The essence of Judaism, the religion of the Jews, centres around three concepts, all underpinned or overarched by belief in one God.
The three concepts are the People, the Book, and the Land.
The Jewish conception of God perceives an incorporeal, omniscience, omnipotent, omnipresent and good God, who engages in relationship with humanity and individual human beings, and is able to, and periodically chooses to, intervene in the affairs of the world. This God is both the supreme creator, but also potentially intimate. A core motivating Jewish belief is that God chose to enter into a particular relationship with the Jewish People through establishing a covenant with them. Many Jews take very seriously the injunction in the Ten Commandments not to use God’s name carelessly. That is why many Jews will simply call God - Hashem (‘The Name’ in Hebrew) or will write ‘G-d’ instead of the whole word when writing in English. Similarly, many will be reluctant to take an oath on God’s name unless absolutely unavoidable.
The People, the Book, the Land
Judaism is essentially the religion of a people, the Jews. The term ‘People’ (which is the term used in the Bible) does not fit comfortably with our modern terms – religion or race or nation – by which we try to define groups, and it is that anomalous fact that has often made it difficult through the ages for rulers and governments to decide how to deal with the Jews who live in their midst. In the UK, we have tended to assume the issue resolved by defining the Jews as ‘a religion’, but then cannot really make any sense of the fact that many Jews are not ‘religious’. The newer concept of ‘ethnic group’ comes closer, but still meets the fact that a Yemenite Jew is a lot more like other Yemenites than a Scottish Jew.
This people, descended from their patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, originated in and around the land of Israel more than 3500 years ago. Jacob, whose other name was Israel, had twelve sons, the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel, giving rise to the Biblical name for the Jews, Israelites or the Children of Israel. Jews today still understand themselves to have a family connection with each other along the lines of a huge clan or tribe.
Although it is possible to convert to Judaism, by persuading a rabbinic court that one has truly identified with the Jewish People and adopted the Jewish way of life and beliefs, the vast majority of Jews through history and into the present-day are born into the Jewish people and therefore have an inextricable sense of relationship with other Jews, even on the other side of the world, and even with whom they might deeply disagree. Converts are effectively ‘adoptees’ and become members of the family.
Because Jews believe that Judaism is the religion of the Jews, there is no desire to convert others to Judaism. At a time in the past, where there was a real conviction that most other people were leading immoral lives, then there was certainly a desire to influence others and have them adopt more moral principles, but even then, there was no need for such people to actually become Jews. Nowadays, Jews recognise that most religions – and some non-religious lifestyles - encourage good living and therefore there is even less need now that there might have been in past times to try and persuade others of the ‘rightness’ of Jewish teachings.
Given the difficulties of defining a Jew, it’s even more difficult to count them! However, it is currently calculated that there are about 14 million Jews around the world, present in most countries of the world but with by far the majority in Israel and the USA. In Britain there are about 285,000 – far fewer than most people imagine. Jews are the only ethnic group in the world to have failed to make up their numbers lost during the Second World War. This of course is a result of the savage depredations of the Holocaust, during which, unlike other groups who suffered huge losses during the War years, the Jews lost a disproportionate amount of children – an estimate 1.5 million of the 6 millions victims were children, which stripped out a huge proportion of a whole generation of future parents. This fact, perhaps as much as any other, accentuates the racist, genocidal intent of the Holocaust, and separates it out from even the most callous of ‘war’ crimes.
The central book of the Jewish people is the Torah. ‘Torah’, often poorly translated as ‘Law’ means ‘Instruction’ or ‘Guidance’. This is the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called the Five Books of Moses. They recount the creation of the world, the origins of humanity, the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the story of the Israelites going down into Egypt, their subsequent slavery there, the Exodus, receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai and the subsequent 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, ending with the arrival of the Jews at the Jordan river, poised to enter the ‘Promised Land’.
Within the Torah, besides theological ideas, poetry, narrative, genealogy, myth and prophecy, there are said to be 613 rules or commandments (in Hebrew mitzvot – sing. mitzvah) which form the core of what Jews believe God requires of them. These requirements are demanded of the Jewish people as part of the covenant that Jews believe themselves to have with God. In return for Jews taking responsibility for being ‘a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People’, (Exodus 19:6) God undertakes to pay special attention to this people in a particular relationship which has sometimes resulted in good fortune for the Jews, but has equally frequently resulted in punishment, because the Jews failed to live up to the requirements of that special relationship.
The Mitzvot range from instructions concerning personal morality (eg Love your neighbour as yourself – Leviticus, 19:18) through rules about social order (eg that a newly married man should not be conscripted into battle – Deuteronomy 20:7) to ritual rules both personal and collective (eg dietary rules and rules on building the Tabernacle and the necessary offerings). Clearly therefore the Torah’s legislation is not just ‘religious’ but moral, civil and criminal too.
The tribal ancestral land of the Jewish people is that which is now the State of Israel and the disputed Palestinian territories. In Jewish understanding, this land is specially charged through the promise that God made to the patriarchs and others thereafter that the Jews would inherit it for ever. The exact boundaries of this holy land are not clear and variously described in the Torah. In addition, Jerusalem is understood to be especially holy and the mandated site for the establishment of the Jewish Temple. hough this temple is now destroyed (by the Romans, nearly 2000 years ago) the Temple Mount retains this intense holiness, and then this holiness diminishes in ripples outwards - Jerusalem, a little less, Israel a little less still and then the rest of the world lies beyond.
Unlike many other holy sites for other religions, the holiness and significance attributed to the Land of Israel by the Jews does not relate to what happened there but to its intrinsic qualities. Oddly perhaps, for example, the site of the giving of the Torah, Mt Sinai, has not been attributed with any of the same significance, despite the overwhelming status of Torah in Jewish life. Tombs, monuments, ruins and so on all carry the kind of resonances that such things might carry for any group, but these are not the same in type as the essential nature of the status of the Land of Israel.
Jews were effectively thrown out of the Land after the failed revolt against the Romans in 135CE. The Temple Mount was ploughed over and the land was renamed Palestina, so that its original Roman name of Judea would no longer link it to the Jews, but rather give it over to the ancestral enemies of the Jews, the Philistines. Small settlements of Jews continued to live there throughout the ages, but were never able to take control again nor, after the savagery of the suppression by the Romans of the last revolt, did they have much of a stomach to try, giving rise to the generally quiescent tendency of Jews through the centuries thereafter.
Any account of Judaism, which fails to accentuate all three of these features, gives an insufficiently partial account.
For at least the last 2000 years, and according to Jewish tradition, ever since the Exodus, Jews have been exploring and discussing the implications of the Torah. It is taken for granted that the Torah is a deeply rich text demanding subtle and complex reading in order to draw from it all its implications. Furthermore, recognising that it is a text from a particular time, it cannot explicitly deal with all matters that might arise into the future. Therefore, an extended conversation spanning millennia has grown up, seeking to interpret the Torah and its rules for every eventuality. This has resulted in libraries of books recording these discussions and seeking to codify the interpretations that have become normative.
Mishnah, Talmud, Halachah and Midrash
The first attempt at such codification is the Mishnah, which was compiled in the second century CE. in the land of Israel, but which immediately gave rise to further discussion, commentary and debate, which resulted in the Talmud, of which there are two versions, one compiled in the land of Israel and the other in Babylon. The latter is the fuller and more authoritative. The Babylonian Talmud, in its usual printing, is a 20 volume compendium of discussion and debate, quoting about a thousand rabbis spanning about a thousand years. (Rabbis are scholars of Jewish law.) Arising from these and subsequent discussions and commentaries on the Talmud and the books that emerged around it is the halachah, a Hebrew word which means ‘the way to go’ or ‘the path’. Halachah is the term applied to the accepted interpretation of the law in any particular circumstance.
This discussion and its resultant halachah is considered the ‘Oral Torah’ and some Jews give it equal status with the ‘Written Torah’. (see ‘Diversity’ below.)
In parallel with this halachic strand of rabbinic writing, is the homiletic strand called midrash. Midrash explores Jewish text and records ancient traditions fleshing out missing parts of the narrative, motivation and so forth of the Torah and other books of the Jewish Bible.
Taking halachah and midrash together, it is clear that there is no way that one could claim to understand Judaism by having simply read the Bible. No more than a reading of the New Testament would prepare one for St Paul's Cathedral can knowledge of the Jewish Bible (which Christians called the Old Testament) give one any idea of how Jews interpret and understand and practice the relationship, rules and rituals described – and implied - therein.
A strong example of this is that a bald reading of the commandment in the Ten Commandments to ‘Remember Shabbat and keep it holy. Six days you shall work and on the seventh you shall rest’ gives little precise guidance as to what to do. Nor would a literal reading of the biblical text give one any idea of the beautiful day of recreation, family and social activity, feasting, fun and prayer that Shabbat is in the lives of those who observe it. Even a quite technical knowledge of the halachah and rules of Shabbat will not prepare one for the outcome of all the restrictions imposed upon the day, which perhaps surprisingly results in 25 hours of freedom to do all the things one does not usually have time to do because of the pressures of the mundane world.
Another major development is that Jews have had to learn to live in diaspora, that is, scattered outside the Land of Israel. It is clear from the Torah that the plan was that the Jews would live in the Land of Israel, centred around the sacrificial programme of worship conducted in the Temple in Jerusalem by priests, the descendants of Aaron the first High Priest and Moses’s brother. This all came crashing down – briefly under the Babylonians, but then for millennia under the Romans. As a result Jews had to adapt to living away from the focus of their Land and without their central means of communicating with God – the sacrificial system administered by ancestral priests.
This gave rise to the synagogue as a substitute – and highly innovative – place of gathering, community, study and worship and a range of practices designed to keep alive the aspiration to return to living in the Land centered on a rebuilt Temple. Thus, for example, all Jews face Jerusalem when praying, many Jews leave a bit of their house undecorated to accentuate that they have not resigned themselves to living permanently where they are, all Jews are buried with a bit of earth from Israel in their coffins, under the wedding canopy a wine glass is smashed to remind us all that, even on such a joyous occasion all is not completely well with the Jewish People. Synagogue layout and furniture echo features of the long gone Temple and our daily services substitute for the sequence of daily Temple sacrifices.
Given that the Jews have been thinly spread across the world for 19 centuries or so, it is not surprising that there is considerable diversity. What is more remarkable is how much Jews continue to have in common. This continuing commonality arises from the three aspects outlined above: the binding impact of a sense of peoplehood, the common clustering around the teachings of the Torah and the lifestyle that it induces, and the continuing sense of yearning for return to the Land.
Diversity in the Jewish world arises both from geographical spread and ideological differences.
Over the centuries, Jews developed as a result of the different cultures amongst which they lived. The most deep-seated of these differences give rise to the Ashkenazim, (the Jews of North and Central Europe), and the Sephardim, (the Jews of the Mediterranean and the Middle East). Ashkenazim and Sephardim differ over a number of customs, their pronunciation of Hebrew and, of course, culinary traditions and styles of dress. The synagogue liturgy is substantially the same, although the prayers are sometimes said in a different order, but the music and tonality is different with Ashkenazi music more influenced by European styles and Sephardi music more Middle Eastern. However, the broad and even detailed aspects of, for example, Shabbat, festival and dietary observances are the same and they study the same books. Some communities of Jews lie outside this broad geographical division – Italian, Yemenite, Ethiopian and Indian Jewry, for example, all claim to pre-date this geographical split.
Even within these two groups of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, one can further subdivide them by region or country so that German Jews have slightly distinctive practices from Polish Jews, Yemenite Jews have preserved the tradition, uniquely, of which grasshoppers are kosher and American Jews sit in synagogues which are much more American than Moroccan Jews do. A huge number of these diverse communities are present in Britain, but the vast majority of British Jews are Ashkenazim, mostly descended from the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, arriving here either after the Russian pogroms of the 1880s and their aftermath or before and after the Holocaust.
In the 18th century, a group grew up in Poland, which argued for a more mystical, charismatic and populist approach to Judaism than had become customary amongst the highly scholastic leaders of Jewish life. This movement was called chasidism and spread like wildfire through the poorer working Jews of Eastern Europe. Chasidism is characterised by a warm commitment to enthusiasm and good intention. The Chasidic masters - rebbes - taught that even if someone was not learned, and even if they did not keep everything perfectly, God was concerned to value each good act done and each good intention. Given the grinding poverty of many Jews in 18th and 19th century Eastern Europe, and their general sense of hopelessness and oppression, this was a wonderfully liberating and inspiring approach. For some time, the traditional leadership of the Jewish community condemned and opposed Chasidism until the rise of other movements and attitudes, which led them to realise that they were broadly on the same side, so that nowadays, most Chasidim are counted in the ranks of the Charedim (see below) and, to the casual observer seem indistinguishable from non-Chasidic Charedim. Even Chasidim are sub-divided into different groups but most can be easily identified by their distinctive costume of long dark coats, black hats and ringlets at the sides of their heads.
The Impact of the Enlightenment
In the 19th century, the breakdown of the ghetto walls, the greater opportunities for Jewish entry into non-Jewish society, scholarship and opportunities meant that many Jews were encountering the Enlightenment and all of its consequential ideas. This gave rise to new thinking, which challenged the long-standing traditional consensus.
The Rise of Reform
In Germany and other parts of central Europe, some Jewish scholars started to question the authority of both the written and the oral Torah. Using the theories of biblical higher criticism which had taken the non-Jewish academic world by storm at about that time, they challenged the binding nature of the mitzvot, questioned whether they were eternally relevant and disputed the authority of the rabbis who had arrived at halachic decisions over the centuries. Through this process, ‘Reform Judaism’ came into being and its opponents, seeking to adhere to the long-standing tradition, became known as ‘Orthodox’.
Current Jewish Groupings
It is important to realise that a significant proportion of Jews today do not really identify with most of the disputes concerning Jewish practices, and the authority of the traditional texts that divide the Orthodox from the Reform. These Jews might be called secular or humanist and a significant proportion of American, Israeli and Eastern European Jewry would fall into these categories.
Those Jews who apportion binding authority to the Torah and the traditional interpretations of the halachah will be called Orthodox and can broadly be divided into two groups, Charedim (often inaccurately called ultra-Orthodox) and Modern Orthodox. The difference between these two groups is largely the extent to which they wish to seek to integrate aspects of secular culture, technology and knowledge into their lives.
Those who are prepared to challenge and question the authority of the traditional texts and the traditional rabbis might be grouped under the general heading of ‘Progressive’ Jews. This includes ‘Liberal’ Jews, similar to American Reform Jews, who are the most radical group, allowing for patrilineal descent of born Jews, (all other groups recognize only matrilineal descent), being the first religious group in Britain (of any religion) to sanction same-sex commitment ceremonies and being ideologically indifferent to, and in some cases actually rejecting, traditional Jewish practices like adherence to the dietary laws.
British Reform Jews, while still taking a progressive position are more responsive to Jewish tradition and engage more readily with the Jewish traditional forms. An obvious difference between these two groups, for example, is the quantity of Hebrew in their synagogue services. In America, there is also a group called Reconstructionists and another denomination, one of the largest there, called ‘Conservative’, which has its (small) equivalent in Britain, called ‘Masorti’. This group (Masorti means traditional) straddles the boundary between Progressive and Orthodox, showing real interest in the halachic process and Jewish traditional practices, while at the same time, for example, having a more relaxed approach to the admission of converts in a manner similar to other Progressive Jews, and generally according women equal function with men in synagogue services. (In Orthodoxy, while women and men are understood to have equal status, they are allocated different roles in Jewish society, which most visibly manifests itself in the separation of men and women in synagogue services and the reserving of the leadership of such services to men - unless the service is exclusively attended by women, in which case, of course, women will lead and run the service.)
Another area of diversity amongst Jews today is around Zionism. Most Jews in Britain are Zionist to some degree. The term ‘Zionist’ simply refers to the political aspiration for Jews to have their own independent state in the Land of Israel. Some see the aspirations and achievements of the State of Israel (not to be confused with the Land of Israel as discussed above) as central to their Jewish identity and perhaps even aspire to live there themselves. The vast majority of Jews in the UK see Israel as a challenging but exciting manifestation of Jewish aspirations, possibly even part of the unfolding of God's plan. At the same time, of course, many of these Zionists have a vast diversity of views about this or that policy or practice of the State of Israel. A much smaller number of Jews are non-Zionists, seeing the existence or otherwise of the State of Israel as a matter of little direct consequence to themselves as Jews. A fair number of secular Jews may find themselves in this category, along with many Charedim, who are ambivalent about the non-religious nature of the modern State as well as having some reservations about the correctness of seeking to overturn what they understand to be God's decree of Exile without permission.
A small number of Jews are actively anti-Zionist, either feeling for religious reasons that the State of Israel should not exist in its present form, or at this time, or believing for political reasons that the creation of a Jewish State is a backward step towards tribalism when, in fact, the Jews should have become a more universalistic community.
The Jewish world privileges and values debate and argument. The whole of the Talmud is made up of arguments and discussions, and while opposing positions can be held very passionately, the fact of disagreeing is not in itself a problem for Jews. However, probably the two great faultlines in the Jewish world currently lie over the business of who has the right to determine Jewish status - converts, legitimate marriages etc, and the place and status of the State of Israel in the lives of Jews, as outlined above.
The issue of ‘Who is a Jew?’ and who has the right to determine it goes to the very heart of the concept of Peoplehood and frequently comes down to conflicting views on ‘Who is a Rabbi?’ Until the 19th century and the development of so many different approaches to authority within the Jewish world, Jewish identity was largely undisputed compounded by the pragmatic fact that anyone who claimed to be a Jew almost certainly was because who in their right minds otherwise would claim this pariah status for themselves! Since Jewish status is transmitted parent to child, this goes to the very heart of a central Jewish concept and binding factor and is proving to be a highly intractable problem. As the rabbis of different denominations take upon themselves the responsibility of, for example, admitting converts, there is now growing a group of people who are viewed as Jews by some Jewish groups and not by others.
While Jews are generally fairly relaxed about disputes amongst themselves and perhaps even see them as signs of vigour, not cause for regret, most Jews feel very differently about the many misconceptions that have dogged the Jews through the centuries. Since many of these misconceptions have resulted in massacre and expulsion it might not be surprising that Jews react very readily to such errors, giving rise sometimes to a perception of the Jews as excessively thin-skinned. Some of the common misconceptions below are fairly innocent and inconsequential. Others have led to terrible persecution and condemnation of Jews in one part of the world or another.
The most pernicious lie told about Jews through the ages has been the ‘Blood Libel’, the accusation that Jews killed innocent children in order to drink their blood for one reason or another. This lie has been whipped up from time to time, even recently, to provoke Jew hatred in different parts of the world. Terms like ‘bloodsucking’, accusations of particularly killing children, a recent malicious rumour that Israeli medical teams who had immediately flown to Haiti following the earthquake had just gone there to harvest organs all trace themselves back to this terribly destructive and apparently irrepressible rumour and lie.
All Jews are religious
As indicated above, not only is this not true but it’s not likely to be either. Jews are mostly defined by their birth, at which time of course they’ve got no convictions or beliefs at all. Thereafter it will largely be down to their upbringing and experiences as to whether or not they choose to engage with the teachings and practices of Judaism. It may well be true however that most Jews adhere to some practice or other, like joining their family for the Passover Seder meal, or circumcising their sons or whatever, rather like many people in the UK do something at Christmas time even though they may not define themselves as Christians.
Jews think they’re the Chosen People
Certainly Judaism teaches that Jews have a special relationship with God, but it’s worth noting that the Bible does not call Jews The Chosen People, but A Chosen People. The distinction is huge. Jews do not believe that God is only capable of one special relationship and indeed the Jewish prophets are clear in the Bible that God cares for all his creatures. Jews do not believe that everyone should be Jewish or even that someone would be better off in some way by being so. Thus Jews would far rather that people were good and moral according to their own religion than that they tried to follow Jewish teachings and practices.
Judaism is a religion of Law not love
While Orthodox Judaism works through a system of legal decisions and binding laws (halachah and mitzvot) its continuous intent is to create a caring and fair society. Judaism fears a world in which each person listens to their own conscience without firm rules, because one cannot be confident that one’s ‘conscience’ is not really just an assertion of self-interest.
Jews are foreign
Since Jews have been moved around the world so often – mostly not through their own choice but through expulsion or oppression, there are very few Jews who can trace their origins in the UK back more than about four or five generations (though there are still some Jews who are descended from the first Jews to be readmitted to England in the 17th century). However, by far the majority of Jews living in the UK today have British born parents and usually grandparents, carry British passports and know themselves to be British, rather than anything else.
Jews are mean or excessively concerned about money
Medieval impositions on Jews often left them with little choice but to engage in money lending or small trading. In a world where most people did not deal with money much but bartered and exchanged, Jews were certainly more involved with money than many of their non-Jewish counterparts. Furthermore, deeply conscious of the possibility of persecution or expulsion, many Jews were concerned to keep their wealth, such as it was, as liquid and portable as possible. But a basic characteristic of Jews as a community is generosity, hospitality and charitable activity. Every Jewish community around the world has sophisticated systems of support for Jews who need support, and Jews also contribute disproportionately to general charities too. One need only look at the endowments to many major public institutions to see Jews giving their money in large amounts to good causes, both Jewish and general.
Jews have undue influence
This lie can be traced back almost directly to a forgery that appeared in the early 20th century called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to be the record of a shadowy global Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Though it was almost immediately demonstrated to be a total fraud, the ideas in the book – and indeed the book itself – still travel the world, reappearing from time to time in all kinds of accusations against the Jews for influencing or controlling this or that aspect of world affairs.
The main thing to know about the Jews is that they were the victims of the Holocaust
Traumatic and devastating though the Holocaust was, it is not and should not be a major defining fact about the Jews. Certainly understanding its impact will explain the current psychology of many Jews today, but it casts no light on the wisdom or lifestyle, teaching or traditions of Jews, except perhaps something about Jewish resilience and optimism in the face of crushing oppression.
Jews like to keep themselves to themselves
This tends to be mostly true about Charedi Jews, although even then, there are Charedi local councillors in parts of Inner London and Manchester and at least one Charedi led Muslim-Jewish dialogue group. However, Charedim are a small minority of Jews. Most Jews, once allowed, are enthusiastic participants in general society, whether it’s playing their part in civic society, contributing to the development of the arts and sciences or simply being constructive members of their work teams and local community. Of course, not surprisingly, like all people with a deep commitment to something in particular, committed Jews will spend more time on their Jewish lives which might detract from their involvement in everything else available.
Education for Jews
Jews established a universal education system for boys very early on. Learning the texts and being able to discuss them intelligently was almost a basic right as well as a responsibility and literacy levels were very high even as far back as Roman times. In later years and through the Middle Ages more attention too was paid to girls’ education so that by the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the extensive poverty within the main centres of Jewish population, literacy was almost universal and often in more than one language and script.
In modern times, Charedi education is characterised by a very deep commitment to learning the classic texts of Judaism, particularly the Talmud for boys and the Torah and its midrashic commentaries for girls, so that Charedi schools – almost all private and usually fairly small – will devote most of a long school day to this study, reserving only perhaps a couple of hours a day for secular studies which, to be frank, seem pretty easy after the complex challenge of Talmudic study. In Charedi communities learning is the norm and many men will restrict their earning capacity to spend more time learning. For example, a shop keeper might open his shop for fairly restricted hours so that he can attend classes and seminars. Luckily, other Charedim in the area who probably frequent his shop will be happy to shop with him in his restricted hours since they too will want to get along to the classes! Thus learning in these communities is something to be done by adults and prepared for by children. A young Charedi man walking along the road with earphones plugged in is much more likely to be listening to a Talmudic discourse can any kind of music. Women learn too but usually their learning will be more generalised and discursive, rather than text based, but that is changing especially amongst the Modern Orthodox and women’s seminaries are growing up which provide at least an intensive learning programme for a gap year or more after school. The rise of learning for women is starting to challenge traditional understandings of how far women can take leadership roles in the religious dimensions of Jewish communities.
For the rest of the community, Jewish education is concerned to ensure a level of competence with Hebrew (usually liturgical Hebrew so that Jews can participate easily in synagogue and other prayers and rituals, but there is some desire too to help young Jews learn the modern language of Hebrew so that they can feel at home in Israel), a good knowledge of festival and Shabbat practice, a capacity to determine Jewish ethical teachings in inter-personal relationships – social, sexual and business ethics – and to cultivate a sense of identification with the local Jewish community and worldwide Jewry.
Nearly sixty per cent of school age Jews now attend Jewish schools, which are in the majority voluntary aided (except for the Charedi schools described above). There are currently about 40 VA Jewish schools, most of them primary. Obviously the curriculum in such schools is the same as that in other state schools with a varying proportion of time – 15-40% - devoted to Jewish studies and Hebrew. As a rule, levels of secular education achievement are high in these schools. They also, of course, provide a full Jewish cultural experience, organising their year around the Jewish calendar (though they still have to close for Christmas and Easter!), providing kosher food, ensuring that one of the trips abroad available to children is an educational tour of Israel and so on. Thus, obviously, Jewish schools are not just about the variety available in the formal curriculum, but an opportunity to provide an immersive Jewish life experience throughout the school day.
The remainder of Jewish children who receive a Jewish education (about 20% of Jews in the UK don’t bother to organise this for their children) attend part-time classes, usually on a Sunday morning and usually only up to the age of Bat or Bar Mitzvah (12 or 13 years old). Clearly this is a far less satisfactory arrangement for Jewish education but parents might make this choice because they do not live near a Jewish school or because they feel it is more important for their children to integrate into non-Jewish society as early as possible.
In addition to the formal education arrangements described above, there is a rich variety and network of youth movements and activities, many of them peer led, which give young people enjoyable and fruitful Jewish experiences – some of them with very deliberate educational content - as well as helping many young Jews develop their leadership skills and sense of responsibility for the future.
Education about Jews
Teaching about Judaism and Jews is easy in the RE classroom, in assemblies and in a range of other curriculum areas. Jewish life is colourful, full of many engaging practices, interesting objects and artefacts and challenging ideas about and from which young people can learn.
There are many different ways in. Synagogues, festivals, Shabbat, text study and so on all provide starting points.
There are synagogues of different denominations all around the UK, mainly in towns of a certain size, and most communities are happy to welcome visitors, show them around and answer questions on Jewish life. (As usual, of course, the teacher must not assume that this guide is expert in all matters Jewish, even if they answer questions with confidence. Opportunities to meet adherents of this or that religion present one with a valuable resource but are not a substitute for the teacher’s role as educator and organiser of the material studied.)
Jewish festivals take people on a kind of spiral curriculum, repeating year after year but growing in the complexity of issues and concepts they reveal. Thus a study of Passover for Key Stage 1 pupils might concentrate on the foods and practices of Pesakh with perhaps a simple model Passover Seder meal enactment, while a Key Stage 4 programme would discuss the meaning of ‘Freedom’ in a religious context, note the practice of pouring wine from the glass at the mention of the plagues since even in victory one should not rejoice at the downfall of one’s enemy and so on, explore concepts of the extended family, consider slavery and why it’s considered so reprehensible and so on. In a Christian school pupils might consider what might have been in the minds of the disciples as Jews as they sat at the Last Supper, if indeed it was a Passover Seder.
There are festivals throughout the year from which such lessons can be drawn and explored, but even in the absence of a suitable festival, consideration of the weekly festival of Shabbat is a rich source of learning about and learning from. A programme about Shabbat in its traditional practices gives one a chance to consider what is work and rest and what are they for, conservation and human impact on the environment, the freedom not to work (trade unionism, slavery, the daily treadmill), family life and inter-generational interaction (what does one and should one have time for?), community and what it is, the place of tradition and innovation and so on.
Re-enacting the traditional study of text is wonderful introduction to children of the business of careful respect for the exact words as well as giving children a deep insight into the Jewish mindset. Dividing children up into pairs in the traditional Jewish way of text study and asking them to identify all the issues and dilemmas arising out the commandment ‘Honour your father and your mother’ is bound to provoke some really rich thinking. Then compare their thoughts with traditional Jewish commentaries and readings of that commandment to understand how the rabbis worked to establish the halachah out of a single line in Torah.
But a study of Jews might emerge in history, geography, literature, art, music as well. Building a sukkah (which actually stands up!) according to its traditional rules is a wonderful design and technology challenge. Considering the actual meaning of the number ‘6 million’ in mathematics or the demographic impact of 1.5 million of those Holocaust victims being children in a worldwide Jewish population of about 18 million pre-war not only encourages young people to understand the inexorable reality of numbers but also their application and implications in statistics, social studies and so on.
The nearest synagogue can be found by application to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which is the cross-communal representative body of British Jewry. www.bod.org.uk. The Board of Deputies organises the touring ‘Jewish Way of Life’ exhibition, which many local authorities and other have brought to their area over the years, as well as organising ‘Seeing Jewish Life’ tours for those who would like an in-depth visit to a Jewish community, most suitable probably for teacher groups. The Jewish Way of Life exhibition has also give rise to the Jewish Way of Life CD-Rom designed for KS2 and 3 and is available free from www.jwol.org.uk
The two Jewish museums in the UK are both magnificent resources and the London one has recently reopened after a considerable expansion and total refit to widespread applause. Each can be visited, runs educational programmes and provides resources. www.jewishmuseum.org.uk and www.manchesterjewishmuseum.com
The Jewish Association of Business Ethics (JABE) www.jabe.org provides an outstanding educational programme for KS 4 and 5 called Money and Morals which utilises but does not only focus on Jewish perceptions of the need for high ethical attitudes when dealing with money.
For a wider overview of ethical teachings from a Jewish perspective see the Jewish section in Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions (ed Peggy Morgan and Clive A Lawton)
Talmud and Jewish Texts
For an insight into Talmud and how it works see The Wisdom of the Talmud (Ben-sion Bokser) or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud (Aaron Parry). The volume through which many mainstream Jews read the Torah is the Pentateuch and Haftorahs (ed J H Hertz). Hertz was the British Chief Rabbi in the middle decades of the 20th century. He not only gives the Torah text (Hebrew and English) in its weekly readings but also an extensive commentary drawing on traditional sources as well as more modern writers and non-Jewish scholars which indicates how Jews read and learn from the Torah. His introductory essays to sections of the Torah (for example, his view of the creation story) and his overviews of each of the five books of the Torah are masterful. Any books by the current Chief Rabbi (Jonathan Sacks) will give rich insights into how Jews apply their learning to the contemporary world.
A good source book on Jewish texts and how they are used and prioritised is Textual Sources for the Study of Judaism (Philip Alexander).
One of the best ways of getting an insight into the Charedi world is to read The Chosen (Chaim Potok) which is a novel but draws a very accurate picture of the Chasidic world.
There are several good histories of the Jewish people. Jewish History Atlas (Martin Gilbert) is a very easy way in and History of the Jews (Paul Johnson) is widely acclaimed.
The Land of Israel
It is understandably difficult to find any books that treat the issue of the Jewish relationship with the Land of Israel coolly! The best seems to be The Land of Israel: National Homeland or Land of Destiny (Eliezer Schweid trans Deborah Greniman), which his clearly written from a Zionist perspective but explores all the important questions thoughtfully and intelligently. While most are fiercely partial, there are also several good books on the history of the Modern State of Israel (for example, Colin Shindler’s) but that really lies outwith the scope of this paper.
General books on Judaism
Overviews of Judaism are numerous but finding good and impartial ones is harder. Judaism: A Very Short Introduction (Norman Solomon) and An Introduction to Judaism (Nicholas de Lange) are both good and comprehensive. Solomon is an Orthodox rabbi and de Lange is a Reform rabbi but both strive to give a fair overview of Judaism in all its diversity. This is my God (Herman Wouk) is a personal but easily readable description of Judaism by a fine writer. The BBC Schools website is generally a good and accurate source of information on Judaism as well.
Good school text books on Judaism are few and far between. Most give very partial accounts, feature poor and unimaginative illustrations and many do not much recognise that there is anything to say Jewishly beyond the Bible. My Jewish Faith (Anne Clarke) for KS 1, I Am a Jew (Clive Lawton) for KS 1 and 2, _ Religions and Belief: Judaism_ (Jeremy Michelson and Ina Taylor) for KS 3 and 4, Judaism in Today’s World (Cato, Clinton, Leach, Orchard, Weston, Wright) for KS 3 and 4 can all be confidently recommended.