Essay: Judaism Most People Would Be Surprised

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Judaism

Most people would be surprised to learn that the worldwide population of Jews is just fourteen million people. The World Atlas (2012) lists eighteen cities around the globe with greater populations; with over thirty-seven million inhabitants, the Tokyo metro area has more than double the number of people who call themselves Jews. Also surprising, perhaps, is that there are more Jews in the United States -- approximately 5.2 million -- than there are in Israel, a nation established for Jews following World War II. Despite their relatively small numbers, Jews have had considerable influence on culture and world affairs. From the political stage to the Broadway stage, and in fields as diverse as business, education, architecture, and literature, Jews have made significant contributions. In remarkable contrast to their numbers, the Jews' presence is great. The question of why this is so is intriguing and in recent years a number of scholars and researchers have attempted to gain insight.

Judaism is defined not only as a religion but as an ethnicity and a culture, although origins of Jews and their practices can vary widely (Krieger, 2010). Jews define themselves in various ways, some according to their political beliefs, others by their religious observances, and still others by their food, music and traditions. Even among these various definitions, there is diversity, with Jews belonging to groups known as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.

One might wonder if there is anything inherent in Judaism that propels its practitioners to achievement and success. Hartman and Hartman (2011) note that, in the United States, the relatively high secular achievements in both education and the labor force combined with the availability of the National Jewish Population Survey, actually makes it possible to study the phenomenon. Interestingly, the authors found that many American Jews identify themselves as "secular Jews." They do not consider themselves religious, and many do not practice traditional rituals or attend synagogue. Still, they identify themselves as Jews, and this heritage is very important to them. The question still remains as to why that should matter with respect to secular achievements. Christian Smith, author of The Secular Revolution, theorizes that, at least in part, Jews have a history of struggling for assimilation. Even in the second half of the 20th century, Jews were discriminated against in business, in social clubs, and in some of the nation's top universities. Smith argues that the "social marginalization" of Jews provided impetus to embrace cultural and social capital to an extraordinary degree (Hartman & Hartman).

Another explanation of the disproportionate success Jews enjoy might be the strong sense of community they share, despite the fact that their ethnic origins and religious practices are diverse. Prothero (2010, p. 252) points out that while other religions have founders who proposed a solution to a problem and then gathered together a community, Judaism began with the purpose of keeping a people together. Historically, Jews were a people on the move, exiled and then finding God through their arduous journeys.

Judiasm influences, and is influenced by, the larger community in which Jews live. For example, Indian Jews have incorporated the caste system into their daily lives. In China -- and it is probably surprising to many people that there are Jews in China -- Confucian ideas have become part of religious practices (Krieger, 2010). At the core of any Jewish community is the family. Some people believe that traditional family values have, above all, held Jews together and helped them survive the modernization of the religion. The primary texts of Judaism, the Torah and the Talmud, both teach the importance of family and provide guidance in how to be a family. The cornerstones are marriage, children and mutual responsibility; rituals and celebrations help bind families together.

The ideas of Prothero, Krieger, and Hartman are not mutually exclusive. Both Prothero and Krieger look to the shaping of the Jewish identity and community. Krieger and Hartman place the collective Jewish… [END OF PREVIEW]

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