Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Israeliving (Part 2 of ?): Religion

At the last post’s conclusion, I wrote that the next article (that is, this one) is going to be about Israeli politics. Then I realized that, in order to deliver my point about politics here, a few other topics have to be covered first; and what’s a better way to continue than touching a subject that is by far the one I am most frequently asked about: Religion.

Background: A “Jewish, Democratic State”

The state of Israel has been established in 1948 as a (quoting from the Declaration of Independence) “Jewish, Democratic State”. That seemingly-contradictory combination of “Jewish, Democratic” (if this is a Jewish state, how can it be democratic from the perspective of the non-Jewish people who live there? and vice versa) is the source of one of Israel’s most controversial debates ever since its establishment; we will discuss it later in an article about politics. For now, suffice to say that Israel has been established as the home for the Jewish people.

The rationale behind it was simple: unlike many other ethnical groups in the world, Jewish people weren’t always the coolest, most accepted people around, to say the least. Who hasn’t ruled / killed us before? Everybody did. Christians, Muslims, Ottomans, Romans… Name an empire (or a large-scale religion)—it has ruled Jewish people before and, more often than not, didn’t really “let us be”. The last straw (well, not really a straw; more like a gigantic haystack) took place during World War 2 when 6,000,000 Jewish people—at that time, one third (!) of the world’s Jewish population—has vanished courtesy of the Nazis and their allies, for the sole reason of them being Jewish.

At some point, Jewish people just yanked a very loud “WTF”; perhaps it’s just about time that the world just let Jewish people be, live their own lives, believe in whatever God they believe in without being harassed (at best) or killed (at worst). The story of the establishment of the state, along with the wars that followed, can easily (and does) fill up encyclopaedias; in 1948, following a vote in the United Nations, Israel was born… as a Jewish, Democratic State.

Judaism is a monotheistic religion, meaning that it consists of believing in exactly one entity that rules the universe, lets call it God. Jesus Christ was himself Jewish; if you ask yourself, then, how come Christianity and Judaism are so different, then here it is—Christians believe that Jesus Christ was a great prophet and a messenger of God, while Jewish people believe that he was merely another Jewish person with all sorts of new-age ideas who decided to start his own following (Judaism asserts that Moses was the last “great prophet”). What Christians actually call “The Old Testament” is precisely what Jewish people call “The Holy Bible”; “The New Testament” does not negate The Old Testament but rather complements it with additional stories / beliefs / values that Jesus’ followers decided to believe in.

(Does this difference justify killing millions of people worldwide based on their religion? Believe it or not, a few horrible people believed that yes, it does)

Who is a Jew?

So who is a Jew? How is an individual being Jewish determined? Now how about that for an existential debate. You may be shocked to learn how controversial this issue is (—so controversial that Judaism is divided within itself on that question.

There are two ways in which a person can become Jewish: Birth and Conversion.

Birth-wise, well, it really depends who you ask. Apparently Judaism is extremely divided on this topic. Traditionally, Judaism would follow through the mother’s line (meaning: having a Jewish mother is mandatory, and sufficient, in order to be considered Jewish), however with all sorts of Jewish sub-streams now existing, other interpretations are not uncommon. For example—again,depending on who you ask—a child may be considered Jewish through the father’s line.

Conversion-wise, well, even here it’s not really cut and dry. It is possible, and many people do it, but the process is far from being simple and—even worse than that—isn’t very well defined so you might end up being considered “Jewish” by one “stream” and non-Jewish by another.

The best way to become Jewish, then, is to simply be born as one.

At this moment, there are between 13.5 and 18 million Jewish people in the entire world, depends on who you’re asking ( As of 2010, around 6 million of them (less than half and, some say, less than third of the global Jewish population) live in Israel; the United States contains the largest Jewish population in the world.

Where Did We Come From, and The Law of Return

The land upon which Israel is built has always had some sort of Jewish population in it. According to the Bible, that land was promised to Abraham by no-one else than God almighty Itself. Where Jewish people went since the beginning of time… That’s an entire bookshelf by itself; however, just before the establishment of the state of Israel, Jewish people were pretty much all over the world. Prior to World War 2, Europe had a very large Jewish population; during World War 2, though, that number had shrunk by some 6,000,000.

Once the “Home for the Jewish People” had been established, Jewish people from all over the world started flowing in: from Eastern Europe; Western Europe; the Americas; Asia (primarily Middle-Eastern countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan); and Africa.

Every individual who is proven to be Jewish is automatically entitled for Israeli citizenship, by virtue of the Law of Return ( Receiving Israeli citizenship in any other way is far from being a well-structured process as the entire subject of immigration into Israel and naturalization in it has never been the top priority of any government here. For example, consider the USA: In order to become a USA citizen, there’s a process you have to go through, with rather well-defined rules and limitations, and at the end of it all you become an equal citizen. Same for Canada, same for pretty much any western country. In Israel, it doesn’t work that way.

We’re As Religious As We Want to Be…

Like many other religions, it is up to the individual to decide how far they would like to follow Judaism. There are 613 “Mitzvah’s” in Judaism (a Mitzvah is, essentially, a tradition; a rule; something you have to do—or not do—in order to live in peace with this religion), and only a minority of Jews follow all of them. Unlike many other countries, though, there is noticeable friction between groups of Jewish people based on which traditions they follow or neglect, and that friction isn’t only “on the surface”—it propagates all the way up to politics as well.

For example: Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement; is considered to be the single most sacred religious holiday in Judaism. There are dozens of “do’s” and “don’ts” for that particular 25 hours time window (which occurs annually), which can be summarized as:

  • Pray in the Synagogue;
  • Fast; and
  • Avoid any sort of activity that carries any sort of pleasure in it.

(Picking your nose is forbidden. You probably ask yourself “WTF”—so did I—however that very issue was once presented to a senior Rabbi who concluded that thou nose shall not be picked on Sabbaths, let alone Yom Kippur)

Strictly speaking, for example, one must not watch TV, or do any of many other things. Yet, many Jewish people choose which rules to follow. That’s why you would see many people fasting on Yom Kippur, while still using the computer or watching TV.

Another example: in Judaism, you’re not allowed to work on Saturdays, and you must not drive your car. Still, many people choose to not work, but still drive their cars.

Sort-of a “pick your own” kind of religion.

… Or As Our Government Wants Us to Be

Having said all of that, a few traditions are so globally accepted by Jewish people that they actually made it into legislation, believe it or not. This is one of the aspects in which Israel still remains a third-world country—the involvement of religion in the country’s affairs.

Examples? There are plenty. In the city of Bnei-Brak, which features a large orthodox Jews population, there is a bylaw prohibiting entrance to many of the city’s parts using motorized vehicles on Sabbath; businesses must be closed during the aforementioned Day of Atonement; many cities have bylaws prohibiting the operation of businesses during Sabbath; sale and growing of pork is prohibited in many places.

How’s that for a ridicule: El-Al, the country’s prominent airline, is not allowed to operate airplanes in Israel during Sabbath. Yes, you heard it right; for an Air-Canada flight to touch Israeli ground on Sabbath—that’s OK; but for Israel’s only airline, it isn’t.

The involvement of religion in the country’s political landscape is one of the issues that annoy Israelis the most; in my mind, if Israel is ever to fail as a country, the religion’s involvement with politics will likely be a key contributor to it. That involvement spans way beyond just closing stores on Saturday—had it only been that, I’d be happy—but rather, it bites way deeper into basic freedoms.


That is, in a nutshell. Until the next one…



Bill said...

I have to laugh at your comment "pick your own religion". I don't know of a single religion that people DON'T pick and choose which parts they want to follow. It seems to be a basic tenant of all religions that nobody will follow all of the rules. It gets even funnier/more sad when the rules themselves contradict themselves, which makes it really obvious that those rules/religions were created by humans.

dee said...

to Bill:
well that's what nowadays is called 'free will' :-)