Judaism is not only a flourishing worldwide religion, but also a very distinct and unique culture – which means that some Jews may or may not even be religiously observant and yet still self-identify as Jews. One of the most important things within the Jewish culture is the idea of scholarship, and the philosophy that education and general literacy are to be honored and sought.
Although study of the Torah, the Jewish holy book, is central to Judaism, the Jews have a fascinating second book – the Talmud, a collection of writings by influential rabbis throughout the history of the Jewish faith. It contains Jewish law, and commentary on that law – and the rules laid down are still used today, as the basis for traditions and observances such as keeping kosher.
Although all religious Jews read and respect both the Torah and the Talmud, the degree of observance of the Talmud’s laws is one of the factors distinguishing an Orthodox Jew from a Conservative Jew from a Reform Jew, and each congregation falls roughly into one of these three categories, with some differences depending on the rabbi and on the congregation’s outlook.
Santa Barbara has several Jewish synagogues, with the best-known Orthodox congregation being Young Israel, located on the Mesa. Orthodox Jews observe all of the laws laid down in the Torah and the Talmud – these rules regulate eating habits, holiday observances, and certain aspects of family and personal life. Most people are familiar with the term “kosher,” which refers to the way food must be prepared and served in an Orthodox household. Meats are butchered in very specific ways, and meat and dairy are never served together – among many other laws.
On the other end of the spectrum, Reform congregations interpret Jewish law more liberally. While a Reform Jew may observe some holidays or the Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath, which is observed every weekend from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday – he or she will probably not keep kosher, for example. Reform congregations such as Santa Barbara’s Congregation B’nai B’rith welcome Jews in interfaith marriages, homosexuals, and others who might not qualify as living the Orthodox lifestyle.
Another doctrinal difference between Reform and Orthodox Judaism is the distinctions made between who is and is not a Jew by birth. One reason for the existence of a group of Jews who may not practice their faith is the fact that many Jews are born into it – Judaism is a matrilineal culture, and any person born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Reform Jews, unlike the Orthodox and Conservative, have extended this birthright to those with a Jewish father, also. It is therefore possible to be a Jew in the eyes of a Reform congregation, while being considered a gentile by an Orthodox community.
Conservative congregations fall somewhere in the middle, between Orthodox and Reform. While these groups do observe most Jewish laws, they are also focused on the potential for development within the faith, and make more allowances for modernity than permitted by Orthodox Jews. There are no Conservative synagogues in Santa Barbara, although a large city might have several.
Santa Barbara does, however, have one congregation of Messianic Jews, a fascinating offshoot of the Jewish faith which is typically not recognized by any of the other denominations. Both Jews and many Christians consider the Messianic Jews, exemplified locally by the Beth Messiah congregation, to be actually a branch of the Christian faith, although Messianic Jews would disagree. Besides believing that Jesus Christ was the Jewish Messiah, Messianic Jews observe the traditions and practices of Judaism.
For anyone interested in learning more about what it means to be Jewish, any of these congregations will be happy to provide more information. There’s also a comprehensive listing of synagogues and Jewish community services available on the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation’s website.