Where is the religion found today?
by Howard Greenstein
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
©2007 Howard Greenstein
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).
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. To
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