“If you are in Israel a week, you write a book. If you are here a month, an article. A year, you don’t write anything.” These words from our guest speaker for today, pithily summarize our growing realization of the complexities of living in the Holy Land. The longer we stay, the more complications we see.
Our speaker, of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, spent an enlightening two hours with us, discussing the complexities of what it means to be a Jew in Israel. Himself an Israeli Jew who teaches other Jews about Christianity, he helped us to understand, if only a little, the wide spectrum of Jewish life particularly in Israel.
Judaism, it is important to understand, is not only a religion; it is also a people and a culture. According to religious law, however, you are a Jew if your mother was Jewish. One finds, then, many ways to live “being a Jew”. Differing from Christianity, to be Jewish isn’t primarily concerned with belief, though of course many Jews do believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Judaism’s concern is living the Torah, the teachings and instructions given by God and interpreted by tradition on how to live as He has designated.
One is identified within the Jewish community, then, by his or her observance of the Torah. At one end of this spectrum is simply not to observe the teachings, in which you would be a non-religious or “secular” Jew. At the other end, attempting to keep the entirety of the teachings are the ultra-orthodox. There are a great many variations between these two “bookends” of Jewish observance, so to speak, and all understand themselves to be Jewish. To define what it means to be “Jewish”, as you can tell, is very difficult.
An additional difficulty of which he spoke was the self-imposed isolation between and among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Holy Land. He himself cannot remember ever speaking with anyone who was not Jewish until he was twenty years old. Likewise, the many variants of Jews tend to keep to themselves and not converse with each other, as Muslims and Christians do too, to a greater or lesser extent. Such segregation creates unfamiliarity with one another, and unfamiliarity hinders dialogue towards lasting peace.
Politics in Israel is no easier understood, and he gave us a quick overview of a few of the challenging issues facing the people of Israel today, including possible new statutes on citizenship, the West Bank, and a equal sharing of responsibilities among citizens in matters such as mandatory military service.
He ended his discussion with us by saying, “if you are all now more confused than when I arrived, I’ve done my job.” We all agreed he had done a fine job, and that none of us will be writing any books about the Holy Land anytime soon.