ISSUES OF FAITH: Short answers to frequent Judaism questions

EVERY YEAR, FOR the past 30 years, as part of their World Religions unit, I have spoken to the seniors at Port Angeles High School about Judaism.

It is a strenuous day, speaking all day without breaks, about Jewish beliefs.

But it is also an uplifting experience because of the thoughtful questions the students ask.

I thought I’d use this week’s column to share their more frequent questions with short answers from a Reform Jewish perspective.

Space prevents more in-depth answers, so the brevity might be frustrating.

How do Jews view God? God is the ultimate creative source of good, and is in everything and everyone.

Humans all contain a spark of the divine, thus God is not “out there” but within us all.

Living a principled life of caring rather than simply believing in God is paramount in Judaism.

Our actions rather than faith are the key to being a good Jew.

How do Jews pray? Like everyone, we certainly want God to heal or save a loved one, but Jewish prayers should focus on asking God to give wisdom and strength to healers or first responders, not for a miracle just for us.

We pray that compassion be given to those helping during a catastrophe, not that God prevents the catastrophe.

As Mr. Rogers said, “God is in the helpers.”

How do Jews view the Bible? The Bible is seen partly as a divinely inspired document, partly history, and partly stories and metaphors.

It was written and compiled by human beings over thousands of years.

We don’t view everything in the Bible as the absolute word of God, but rather a guide for living a more holy life.

How do the Jews view Jesus? The Hebrew word for messiah, mashiach, means anointed one, and refers to the anointing of kings in ancient times.

The Jews were looking for a political leader who would free them from oppression, and there was never a concept of the messiah being divine.

Thus Jews see Jesus as simply a Jewish rabbi and spiritual leader of his time.

We are no longer waiting for a messiah, but rather are striving for a messianic age, which will arrive when we humans work with God to repair the world and bring about the peace we all seek.

What is the Jewish attitude toward sin? Jews do not believe in original sin, but rather that we are born with the capability of doing both good and evil.

The Hebrew word for sin is chet, an archery term meaning “missing the mark.”

We can rectify our wrongdoings, so the concept of “salvation” is not a Jewish one.

What is the Jewish view of other religions? We do not believe there is any one way to connect with the divine, but see all religions as valid responses to universal human spiritual yearnings.

Judaism welcomes converts but we would never try to persuade others to convert because we don’t see our faith as the only path to God.

What is Judaism’s approach to social issues such as gay marriage, assisted suicide or abortion? Judaism believes difficult and deeply personal decisions about things such as abortion or assisted suicide should be between a person, their family, their doctor and spiritual advisor, not the government.

Concerning LGBTQ issues, Jews believe humans were created with beautiful diversity, but still all in God’s image, and only each individual can know what their true sexual identity is.

What is the reason for persistent anti-Semitism? This is too difficult for a short answer because the reasons for common negative stereotypes of Jews are extremely complex, requiring a more in-depth response.

However the all too common pattern of anti-Semitism continues with frightening intensity today, evident in the almost 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents since the 2016 election.

What do Jews believe about heaven, hell and the devil? There is no mention of heaven or hell in the Jewish Bible, so there is little discussion about an afterlife, but instead the focus is on this life, and living in such a way as to bring about tikun olam, repairing the world.

Judaism has no concept of a devil as an evil being in opposition to God who tempts us to sin.

What is our purpose in life? Jews believe that our job in life is to be partners with God to make this world a better place, doing all we can to end poverty and suffering, and exemplifying the holiness that resides in all humanity.

I chose to become a Jew more than 35 years ago because these basic tenets resonated in my soul, and they still do.

It’s important to remember that despite our differences, all faith traditions have at their core the same principles of following the Golden Rule and taking care of the less fortunate.

If we did only this, we would indeed change the world.

Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]

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