For a religion that my girls and I have relatively so much contact with, Judaism still had us a bit stumped as we began our study of it. I asked, “Just for starters, what do you already know about Judaism?”
“Uh…,” was their first chorus. Then, with the inflection more of questions than answers, they said, “Hannukah? Passover? Yom Kippur? Bar and Bat Mitzvahs?”
These responses soon revealed themselves to be more insightful than we would have thought, because we quickly learned that Judaism as a faith and a practice is much less concerned with doctrine or dogma than with practical and active spiritual engagement in life.
At a website called Judaism 101 (jewfaq.org), I clicked “Beliefs” under the “Ideas” tab and found this confounding opening:
“What Do Jews Believe?”
This is a far more difficult question than you might expect. Judaism has no dogma, no formal set of beliefs that one must hold to be a Jew. In Judaism, actions are far more important than beliefs, although there is certainly a place for belief within Judaism.
Jews seem much more interested in and committed to bringing God into daily life than transcending daily life in favor of “more” spiritual pursuits. In Judaism, every moment of life is spiritual. The fact that so many Jews are so dedicated to celebrating and honoring the many Jewish holidays each year is a very practical expression of this theology. So, when my girls were listing major Jewish celebrations, they actually had a good intuitive grasp of what it means to be Jewish.
Those many holidays also speak to the importance of Jewish history in Jewish beliefs. We visited with Jason Neulander, creator of the live-action graphic novel theatrical phenomenon that is The Intergalactic Nemesis and founder of Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater. If ever there was a guy who understands the impact of stories, he is it, and he wanted us to understand how elemental the story of the Jewish people is to their religion. “The condition of being persecuted, of being without a home for millennia, defines the Jewish identity. Throughout the Jewish calendar, all of the holidays speak to this self-identification.”
Jason’s own surname certainly speaks to this common theme in Jewish history. Jason’s father has traced their roots as far back as the 15th century CE in the Iberian peninsula. After Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews in 1492, Jason’s forbears moved to Austria and changed the family’s name to “Neulander,” meaning “A New Land.”
My girls were transfixed as Jason told more and more great stories. When we asked him what he believes as a Jew, however, he almost seemed stumped. The question seemed a bit delimiting to him, I think. As far as Jewish doctrine, he simply said, “It’s about empathy. That’s my spirituality. I believe that I am here to bring up my kids to be good people and to be a good person myself, to lead by example. Rather than believing so much in a Higher Being “out there,” I believe in a Higher Purpose. I believe this Higher Purpose is about how we make our world.”
As we got in the car after our coffee with Jason, my girls were more quiet than usual. They were beginning to feel the weight, the real heft of history in the story of Judaism in particular and in the history of religion in general. I’m feeling it, too. I just learned that “Mazel Tov” actually means “good luck” instead of the more commonly assumed “congratulations.” Not in the sense of wishing it, but in celebration of its occurrence. Jason was our first mazel tov. I’m wishing for more now.