Judaism

The smallest of the major world religions, with some 13 million believers worldwide, mostly in the United States, Israel, and western Europe. Its importance outweighs its relatively small following since Judaism is arguably the first of the major monotheistic faiths to emerge out of the ancient Near East. Inarguably, it is central to the rise of both Christianity and Islam, the other two major religions to come out of the Near Eastern monotheistic tradition. Judaism comprises a cultural tradition and identity as much as a body of religious beliefs, and many Jews today maintain allegiance to their culture while disdaining elements of religious faith. In Judaism both are important. Origins and History The central event in the early history of Judaism is not its founding, which biblical accounts trace back to Abraham and the original Hebrews of about 2000 B.C. It is instead the Exodus of around 1250 B.C. when, Jews believe, God demonstrated his will for them as a people. Meaning journey, the Exodus took place when the prophet Moses led groups of Hebrew slaves away from their captivity in the mighty empire of Egypt. In the Sinai Peninsula, mostly separated from Egypt by the Red Sea and lying between Egypt and the land of the Canaanites, Moses was given the Ten Commandments by God on two stone tablets. The Ten Commandments served as not only a set of ethical guidelines but as a physical symbol of the newly reaffirmed covenant between God and his chosen people, the Hebrews. God also made it known to Moses that he was the only God in which Hebrews could believe, and that by following his commandments, they would demonstrate their devotion and, in turn, would prosper. God was to be known as YHWH, an unpronouncable acronym commonly written as Yahweh. The original covenant between God and the Hebrews, described in the biblical book of Genesis, can again be traced back to around 2000 B.C. But there is no documentation or evidence of Abraham’s covenant aside from scriptural accounts, making knowledge of these early events uncertain. Egyptian records, on the other hand, make note of a people known as Israel living in the land of Canaan around the time of the Exodus, giving these events a stronger basis in scholarship. In the tenth century B.C. numerous Hebrew tribes came together in Canaan, where they established the powerful kingdom of Israel. The early kings of Israel included Saul, David, and Solomon, and David and Solomon built the first Jerusalem Temple, an elaborate structure containing at its center a shrine, the Holy of Holies, where high priests kept preserved the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The tribes bickered, however, and after Solomon’s reign Israel split into two separate kingdoms. The new kingdom, where Jerusalem stood, was known as Judah. Neither Israel nor Judah proved powerful enough to fend off their stronger neighbors. Israel was conquered by the Mesopotamian state of Assyria in 722 B.C. Judah, in turn, fell to Babylon, also based in Mesopotamia, in 586 B.C., and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the conquerors. The Jews were not again to have possession of the land that they believed God had promised them until 1948. A central period in the development of the Jewish tradition followed: the Babylonian Exile. Many of Judah’s elites, including priests and prophets, were marched off into captivity in Babylon. Leaders tried to keep their faith alive through such means as collecting the books that were to make up the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, many of these books were written in final form by Hebrew scribes during this era. Some prophets, meanwhile, blamed the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of the kingdom on the Jews themselves, not on the military prowess of Babylon. God, they argued, was punishing his chosen people for their failure to keep their covenant with Him. This understanding reinforced the desires of prophets and scholars for an intensive scholarly investigation into the nature of the relationship between God and humanity as well as the need for and forms of ethical behavior. This inquiry and debate has continued to flourish in the centuries since the Babylonian Exile. In 539 B.C., the Persian Empire conquered Babylon and freed the Hebrews from their captivity. A few stayed in Mesopotamia, but many returned to Jerusalem, where they built a second Temple, dedicated in 515 B.C. During the next centuries the Jewish religion continued to evolve with the appearance of rituals and festival days, and elders continued their debates on theological and ethical matters. Disputes often arose, meanwhile among those Jews who were ready to accept outside ideas, such as those of the Greeks and Persians, and those who wanted to maintain a strict interpretation of Jewish teachings. Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside fell to the Roman Empire in 63 B.C., and the surrounding regions became the Roman province of Judea. Believing that the land was theirs, Jews chafed under Roman rule as well as the governments of Jewish client kings ruling on the Romans’ behalf, notably Herod the Great (r. 374 B.C.). The greatest, and most decisive of these revolts was the 1st Jewish War of A.D. 6670, which resulted in the destruction of the second Temple by vengeful Romans. What followed was the Diaspora, or dispersal, of Jewish peoples around the empire and, indeed, to regions as far away as India. The Jewish Diaspora During the Diaspora centuries most Jews lived as minorities in Christian or Muslim states. In Christian Europe they suffered regular persecution, as they had in the Roman Empire even after the destruction of the second Temple. The worst periods of persecution before the twentieth century occurred during and after the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Christians found Jews to be just as much their religious opponents as the Muslims who were the main targets of the Crusades, and their communities were frequently attacked. Jews were also restricted in terms of what jobs they could do and often confined to small, squalid quarters of towns and cities; these areas were called ghettos. Jews were also used as scapegoats for such problems as epidemics and poverty. Most legal restrictions on Jews in western Europe were finally lifted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although cultural prejudices often remained in place. These, combined with renewed attacks on Jewish communities in Russia (where legal restrictions had not been lifted), inspired the emigration of millions of Jews to the United States, Canada, and other areas outside Europe. These Jews and their descendants were thereby able to avoid the holocaust, the genocide of some six million European Jews under the German Nazi regime in the 1940s and a vivid reappearance of anti-Jewish sentiment. The frequent oppressions helped inspire Jewish communities to turn inwards, and fostered the appearance of sects such as Hasidism and other branches of Messianic Judaism, which offered the hope of a messiah’s imminent appearance and a retur n to Jerusalem. In Muslim areas Jewish communities generally fared better, with some, such as the scholar, scientist, and court physician to the Egyptian sultan Moses Maimonides (11351204), rising to high levels of prominence. In the late 1800s, witnessing the reapparance of anti-Semitism in Europe, the Austrian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement. Herzl argued that Jews would never truly be allowed to fit in as equals in Europe, and that only the establishment of a Jew ish state would allow them to live as equals in the community of nations. Herzl’s arguments struck a chord, especially among young, activist, Jews, and the Zionist movement spread rapidly. During the early 1900s pioneers sent communities of settlers to Palestine, which passed from Turkish to British control in 1919. In 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the modern State of Israel was declared under the auspices of the United Nations, and most nations of the world recognized its right to exist (crucial exceptions being the predominantly Muslim Arab states of the Middle East, inspiring a new era of sectarian and political violence). After nearly 2500 years, Jews once again took possession of the land they believed that God had promised them. Modern Israel maintains a law of return, recognizing the right of any Jew to emigrate to Israel and be granted citizenship. Basic Beliefs and Important Texts Judaism may well be the first major monotheistic religion. Although it is debatable whether the citizens of ancient Israel and Judah worshipped the Jewish god to the exclusion of other, local gods, Jewish leaders by around 600 B.C. began to claim consistently that there is only one God: Yahweh, the God of Moses. For many Jews God’s name is too holy to be pronounced, and tradition has given rise to such substitutes as Elohim (One who is AID, Adonai (my lord), and Hashem (the name). In Judaism, God is all powerful, allknowing, and transcends both nature and the universe. God is also constantly present in the world. He is the source of all good and cannot be the source of evil. God has granted human beings free will, despite his all-powerful being, and much Jewish tradition has been devoted to exploring the nature and scope of this free will. The mainstream tradition holds that God granted free will in order to give people a chance to make the right choices, to behave ethically. To behave ethically is to keep the commandments, to adhere to the covenant which stands as the basis of the faith. In Judaism’s earliest centuries it was a temple-based religion, with high priests conducting the main rites at the Jerusalem Temples. But around the time of the destruction of the temple the scholar Yohanan ben Zakkai realized that rebellions were fruitless since the Jews could never hope to oppose Rome by force. He instead conceived that Jewish traditions must be preserved by other means. He opened an academy of Jewish learning on Palestine’s coast to further codify Jewish teachings and maintain the practices of inquiry and debate. In this Yohanan was influenced by a Jerusalem sect known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees claimed belief in an oral Torah as well as the written one. For the Pharisees the oral Torah was a set of laws given by God orally at the time of the Exodus, and which had been carried down by teachers ever since. Yohanan pledged to keep this oral Torah, as well as its other aspects, alive. His efforts marked the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism, which, in numerous sects and approaches, is the main form of Judaism today. Rabbinic Judaism is a religion kept alive by rabbis and students often working singly or in small groups rather than a faith characterized by priests, temples, and large public rituals. At the heart of Judaism is the study of the Torah, which is a term with various meanings. Most familiarly, the Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But the word is also used as a kind of shorthand to refer to the entire Hebrew Bible or even the entire Jewish tradition of scholarship. Torah is therefore a sacred symbol. The Hebrew Bible itself is divided into the Torah, the works of the prophets (Nevi’im), and the writings (Ketuvim) and is known in the Hebrew language as Tanakh, a term derived from the first letters of those names. Through study of the Torah, Jews develop a greater understanding of God and of His meaning for them and the world. Torah study is meant to be communal and never-ending. Individual Jews enter into study as an ongoing process and potentially make contributions to the body of wisdom. These contributions have given rise to numerous other sacred texts. These include the Talmud, or more precisely the Babylonian Talmud, compiled around A.D. 500 (there is also an earlier Jerusalem Talmud). The Talmud is the result of the turn toward Rabbinic Judaism in the 1st century A.D., when temple-based Judaism was no longer possible. Rabbis teach that the Talmud, like the Torah, was handed down by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Rather than write it down, Moses passed the Talmud orally to an inner circle of high priests, who likewise passed it down to succeeding generations until the founders of Rabbinic Judaism found it necessary to commit it to paper. The Talmud consists of a series of discussions and interpretations known as the Mishnah (that which is taught). From it, rabbis have derived 613 unbreakable commandments which stand at the heart of Jewish law. These founders considered the written Torah and Talmud a kind of portable temple that, moreover, even isolated Jewish communities could maintain without any form of central, institutional authority. Sects and Communities In Judaism, tradition and culture is more important than faith; it is possible to live as a Jew without professing any belief in God whatsoever. While religious beliefs remain at the center of the tradition, a believer’s identification is with his or her people and community first. Ideally, this identification with the Jewish tradition should be active; Jews should seek to participate in the numerous rites and ceremonies that bind the people to one another and to their past. These rites vary depending on the nature of one’s identification as well as with which particular sect or approach one adopts; in the modern United States, for instance, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Jews (the largest groups) emphasize different teachings and levels of devotion. Yet almost all Jews take part in celebrations which emphasize entrance into the tradition, one’s place within it, or remembrance. These celebrations include such rituals as the bar and bat mitzvahs and the holidays of Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover. Many Jews also study the Hebrew language in order to directly join into the centuries-old discussions of Torah and Talmud. Aside from the Rabbinic Jewish tradition the most common version of the faith historically has been Messianic Judaism. Belief in the coming of a messiah and a return to Jerusalem is a common feature of Jewish faith, but many scholars, such as Moses Maimonides, deemphasized it in favor of Torah study. Nevertheless, many diaspora Jewish communities clung tightly to belief in a messiah. Commonly, messianic movements have been in response to political or cultural oppression. They have included those centered around Simeon Bar Kokhba (d. 132), the leader of a 2ndcentury revolt against Rome and the widespread belief in the messianic status of the Kabbalist, Shabbatai Zevi (16261721), who was especially revered in Eastern Europe. Judaism in the Modern World Modern Jewish tradition identifies three major communities of Jews, although within those communities are many different opinions and many different approaches to the faith. The Sephardic or Spanish Jews are the descendants of Jews who lived in Spain where all or parts of it were under Muslim rule from the 600s1400s. The Christian reconquest of Spain resulted in the forced exile of many of them, and they settled throughout the Mediterranean region as well as in northern Europe. The majority of Jews in Europe, however, are the Ashkenazim, or German Jews. Most of the Jews in the United States are of Ashkenazi heritage. Meanwhile, the third large group of Jews, the edet-ha-Mizrah or communities of the east, consists of Jews whose ancestors had remained in the Middle East or east Africa, notably Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Ethiopia, and in and around Jerusalem itself. SEE ALSO: Abraham; Hebrew Bible; Jerusalem Temples; Jewish; Moses; Torah

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