Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

People often have many of the same curiosities and concerns.  In my travels, I've frequently been asked many of the same questions.  Here is a brief list of some of the most common:

Do you have to be a Jew to be a good person?

The Talmud (the record of rabbinic teachings) says that pious people from any nation have a place in the World to Come. You don’t have to be Jewish to be good. That is why Judaism does not believe that only Jews are “saved.”

Can you be a good Jew and a bad person?

Absolutely not. The Torah contains laws that apply between human beings and those that relate to God. To be a good Jew one has to try one’s best to keep both. No one is perfect. But a Jew who consistently disregards the laws relating to other humans is the same as one who disregards the laws relating to God.

Does being “chosen” mean one is automatically better?

The Bible talks about Jews having been picked to fulfill a specific mission of living an intense spiritual and good life. A “Nation of Priests,” a nation selected to live a particular way of life. Being chosen for a specific task. If we fail, we suffer the consequences - as we often have. There are no silver bullets. Being better depends entirely on how we behave.

Do Jews want to rule the world?

Not at all. We respect all ethical nations. We only want to be allowed to live the way of life we choose and to have the option of ruling ourselves. We want the word to be an ethical better place and nations to stop fighting each other.

Why do Jews not accept Jesus as the Messiah?

The Jewish concept of the Messiah is of the creation of a better life on earth without oppression and violence. It hasn’t yet happened.

If there really is a God, who controls the universe, why does he allow atrocities to occur?

The universe functions according to the way it was designed.  It has evolved with natural phenomena like earthquakes or tsunamis which are not, in themselves, bad except for those humans who are unfortunate enough to be in the way. The world requires bacteria to function - which do things we like and need - but can also cause diseases. We are designed to die. And we humans have decision making faculties that often make very wrong decisions (as well as good ones). Some of us kill, rape and torture while others give, care and protect. Some argue it's the genes within us that produce psychopaths or saints. Do we really expect God to intervene every time for every one of the billions of humans on earth? We cannot know the mind of God. We can only accept and do our best.

So if we cannot change God’s mind why do we pray?

Prayer is a way of expressing our needs, our pain and our joy. And God is usually the object of our prayer as our symbolic parent. This does not mean we always expect God to do as we ask. God has a perspective which is not the same as ours. It is similar to expressing our love, appreciation and anxieties to our parents because we feel they love us and care for us even if we know we will not always get what we ask for. It is rather childish to think of God as Superman, always intervening to save us! Even if we believe God does intervene in human affairs, we can never know how or when in advance. It is natural to ask and to pray for things we want. It is unnatural to expect one will always be answered.

Does Judaism accept homosexuality?

The Torah considers the ideal of sexual relations as being within a heterosexual marriage. Homosexuality is non-normative. The Torah considers lots of acts, sexual and otherwise, to be non-normative. These include actions like theft, deception, gossip and offending people. To pick on homosexuals, when there is every reason to think it is genetic, is immoral. After all, the Talmud recognized different kinds of genetic variations. I believe one needs to be sensitive, welcoming and supportive to all kinds of people who make choices others may not always agree with or find comfortable. That is the essence of a caring society and love between human beings and God.

What’s the point of being outwardly religious if you are a cheat and a hypocrite?

Of course, it is not only wrong but hypocritical to claim you are religious and yet ignore or flout core commands that are specified in the Tradition. The Torah requires obedience to all its laws, ritual and moral. On the other hand, we all make mistakes and sometimes fail to live up to our own standards. The problem is when there is a repeated, pattern of flouting religious laws.

Nevertheless, there is still value in keeping something as opposed to nothing. It’s like this: someone studying Torah and living a halachic life may be doing it out habit and without true intent. But in terms of keeping the Jewish tradition alive it is better than doing nothing.  I hope one day those who currently abuse it, may wake up to a more rational, moral and universal way of applying it!

Why does religion get involved in dirty politics in Israel?

I completely oppose the way religion interferes with personal liberty in Israel. I believe that Israel ought to allow for civil marriages. After all, in the Diaspora there is civil marriage and Jews manage to survive nevertheless because they keep records, as we do in England, of recognized halachic marriages. And anyone without such documentation has to prove their Jewish bona fides.

Experience tells me that enforcing, or compelling, religion on reluctant people is always counter productive and, in the end, hinders religion itself. And the hatred in Israel directed at Rabbinic authority only proves the case.

The argument in favor is that we need to preserve the integrity of the Jewish people in Israel. But if Israel recognizes civil marriages contracted outside the country, the integrity has already been breached.

We already have a dual system in Israel over who is a Jew for civil State purposes or the Law of Return. So why not simply extend it by giving people free choice over how they marry? Why would it be any different to the Diaspora? Judaism has survived it!

Halacha can be observed by those who want to in the ways they choose to, be it extreme or otherwise. Though even within halacha, as we know, there are so many divergent positions and Batei Din (religious courts) who refuse to accept other Batei Din. And think of the battles between Charedi and Charedi Leumi or Satmar and Chabad. They often do not recognize each other (to be fair, its usually Satmar who think they are better than Chabad).

I am in favor of freedom of choice and let the best version/variety/man or woman win. I simply detest compulsion. There is no room for it in an open, modern society.

I agree that for purposes of the State calendar, certain dates, occasions and observances need to be kept by State law to preserve Jewish identity. But this should not prevent freedom of personal practice or choice. In my view the Israeli Religious Status quo is a purely political convention. And as the Chief rabbinate becomes more and more Charediized it necessitates disestablishment and and an open market in religious matters even more.

Isn’t the Bible cruel? It permits things like slavery and killing the Canaanites. Isn't it so out of date that it cannot be relevant today?

Taken by itself, the Bible does seem cruel.  Any text has to be seen in the context of its time. Three thousand years ago, Judaism offered a new legal and moral tradition. This tradition contrasted with paganism of that era which rejected constraints and human values. And Judaism did so by weaning people off old practices in stages. For example, look at the Hammurabi Code and you will see how other Middle Eastern legal codes treated women, slaves, lower classes and aliens.

However, it is strange to try to compare modernity with a culture that is over three thousand years old without allowing for new developments. Nothing ever stands still. And Judaism did not stand still. The law was not fossilized. The biblical tradition is like the modern American Constitution in many ways. It is constantly evolving. The original text was modified by the Amendments and the Amendments were modified by successive Supreme Courts who interpreted the laws (originalists versus evolutionists). The constitution, as understood nowadays, is very different to the initial text but is still derived from it.

Biblical Law was expanded on by an Oral law. New developments and circumstances were incorporated in what would become the next stage, the Mishna. The Mishna was written down approximately two thousand years ago. That was then modified by the Gemara about five hundred years later. Jewish Law has continued to develop to meet new challenges. Sometimes by modifying older laws and sometimes by adding new ones. For example, texts from the Mishna say that all Biblical laws relating to fighting the Canaanite tribes no longer apply. A whole slew of Biblical rules on purity, worship and civil law were declared no longer applicable.

Some would argue that Judaism set the basis for modern, social society.  Today, America, like all Sovereign States, accords privileges and benefits to citizens which it denies to non-citizens. The bible, too, gave benefits to citizens. But the Bible welcomed aliens, strangers and non-Jews who simply had to agree to abide by the basic civil laws. Then they were accorded equal civil rights regardless of race, gender or religion. The Bible says the following verse 26 times: “be kind to the stranger because you were strangers once.” And that was three thousand years ago.