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Though often spoken of as a “Western” religion and links with Christianity (as in “Judeo-Christian tradition”), Judaism has its origins in the Middle East.
Judaism is a spirituality that indeed gave birth to Christianity, and later played a role during the emergence of Islam. But Judaism as we know it began almost four thousand years ago among a pastoral/nomadic and later agricultural people, the ancient Hebrews.
The religion of the people of Israel was and is the loving and faithful Covenant devotion to one God who revealed Divine Teaching through the fathers and mothers of the people of Israel (the Patriarchs and Matriarchs), through Moses and the Prophets and Sages whose spirituality is documented in the twenty-two books of the Hebrew Bible.
The goal of this Covenant consciousness in alliance with the Divine is clearly put in the ancient texts as
A good life for all, through adherence to God’s Teaching (Torah) and commandments (Mitzvot), harmony on earth on the individual and social levels culminating in peace and well-being for all humanity.
Thus Judaism is characterized as a religion of deed, a “Way” by which human beings are capable of understanding and responding to God’s teaching.
Because over the centuries every major power that entered the Middle East (namely Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome) coveted the land of Israel (a strategic joining point of Africa, Asia, and Europe), the religion of Israel changed, not in central principles or institution, but in form, in response to the demands of changing conditions, including oppression and exile.
After the Roman destruction of the central Temple in Jerusalem and the end of Jewish independent existence in the Holy Land, Judaism was separated from the sacrificial cult, the priesthood disappeared, and Judaism became a religion of congregations all over the world in which worship, deeds of loving kindness, and the study of God’s teaching replaced the central cult of the Temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Jerusalem remained a central spiritual symbol of Jewry throughout the world links with the vision of redemption of the Jewish people from exile and oppression, and peace for all the world (the Messianic vision).
In Judaism as it developed, prayer services emerged which recapitulated the main stories and themes of Judaism, from the universal Creation by the Universal God to the Revelation of God’s Teaching to Moses and the people of Mount Sinai to the Redemption of Israel and all humanity. It is a way of life in which all Jews are equally responsible as “a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People.”
Over the centuries a vast body of teaching and lore has grown up, often taking the form of exegesis or interpretation of the ancient Biblical texts. This has included the elaboration of actual religious practice (the Halacha or “Way”) and the philosophical texts, stories, homilies, parable, and poetry (the Aggada). The vast rabbinic text known as the Talmud (again “Teaching”) is second only to the Bible in importance. There is also a continual mystical stream in Judaism embodied in the various texts known collectively as Kabbalah (the “received” tradition), such as the Zohar (the Book of Splendor or Illumination), which teach the emanation of the Godhead into the world, the experience of communion with God in transcendence of the self, and the maintenance of the cosmos through human action in Covenant with god. Again the basic mythos or narrative embodied in Judaic consciousness is from the universal God, Creator of all of existence through particular Jewish covenant existence to the universal redemption of all Beings and all Being from bondage.
The basic symbol of Judaism is thus a seven-branched candelabrum which embodies cosmic images of all Time and Space. It is also a symbol of the Redemption, which is the goal of human existence. This symbol is reducible to Light, which is expressed many times in Jewish observance: the kindling of the Sabbath and Festival times in the home; the braided candle at the end of the Sabbath; the kindling of lights in the eight-day midwinter Festival of Lights (Chanukah), which commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple from pollution and therefore of the sacred from profanity; the memorial lights to remember the dead; and the Eternal Light over the Ark in the synagogue which contains the Scroll of the Torah.
Jews celebrate the recreation of the moral order of the world and the rebirth of the soul at the beginning of each religious year (Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur), a ten-day period of spiritual introspection and moral resolve. The home celebration or service, which relives in story and song, ritual and prayer, the Exodus from Egypt at the Passover (Pesach) season is called a Seder celebration. Its themes reenergize Jewish social consciousness, Jewish hope and vision of a better day for all.
Jews are not divided into creedal denominations, strictly speaking, in the same manner as Christianity. There are “streams” of Jewish religious life which express varying responses to the encounter of Jews with the modern world.
The most liberal of these is usually designated as Reform or Liberal Judaism, which has responded by adapting to more Western styles of worship. Reform leans toward the vernacular in worship and has modified considerably the forms of observance passed down by tradition.
Orthodox Judaism conceives of the entire corpus of Jewish observance, the received tradition, as equivalent to having been given by God at Sinai and therefore unchangeable except through procedures which are themselves given at Sinai.
Conservative Judaism finds it way between these two positions.
Reconstructionism is the most recent stream to emerge in modern Jewish life. It conceives of Jewish religious forms and observances as part of a historic Jewish culture or “civilization.” Reconstructionism values this culture, linking its preservation with a naturalist theology. Reconstructionism has recently been hospitable to neo-mystical themes and observances.
However, this does not begin to describe the considerable varieties of Jewish religious life in all of its dimensions and degrees in our time. The number of Jews in the world is estimated at 12,807,000; the number of Jews in North America is estimated at 5,880,000.
There is a profound religious and historic basis to the Jewish view on interfaith dialogue. Jewish belief encompasses a dialectic between an all-embracing humane Universalism and deep commitment to a particular Jewish religious way of life and to the continuity of the Jewish people as a religious people. Between the two – namely, universal humane concern and Jewish particularism – there is, in the Judaic worldview, no contradiction. And, in fact, the ideal Jewish position is integration of the two. On the one hand, the ideal Jew is deeply loyal to his own faith, way of life, and people. There is, at the same time, a firm commitment in Judaism to God’s universal embrace, care, and love for all humanity, the ideal of loving one’s fellow human being as oneself. The Torah teaches that all humanity is created in the image of God. In the Jewish myth of creation, one couple, Adam and Eve, are parents of all humanity. In this view god speaks to all human beings and all human communities in various ways. All perceive the one God in their own way and take different paths to the service of the ultimate Godhead. Dialogue would therefore be an endeavor to understand, on the deepest level possible, the views and positions of the Other toward the goal of ultimate harmony between all human beings, which is the Judaic affirmation of the Sovereignty of God, harmony, peach, Shalom.
But over the centuries Jews, as a minority in the Christian world, were subject to persecution, degradation, impoverishment, rioting, and even mass death for their loyalty to their faith. “Interfaith” contact was all too often a staged disputation to prove the falsity of Jewish faith and a prelude to the burning of Jewish holy books, physical attacks, and even murder of Jews, sometimes in massive numbers. Jews often confronted the choice between conversion and martyrdom. Therefore, many Jews of traditional leaning, while willing and eager to work in ameliorative civil projects with all other groups, are leery of any theological dialogue that would tend to undermine the faith commitment of Jews as a minority community. However, throughout the 20th century and particularly in pluralistic North America, Jews have been partners in Christian/Jewish dialogue as well as with Muslims and Buddhists.
Today Jews join in that trend of dialogue which is moving toward an attempt to understand the faith of the believer rather than simply studying simplistically about the beliefs of other faiths.