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?

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