Is Judaism a Religion?

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          For those who regularly read my work, the question framed in this title would, no doubt, be seen as a loaded one. They would clearly surmise that something is up for I almost always inherently critique the use of the term ‘Judaism’ used generically -- by itself, without the use of an accompanying adjective reflecting the specific branch of Judaism that is under discussion. They know that I maintain that the generic use of this term is problematic for it does not reflect the significant theological distinctions between the different branches and the variant streams of Jewish expression. They further know that it is my belief that the lack of this knowledge is one of the main reasons for many of the troubles within the modern Jewish world, including the inability to dialogue as necessary. (This is a reason for my involvement in Jewish Values Online. One of its goals is to clarify these theological distinctions.) Still, I used the term generically here – so some must be wondering: What’s up?  

          The answer may be found in the other problematic word that I used in this title – and that is the term ‘religion’. If I simply asked what that word means, I would expect the general response to be that this term basically refers to a system that accepts the existence of a Deity (or deities, not to exclude the polytheistic religions). Yet, would one then refer to Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy as religions? Both are systems of thought that accept a Deity. I would venture to say, though, that we would be hard-pressed to refer to these two philosophical systems as religions (albeit that some of their ideas may be incorporated within a religion). The issue is not really what is technically meant by the use of this word but what do we truly mean when we use this term?
          What are we really thinking when we define someone as religious? This is where we begin to see the essential issue within our question. When we think of someone being religious in general, we think of spirituality, an otherworldliness -- a certain mindset. But is this what we are thinking when we generally describe another Jew as being religious? We think of this person as keeping Shabbat, kosher, etc. -- but otherwise, actually, we think of this person very much like any other Jew. True, there may be some Jewish religious people who are spiritual but we also know many religious Jews who are not so spiritual. In the Jewish world, we actually define religious in terms of behaviour, not, necessarily, mindset. We would even go so far as to use the word religious in describing an individual who keeps Shabbat and kosher but may not even believe in God. What does this say about Jewishness?
We all know of many synagogues, across all the branches, which actually don’t seem to be very spiritual. How many times have we heard of Jews who explored other realms of spirituality, not because they didn’t like Jewish spirituality, but because their Jewish world did not seem to even have any spirituality? I, in fact, have heard of many non-Jews who have asked and/or are asking the very question I used as the title of this piece: Is Judaism a Religion? This is because, in their connection with Jews and the Jewish world, they do not see the spirituality which they expect to find in the realm of religion. 
One of the greatest indications of this focus on behaviour within the Jewish world is actually the ‘ceremony’ that was employed for many years to mark a boy’s coming of age. Of course, I am referring to the Bar Mitzvah. What was that actually all about? A boy marked his becoming a man by, effectively, chanting to some tune a bunch of syllables which reflected words in a different language that the boy generally did not understand. It really was all about a behaviour, a behaviour which, especially to the boy, had no reason. Was the mindset of the boy even addressed? Jewishness just became doing Jewish things which, generally, were absent any reason (except that this is just what Jews do). Or, if explanations were given, they were very simplistic and did not really show anything unique about the Jewish mindset. Across the board – and this is the reason for the generic use of the term – for the vast majority of Jews, Judaism was their religion without a mindset and, clearly, as such, without spirituality.
With the advancement of assimilation, it became obvious to many that this was a problem. The Jewish community turned to many possible answers. One was to argue that Jewishness actually contains spirituality – which it, in fact, does. That response, however, did not really work to the extent that its proponents would have wanted because Jews, through their Jewish experiences, already didn’t think so highly of spirituality in any event. The fact is that there was also a very significant reason for why Judaism developed into this ‘religion’ of behaviour unlike generic religions which focused on faith and spirituality. This is because it always focused on behaviour because, unlike religions in general, its focus was this world. While otherworldliness is an important part of Torah, it is not its essence. The classical Divine directive of Torah is to develop this world.
Adam was told to conquer this world. What this means is that he and his descendants should develop a good and proper human civilization which would be beneficial for all Creation. (The different theological constructs of the branches of Judaism actually yield different definitions of what is a proper civilization. This recognition is one of the reasons for why these constructs are important to know.) Civilization is about this world and ties implicitly into behaviour – actually all human behaviour. Jewishness is really not about otherworld spirituality, although there is an important place for that within its realm. Within Judaism, however, there is no ‘Give onto Caesar what is Caesar’s and onto God what is God’s’ because it is all Godly. The accountant’s role in creating a good society is a Divine task. Jewish law touches upon what most people would see as secular issues. The Jewish world simply never saw the distinction. All of life was part of Judaism.
The problem that then developed in the Jewish world was that to impart such a concept on a future generation you need an intensive educational system. With the limitations that then developed in this regard, choices had to be made. The behavioural side of Jewishness took over because that’s the way Jews think. Our focus is the practical in this world. We didn’t, though, explain or teach why Jews, specifically, think like this. It is an essential part of our teaching from God. Thus, without the proper transmission of this education, we have the ensuing problems which we now continue to face.
Is Judaism a religion? Well, if it is, it sure isn’t like any other! This teaching must be a prime element in any form of present Jewish education.
          . Rabbi Benjamin Hecht 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see and You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Hecht has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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