One might expect that many if not most Americans would have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of Judaism.
After all, about 80% or so of the American public self-identifies as Christian, and Christianity and Judaism are inextricably intertwined. Both are Abrahamic faiths, making them closely related religious siblings; the Christian Old Testament is (basically) the Jewish Bible; Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish; the U.S. is home to the single largest domestic Jewish population anywhere in the world, other than Israel itself (and with 5.5 million U.S. Jews compared to 6 million Israeli Jews, the U.S. comes in at a pretty close second place); it is even frequently observed that ours is a “Judeo-Christian” culture, based upon “Judeo-Christian” values.
And yet, a significant percentage of the U.S. public seems to actually know surprisingly little about Judaism itself.
This is often brought home to me in my own community college world religions courses. Community college students are a varied and diverse lot, and as such probably represent a pretty fair sample of the population at large. When we begin the study of Judaism each semester, I am often rather surprised at how unfamiliar some of my students (not all, but some) are with the fundamentals of Jewish belief and practice.
Some students occasionally express surprise at hearing, presumably for the first time, that Jews and Christians worship the same God. Others often had no idea that the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible is essentially the same set of scriptures as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
Still others simply assume that Jewish worship as depicted in the pages of scripture corresponds with contemporary forms of Jewish worship, and so imagine that rabbis today perform animal sacrifices in neighborhood synagogues.
Some are confused by the diversity which exists within modern Judaism, puzzling over the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, and wondering why some Jews dress in certain characteristic ways (the distinctive garb of Hasidic Jews, for instance), while other Jews do not do so.
Many are frankly startled to learn that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) prescribes not just the familiar Ten Commandments, but in fact a far more extensive total of some 613 commandments, all of which are incumbent upon Jews to observe, and which cover everything from ritual observances to civil laws (and which include, among many other things, the well-known kosher food laws).
And a fair number remain puzzled as to why “Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” as they themselves often phrase it. They are often unaware of the fact that, even though the term Christ is indeed simply Greek for the Hebrew term Messiah, Jews and Christians actually use these terms in very different ways — assigning very different meanings to this same single term, within their own very different religious contexts.
So, when it comes to teaching about Judaism to students who may possess little to no previous background knowledge of the subject, these are some of the matters which I often find myself spending a lot of time clearing up.
(To be continued, in Part Two.)