Yoram Kaniuk won this past month in the TA District Court when they recognized his right to be registered in the Misrad Hapenim (Ministry of Interior) “without religion”. For Yoram Kaniuk this was a pyrrhic victory since he wanted to exchange his religious identification to a new one “Israeli,” thus listing as “Israeli” his identity. Instead he is listed as “without religion”. The courts are correct. Kaniuk’s error in this whole imbroglio is that he has fallen into the same trap as so many others including many liberal and secular Jews and of course, Palestinians, who refuse to identify Israel as a Jewish state. They, as Kaniuk, assume that Judaism, or being Jewish is a religion. It isn’t and it never was.
Unlike Christianity and Islam being Jewish isn’t about faith and beliefs but about a shared narrative and a collective destiny. Judaism has no dogmas or articles of faith that are critical to salvation. Jews can be agnostic, atheist, deist or pantheists and still rendered part of the Jewish corpus. Being part of the Jewish People means that you are part of a historical narrative, a culture that you may or may not believe in god that continues to play a role in your life. Its like asking: can Frenchman be French without being Catholic. Of course, but he also understands that France was built with Catholic tradition. We are taught that a Jew, even if guilty of apostasy remains a Jew. This is what we mean by Jewish Peoplehood.
Jewish culture isn’t based upon one’s relationship with god but upon his relationship with his people. If we do pray, we pray in the plural, since we first and foremost identify as a people and not as an individual of faith. There is a joke of Jake coming to the synagogue and is spending all his time talking to Marvin. The rabbi approaches him later and politely asks him to stop the conversation. Jake replies: Its possible that you come to synagogue to talk to god. I come to talk to Marvin.
All this spells out Jewish Peoplehood. Others such as Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism believes that Judaism is, in and of itself a civilization, with the requisite component parts of a civilization: language, art, history, land, rituals, literature and religion being one component of the composite picture. Thus an individual can tinker with the elements. That individual may not subscribe to the religious element, but he remains a Jew. In the story of Ruth she declaims “your people are my people, before she says your god is my god. The message there is clear. Nor do we always choose to be Jewish. We are born into it although one can join through a religious process, which bears a contradiction.
Another contradiction: although we aren’t a religion but a “people”, (an “am”) or a nation (“am kohanim v’goy kadosh”), our primary and core source for who we are, is dependent on the religious /ritual aspect of Judaism – the Bible. Here Kaniuk has a problem: If he claims Israel as his nationality he can only do so by dint of his religious roots: The promise, according to the Bible that god made to our forefathers. Otherwise the Palestinians are right and legitimately do not have to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Without the Bible and the promise god made to our forefathers what claim have we to the land? We might as well be in Uganda. Kaniuk’s conundrum is ongoing and defies resolution.