Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Judaism 101

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Barbie Fischer
[Note: Part three of our series - "Religions 101" - comes from Barbie Fischer. In addition to being in my small group for class, Barbie is the Development Coordinator for Global Impact, an NGO whose mission is "to assure help for the world’s most vulnerable people." Barbie is a Jewish Christian, which means she has ethnic and religious Jewish heritage in her family but is now a practicing Christian. Her Christian tradition stems from the Stone-Campbell/Restorationist movement of the 19th century. As I've stated in previous posts, this series is based on our group reading Stephen Prothero's God In Not One for class. -bg]

Story and Law
Judaism is a narrative religion focused a lot on memory. However, Judaism is not just story, but story and law. “Those who forget the law eventually forget to tell the story.” “To be a Jew is to tell and retell a story and to wrestle with its key symbols: the character of God, the people of Israel, and the vexed relationship between the two. It is a story of slavery and freedom, of exile and return.

Jews do function as an ethnicity of sorts bound together not so much by shared beliefs as by a shared community. Not all Jews believe in God as some claim Judaism merely by birth right, while others it is both by birth and belief in God, and a commitment to studying the Torah.

[Read on after the break for more on Judaism from Barbie...]

Influence of Judaism
Judaism gave us: the prophetic voice that continues to call out for the oppressed. It gave us stories that continue to animate political and literary conversations worldwide (Adam & Eve, Noah and the flood, David and Goliath). The Jewish story of slavery and freedom the author says maybe the “greatest story ever told.”Judaism has also had huge influence in US politics and American pop-culture (see pages 246-7). Judaism gave birth to Christianity and Islam, so while there are only “two Jews out of every thousand human being, its offspring account for one out of every two.”

Two great contrapuntal themes in the Jewish story:

  1. A rhythm of wrong doing, punishment, and exile
  2. A rhythm of covenant, breach, and new covenant

Major texts:

  • Torah: (typically translated “law” it actual connotates “teaching” or “guidance”) refers to the first five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Torah is sometimes used to refer to what Christians call the “old testament”, and what is the entire Hebrew Bible. It can also refer to the oral law.
  • Tanakh: (an acronym for the entire Hebrew Bible, which sometimes is referred to as Torah in a general sense) it is filled with proverbs, law, love poems, prophecies, angels, kings, and commoners, hymns, theological history, wisdom literature, and apocalyptic visions. This is all contained in three major parts:
    • Torah (in the narrow sense: the five books of Moses)
    • Neviim: the book of the prophets, such as Isaiah and Amos
    • Ketuvim: the book of writings, such as Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Song of Songs.
  • Talmud: or oral Law is full of various lines of argumentation, its two and a half million words don't just contain contradictions; they are designed around them, with a passage at the center of each page literally surrounded by competing interpretations. It is written down in three main texts:
    • Mishnah (c. 200 CE)
    • Jerusalem Talmud (4th century CE)
    • Babylonian Talmud (5th century CE)

Jews, “love the questions.” Learning is valued in Judaism and the disagreements are a path to learning. It is not required to agree, but to engage. According to a Hasidic saying, “If you are proved right, you accomplish little; but if you are proved wrong, you gain much: you learn the truth.” Truth is not necessarily one one side or the other in an argument. The name Israel means one who has wrestled with God and the Jews do just that, not only with God but with each other, and their own tradition’s tension between story and law, prophet and priest, exile and return, mercy and justice, movement and rest.

Judaism does not evangelize, but has survived through inheritance. There are no formal creeds although the Shema repeated in both Jewish services and scripture is sort of a creed. It contains a doctoral statement, immediately followed by a ritual statement. (see p. 251)

Views on Life
Task of human life is to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) This is done by practicing the 613 mitzvot (commandments). These are described in Jewish scripture and are said to bring holiness to our imperfect world. the purpose of the tradition was not to solve the human problem but to keep a people together. Jews view themselves as a chosen people, not to believe something, but to do something, to repair the world (tikkun olam). So Jews are knit together more by ritual and ethics than by doctrine.

The problem is exile (distance from God and from where they ought to be). The solution is return (to go back to God and to their true home). How? by telling the story and following the law (to remember and obey).

Jewish thought has long downplayed the after life. according to the author almost all Jews agree that our focus should be on this life.

Judaism orders the world in time. Three pilgrim festivals (traditional celebrated with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem) commemorate key moments in the Jewish story: Pesach (Passover) for the exodus from Egypt; Shavuot (Pentecost) for the giving of the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai; and Sukkot (Tabernacles) for the flight from Egypt into the wilderness. Two other major holidays are Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Shabbat, or Sabbath is celebrated every Friday from Sundown to Saturday Sundown. It is the most important holiday in a tradition built around sacred time. It is a memorial to the day God rested after creating the world. it also commemorates freedom from slavery described in the book of Exodus. It is the only holy day commanded in the 10 commandments. Shabbat is often thought of as prohibiting work, but it truly prohibits creative acts- mimicking the creativity God showed on the first six days.

Various Branches
There are three major branches of Judaism, while the state of Israel only recognizes Orthodoxy.

  • Orthodoxy focusing on the law (21% of American Jews) - Defenders of Torah and tradition. The orthodox Jews break themselves up even further, having modern orthodox Jews, and Hasidim, which are considered ultra-orthodox
  • Reform focusing on ethics ( 39% of American Jews) - Began in 18th century Europe, subscribers wanted to be modern Germans or modern Americans without ceasing to be Jews. They used vernacular languages instead of Hebrew for their services, among other things.
  • Conservative focusing on tradition (33% of American Jews) - More of a middle path. quite open to advances in modern thought, but when it comes to worship and law, respecting not only the ethical, but the ritual they are more in line with the orthodox.

There is also Reconstructionist and Humanistic Jews, which the author speaks to on page 270- 271. These are only found in the U.S.

Finally, the author touches on Zionism a more political look at exile and return that started in the 19th century and resulted in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Also, the author touches on Judaism’s conversations of women, a section he title “Feminist Theology” on page 272-273. In addition, he touches on mystic Judaism known as Kabbalah and made popular by several American celebrities. Kabbalah also sees the world as broken and needing repair like other Jewish branches. Lastly, the author talks of Jewish renewal, a movement started in the 1960s, that adopts all sorts of outside influences into the Jewish family and giving them Jewish life. It draws heavily on Kabbalah and Hasidism, but also picked up things from feminism, environmentalists, and from Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

Summary Questions
What is “real” for this religion? (And in the converse, what is not real?) Life experiences and the law
How is the “real” organized for this religion? Linear, time sequential
What is valuable and what is not valuable for this religion? Knowledge and education is valuable
Where does real knowledge come from for this religion? Torah and debate
What must followers of this religion do? What must they not do? Obey Torah in order to aid in fixing the brokenness of the world

Does it matter that we were raised in societies that were shaped by these faith traditions? Do our cultures and our political and social systems reflect these underlying ways of thinking about the world? Short answer, YES!

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