With the rise in religious tensions globally of late, an older question reappears.
What makes someone belong to any faith?
Just as there is secular Christianity populated with Christmas trees and Easter eggs, there is secular Judaism, with the deprivations of Yom Kippur and the candles of Hanukkah.
And yet, there are those who would persecute and punish groups for just those observances.
Just as with Christianity, there is a rainbow range of answers to what makes a person Jewish. And in that range lies so many answers for a thinking person to find a rich and continuing conversation with God.
Yes, there is a default happenstance of birth: both one’s parents are Jewish. Given that, their child is likely to be raised Jewish, going to the synagogue on some interval. The Torah (or the first five books of the Old Testament) speaks less of being Jewish and more what makes an Israelite, a member of the ethnic tribe. In those times, a woman marrying an Israelite man were considered to become Israelites and their children were, too. There was no process of conversion; The act of marriage was considered sufficient and there was no question as to where the children belonged.
There was no form to fill out.
The tradition of matrilineal inheritance of Judaism arose in the second century of the Christian era. The written laws of that time state that to be a Jew, one must be either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism.
With the rising rates of intermarriage, conversion remains one path to Judaism, and there has been an adjustment of thought on parentage. While orthodox and conservative branches of Judaism hold to the tradition of matrilineal inheritance, that emphasis is shifting. The Union for Reform Judaism and numerous other branches have adopted the view that one is a Jew if either parent is Jewish. And having to declare this on forms is less important than how one chooses to live.
Beyond the accident of birth and parentage, there are deeper and more personal ties to faith. There is the act of living one’s faith, whether one is born to it, or has chosen it. From many writings in the Torah, God seems to care less about your parentage, and more about how you choose to live each day.
Living one’s faith requires thought and choices every day. Those choices can have a positive impact on the world.
Living ones faith lets you think about how you respond to perceived slights and remembering to practice patience and understanding, even when you are cut off in the traffic of morning rush hour.
Living your faith requires choices about how you work with your community; Do you work for improvements and the betterment of people, with the time you can share? Or do you sit alone, posting to Facebook or reading Twitter?
Living your faith also means taking a moment to enjoy and appreciate the life we have been given, no matter our parentage. We need to avoid “lashon hara” or disparaging speech – which can be the act of bullying or carrying tales.
If we can appreciate the world we live in, giving thanks to God for the growth of living things and joyous simplicity of birdsong, then that is also living one’s faith. Thankfulness for life is the foundation for every action we take to make the here and now a better place. A place that does not judge on parentage, but the worth of the actions we take. Not our words recited in synagogue or church, but our actions the day before and the day after that church service, making a consistent effort to help others feel appreciated and valued.
Those are the actions that show a living, breathing faith; something permeates life with gratitude and joy. As you reflect on the activities and meetings you have tomorrow, will you seek to add that dimension to the conversation?
Edie Yakutis works with Ritual Life at Temple Solel in Fort Mill. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org