Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan once taught that religious identity is based on the “three Bs” of believing, belonging, and behaving. Most religious traditions begin with a foundation of believing. Christianity, for example, is based in large measure on a belief in Jesus as the son of God, and the savior of human souls, on beliefs having to do with the nature of sin and salvation, and heaven and hell. Based on those beliefs, to be a good Christian requires certain behaviors that are the natural expressions of those beliefs. As one continues to express those behaviors in a given church or community, one then develops a feeling of belonging to that specific church or community. Thus is one’s identity as a Christian generally formed.
Judaism and Jewish identity is exactly the opposite. What gives Jews their sense of identity is not primarily belief, but rather, belonging. It is the idea of “peoplehood,” the sense of belonging to the Jewish people, the Jewish community that distinguishes Jewish identity from other religious traditions.
For Jews, belonging is the foundation of who they are – like being part of a large family. The Torah is seen fundamentally as the record of our family tree, a family history if you will, where our ancestors told their stories about how they made sense and found meaning in the world and distinguished the sacred, the extraordinary from the everyday and ordinary in life.
Since Judaism is based primarily on belonging, the main reason and benefit for doing Jewish rituals, customs, holidays and celebrations, is to reinforce our sense of belonging to the Jewish people. It’s as simple as this: when you do Jewish, you feel Jewish.
In Judaism, “belief” is almost never a focus, and hardly ever even an issue. We agree on few beliefs other than the idea of “ethical monotheism,” and that whatever we mean by God, whatever that power is that animates all life and is the holiness beyond end and being that permeates the universe – it is the same for everyone.
That Judaism and Jewish identity is primarily based on a personal sense of belonging to the Jewish people, is the reason why at any given moment in Los Angeles, 70% of the Jews in our community are not officially affiliated with any synagogue, and yet they virtually all feel a strong sense of Jewish identity. For most Jews, (unlike Christians for whom attendance at church and participation in life cycle activities is the primary expression of their faith), Jewish identity is simply a state of being, it is just who they are, and their loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a given, having little to do with the level of their religious observance at all.
This unusual source of religious identity, rooted in the deep and abiding sense of belonging to the Jewish people, is often confusing to non-Jews, especially those who have relationships with Jews whom they date or marry. So often I have sat with confused non-Jewish partners who simply can’t understand why their partners feel so strongly about Judaism “when they aren’t particularly religious” and have very little formal Jewish ritual or synagogue participation in their lives.
But to those of us who are Jews, it seems obvious. It’s who we are, it’s our family, it’s our community. Perhaps we can trace this idea back to the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion and the greatest Jewish organizer of all time – Moses. For our portion begins with these words, “And Moses assembled all of the community of the children of Israel.”
The rabbis point out that the word, vayakhel, “and Moses assembled,” can also be understood, “And Moses created a kehillah, a community.” They suggest that the real genius of Moses wasn’t merely that he was the “lawgiver,” that he brought down commandments from Mt. Sinai. Moses was the first CEO of the Jewish people, the first Director of Development (in this portion he raises so much money to build the sanctuary that he has to tell people to stop giving), the first rabbi/teacher, and perhaps above all, the first community organizer.
It is the genius of Moses that took a ragtag group of former slaves, a “mixed multitude” of Jews and non-Jews, descendants of Jacob and the disaffected poor of Egypt who voluntarily left with the Jews as they went forth from Egyptian bondage, and assembled them into a spiritual, sacred community.
Vayakhel Moshe, “and Moses created a community” in the desert that through his wisdom, inspiration, and sacred mitzvot, has lasted for three thousand years. We are the inheritors of that community, and ours is the challenge to figure out how to transform that Jewish civilization into a blessing for the next generation as well.