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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
Where is the religion found today?
by Howard Greenstein

The major centers of Jewish life today consist of American Jewry and Israel. Of the nearly fourteen million Jews in the world today, roughly eleven million live in these two countries alone, approximately five million in the United States and six million in Israel. Viable but smaller Jewish communities may also be found in Canada, Great Britain, France, South Africa, Australia and certain countries in South America.

Prior to World War II most Jews lived in Western or Eastern Europe. Their total number approached nine million. In executing the Final Solution, however, the Nazis destroyed nearly six million of them. As a consequence, nearly two out of every three Jews in Europe perished in the Holocaust, and the basic foundations of Jewish life which had existed from the days of the Roman Empire came to a catastrophic end.

Quite remarkably, however, the revival of Jewish life and Jewish communities in recent years in the lands of the former Soviet Union is as astounding as it is encouraging. Both Orthodoxy under the auspices of the Lubavitch movement and Reform Judaism supported by the World Union for Progressive Judaism have re-opened old synagogues, built new ones and sparked a new interest in Jewish learning and culture. The results have been most impressive in relatively little time.

In defining their Jewishness, American Jews generally attach high priority to moral responsibility and to the inner life of the spirit. Most of them are not necessarily pious in their religious observance, and may not even attend synagogue regularly, but they believe deeply in supporting basic Jewish ideals of helping the poor and disadvantaged, the pursuit of justice and equality for all peoples, a reverence for the sanctity of life, for learning and quality education, and advancing worthy philanthropic causes as a religious obligation, not simply an occasional momentary impulse.

Another crucial factor in American Jewish identity is a commitment to Jewish sovereignty and the State of Israel. Many are convinced that the future security of Jewish life anywhere depends upon the existence of an independent Jewish state. The argument contends that had there been such a place for the Jews of Europe prior to the Holocaust, the outcome may have been far less horrendous.

Israeli Jews ironically are much less religiously observant than their peers in other countries. The focus of Jewish life elsewhere is primarily religious, but in Israel the prevailing emphasis is cultural. To be sure, Israel includes a wide range of pious Orthodox sects, which in recent years have grown significantly in political as well as spiritual influence, but the vast majority of Israelis are still largely secular. Most do not attend synagogues or observe standard rituals or ceremonies with any regularity. They will observe only major holy days such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) or Passover, and even those with only perfunctory regard for their religious significance.

Israel grants religious freedom to all faith communities under its jurisdiction. Christians and Muslims govern their own institutions and manage their own affairs. In the Jewish sector, however, the Ministry of Religion delegates authority for all religious matters to the Chief Rabbinate, which consists of both an Ashkenazic chief rabbi and a Sephardic chief rabbi with an extensive administrative entourage for each. Neither religious authority will recognize the prerogative of any Reform or Conservative clergy in matters of personal status, such as conversion, marriage and divorce. The struggle for equal recognition of all branches of Judaism in Israel is an ongoing legal struggle that, in recent years, has achieved significant progress.

Regardless of religious disagreements, however, Jews in Israel and those outside are inseparably linked through bonds of Am’cha—peoplehood. Wherever Jews may live they are firmly united by a common, collective past and an equally firm determination to complete their mission as an “ohr lagoyim,” “a light unto the nations.”


Copyright ©2007 Howard Greenstein

The late Howard R. Greenstein served as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He had previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein was a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
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