To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.

The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.

Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.

Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?

Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.

An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.

An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.

Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

61 thoughts on “To India (and others) with love”

  1. David, thanks a lot for such a beautiful and elaborate article, and especially your caption touched my heart. You have given a detailed description of your perspectives that I can fully resonate with. Hinduism is also not a religion in true sense, it’s a way of life. Peoplehood doesn’t appear to be different. Our scriptures are like Halakhah, though the legal acts have been separately enacted by Parliament for governance. We also believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam which means that “the world is one family.” In nutshell, I liked your post very much. Thanks again 😊

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I often feel like I don’t really know who I’m talking to when I interact with people because unfortunately some people are so aggressive about their religious beliefs and in constant “make a convert” mode that others go to the other extreme and become completely silent and almost drive the sincerely interested away. It’s like one’s cultural and spiritual journey must remain exclusive and top secret. But I would rather hear what Judaism or Hinduism means to that person rather then take on all sorts of assumptions based on the limited interactions I’ve had with “those people” and “their religious texts”. Besides I don’t even approach Christians that way. If someone tells me they are a Christian that tells me very little about them and I might actually track with them on very little in terms of my beliefs and practices. I’m not a universalist so of course there is always the potential for disagreement but I disagree with a lot of people on a lot of things without feeling that it gives me the right to apply pressure beyond a simple explanation for why I take a certain view. It’s like being on a hike and saying “it’s been so nice travelling with you brother up to this point but this is where our paths go in different directions”. A lot of people can’t resist the urge to drag someone along with them or to become inauthentic and take their friends path to be “amiable”. I probably talk about these things more because my major in university was Religious Studies. It’s a different experience for sure when your major is “something we don’t talk about”.

    1. Thanks, Melanie. I greatly enjoy open, non-coercive conversations like these, in which people are simply trying to understand one another and to help the other understand them.

      1. Oh and I have so many thoughts about different things you wrote here but I’m going to turn them into blog posts 🤓

  3. Kudos for a thorough post on Jewish peoplehood.
    For me, I find that I connect more to Judaism as a religion than the whole of Jewish people as my people. Definitely the Jewish communities that I know and have interacted with feel like an extension of family, but Jewish people/ communities that I haven’t met, it is harder for me to feel like they are a a part of my larger extended family, even though I know they are.
    The WordPress stats and notifications are interesting.

    1. I’m really glad you (both you and you as a Jewish person) responded 🙂

      I know, of course, that people relate to their Jewish identities in many different ways. When I taught seventh graders for two years at a Hebrew school, I asked them if they considered themselves “Jewish Americans” or “American Jews” – the results were about 50-50, I’d say 🙂 (and those were off the cuff responses)

      1. I’ve heard that question before. I generally answered it as Jew and American. I don’t remember what I would have answered as a 7th grader. I feel like that’s a hefty question for 7th grade! But I guess it’s good for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah age kid to think about

  4. lovely post!!! it’s nice to see things from a new perspective.
    (and, you’re welcome… xD!)

  5. Thank you David. Reminded me of my army experience of 50 years ago. What drew us small band of Jewish troops together in Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. Was it just not having to march on Saturdays? No. Did we care if anyone was a convert, or had only a Jewish father? Same with my current study group in Maine. What brings us together to go over the parsha.on Shabbat? Maybe only one of the families keeps kosher but we have had intense discussions of Deuteronomy and now Bereshit. There is in both instances a sense of community which is not dependent on a specific belief in God or pure Jewish practice or lineage. Spinozans welcome, in both places.

  6. Very informative post, Ben. My late husband was a Jew, though not particularly religious. I am the daughter of a Christian minister and consider myself a humanist. We celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays with our children when they were growing up. As a school teacher, I taught comparative religion in my social studies classes and created learning centers about holidays from different religions and cultures. I also posted the Golden rule as stated in many religions in my classroom, including the four years I taught as a secular teacher in an Islamic school. We also cooked foods from many cultures to enjoy.

    We are one world, increasingly so as travel and communication have increased. If we all followed our religions and consciences, we would live by the Golden Rule, and the world would be a more peaceful place.

    All the best! Cheryl

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s interesting that this is the only post I’ve read of yours in the past month, that of all the posts I came to it was this. I like understanding where you come from, and you explain the, is the word connection?, really clearly

    1. Thanks so much for reading! That’s one of my goals – I want to be as clear as possible about my perspective because otherwise readers end up putting their own (natural) assumptions on me, based upon their experiences with other human beings and concepts they’ve acquired elsewhere ❤

  8. Such a elaborate and a interesting post. I always admire your eye for detail my friend. Your posts on Jewish posts are not only informative but also a pleasureable read. Keep up. the amazing work.

    1. thanks for reading 🙂

      I do try to make my posts readable…. I’ve met too many writers and speakers that get stuck in the weeds and lose their audiences.

      1. The pleasure is all mine.
        This is also soo true that most authors do get lost in audiences.

  9. So you have many, many followers from India. This is good to know. I thought the large number of Indian followers of my blog was an anomaly.

  10. Hi Ben, I like your humble and honest opinion of what it means being a Jew. My opinion is that the Jew is needed in this world. God put you here for the rest of us who are in a la la land of not really understanding who God is. You are like our older brother who keeps us in line. My bigger thought right now is that God is in heaven (God-head) and we are trying to understand what He wants by following His rules that the Jews have traditionally honoured as part of who they are and who they want to know. We choose from our God-head which is our male in our heads from our female God-head who is who we love. There are actually two God-heads, one male and one female. I see the Jew loving us (Gentiles) the same way. You love selflessly unlike any other group or culture or religion. You love the other. So, thank you for being a Jew.

    1. Shannie, you are very sweet.

      A couple thoughts –

      1) I was born a Jew, and I simply never seriously considered the possibility of being something else. It would be like considering the possibility of not being related to my parents.

      2) Sadly, Jews, like all other human beings, are no less capable of xenophobia and bigotry than anybody else you might meet. I know plenty of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Jews… much to my chagrin.

  11. I guess I just feel leery of describing an entire group of people in such sweeping strokes. 🤷🏻

    There are selfish gentiles and selfish Jews, just as there are selfless gentiles and selfless Jews. That’s my perspective.

  12. Dear ben!! Your Judaism and our Hinduism has not take birth.both are not religion.both’s roots are from beginning of human both are so liberal for other religion.our Ancestors are Aryan species.are you agree with me?plz reply.

    1. Aruna, the truth is that I am only beginning to learn about Hinduism – so I can’t speak intelligently about it. But it is definitely an ancient, venerable religion!

      1. Dear ben!! Hindu religion is the name given by Islam because of verbal problem.before this Hindu called in most ancient era-Arya Dharma(religion)after that Vedic Dharma,Sanatan (continuing) Dharma.then this area called by the name of a great king Bharat and before this Jambu dweep(Jambu island).When invader Alexander the great come here about of 326 B.C.then he called it Indus religion.because he came here from side of Indus(Sindhu) river.when Muslim came here side of Sindhu river then (712A.D.) they called Sindhu river as Hindu River and after area of Sindhu river ,they called Hindustan and here’s inhabitant as Hindu,language as Hindi because of verbial problem because they could not tell S word easily.their languge was Arbi/ Pasian. l.British invaders came here and called this area India.i think-you are understanding.plz reply.

      2. Your Israel name is given by British but you are original inhabitant of The land of Jerusalem and all area of this holy place.

  13. Do you know that the Israeli and Indian Supreme Courts have very similar but highly unusual structures due to the British. In both, issues of basic rights can be raised directly in the them in their role as High Court of Justice. A heritage of the British wanting to retain the last work on legal issues pre 1947 and 1948.

  14. Marc Galanter and Jayanth Krishnan, Professor of Law and of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Assistant Professor of Law, William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul, MN. Personal Rights and Human Rights in India and Israel, Israel L. Rev., Vol. 34, p. 101 (2000). An analysis of how two systems that were both shaped by the British evolved in different directions, with India’s personal law administered by civil courts evidencing more conflict between religions and Israel’s, partly administered by religious courts and partly by civil courts, more conflict within the Jewish religion.

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