Understanding Jewish Tradition and Judaism Practice

16 May 2023

Written by Athanasia Safitri

In Indonesian, Jewish and Judaism are translated the same as ‘Yahudi’ whereas Jewish ethnicity and religion are interrelated, and Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people. ICRS and CRCS of UGM, in collaboration with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) held a day workshop to introduce the basic principle of the Jewish tradition, religious practice of Judaism, and their community. Dr. Ari Gordon, the Director of Muslim-Jewish Relations at AJC, was invited to share the history of Judaism, the Jewish life and practice, and several contemporary issues in the Jewish world. The sessions included audio-visual material, traditional Jewish texts, and dialogue which allowed the participants to exchange questions and experiences.

Gordon started the workshop by inviting the participants to do a reflection if being asked to introduce their religion to others in a few minutes. He added that the main point of Judaism starts off with the story of God’s creation, and that there is only one God, one Creator that is a stabilising force in the universe. There might be a debate in understanding Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and many interpretations appear throughout the whole Abrahamic world religion. However, all people experience different spirituality, thus God created us to serve one another since we are unique and different from each other.

Jewish tradition and beyond

There are three big denominations in the Jewish world; the Orthodox which always looks out for the originality of Torah and traditional practices. The second one is the Reform which is open to any interpretation of the text and practice. This group sees both the law and ethics and seeks for the adaptation of Torah in today’s world. The last one is the Conservative which is in between the previous groups, with many multiple decisions being made to balance the change.

The story of God’s creation sets the foundation of Sabbath in the Jewish tradition where on the seventh day, God stops creating and takes a break. He gives us a pause as well to offer gratitude and establish a deeper bond with Him. The Jewish believe that God is always in search of humans, even when we sin. God still wants to interact and seeks for us that one expression in Hebrew cries out God’s voice toward us ‘Where are you?’.

Another important part of the tradition is Moses Exodus which means three things for the Jews. It shows justice and righteousness for humans, that God is always active in history, He works in miracles in many parts of the world, and that exodus symbolises the freedom from slavery for people individually yet it gives the responsibility to be obedient and grateful to God.

Like Hajj for the Muslims, the Jewish are expected to do pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year on Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. These big holidays have their own significance in the Jewish life. Passover means celebrating freedom from the Exodus, which occurs in the spring. The next one is Sukkot which celebrates God’s protection to all creation, it is the holiday of the fall. Lastly, taking place in the summer, Shavuot is the celebration of Torah and people’s obligation to obey the Ten Commandments.

Passover teaches the Jews in the modern generation as a remembrance that there was suffering and sacrifice during the Exodus. People would eat together, welcome strangers and say gratitude for the life that they have. Set up for Passover dinner can be different based on different cultures. An untraditional one symbolises the possibility of the female rabbi. Historically dominated by men, rabbi means Jewish scholar or religious leader. Setting up an orange on the table during Passover dinner is considered not normal, but it shows the adaptation to the contemporary Jewish.

The adaptation today is that more females are trained to be rabbis since there are communities that still follow the early practices while others want to be part of the modern world and adapt the needs. It is still a debate and it is our reality that there are many intersections about how to be religious and be part of the world today. The problem we are facing in the religious world is that people tend to see the past through history and not look into the future for harmony among people of different faiths.

Praying Life and Practice

It is a tradition to wear a piece of clothing of four corners, not only to wear during prayer but also for daily use as an undergarment. It symbolises the reminder of God at all times, that the Jews should not go after astray and that their heart must be always on guard. It is the interpretation of the Bible that is a reminder of the Torah, to show the identity of a Jewish person. Mostly the fringe colour of the garment is white and blue, the blue colour comes from blue snail dye, which is mentioned throughout the Torah.

Gordon continued that Jewish prayer in the morning is mostly done by men with duration around 30 min to an hour. The morning prayer takes the longest time, while the afternoon and evening prayer is usually about 15 minutes. On Sabbath, the prayer takes longer, starting at 8.30 am until 11 am in the morning while the other prayer takes up to 30 minutes. Even though it can be done anytime of the day as three times, it is best to be done in the synagogue. In addition to the prayers, there are many blessings uttered for everything, from meals, foods and drinks, to material goods and natural resources.

Citing that it creates a deep connection with God, Gordon stated that prayer helps us to be better in concentration and emotion. The stories of prophets show that the relations in the spiritual community wandering around can have a stronger bond rather than a society governed by policies and systems. Even kings and prophets may have conflict and they have to decide how to follow God regardless of not only the sin, mistakes, punishment, as well as happiness and success, but also in sufferings.

Realities in the Jewish world

Many studies and scientific research are carried out in terms of understanding religious teaching, as well as reconstructing several interpretations. Different meanings create all knowledge that enables people to learn from new things and adapt for people's benefits. Conversations and commentaries are being made which make common understanding between particular religious communities and enhance their relationship with other communities of different faith. The Torah, as the main guide in the Jewish religious practice, enables their believer to find all the answers to the questions they ask. A famous rabbi, as quoted by Gordon, mentioned that you cannot ask a question that you cannot find the answer to in Torah. The Jewish people rely on Torah as their guide to everyday life. 

Gordon gave out examples about the life practice of the Jews grounded in Torah, such as the prayer of naming the babies, the simple garment worn in the wedding and the smashing glass in the wedding ceremony to invite people of the existence of world suffering amid the joyous occasion. There is also a special routine for seven days which is done by family members to always sit lower than regular seating after the death of a relative to show sadness and mourning period. Since Jewish tradition involves family, both conversion and leaving the religion is considered hard, conversion is also not accepted by some Jewish communities. However, Jewish conversions have three important points which are Jewish ritual bath (like baptism in Christianity), the responsibility to conduct Torah, and circumcision for men.

From the Question & Answer session, Gordon explained that mixed marriage happens as well in the Jewish community with an understanding that the children from mixed marriage can only be Jews if the mother is a Jew. Divorce can take place if the men require it with special cases for women to initiate the action under special circumstances, for example a false concept of marriage. Jewish denominations have different take on the issues of LQBTQ whereas the main concern evolves from accepting today’s reality and seeing humanity in a person as children of Adam and Eve. So to say, all three big denominations in the Jewish community do not object LGBTQ.

Gordon argued during his talk that to make the best role for public life, religion should be a spiritual mirror where everyone can reflect back what is missing. People then can live in a community where they help one another while doing self-examination, striving for the best for the goodness of humanity. He concluded the session by repeating four expressions in Hebrew which are very important in the Jewish community, all of which could be relatable to all faiths. The first one is “Where are you?”, an invitation from God to make his people always look upon Him, to keep them close, and connect to Him. The second one is “Remember”, to remind the religious believers to treasure the history, the teaching and tradition. The third one is “Gratitude”, a grateful feeling toward whatever God gives us, that it is always enough. And the last one is “My study partner” which is a sign that practising religion needs collectivity, it needs other people. We need a community to make our spirituality grow deeper and stronger.