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The place of religion in modern Jewish life
Dr. Haim Ben Yakov

The Place of Religion in Modern Jewish Life

The Jerusalem Post published a column by EAJC Director General Dr. Haim Ben Yaakov. The article in English is provided below.
According to the large-scale survey, the Soviet legacy continues to allocate a moderate role to religion in Jewish life, making the connection between Judaism and Jewish identity less straightforward.

One month ago, world leaders gathered in Astana, Kazakhstan, to discuss the role of religion in today’s world order. Kazakhstan is well-known for its diversity and peaceful and respectful coexistence of different religious groups, including the Jewish community, and is becoming a new center for interfaith dialogue and international relations. The 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions included the Pope, both Chief Rabbis of Israel, the most influential Muslim leaders from Egypt, UAE, and even Iran, on one platform. Jewish communities of the region were represented by the delegation of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

It’s quite remarkable to witness how history eventually puts everything into place. Once sidelined and even oppressed during the 20th century, Judaism, despite its relatively small numbers, has finally regained its deserved place among the leading religions. The world has finally accepted us as an equal partner and watches us with curiosity and sometimes even admiration. A major part in this process was undoubtedly played by the Biblical miracle of the modern Jewish State, a reborn representative of everything Jewish among the nations. Yet the discussion of Judaism and its role in Israel and the Jewish world, how modern Jewry practices Judaism and whether it is possible to be Jewish while not observing the commandments, is gaining momentum.

It is curious to see how American Jewry, in terms of assimilation, is going through similar processes that Soviet Jewry experienced long ago. A modern, free and diverse life always challenges the foundations of age-old traditions. For many Jews in the early Soviet years and even earlier, socialism and a new society were the ways out of the old world. While some Jews, who cherished their heritage, were forcefully deprived of it, many families became strangers to their own culture by choice, long before the years of raging state antisemitism.

All of this together formed a very interesting and problematic modern dynamic among post-Soviet Jewry. It led to generations of Jews knowing almost nothing about being Jewish and its meaning. According to the large-scale survey conducted by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the Soviet legacy continues to allocate a moderate role to religion in Jewish life, making the connection between Judaism and Jewish identity less straightforward.

Nevertheless, the growth of interest in Judaism and religion in the post-Soviet years has indicated stable “adherence” to Judaism in the broader sense. Observing “easier” and more social traditions, such as lighting Hanukkah candles or attending the Passover Seder, prevail over more demanding and personal aspects, such as keeping kosher, Sabbath observance, or fasting on Yom Kippur.

In general, 48% of those surveyed do not consider themselves religious, 27% say they are observant, and  25% found it difficult to answer. While 43% reported that Judaism is their religion, 14% of those surveyed responded that they consider both Judaism and Christianity their religion equally. Among those who do not consider themselves religious, 32% still called Judaism their religion above all others.

While the debates and even quarrels regarding what it means to be Jewish among post-Soviet Jewry are very much at their peak, we still witness the phenomena of post-assimilation and rising interest in Judaism. We can make a cautious assumption that the war on religion, declared a century ago by the communists, is coming to an end.

Though historically, the borders of civilization, built by religious institutions, alienation and religious wars, brought much suffering and turned many people away from religion, it has become obvious with time that human misconceptions lead to distortions of religious ideas. In the wrong hands, religious attitudes are subject to misinterpretation and can easily become weapons. As the history of the last century teaches us, those who strongly opposed religion came up with a fanatic faith of their own.

Religion, for its part, was always an integral part of human civilization and culture and can serve as a significant source of values, righteousness and wisdom.

Humankind has come a long way, and today we have finally come to the ideas of acceptance, dialogue, respect and multiculturalism, both in secular and religious societies. The fact that we see the world differently does not mean that someone is necessarily right and someone is wrong. This means that we have something to talk about and can learn from each other. As Jewish people say: “Not all wisdom was given to us by the Almighty.”

In the modern world, we don’t have to be identical to feel unity in pursuing universal human values. We are united by the same values ​​that we draw from our sacred scriptures and learn from our prophets and sages, such as the sanctity of life, striving for a just society and changing the world for the better.

When we don’t try to outshout each other, we can begin to distinguish voices and realize that often we are talking about the very same things.