I have been researching Eastern European Jewish history this summer, and this has led me to reflect on some possible Pagan-Jewish parallels. No, I am not making a claim that the ancient Pagans of this or that region of Europe were one of the legendary lost tribes of Israel that made a wrong turn in the Mediterranean and ended up in Stonehenge or Uppsala. Nothing like that! Instead, what I have been contemplating is how the complicated status of Judaism and Jewishness as both religion and ethnic identity provides an interesting mirror to the status of Ethnic Reconstructionist Paganism as both a form of religion or spirituality AND an adaptation of particular ethnic traditions of particular European regions. Let me take you through some of the areas of correspondence that I have been considering between Paganism and Judaism, and also demonstrate that some of the areas of absolute difference between Paganism and Judaism may not quite be so absolute as is often believed.
1. Both Jews and Pagans follow religious traditions rooted in a particular place or "holy land." Even when followers of these traditions find themselves very far away, the original place of their religion's development remains sacred and meaningful. All the long centuries after the Roman Empire's crushing of the original Jewish kingdom in ancient times, Jews continued to regard Palestine as their sacred homeland, up to the development of a modern Jewish state, Israel. The Pagan parallel involves Pagans living outside of Europe in such places as the United States and Australia continuing to regard the area in Europe in which their religious tradition first developed, such as Lithuania for Romuva believers, Ireland for Celtic Pagans, Scandinavia for Norse Pagans, and so on. Travel to the homeland is a powerful spiritual experience for Pagans, as is visiting Israel for Jews.
2. The corollary of the love of a spiritual homeland is the sense of exile and loss, which is again common to both Jews and Pagans.
3. The language of the original homeland is likewise valued as sacred,with Hebrew for the Jews; European languages related to particular European regions for Pagans. Both Jews outside of Israel and Pagans living outside of Europe struggle to acquire and maintain knowledge of these languages.
4. In both Jewish mysticism and some forms of European Paganism, the ancient script,indeed the very letters and symbols of the sacred language is seen as possessing magical, divinely inspired powers. Compare the Kabbalistic view of the magical powers of Hebrew letters with the significance that Norse Pagans invest in the ancient Germanic runes. Other Pagans such as Celts, Balts and Slavs also tend to regard their earliest forms of writing as possessing sacredness and possibly magical power.
5. Both Jews and Pagans have a range of views about who is qualified to claim identity as a member of these religions. All Jewish denominations see birth from Jewish parents, with priority on a Jewish mother, as a legitimate qualification for Jewish identity. Some sects see having a Jewish father as sufficient. Most Jewish sects allow conversion to Judaism by people not born Jewish, with different rules as to how conversion is to be carried out. Among European ethnic Pagans, there is an ongoing discussion about whether and to what extent a family ancestral link to the European spiritual homeland is an important qualification for membership in a Pagan community. Most forms of ethnic Paganism allow those without an ancestral link to participate in their religious activities, but there is often a preference and privileging of those with ancestral links, though this is not always explicitly stated. There are also some ethnic Pagans who insist on ancestry as a necessary factor for inclusion in the community. Just as Jews have long debated and disagreed about these issues, Pagans are likely to do the same. I myself would advocate for totally open conversion without preference to, or prejudice against, ethnic background, but I am well aware that others have quite different and even opposite opinions!
6. Jewish communities in Eastern European history were often segregated to greater or lesser extent, though this was rarely a total sealing off of Jews from contact with non-Jews. It can be argued that this segregation helped to maintain Jewish identity and foster the development of distinct Eastern European traditions such as Hasidism. Though most if not all Pagans today live in mixed, pluralistic societies, I have on a number of occasions met Pagans who would like to live in a more segregated manner, in tight-knit Pagan communities that would be distinct and separate, though not totally sealed off, from mainstream, Christian-dominant society. Some Pagans create temporary communities in the summer months, whether camping out together at festivals, or constructing an intentionally archaic, folkloric village, as the leaders of Romuva have done in Lithuania. I wonder, will we see Pagan versions of shtetls and ghettos in the future?
7. The sacredness of nature is common to both Paganism and Judaism. While this may be more obvious and central in Pagan traditions, Judaism is replete with nature symbolism. Jewish festivals such as Sukkoth and Shavuot are essentially agricultural festivals, celebrating the fertility of the earth. The Old Testament and the Kabbalah both utilize trees as sacred symbols. To take up the contrary view, one that has become rather conventional among Pagans, the argument is sometimes made that Judaism is un-natural and anti-natural insofar as it involves the desire of God that mankind will subjugate and dominate all other creatures, whereas Paganism supposedly involves a more reverent attitude of harmony with nature. I think this difference is overstated. Most Pagan traditions are grounded in an agricultural lifestyle which also involves a domination and subjugation of animals and the natural world. Even if the natural world is highly respected and honored as sacred, it is still subjugated and dominated by mankind in any form of European-derived Paganism I know of. Judaism is also sometimes criticized by Pagans as a religion of the desert, but let us not forget that the Holy, Promised Land of the Bible is the "land of milk and honey," not a wasteland but a fertile land conducive to animal breeding and agriculture, much like Old World Europe.
8. But what about the fundamental difference between Judaism as a monotheistic faith and Paganism as a polytheistic worldview? I would not deny that this is a real difference, but I would also note that there are some monotheistic tendencies in Paganism just as there are polytheistic ones in Judaism. Greek Pagan philosophy moved toward a conception of the One behind the Many, and Norse mythology describes Odin as the All-father, and speaks of some sort of One greater than the gods arising after the world-destruction of Ragnarok. Judaism contains angels, which are arguably divine beings, certainly greater-than-mortal, and the Kabbalah has multiple powers and beings that are also greater-than-human, notably the Shekhinah, a female personification of the Jewish nation that looks a lot like a Jewish goddess. There are also the rejected goddess (or demoness) figures like Lilith in the Old Testament.
I would therefore argue that there are a good many parallels between Paganism and Judaism that are well worth pondering. I believe that open-minded Jews and Pagans can find a certain amount of common ground, if they wish to.