L’shanah Tova! Happy Jewish new year! Happy Canaanite new year!
The title of this blog post might seem strange, or controversial, or not possible to some people – but I find that, as the high holidays of Judaism roll around, and with my recent interest in connecting with the Gods of Canaan as per the urging of my ancestors, and my own heart, this is a topic I would like to discuss, and maybe make clearer for any and all interested in how one might be able to call themselves both Jewish AND a polytheist.
For those of you who have been following my journey for several years, and even for those of you who have been following this blog since its creation this past January, you will know two things: (1) how I came to Kemeticism initially, and how I realized I was a polytheist and (2) how I have since struggled to let go of the label “Jewish” despite my journey. Why this might be the case is a hard question to clarify: some people have told me that “monotheistic guilt” makes me this way. But if that were the case, why would I still insist on worshiping separate and distinct Deities? Perhaps I am somewhat of a soft polytheist, but I think that has less to do with whatever this “monotheist guilt” is, and more to do with my acceptance of Kemetic, as well as world, syncretism of Deities (that history attests to). Never once have I woken up in a cold sweat, thinking, “but maybe I should only worship YHWH! Maybe what I mindlessly did in childhood IS really the true and right way!” No, that has never happened to me. I’ve questioned the origin of Deity before – and settled on somewhat of a Pantheistic explanation (from One Source – Nun, Ein Sof, The Big Bang, etc. – comes All Divinity)…but I’ve never once “turned back” from a generally polytheistic mindset to a “guilty monotheistic” one. I do believe YHVH is out there, a distinct Deity of true and great power, a God I would honor and respect as I would any other God…but He has not made me feel guilty.
“Jewish guilt” is a stereotype that has not yet played into my own religious life. I will be sure to let anyone know if and when it ever does.
But it hasn’t yet.
So, if it is not some weird sense of “monotheistic guilt” that drives my tendency to retain the identity “Jewish”, what does?
The truest, and most simple answer, is because of family.
Why Judaism isn’t Just a Religion
Judaism is more than a religion; it is a tribal affiliation.” –Jennifer Hunter (Magickal Judaism, page 1)
Judaism is, absolutely, a religion. Oftentimes a very orthodox one, oftentimes a much more reformed one. But over the years, as Jews have been persecuted and killed, diversified and dispersed, we have developed what I can only describe as “a culture.” The Jewish culture. Perhaps one could connect every cultural tradition a Jewish family partakes in back to a “monotheistic doctrine”, if one tried very hard to, but that does not mean that every Jewish family does every tradition with YHVH in mind. Not anymore. My mother lights the Sabbath candles, for example, and says the prayer out of “habit”. She told me she likes to say a silent prayer for her family in her head while she says the Hebrew words – with no mention of any God. When I asked her why she still sings the Hebrew, even if she says a different prayer in her mind and heart, she said, “because it’s pretty, and the melody is a comfort.”
I sometimes hum or sing Hebrew prayers or songs, also out of habit, and when I come across a lyric that perhaps translates to “glory be to the Lord” or something similar, it can be any Lord I want it to be. It can be El. It can be Wesir. It can even be a Goddess – Sekhmet or Anat. Because the nature of Deity is also gender-fluid in my mind. Original context of any Jewish prayer might dictate that it reference Just YHVH, but there’s no “Jewish police”, believe it or not. Perhaps in the Orthodox sects, but not when you’re a secular or cultural Jew, belonging to a much more reformed community. In the world of Judaism that I grew up in, and still take part in, all that truly matters is community and family.
A note on prayer: some prayers do NOT work for me anymore, please understand. I do not say the shema anymore, for example. It outright denies the existence of other Gods, and therefore, it would be hypocritical of me to say it simply out of “tradition.” There are boundaries. I am merely trying to explain, in the previous paragraph, that prayer can be interpreted when appropriate, to fit a person’s personal theology, if they still feel the desire to “sing along” with family and friends, in any given appropriate situation (and, for example, the prayer over the Sabbath candles does not directly reference a One God Only mandate like the shema does). But, I would not sing that which is blatantly against what I believe. Of course not.
In the end, though, I would say that you can believe and pray whatever you want, so long as you still live as a good person, and uphold the concept of mitzvot – which, if you are not aware, is nearly the exact same concept as Ma’at, in Kemeticism. Upholding justice, doing good deeds, making the best decision in any given situation. Loving kindness. Respect. Tikkun olam – repairing the world.
That’s what being Jewish means, in a cultural sense. I was raised to value these things.
And I was raised with a deep and fierce family pride. Many Jews are. To stop calling myself “Jewish” would mean a rejection of my ethnicity and my cultural upbringing. It would hurt my family, and it would hurt me.
And so much of what we do, the Hebrew words we slip into conversation (mazel tov!), the holidays we celebrate, the candles we light, the bread we bake, the art we hang in our homes – they have, or have the potential to have, nothing to do with YHVH, or a Be-All-End-All theological mandate. Yes, there are Orthodox/conservative Jews who might argue with me on this. But there are many who would not argue me.
There are Atheist Jews. Buddhist Jews. Jew-”witches”. And even if you disagree with me, that’s ok – but I would call every single one of them, and any of us who call ourselves polytheistic Jews, still Jews.
Why? Because we still identify with our greater Jewish family. We are still culturally Jewish. We still value Jewish teachings and ethics. In the same sense that one could be proud to be American, proud to be from any nation or culture, one can be proud to be Jewish. The Jewish people are, in my case, as someone of a 100% Semitic blood, my tribe. My people.
As Jewish Pagans, we honor both our paths by shaping our beliefs and practices with creativity and inspiration. I’m sure many Jews would believe that Jewish Paganism or Jewitchery is a giant step toward assimilation. But among the Jewish Pagans I’ve met, and certainly, for me, this intriguing hybrid is a way to keep our Jewishness alive. If mainstream – especially Orthodox – Judaism were the only way to be a practicing Jew, most of us would abandon that tribal lineage entirely…my daughter is being raised as a Pagan, true, but also as a Jew, with a solid Jewish education and community. So much for assimilation!” –Jennifer Hunter (Magickal Judaism, page 19)
If a group of people can say, ‘We are the only ones who will determine what rules you need to follow in order to be one of us,’ which is what the rabbis have done, then you have to accept their definition of Jewish. Then, as a Pagan, you cannot be a Jew. If, on the other hand, you accept a broader definition, which is that Judaism is first of all a nationality, like being a Cherokee or Iroquois is a nationality – call it an ethnicity if you prefer – that happens to have a religion that characterizes it, but you can be, as most Israelis are, a nonpracticing, ethnically, nationally — in this sense, I am a Jew, yes, absolutely. Am I rabbinical Jew? Absolutely not. I’m not a Monotheist, for one. And I do not accept their authority. I respect their work, and they’ve done some very valuable stuff. I am certainly not hostile to them, but there are many ways in which one can be a Jew, and the rabbinical is just one of them.” –Elisheva (shofet of the Machane Am Ha’aretz Primitive Hebrew Assembly) interviewed in Magickal Judaism, page 14
And so you can see: I’m not the only one out there that feels this way. And there are even many rabbis, one of whom I am very close to (she may even officiate my wedding next Fall), that understand where I and others are coming from with our varying theologies and yet still Jewish identities. There are many rabbis who have taken a deep interest in Interfaith work, as well. In accepting and understanding other religions as valid and true and worth learning about.
How to be Jewish and a Polytheist
Now that we’ve covered the “why” – “why would one still identify as Jewish and yet hold a theology other than Monotheism” – I will move onto the “how.”
The short answer: it varies by Jew.
The longer answer: some Jewish Pagans (we’ll use Pagans here, rather than Atheists or Buddhists, etc., simply because I fall into the Jewish Pagan category myself) practice more Judaism-the-religion than they do a Pagan religion. Others practice more of a Pagan-religion, such as Wicca or a Recon religion such as Kemeticism, than they do Judaism-the-religion. It honestly depends. Some Jewish Pagans are Dualistic (like Wicca – Goddess and God, Shekhinah and YHVH, for example), some are still Monotheists, and others are, like me, Polytheists. And many are something else in-between (Animists, Pantheists, etc.). Some are Jewish and practice a Paganism very “unrelated” to Jewish ancestry, such as Hellenic Polytheism (I’ve known a Hellenic polytheist Jew! Her Patron was Athena); others, like me, stick to polytheistic traditions that originated in the ancient Levant and Near Eastern areas, the homes of mine – and other Semites’ – very distant ancestors (Egypt, Canaan, etc.). Some Jewish Pagans prefer to simply study Kabbalah, and ceremonial magic, which is often related to Kabbalistic tradition. Others are fully Jewish in both culture and religion, and yet call themselves “witches”, with a preference for various magical traditions.
There are so many ways, and none is more right than any other.
Me, I’m a Kemetic and Canaanite polytheist. That means I practice Kemetic-style heka and ritual to honor the Kemetic Gods, and I also practice Canaanite-style ritual and magic to honor the Canaanite Gods. Both Pantheons have reached out to me, and I feel called to both of Them – perhaps at this time, you could say the Kemetic Pantheon has grown “quieter” than the Canaanite one. I am very much in a “Canaanite mode”. In many ways, it is Their more recent influence (especially the Lady Anat, Who I have recently approached) that drives me to speak out about the topic of Jewish vs. Polytheist. I should note: neither Pantheon, as far as I can tell, has shown any sort of distaste for me retaining the identity of “Jewish.” If anything, I can tell it makes my ancestors very proud and happy. In fact, it was my ancestors that pushed me, through meditation and ritual, to pursue Canaanite polytheism in the first place. “Aren’t happy with our God? Well, there are those of us, the eldest of us, who had many Gods once. Seek Them out.”
For Kemeticism, I use the ritual process of the Kemetic Orthodoxy’s Senut right now, as a weekly rite. I also use words and formats that appear in Richard Reidy’s Eternal Egypt. I celebrate the major Kemetic holidays. For Canaanite Polytheism, I use ritual outlines and suggestions from Tess Dawson’s Whisper of Stone (it is a useful book), and from independent studying I have done concerning the Canaanite mythos and religious life. I am currently still learning about the Canaanite holiday cycle – which, I am finding, wonderfully matches up quite nicely in timing with many of the Jewish holidays. I keep the Sabbath, or 7th day, as a day to mark both the Jewish day of rest as well as a day to give offerings to the Canaanite Gods. As Tess Dawson writes on her own website:
Many of us qadishuma mark a seventh day-of-rest per week, starting on Friday evenings and ending on Saturday evenings. This is a modern observance based on Jewish observance. During this day-of-rest, we make offerings to the deities, feast with our friends and families, and spend time in restive activities such as walks, meditation, study, and engaging in creative hobbies. I conclude that the days-of-rest in the ancient Canaanite calendar included holidays as well as new and full moons because of their sacred timings and the indication in primary documents of ritual offering and sacred activities. Instead of taking a day of rest on Friday night through Saturday night, some take days of rest on new moons and full moons.” –From Kina’ani (holidays section)
In addition, I celebrate many of the Jewish holidays with my family. And many of them, I have found, with research, have a place for ancestor veneration – an important thing to me, and many other Pagans, I know – and for fitting in a way to honor my Gods, rather than YHVH alone. I’m sure I will write more on these holidays and my own practices more specifically in the future, as this blog progresses.
In the end, it is not about “calling” my polytheistic practices “Jewish.” They aren’t. The worship of the Kemetic Gods is called Kemeticism, and the worship of the Canaanite Gods is called Canaanite Polytheism (or Natib Qadish, or even Hebrew Tribal Polytheism, depending on the person). But I am still Jewish. I still do Jewish things. I partake in Jewish culture. I align myself with the Jewish nation, or ethnicity. I try to fit Jewish tradition alongside my polytheistic practices because it gladdens might heart, and keeps Judaism alive in my life. I want my future children to know my Gods, but also know their own family history someday, to appreciate their ancestors, their living family members, and to understand why it’s a really cool and awesome thing to come from “the Jewish people.” Wouldn’t anyone – of any culture, any ethnicity, any race, any nation, any religion, any anything – want that for their own kids?
Is it hard sometimes, to reconcile Jewish identity and polytheistic practice? Yes, of course! Nothing is truly simple in the world of religion – our journeys are complex and ever-changing.
I have a very hard time with the holiday of Passover, or Pesach, for example. In Jewish tradition, this holiday’s mythos can often paint a very negative or troubled version of the ancient Egyptian religion, and Gods I know well and love. How does one reconcile this? By taking the parts that matter out from the parts that don’t. What Pesach is about is survival, and freedom. Freedom for all slaves, everywhere. I take the holiday of Pesach as a personal opportunity to work for peace and universal freedom in whatever ways I can – be it to volunteer somewhere, and help those less fortunate than me (those “trapped” in bad situations or held hostage by misfortune, a terrible economy, abuse, etc.) – or to simply pray for peace and freedom for all (sadly, many are still enslaved in this world we live in). And to remember all those who were once slaves – either historically or mythologically, because that should not ever happen to anyone, of any race/religion/ethnicity/etc, ever again (even if it already does, sadly). Pesach is also about rebirth and new beginnings. The Seder, the Pesach ritual meal, has many foods that represent Spring and the coming of new life into the world. This is something I also like to focus on during this holiday, rather than the story of Pesach itself, a story I feel many take much too literally.
And of course, there are many who look at the story of Pesach, and see a lesson about Interfaith. About Jews and other religions working together, rather than existing as enemies or strangers. “We were strangers in a strange land” is a quote commonly said during Pesach. Hospitality is a good lesson to take out of this holiday. Peace should be the goal, even if it is hard to come by.
So you can see: there is often so much more to be received from Jewish tradition than simply a “reminder of Monotheism”, or just one way to view these holidays and stories. It is multi-faceted.
A Day in my Life
Speaking of Jewish holidays, this Saturday marks the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Another holiday that has always given me trouble. Repent for your sins! Fast! Suffer! Prepare for God’s judgement!
Why should I worry about YHVH’s judgement? I serve other Gods!
What about the judgement of my own Gods, though? What about Them? Does that matter too?
Yes, I think it does.
And so I go into Yom Kippur this year (as I have every year since identifying as Pagan, and as a Polytheist), a holiday my parents and grandparents have always requested I join them for, fast with them for, looking to my own Gods for judgement. Promising Them that I will be better. Promising myself that I will be better. I have not been good to myself this past year, and I have made many mistakes. I have areas to improve in as well. A fast helps us to realize how we are pampered, how much others do not have, how it feels to give up something important. These are lessons any of us can learn during this holiday, regardless of theology. I may not sing the prayers to YHVH, but I will fast for myself and for my Gods. And I will join my family in a break-the-fast feast afterwards.
And really, that is how I can be Jewish and a Polytheist. I pay attention to the lessons that can be learned in any given situation, in any given tradition.
And in the end, it is not about right and wrong, the “right way” to be Kemetic, the “right way” to be Jewish, or the “wrong way” to be a Canaanite polytheist. It is about what works for me. And what may or may not work for hundreds of other Jewish people, or Pagan people. Anyone has the right to disagree with me. Or to agree.
I will move forward regardless.
The only label that should matter, is whether or not I am a “good person.”
And I hope to always represent what that might mean to any given person I might meet, regardless of my religious or cultural identification.
((NOTE: I will be going on a hiatus now, from this blog, for a few weeks. I need to take a break from online blogging and the Pagan blogging world, in general. This is nobody’s fault in particular, it is my own personal choice, for health reasons and for spiritual reasons. I need to re-charge my “spoons”, as many might say. I will be back, though. Look for me in a few weeks! ^_^))