Defining Our Jewish Heritage by Daniel Friedman What is “our Jewish heritage?” The phrase is used endlessly in sermons, articles, and classrooms. Children are sent to Sunday schools to learn it. Rabbis urge us to preserve it. Rarely is it defined clearly and precisely. What is Jewish Heritage? To answer the question, “What is our Jewish heritage?” I suggest that there are two different ways of viewing and understanding Judaism. The first is the popular, conventional approach, which views Judaism as either a religion or an ideology—a system of beliefs, practices, and rituals or a system of ideas and values. Accordingly, the Jewish people are defined as a religious community bound together by the beliefs of the religion, Judaism; or they are defined as an ideological community united by shared “Jewish” values. What values unite Jews? What values define Judaism? If Judaism is viewed as a religion or an ideology, certain distinctive beliefs, ideas, or values are taken to be the basis for the existence of the community. They are prior to the people and are the reason for their peoplehood. They are inherited, preserved, and passed on from generation to generation. … I propose that this understanding of Judaism is in error. It is not empirically verifiable. There is no idea, belief, or value that Jews have always accepted that constitutes and causes their Jewishness. What about monotheism? What about An alternative way of viewing and understanding Judaism—and I believe, a more valid one—is the historical approach that views Judaism not as a belief system or ideology but as the experience of the Jewish people. Judaism is what happened to those people, what they did, created, thought, believed, wrote, affirmed, denied, suffered, and enjoyed during their 4,000-year history. Judaism includes what Jews have believed, but it is not defined by nor limited to what they believed. Just as the life of every person includes beliefs that are accepted, then changed or abandoned, so the life of the Jewish people is a dynamic process of acceptance and rejection. Jews are an evolving historical (not ideological) people. … According to this historical view of Judaism, Jewish people are Jewish not by virtue of their beliefs, values, or commitments, but by virtue of their presence within Jewish history. They may be born into it or they may choose to participate in it. In either case, Jewishness is not a religious or ideological identity. Nor is it a national, racial, or cultural identity. It is a historical identity. From the standpoint of this understanding of Judaism, “our Jewish heritage” is the totality of the Jewish experience. It includes whatever meaning and wisdom that experience reveals. That is, each of us must examine that experience and decide what, if anything, it means; what values, if any, it demonstrates; what beliefs, if any, it documents. Each of us decides what the significance of Judaism is. There is no official, objectively true meaning, any more than the experience of an individual person can be said to have this rather than that meaning. Judaism includes authoritarians and libertarians, priests and prophets, socialists and capitalists, rationalists and mystics, Zionists and anti-Zionists, theists and humanists. None is more “authentic” and more “Jewish” than another. All are equally present in the Jewish experience. And so is each of us. Each person is free to derive from the Jewish experience that which he or she finds true in it and about it. This freedom is, in itself, the principal value of “our Jewish heritage.” Whatever we say, we have the freedom to say it without fear of official censure or excommunication. So we’re totally free to decide what is Jewish to us? And others are totally free to disagree? This historical view reveals Judaism as an emancipatory experience, inasmuch as it frees individuals from all prior doctrine, from inherited dogma, from authoritarian strictures—to be themselves. We are most true to “our Jewish heritage” when we are most true to ourselves. Does Judaism make us responsible to anything?