How Holiday Celebrations Help to Form the Jewish Social Conscience
by Jonathan Marin
Three Jewish holidays rejoice in an oppressed people's achieving release from subjugation: Passover, Purim, and Hannukah. On each of these holidays, the celebrants are called upon to be one with the oppressed. The deliverance they celebrate is their own. The point clearly made is that the although they are celebrating the liberation of Jews, the oppression was wicked not because the oppressed were Jewish, but because the oppressed were oppressed. To stand against tyranny is to stand with God. To work on behalf of the downtrodden is to do the work of God.
The rituals are designed to be accessible to children, and to maintain their interest. Kids get excited about them, and eagerly look forward them. I think that exposure and participation, three times a year through childhood and adolesence, may account in part for the relatively high proportion of Jews who become involved in activities of "social conscience". Lifelong repetitions serve as booster shots for adults. These are often superfluous. Many Jewish agnostics and atheists remain firmly committed to the work of the god they no longer believe in.
I do not suggest that these celebrations invite Jews to regard the oppressed as estimable, or to welcome them into their religion or ethnicity. Indeed, Jews as a rule do not proselytise; they set high barriers to voluntary conversion, and distrust the depth of converts' conversions. The suspicion stems, I think, from a belief that Jewishness must be built from childhood, and that part of this building process is the personal identification with oppressed persons and peoples that, repeated through childhood, forms the foundation of enduring social conscience.
A popular cartoon depicts an interfaith banquet. The Pope is
on the dais smiling, with his arm around the shoulder of a smiling rabbi.
POPE (Thinking): "Such a nice fellow, this rabbi ... too bad the poor unbaptised unbeliever has spurned the True Word and will have to suffer the torments of hell for all eternity.
RABBI (Thinking): " Ditto"
The cartoon is cute, and glib, but as I understand the Jewish worldview, it is not exactly true. A rabbi is not a mirror image of a priest. If he despises the priest, it is for his dogmatism, not his dogma. Except for some fringe orthodox groups, Jews believe that what God expects of people is good works, issuing from a pure heart.
Most orthodox believe that this is very difficult in practice, and that few people are strong enough to achieve it without participating in, and submitting to, the active reinforcement (positive and negeative) of a close community. They believe that a habitual scrupulous reatraint from such little peccadilloes as dietary violations will make the serious bad acts, that God really cares about, unthinkable.
Other Jewish denominations seek the same result, but from a different view of human nature. They allow that people understand for themselves what good acts are, and a pure heart. They fear the possible blurring of the distinction between major and minor infractions, and the tendency to take observance of small rules as license to violate the really important ones.
Among all but a few extreme orthodox groups, the object is to find the right road and stay on it. This is easier done with a map. God, the rules and the community constitute the map. But across the Jewish spectrum, nearly all would agree that God prefers an idol-worshipping pagan who does good acts with a pure heart, to a rules-observing Jew who does not. Unlike the pope and the Church, they do not see subscription to a theology as fundamental or even necessary, but only helpful.
Excerpted from the New Jewish Information Network website: "[T]ikkun olam (literally, fixing the world) includes, though is not limited to, peace, social justice, tolerance, human rights, equality, and humanitarian efforts. Tikkun olam is a major, traditional expression of Judaism, common to Orthodox, Reform, Secular, and others. It is a basic, necessary component of Judaism... Tikkun olam is a Hebrew term, though Jews by no means have a monopoly on the concept. ... [t]o be a 'good Jew' simply means to [not] do unto others as you would [not] have them do unto you. It means ... to help those in need, to strive for peace and justice, and to respect ALL people, no matter what religion, race, nationality or gender they belong to. This should be the essence of Jewish teachings; it is the ultimate message of the Torah (Bible)."
For my own part, I embrace everyone, Jew and non-Jew, who subscribes to that view and tries to live up to it, whether they believe in a deity and observe all the rules, or doubt a deity and observe some rules intermittently, or reject a deity and never observe any of the rules at all. For that, I thank the three Holidays.
Copyright(C) 1999 by Jonathan Marin
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