Judaism is more than just a religion

Part five of a five-part series on university spirituality

By now I’ve gotten used to the bitter expressions, general disapproval and the inevitable disgust exhibited by friends and acquaintances when they learn for the first time. Yes, these people have never tasted matzah. Ostensibly edible, matzah is a specially prepared bread lacking leavening, with the added quality of tastelessness. When eating it, one is struck by its powerful blandness.

Matzah wouldn’t be so bad, as a rare treat, except that a Jew eats it for the whole week of Passover when Jews are commanded to eat no leavening. This year, Passover occurs in the beginning of April. At that time, more Jews worldwide will get together with their families to celebrate than at any other time.

The beauty of Passover lies in its subtle design to teach the Jewish experience to families and children. Every aspect of the meal is symbolic, ultimately prompting children to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The answer: Because we are free. Free to be Jewish and to serve God. Jews celebrate our freedom from oppression and slavery, reminding generations of Jews that we were all slaves, oppressed strangers, so we must care for those around us who are still oppressed. We are reminded to strive for the same freedom we now enjoy. Indeed, the answer to the Passover question is no less important than the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?”

At the University, Jews live variegated lives and express their Judaism with equal diversity. Certain Jews find it difficult to dine on campus, seeking kosher food that is not available at most eateries, including University Dining Services.

Some find their Judaism expressed not in blessings or rituals, but through their community. A Jew can look to Hillel, the University’s Jewish student center; Jewish fraternal organizations; local synagogues and Jewish community centers to participate in vibrant Jewish communities.

As a first-year student, I attended my first Hillel event: a September barbecue welcoming students back for another school year. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was welcomed and began to meet new people. Over time, I made dear friends, had valuable experiences and developed my Jewish identity.

It is any Jew’s obligation to act charitably and philanthropically. Derived from the Hebrew word meaning justice, tzedakah is a ritual commandment, prescribing the giving of money, time and energy to repair the world. While charity is voluntary, tzedakah is not. God has commanded every Jew, rich or poor, to work to improve the world. The strength of the Jewish ethical imperative has been a unifying factor throughout Jewish history. From community service projects to food donations, it is possible to improve the world from campus.

On Yom Kippur, Jews fast to atone for their sins, and most Jewish communities donate the food they would have eaten as tzedakah. On this day, UDS donates a day’s worth of meals for fasting Jewish students.

This strong ethical character of Judaism has been very important in my own theological endeavors and development. I am an agnostic Jew, skeptical of God’s existence. I am a Jew, but I do not believe in the spiritual. While I certainly do not represent most Jews in my personal beliefs, I fit perfectly in the spectrum of Jewish theology.

This spectrum is evident at the University, and through my involvement in Hillel and other groups, I have had the opportunity to discuss theology from many viewpoints. Living in the dorms, I encountered folks who had never met a Jew before. Through discourse, I shared my experiences with others, as they did with me.

Judaism, truly, is not only a religion. It is not only a set of laws either. It is not a race, nor is it only an ethical system. I call Judaism a family, composed of beliefs and practices of a wide variety, yet so connected they must all be Jewish.

So I return to Passover. Passover unites Jewish families, sharing experiences, ideas and memories while learning the history of our own people, through trials and tribulations, to joys and celebrations.

Demetrios Vital is a Jewish studies senior and member of the Hillel Student Board. He welcomes comments at [email protected]