying is that some Orthodox women may have equality in other spheres, but not the religious sphere. Which is to say that they do not have equality. (I don’t know how they stand it.) Barring people from certain positions and opportunities because of their gender is a lot of things but it is not feminist. It’s not, for that matter, just or ethical either.

      • Anat

        Hanan, what I find absolutely offensive is the reasoning of the Talmudists who decided to exempt women from most positive religious obligations (mitzvot aseh): That a woman might be conflicted between her obligations to God and her obligations to her husband, so she must be relieved of many obligations to God. In modern times the reasoning is whitewashed, claiming women are naturally more spiritual so they don’t need to pray etc to be close to God, but the BS of this explanation is exposed when these supposedly naturally spiritual persons are not counted for minyan (quorum of 10 required for a prayer to be that of a public rather than of individuals). Also, having reduced ritual obligations means the life of a Jewish woman is worth less than the life of a Jewish man (his life takes priority if one can only save one of them). Being exempt from ritual obligations is not a prize.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Ugh, yes Anat, I’ve always found the minyan thing to be particularly outrageous–it’s just such an explicit way of telling women that they just don’t count and the “women are innately more spiritual” reasoning is so incredibly disingenuous. I’ll never stop being grateful to my grandmother for ditching this stuff so her kids and grandkids didn’t have to!

      • Amanda

        Anat, I completely agree. I grew up in an egalitarian synagogue and I don’t see how the “exemption” argument actually justifies failing to count women as members of minyan. Even if a woman isn’t required to assume the religious obligations of a man, what would be wrong with her doing so if she actually wanted to?

        Besides, the so-called “exemption” shuts women out of some of the more emotionally and intellectually powerful aspects of Jewish practice. When my mother died and we said Kaddish for her during the shiva period, the fact that my community counted me and my female Jewish friends for the minyan was an enormous comfort.

  • Cathy W

    I’m curious about the “Proverbs 31 Woman” – the good wife who is worth more than rubies. It seems that Evangelical Christians view this passage as a checklist for the ideal wife, a standard to be measured against (and generally to not measure up to, and so to “clobber” non-ideal wives with). I’ve got the impression that this is not how this is interpreted in Judaism – but other than “not that”, what is/are the Jewish perspective(s) on this?

  • Lindsey

    I’ve noticed a pattern of Christian churches hosting the Passover meal. The church I attended at one time invited a rabbi from the local Messianic congregation to officiate (is that the right term?) the meal, talk about each of the items we ate, and discussed history of the Passover meal. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about this – on the one hand, I think a lot of Jewish traditions are beautiful and I enjoyed learning more about them, but I also feel uncomfortable about Christians appropriating a faith that isn’t their own in order to experience the “Jewishness of Jesus.” I’m curious how this looks from the outside – is it offensive to Jewish people? For Christians who want to learn about Jewish customs/practices/beliefs and how they intersect with our own customs/practices/beliefs, what resources would you suggest? Thanks to everyone who’s participating!

    • kisarita

      Yes I find it offensive.
      you might also be interested to know that most jews regard “messianic judaism” not as a jewish denomination but as a christian one which appropriates Jewish symbols and ritual.
      The little I have seen of messianic judaism leads me to agree to it- even the jewish rituals have a distinct non jewish flavor.

      • Alexis

        “you might also be interested to know that most jews regard “messianic judaism” not as a jewish denomination but as a christian one which appropriates Jewish symbols and ritual”

        Exactly this!

      • Petticoat Philosopher


    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      I have always found it offensive. Not that they do rituals, but that they claim they’re Jewish ones. They’re not. The interpretations, meanings, symbology, all that is different. Furthermore, it’s a basic tenet of modern Judaism that you can’t believe in Jesus. That’s non-negotiable. You can be Jewish and atheist, but you can’t really be Jewish and Christian. I agree with kisarita- it’s a Christian sect.

      • Christine

        So the Christian Seder (which doesn’t pretend to be Jewish) is ok then? And what about other interfaith activities?

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

        Interfaith activities that are explicitly interfaith have never bothered me. Seders are pretty common interfaith ceremonies when people want to reach out, and altering some bits to meet all faiths’ needs is fine, but people need to recognize that things have been altered. Explicitly Christian seders always seemed really odd to me, considering Christians don’t generally celebrate Passover, but if people want to add more rituals to their lives that are full of fine food, family, friends, and freedom I’m certainly not going to try to stop them!

  • Hanan

    I think it would also be interesting to look at what “Tikun Olam” is. It varies whether you are a conservative Jew vs. a Liberal Jew.

  • Barbra

    I just want to say, the questions on all of these comments are great! I’m just looking at this now, and I think I’m too overwhelmed to start answering specific comments, but I can’t wait to address some of these questions and issues on the panel.

  • Noelle

    I had to smile when just the introduction to this topic and a call for questions has already populated nearly 100 responses as the many answers and opinions start popping up before we even get started. This should be lively, and I’m looking forward to what is hopefully an ongoing series.

    I live in an area of the US which is almost entirely Christian. I did not know any Jewish people growing up, and my entire experience was what I learned in Sunday school or from reading Chaim Potok fiction. It was not until I was training for my profession, which stereotypically is known for attracting Jews, that I met my first Jewish friends and colleagues. It surprised me that most of them identified as atheists. When I later gave up my belief in god, I felt the need to keep that a secret from my family as I participate in the religious traditions and rituals. I sometimes feel defensive around other atheists as to why I want to continue with these tradiditions that I still enjoy.

    So my questions:
    1. How can a Jew be an atheist and still be a Jew? (And why can’t I get the same deal as a Christian Atheist?)
    2. We got Christian apologetics for all the violent Bible stories we borrowed from Judaism. We got ‘em for stuff some take literal even though there’s modern scientific evidence that says otherwise. But I’ve never heard the Jewish take on these things, and since these were your stories first, I’d like to know. Creation vs evolution? Multiple god-ordered genocides? Homosexuality as an abomination verses? All those what to do about a woman after a rape based on location of crime and her screaming or not? The it’s ok to to make people your slaves parts? Anything that sounds historical, but then archeology shows it probably didn’t actually happen?
    3. What are your favorite traditions? Why?
    4. Why the glass-breaking at weddings?
    5. What is the deal with keeping away from menstruating women?

    There will always be more questions. It’s so nice to have such enthusiastic teachers at the ready.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      #1. Judaism doesn’t have the requirement of belief. You’re not allowed to believe in other gods, but belief in Adonai isn’t a prerequisite of “Jewishness”. Judaism is cultural and ethnic as well as religious, practiced as much as believed, so being an atheist isn’t actually incompatible with being Jewish. Christianity, on the other hand, has at its core the belief that Jesus is God and that he died for your sins. You have to believe that to be Christian, so if you remove that central element by being an atheist, you can’t really be a Christian anymore.

      #2. I think the first thing to keep in mind is Adonai is not the Christian God. Adonai is jealous. He is vindictive. Jews don’t worship Adonai because He’s benevolent but because He picked them as His special people, helped them out of slavery in Egypt (according to Torah anyways, I know there’s no archaeological evidence for it), and demanded worship as His price. If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, remember Tevye? “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

      As to the specific sub-questions, I can only answer from a Reform/Conservative perspective. I know Orthodox Jews have very different answers. Genocide is bad, evolution is science and we’re scientists dammit because Jews are smart and educated, the rape and homosexuality verses are just wrong and old, slavery is bad. Most American Jews accept the documentary hypothesis and accept that Torah is a mythological history. If archaeology shows a plausible event didn’t happen, it probably didn’t happen, even if that messes with the narrative arc of things. Remember that only Torah is “the Word of God”; the rest of the Old Testament is stories, prophecy, poetry, and other things written by men. Religion changes over time, or we’d still do animal sacrifices, so we can change more things as they become irrelevant too.

      #3. I have two, actually. Seders because they are dinner with family and friends, and while the ritual prayers are long, they focus on the importance of freedom and making sure everyone has it. It reaffirms the need for activism. Yom Kippur because of the tradition of apologizing for how you’ve hurt people over the past year and asking forgiveness. God can forgive you for sins against God (or not, if you don’t believe anymore like me), but only other people can forgive you the wrongs you’ve done to them.

      #4. A reminder that relationships are fragile. The glass is easy to break but you can’t ever put it back together again. So it is with relationships.

      #5. Uh, God said so? The Torah talks about menstruation being (spiritually) unclean, so women are unclean at that time, so stay away from them so the unclean-ness doesn’t spread to you. It’s one of those wtf rules that gets followed because God said so, not because it makes any sense.

      • Noelle

        Thanks. I love Fiddler on the Roof.

    • Anat

      Regarding 2:

      One of the most interesting 20th century Orthodox Jews, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, said that the most significant event in Jewish history (well, the traditional Jewish historical narrative, never mind whether it actually happened) was the conquest of Canaan, yet there is no holiday in the Jewish calendar to celebrate or commemorate it. Leibowitz believed that the essence of being Jewish was accepting the yoke of Torah and commandments and following through, regardless of one’s personal views. Thus in his opinion the Jews were obligated to massacre the nations of Canaan, but since it was a horrific thing they do not celebrate it. And just to give you a perspective of his views when God is not involved, he spent the last decade of his life calling Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.

      One of my favorite atheist Jews, Shulamit Aloni, often disparaged Israeli society (or perhaps the education system) for emphasizing the book of Joshua over the books of the socially-minded prophets.

      Re: evolution – the Bible isn’t a science book and any educated believer knows not to seek answers to science questions in the Bible. Jews say that the Bible has multiple meanings and the simple reading of the text is only for children and simpletons. The more significant readings are allegorical and mystical readings. As Leibowitz noted, obviously whoever wrote the Bible cared more about the construction of the tabernacle than creation of the world. (However, regretfully many Orthodox Jews receive only religious education and they end up ignorant of science.)

      As for slavery, my personal reading is that the authors of Torah believed the institution of slavery corrupted the slaves. We see that with the Israelites in the desert, always complaining and lacking faith, they all had to perish in the desert, of the generation that left Egypt only Joshua and Caleb were fit to live as free men. Thus while owning slaves was considered permissible (though not very common, few people had the means), allowing oneself to become a slave was a bad thing. The Talmud allows one to sell oneself to slavery only when one is so destitute one is forced to sell their sandals.

      Re: 4) Officially the glass-breaking is a reminder that while we are celebrating a wedding Jerusalem and the temple are in ruins. The groom recites Psalms 137:5 “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” But after learning some folklore and Jewish demonology I wouldn’t be surprised if the custom actually originated in a demon-repelling ritual. Births, weddings and funerals were considered times of vulnerability to demons.

  • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com thalassa

    This is fabulous! I can’t wait to see the posts… I know much less about Judaism that I think I ought to.

    I hope, if it goes well, you might consider something similar with other faiths as well…a Christian blogger did sort of an “Ask a _____”, that was pretty interesting, but since most of her audience is Evangelical, a bit shallow and/or biased in some of the questions. Your format seems much more interesting too, for having a variety of panelists.

  • A Reader

    This is a great idea! I have a question–in Christian culture, especially the evangelical bit, there’s a huge emphasis on “spreading the word” and converting others to Christianity. I’ve never noticed a similar obsession in Jewish culture (although I haven’t had a huge amount of exposure to it, either). Is there a specific reason for that, or is it more of just a cultural preference?

    • Hilary

      plenty of reasons, both theological and historical. Stay Tuned! This is a multi-part series we’re working on, and I am sure this question will get the time it deserves.