For Non-Jews on Judaism, Part 2
What is one thing you wish non-Jewish people understood about Judaism?
Commentary by Hyphen Parent
I posed the above question to a number of Jewish friends. While some common themes appeared, their answers were varied and hit on many different topics. I’ve compiled them into a 3-part series. Part 1 focused heavily on Chanukah. For Part 2, we delve into different branches of Judaism, surprising misconceptions and antisemitism.
There’s a wide variety of beliefs and practices within Judaism.
Paula (Reform Judaism) explained, “There is not a single answer to the question, ‘What do Jews believe about x’ even within the same branch.”
Alex (Conservative Judaism) offered, “Judaism is of diverse thought and perspective. It is inaccurate to assume Judaism believes one specific thing.”
While Halachah (Jewish law) is law, there are differences in interpretation, application, understanding and practice among various Jewish denominations. Someone who is Orthodox is likely to be shomer Shabbat (following the laws of what is and isn’t done on Shabbat). Someone who is Reform is more likely to be willing to drive to a movie on Shabbat. However, there are variations of observance and practices among different branches, different areas and different people.
There are many intricate discussions to be had in defining the three main branches of Judaism. I’ll offer the briefest of explanations, but please reach out and do additional research for a fuller understanding (or submit an “Ask a Jew” for additional information).
- Orthodox Judaism: Strict adherence to traditional beliefs and practices, often observed in the same manner for generations.
- Conservative or Masorti Judaism: Sees Halachah as binding and believes adhering to it requires adaptation in different times and locations.
- Reform Judaism: Focuses on ethical aspects of Judaism and allows for more personal choice regarding observance.
We don’t have horns.
When I posed this question to my 13-year-old daughter (traditional Conservative/Modern Orthodox), she answered, “I wish non-Jews knew that we don’t have horns.” She was not kidding. There really are people in the world who think Jews have horns.
Neal Schindler once wrote about the antisemitic concept of Jews having horns. In our experience, the belief wasn’t held even held by horribly vicious people. These were sweet older folks who never met a Jewish person in their lives and really did believe that Jews were so foreign that we had horns.
Antisemitism is constant, terrifying and exhausting.
Rabbi Elisa (Reform Judaism) wishes non-Jews understood, “That we pretty much always have armed guards present when we go to worship.”
In an article on what I wish people understood about antisemitism that I wrote in 2014, I focused on the same issue, “Antisemitism still exists. That hatred didn’t end with the Second World War. Whenever non-Jews enter synagogues; whether it be for services, for b’nei mitzvot, or for the Kosher Dinner, they often comment on the armed guards. Yes, they are there for every service. No, they are not excessive. Yes, this is a sad fact of life for Jews.”
Kelsi (Reform Judaism member of a Conservative synagogue) expanded, “How unfair is it that I have to worry about lighting our menorahs in the window to share our miracle of Hanukkah, because someone might kill us, but Christians and Christmas-celebrating people can go crazy and feel safe! The synagogue had bomb threats regularly. I grew up knowing we were hated. Everyone should feel safe and included, not just white Christians.”
Someone who is Orthodox explained privately, “Antisemitism is a very real and constant threat. For every one antisemitic attack that you hear about, there are so many others that aren’t made public. This is a part of life for us. We’re terrified and we’re exhausted. And where are the non-Jews in this? I wish they’d recognize it, believe us and speak out about it.”
How much of this is surprising to non-Jewish readers? Did you realize that different branches of Judaism sometimes have different understandings and applications of Jewish law? Have you ever heard the myth that Jewish people have horns and did you realize that was something people genuinely believe? Were you startled to hear that having guards outside services is routine for Jews? As a non-Jew, have you spoken out about antisemitism?
In the upcoming third and final part of this series, you’ll learn a little bit about Shabbat, we’ll examine how Judaism is its own complete religion and you’ll get a Weird Al song stuck in your head.
Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories and someone who’s best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.
Thank you for this series. I can relate to all, including reference to horns. If you have a moment, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have a question.