An Introduction to Judaism

Dr. Meredith Sprunger

Judaism: The Religion of Ethical Monotheism

 

Judaism is among the oldest of the world's major living religions. Its members have been frequently persecuted and scattered throughout the world yet have kept their identity. In 1982 Judaism reports 14,336,520 followers. Judaism believes that God is active in the social and historical process. The amazing achievement of Judaism is that it has developed the concept of God from that of a primitive tribal deity to the God of all nations.

The patriarchs of Judaism lived in the Fertile Crescent at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. The Biblical report speaks of the calling of Abraham in which he is promised that he will become the father of a great nation through which all the world will be blessed. The early Hebrews practiced animal sacrifice and circumcision. The generic name for God among the Semites wa El. He is referred to variously as El Shaddai (God of the mountains or God Almighty), El Elyon (God Most High), El Olam(God everlasting), and Elohim (Gods). The Hebrews regarded themselves as God's chosen people.

The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt where they served as slaves is the most important event in Judaism. Their miraculous delivery from the Egyptians under the leadership of Moses, the reception of the Ten Commandments, their forty years in the wilderness, and their conquest of the promised land are central factors in their religious consciousness, holidays and observances. The Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting were also important in the early days of Judaism.

With the establishment of the Hebrew monarchy under David and Solomon the religion of Israel took on a more formal character. David captured Jerusalem and Solomon built the first temple. Although animal sacrifice remained the main form of worship, prophets added a new dimension to Judaism. Amos proclaimed the need for personal and national obedience to a righteous God. Hosea declared that Yahweh was a God of mercy and love. Isaiah caught a vision of God's holy majesty and righteousness. Micah's summary of religious duty was "to do justly, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with thy God."

In 922 B. C. the Hebrews were split into two nations. The northern kingdom, Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B. C. and the ten tribes which made up this nation disappeared from history. The southern kingdom, Judah, survived the Assyrian years but were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B. C. Solomon's temple was torn down and the people were carried into captivity.

During the period of captivity Ezekiel gave the Hebrews hope by pointing out that they could worship Yahweh in Babylon as well as Jerusalem and pictured the rise of a new nation in the future. Second Isaiah described Yahweh as the God of the universe and promised a messiah to redeem the entire world.

When the Persians captured Babylon in 538 B. C. many Jews under the leadership of Ezra were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The reading of the law in book form took on new significance. The second temple was built (520 B. C.) and greatly enhanced much later (37-34 B.C.). The Romans destroyed it in 70 A.D. Following the Babylon captivity the Priestly Code was developed and legalistic Judaism was established. Later apocalyptic writers like Daniel and Enoch spoke of the coming of divine deliverance and an idealized future.

The Babylonian captivity was also the beginning of the long history of the Diaspora. All of the cities in the Roman empire had a Jewish population. The Jews of the Diaspora developed the institutional synagogue and the office of rabbi. Following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Hebrew scholars gathered and after much debate established the canon of the Torah--The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings(Old Testament) as we have it today. Later the Mishnah, (commentaries on the law) was compiled.

The center of Jewish learning then shifted to Babylon where the Gemara (serrmonic material on all areas of Jewish life) was brought together. When the Gemara was added to the Mishnah the resultant product was called the Talmud. There was a Palestinian Talmud and a Babylonian Talmud; both are written in Aramaic, while the Mishnah texts are entirely in Hebrew. During the medieval period Jewish and Muslim scholars worked together translating Greek and Latin philosophers into Arabic. Baghdad became the center of Jewish religious authority during this period.

Renewed persecution of the Jews by Muslim rulers began in 847 and with the decline of the Babylonian community Spanish Jews became the leaders of worldwide Judaism. The greatest figure in Spanish Judaism was the philosopher, talmudist, and physician, Maimonides (1135-1204). He attempted to harmonize Judaism with the philosophy of Aristotle. In 1391 there was a massacre of thousands of Jews and in 1492 the Jews and the Moors were expelled from Spain.

Mysticism--the concern for angels, demons, charms, dream interpretation, messiah predictions, and numerology--in Judaism is lumped under the heading of Cabala (tradition). The most outstanding compilation of cabalistic material was the sefcr Hazahar or Zohar attributed to a second century A.D. leader, Yohai; however, scholars believe Moses de Leon, a thirteenth century Spanish mystic, is the author. Cabalistic literature appeals to those who are oppressed and discouraged. These writings have been popular. This aspiration for deliverance is also reflected in that many in Jewish history have claimed to be the expected Messiah.

By the tenth century Europe had become the major location for Jewish life. The Jews frequently became money lenders to the Christian nobility. The Christian Crusades set off widespread attacks on Jews in Europe. Many fled to Poland or Islamic countries where rulers were more tolerant. By the end of the sixteenth century Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in the world. Their language was Yiddish, a combination of German and Hebrew. Jews in European cities were forced into restricted sections known as Ghettos, which were the worst parts of the city. The Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that Jews must wear a yellow badge and in some communities distinctive hats were required. A revolt in Poland resulted in the slaughter of from 300,000 to 500,000 Jews.

In the mid 1700's Moses Mendelssohn, a learned Jew, began writing essays in German and was accepted by the literary people and leaders of his day. He encouraged the Jews to come out of the ghettos and enter the modern world. About the same time Baal Shem Tov began preaching that God was not found in scholarly research in the Bible or the Talmud but in simple heartfelt faith. His followers became known as the Hasidim (pious ones).

By the nineteenth century Christian nations began making declarations that people of all faiths had equal rights. In 1848 Jews were first admitted to European universities. The Alfred Dreyfus trial in France, however, caused Theodore Herzl and others to realize that Jewish people would never be treated fairly until they had a land of their own. This resulted in the birth of the Zionist movement. The Nazi holocaust in which an estimated six million Jews were killed intensified this aspiration. Jews in increasing numbers migrated to Palestine. They were encouraged by the British and when the British left Palestine in May of 1948, Israel immediately proclaimed statehood.

The following beliefs are central to Judaism: (1) Ethical monotheism, this doctrine of the one universal God is the central teaching of Judaism and its gift to the world. (2) The one true God has revealed his sovereign will through the Prophets. Here Abraham and Moses are especially important but revelation is progressive and is continued through the scholars and rabbis. (3) God has chosen Israel to be his servant to bring men to a true knowledge of God. Israel has a mission to all mankind. This does not endow the Jews with special privileges but it does give them special responsibilities. (4) God's will for man effects all of life. It applies to all people and to all times and places. Religious duties are especially emphasized in connection with the family and the welfare of society. The ideals of truth, justice, humility, faithfulness, and loving-kindness are held in high regard. Jews are noted for their love of learning.

There are three divisions within modern Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is rigorous about ritual observances, the dietary laws, and keeping the Sabbath. It stresses the absolute authority of revealed Law and looks for the coming of the Messiah. Conservative Judaism, while continuing rabbinical Judaism, claims the right to adopt the traditions to the conditions of the modern world. It is less rigid in the formulation of requirements than Orthodox Judaism. Reformed Judaism stresses the ethical teachings of the prophets and the growth of an age of justice, truth, and peace. Judaism is regarded as an evolving religious experience that is subject to change. (H. H. Titus - Living Issues of Philosophy)


Index to the Full Series

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