Judaism is a religion that most people know of, but few people understand. Due to Judaism’s persecution in the worst atrocities of the 20th century it has received high visibility in a tragic context. Many Christians think of Judaism as the religion of the Old Testament. This is partially true; the foundation of Judaism is built on a complex and structured body of writings including the Old Testament but also the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrash writings. But beyond that, Judaism is not simply a religion based on writings, it is a faith also based on a people and the living evolution of those people, on their faith and on the wisdom of their sages. It is a religion that has created a total design for living. It does not simply deal with the spiritual dimension of life; it has structured an entire way of life. Jacob Neusner as has stated a beginning definition of Judaism:
… a religion that (1) takes as its Scripture the Torah revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, meaning, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the Pentateuch) and certain other records of revelation in addition; (2) believes that its adherents through all times and places form part of that one and the same extended family, or “Israel,” the singular or holy people of whom the Pentateuch speaks; and (3) requires “Israel” to live in accord with the teachings of the Torah. (I, 209)
A point to begin a study of Judaism is a partial review of and sampling of the content of the Old Testament, called the Tanakh in Judaism. The Tanakh begins with the five books of Moses, the Torah. The book of Genesis starts with an explanation of how the universe came to be – a description of God creating the world. When it came to creating man God did a remarkable thing:
And God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on the earth.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth…. And it was so. And God saw all that He made, and found it very good. (Genesis 1:26-31)
the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man He formed. And from the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad. (Genesis 2:7-9)
It was a remarkable start for man, and things got even better when God did a reconstruction job on him and formed Eve from one of his ribs. But a tragic turn of events took place when the serpent enticed Eve to eat from the tree of life, which was forbidden to them, and she convinced Adam to join her. The following is God’s punishment:
And to the woman He said. “I will make most severe your pangs of childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
To Adam He said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it.’
Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken, for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:16-19)
Relations between God and human beings continued to decline, greatly compounded by the first murder. Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, as instructed, brought offerings to God. Abel brought the firstling of his flock and Cain brought the fruit of the soil. God accepted Abel’s offering and ignored Cain’s. In a fit of jealous rage Cain killed Abel.
This second great tragedy was still just the beginning of God’s disappointment with human beings. For ten generations the wickedness of man spread on the earth. Finally God had enough and was determined to end his creation, for he regretted having made it. But fortunately, or some might say unfortunately, Noah proved himself to be worth saving and God spared him and his family and a sample of the creatures of the earth. All else God killed with the flood.
Ten more generations passed after Noah, and God waited for man to acknowledge Him as sole God over heaven and earth (Neusner I, 9). Then God found Abraham and in him an individual worthy of being the founder of the holy people:
Abram threw himself on his face and God spoke to him further, “As for me this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be known as Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and to your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding, I will be their God.”
God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep my covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they must be circumcised, homeborn and purchased alike. Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:3-16)
Thus the covenant was formed that created the chosen people, the Jews. God further told Abraham that his wife Sarah would bear him a child, to which Abraham and Sarah both had a good laugh as Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90. Sarah bore Isaac, who was circumcised as God had commanded. God tested Abraham by ordering him to kill Isaac as a sacrifice to him and then stopped the test when Abraham proved his obedience. After Sarah’s death at the age of 127, Abraham took another wife and had many more sons. At the time of his death Abraham blessed Isaac as his heir and sent to the east the most famous of his other sons, Ishmael, who was born to Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar.
Isaac married Rebekah, who was barren until God blessed her with twins, Esau, the firstborn, and Jacob. Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. Jacob tricked Esau into giving up his birthright several times, and when Isaac was on his deathbed, Rebekah tricked the blind old man into blessing Jacob rather than Esau. Rebekah sent Jacob away while his brother cooled off, and while he was gone Jacob married Leah and Rachel. He had many children by them and their maids. After growing wealthy Jacob decided to return to his homeland. On his return, he met a stranger who turned out to be an angel with whom he wrestled. The angel gave him the new name of Israel. A name that was to prove symbolic of the long term relationship of the Jews and God, as it means “wrestling with God.” The Jews did not submit to God or have pure faith in God, through the millennium they have wrestled with God (Telushkin 40).
Of all Israel’s (Jacob’s) sons he best loved Joseph. This created a very strong sibling rivalry and the other sons plotted to kill him. Instead they sold him into slavery and he was eventually sold in Egypt. Joseph did well in slavery and was soon in charge of his master’s household, but he refused to sleep with his master’s wife, who then accused him of molestation, for which he was thrown in jail. In jail Joseph gained a reputation for interpreting dreams. When the Pharaoh was having troubling dreams that his priests and magicians couldn’t interpret, Joseph was called upon. He interpreted the dreams to mean that there were going to be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and he recommended rations be gathered to prepare for the famine. The Pharaoh was so pleased he put Jacob in charge of the land. The famine spread to Canaan and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to seek food. They arrived and did not recognize their brother Joseph, who granted them food but told them to not return without their brother Joseph. Jacob made them return anyway, and Joseph finally revealed himself to them and invited all the family to Egypt, as there were five years of famine yet to come. Thus did Israel move to Egypt and the twelve sons of Jacob become the fathers of the Twelve tribes of Israel.
The second book of the Torah, Exodus, describes the Israelites’ problems in Egypt, their eventual departure, and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The Israelites did not return to their homeland but stayed in Egypt under bondage to the Pharaoh. Their numbers increased greatly over the generations and the Egyptians began to suppress them. At one point the Pharaoh ordered the murder of all male Israelite children at birth. An Israelite child hidden in a basket by the Nile was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who named him Moses, and raised him in the privilege of the palace. In manhood Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite and was forced to flee into the countryside. There God appeared to Moses and informed him that he had been chosen to lead the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt. Moses was very hesitant as he had a speech impediment and was not a good communicator. God then also chose Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help in the task. God gave Moses the power of many miracles to try to persuade the Egyptians to let the Israelites go, but God also hardened the Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites each time. Lice, vermin, hailstorms, plagues, boils, locusts – all failed to win the Israelites’ freedom. Finally Moses declared that unless they were released the firstborn of all men and animals would die. God instructed the Israelites to paint lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels so death would pass over them. He also gave detailed instructions on a meal to eat marking the event – the first Passover feast. The death of all the first born in the land, including his own son, finally convinced the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go but he later had a change of heart and sent an army after them. The army caught the Israelites at the Red Sea, where God parted the sea, allowing the Israelites to pass and letting it crash back on the Egyptian army.
After several months of traveling the Israelites began grumbling about hardships. In response, God supplied them a food from heaven called manna. “It was like a coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafer in honey … And the Israelites ate manna forty years until they came to the border of Canaan.” When they reached Mount Sinai an event took place that shaped the future of the Western world; God appeared to Moses on the mountain and gave him the commandments:
“God spoke all these words, saying,
I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; You shall have no other gods besides Me.
You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting guilt of the parents upon their children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son, or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the LORD made the heaven and the earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested in the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
Honor your father and mother, that you may long
endure on the land that the LORD is assigning to you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness
against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s
house; you shall not covet your
neighbor’s wife; or his male or female
slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything
that is your neighbor’s.
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be forever with you, so that you do not go astray.'” (Genesis 20:1-18)
God also gave a great deal of other instructions, rules, and elaboration on the commandments. He also gave very detailed instruction on the construction of an ark to contain the tablets of the commandments, and a Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting to become a place of worship and sacrifice during the travels to Canaan. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the tablets of the LORD, the Israelites grew impatient and talked
Aaron into making a golden calf image to worship. God was furious and intended to kill them all. Moses appeased him by organizing an army that killed three thousand men; God was further placated by sending a plague upon the people.
The third book of the Torah, Leviticus, documents the detailed instructions God gave concerning the offerings to be made at the Tabernacle, the structure of the priesthood, rules of cleanness and uncleanness and more general rules in ordering the lives of these chosen people.
Offerings at the Tabernacle were to fall into various categories: burnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, offerings of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being. The following is an example of one of the instructions:
If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he shall choose offerings from turtledoves or pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar. He shall remove its crop with its contents and cast it into the place of the ashes, at the east side of the altar. The priest shall tear it open by its wings, without severing it, and turn it into smoke on the altar, upon wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:14-17)
The Cult of the Temple formed the center of the Israelite religious experience. It was a system where God and the people met with the priests serving as intermediaries.
In regard to cleanness and uncleanness, God gave Moses detailed instructions on what foods were considered clean, and therefore edible, and what was considered unclean. He also conveyed to Moses what conditions of people were clean and what one could do rectify uncleanness, such as the following:
12:1-5 The LORD spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. – On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. – She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.”
The book concludes with God restating and elaborating on His promises of success to His people, if they follow His rules, promising to crush them if they disobey.
Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, provides an account of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Again the Israelites began complaining about food and wanted meat instead of manna. This infuriated God, who sent them huge quantities of quail, which many people gorged themselves on. God then sent a plague that killed all those who ate the quail.
Scouts reported back to the Israelites that the land of Canaan was occupied by fortified cities and a strong people. The Israelites were afraid and complained to Moses and Aaron that they were being led to their death. Again God was furious with them and swore that no one over twenty years old would set foot in the promised land because of their lack of faith. The wanderings continued with periodic uprisings and complaints, which were punished by God. The Israelites began battle with tribes in the region and became great warriors, killing all males and taking females and animals as booty. When they were ready to cross the Jordan river into Canaan, God ordered all its inhabitants killed so as to not contaminate the Israelites.
The fifth and final book of the Torah is Deuteronomy. In this book Moses gives a long sermon on the history of the Israelites and a restatement of the covenant between the chosen people and God. Moses warns his people of the waywardness they have demonstrated over and over again:
“Know then, that it is not for any virtue that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people. Remember and never forget, how you provoked the LORD your God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)
Moses reaffirmed the great promises made to the Israelites:
“There shall be no needy among you – since the LORD your God will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the LORD your God and take care to keep all this instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you. (Deuteronomy 15:4-6)
He gave them laws of great wisdom and compassion:
“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it …” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
And Moses gave some laws that seem quite ludicrous by contemporary eyes:
25:11 “If two men get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes him by his genitals, you shall cut off her hand, show no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11)
At the end of the book, God took Moses to a high mountain overlooking the promised land and let him look upon it before his death, as Moses was not to enter. He was counted among those punished for their disobedience and doubt in the wilderness. So Moses died having never set foot in Canaan, and before his death he blessed Joshua to lead the Israelites to their land of milk and honey. Thus ends the Five Books of Moses.
The next section of the Tanakh is called the Nevi’m, the Prophets, consisting of the nine books of major prophets and twelve books of minor prophets. It begins with a continuation of the story of the Torah with Joshua entering the promised land and following the instructions of Moses and God. He and his armies exterminate every tribe in Canaan with the exception of the Hivites who trick the Israelites into letting them live as servants. In the Nevi’m the story is told of the establishment of the first king of Israel, Saul, and his many wars, especially those against the Philistines. In these wars an unlikely hero arises in the form of a shepherd boy named David. David became Saul’s primary commander and won many battles, but Saul became jealous and fearful of David and plotted to have him killed. David fled to the Philistines, who eventually killed Saul and his sons.
At the age of thirty David became king and began a forty year rule. He was the greatest of the Israelite warrior kings and was an equally famous poet. In his great palace in Jerusalem he had numerous wives and concubines, but even he was not without sin. The most famous example is the story of David’s infatuation with his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba. David had her husband, Uriah, sent to battle and set up to be killed so he could have her. God sent his prophet of the time, Nathan, to David who told him a poetic story of a rich man who took a poor man’s only lamb to serve to a guest. David was infuriated and said the rich man should die, Nathan then told David he was that man for taking Uriah’s wife and sending him to his death. David admitted his guilt and the LORD spared him but proclaimed his next born would die.
David fell from God’s blessing. As he grew old he had Nathan anoint his son by Bathsheba, Solomon, as the next king of Israel. God came to Solomon and asked him what he could grant him. Solomon asked only for wisdom, which greatly pleased God and he also granted him glory and riches for all his life. Solomon’s rule grew to cover a great expanse by conquest and also by marrying daughters of adjoining empires. He was acknowledged as the wisest of men and built the First Temple to God, using the finest of materials, and the LORD was very pleased. Solomon took over 700 royal wives and 300 concubines from all over his kingdom and beyond. He built temples for some of his foreign wives to the gods of their homelands. This displeased God and Solomon’s power diminished and the empire was broken into parts.
Israel continued to slip into evil ways including the worshipping of false gods. As punishment God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia to conquer Israel. The Babylonians took the treasures of the royal palace and stripped the Temple. They exiled most of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon and later had the First Temple in Jerusalem destroyed when a rebellion was put down.
Much of the writings of the prophets is to call attention to the lost way of the Israelites and urge redemption:
I responded to those who did not ask,
I was at hand to those who did not seek Me;
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
To a nation that did not invoke My name.
I constantly spread out My name.
To a disloyal people,
Who walk the way that is not good,
Following their own designs…
“When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor – to bring you back to this place. For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you -declares the LORD – plans for the future. When you call Me, and come and pray to Me, I will heed you. You will search for Me and find Me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the LORD – and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and from all places to which I have banished you – declares the LORD – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
The third part of the Tanakh consists of the Kethuvim, the Writings. It is a collection of books with very diverse perspectives and points of view. One of the most famous and highly praised is the book of Psalms. Most of these verses are attributed to David, the great poet, and are written to God:
Man, his days are like those of grass;
he blooms like the flowers of the field;
a wind passes by and it is no more,
its own place it no longer knows it.
But the LORD’s steadfast love is for all eternity toward those who fear Him,
and His beneficence is for his children’s children of those who keep His covenant
and remember to observe His precepts.
The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His sovereign rule is over all.
Equally famous is the book of Proverbs in which the wisdom of Solomon is distilled in the wonderfully structured sayings, creating a wealth of advice for living. The following is but a small sampling:
Happy is the man who finds wisdom,
The man who attains understanding.
Her value in trade is better than silver,
Her yield, greater than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
All of your goods cannot equal her.
In her right hand is length of days,
in her left, riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
And all her paths, peaceful.
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,
And whoever holds on to her is happy.
A capable wife is a crown for her husband,
But an incompetent one is like rot in his bones.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
Than a fattened ox where there is hate.
Pride goes before ruin,
Arrogance before failure.
Better to be humble and among the lowly
Than to share spoils with the proud.
He who loves transgression loves strife;
He who builds a high threshold invites broken bones.
Many designs are in a man’s mind,
But it is the LORD’s plan that is accomplished.
Through forbearance a ruler may be won over;
A gentle tongue can break bones.
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
You will be heaping coals on his head,
And the LORD will reward you.
As a dog returns to his vomit,
So a dullard repeats his folly.
If you see a man who thinks himself wise,
There is more hope for a dullard than for him.
Also attributed to Solomon is the beautiful Song of Songs. Meant to be a love poem to God, it has verses in which the sensuality is vivid:
How fair you are, how beautiful!
O Love, with all its rapture!
Your stately form is like a palm,
Your breasts are like clusters.
I say: Let me climb the palm,
Let me take hold of its branches;
Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,
Your breath like the fragrance of apples,
And your mouth like the choicest wine.
Let it flow into my beloved as new wine
Gliding over the lips of sleepers. (7:7-10)
The book of Job is a complex story of a very good man who is used as an experiment between God and the Adversary. The Adversary claimed that if Job did not have all of God’s blessings he would turn against him. To prove Job’s devotion God takes away everything from him: Job’s children are killed, his possessions are all lost, and he is covered with festering sores from head to feet. The story is a document of Job’s faith and his discussions with his friends who try to comfort him. The story ends with Job’s great dismay, his final faith, and God’s restoration of more wealth than he had before and a new set of children.
Among the writings of the Kethuvim is the book of Ecclesiastes. This book is one of the most unusual of these diverse writings and in many ways feels the most modern. It is laced with philosophy that ranges from fatalism, to hedonism, to nihilism, to pragmatism:
I realized, too, that whatever God has brought to pass will recur evermore:
Nothing can be added to it
And nothing taken from it –
and God has brought to pass that men revere Him.
What is occurring occurred long since:
And what is to occur occurred long since:
and God seeks the pursued. And, indeed, I have observed under the sun:
Alongside justice there is wickedness,
Alongside righteousness there is wickedness. (3:14-16)
Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days that God has given him; for that is his portion. Also, whenever a man is given riches and property by God, and is also permitted by Him to enjoy them and to take his portion and get pleasure form his gains – that is a gift of God. For [such a man] will not brood much over the days of his life, because God keeps him busy enjoying himself. (5:17-19)
How sweet is the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many days of darkness there are going to be. The only future is nothingness! (11:7-8)
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind: that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. (12:13)
The Tanakh, the “Old Testament,” tells the story of creation, the story of the chosen people of God, the Israelites. It tells of their many falls from grace but it also tells of God’s great love for them and his perseverance with them.
The conquest of Israel by Babylonia is given the date of 586 BCE (Before the Common Era). Three generations later, at the end of the sixth century BCE, the Persians, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians and applied his more tolerant subjugation to the Jews in Babylon; they were allowed to return to Jerusalem if they wished. Later the Temple ceremonies were again allowed to take place, and in 450 BCE the Persians sent a Jewish governor, Nehemiah, and an administrator, Ezra, to Jerusalem and the Second Temple was constructed. The crisis of the destruction of the First Temple, the exile, and then restoration kindled in the Jews’ the sense of identity. It was in reaction to these events that the Torah was first assembled. Many of the writings existed before this time, but it was during this period that the structure of the Torah began to take shape (Neusner I, 39). It was an explanation of what happened and an ordering of Jewish life, now that some self-governing power was back in their hands.
The Jews generally maintained basic administrative power in their communities under the empire structures of the Persians, then the Greeks, and the Romans, until 70 C.E. (Common Era). In 70 the Jews rose up against the Romans, were soundly defeated, and the Second Temple destroyed as punishment. Following what they believed to be historical guidelines three generations later the Jews tried to regain political control and restore the Temple. This uprising was also crushed by the Romans and now the Jews were banished from Jerusalem. It was a definitive end of the system of Temple worship and political structure that the Jews had known for a thousand years. It seemed to be a total and complete end of the Jewish nation. Ironically, in many ways it was only the beginning of a new and even more religiously powerful phase.
The Jewish sages of the time, along with some of the remnants of the priest class, set about creating a new system by which the Jewish people could live without the Temple. The end result was a law code called the Mishnah, completed sometime around 200 C.E. The Mishnah was structured around six general areas: holy things, purities, agriculture, appointed times, damage concerns in civil law and government, and women’s issues concerning family, home and personal status (Neusner I, 58). It is a document carefully structured and obsessed with classification. It may be read as philosophy, but in content it doesn’t deal with abstraction or generalizations but with detailed information about immediate and many times common concerns. The Mishnah strives to create a stable, understandable design to live by, where all things and people are classified into a design of consistency and unity. The Mishnah was structured around the utopian unit of the “household,” a family agricultural unit that formed villages. It strove to form a steady-state-economy where everyone maintained in their present status – no one grew richer, no one grew poorer. The economy was not to be based on the market but on a distributive system that maintained stability and the status quo. Private property was taken for granted with a few communal aspects in the society such as wells, bathhouses, and town squares. Money was considered a functioning commodity and not the definition of wealth. The Mishnah set forth guidelines for living within the economic structure as in the following example:
Mishnah-tractate Baba Mesia 4:10
A. Just as a claim of fraud applies to buying and selling,
B. so a claim of fraud applies to spoken words.
C. One may not say to [a storekeeper], “How much is this object?” knowing that he does not want to buy it. (Neusner II, 139)
The Mishnah created a new political structure of power designating who could control whom. It set up a system of judgment with courts of sages as the power base. The court of seventy-one was in charge of major civil matters, administering high offices of state and foreign policy. Judicial functions were primarily carried out by a court of three, with capital cases requiring a court of twenty- three.
Mishnah-tractate Sanhedrin 1:5 A-C
A. (1) They judge a tribe, a false prophet [Dt 18:20], and a high priest, only on the instructions of a court of seventy-one members.
B. (2) They call [the army] to wage a war fought by choice only on the instructions of a court of seventy-one.
C. (3) They make additions to the city [of Jerusalem] and to the courtyards [of the Temple] only on the instructions of a court of seventy- one. (Neusner II, 139)
The Mishnah defines women’s place in the social structure and economy and always in relation to men who the give form to the economy. Women could never be considered at the head of a household and if a divorce took place it was assumed she would return to her father’s household. Marriages were to take place within the guidelines given for the caste system within society:
Mishnah-tractate Qiddushim 4:1
A. Ten castes came up from Babylonia: (1) priests, 2) Levites, (3) Israelites, (4) impaired priests, (5) converts, (6) freed slaves, (7) mamzers, (8) Netins, (9) “silenced ones” [unknown fathers] and (10) foundlings.
B. Priests, Levites, and Israelites are permitted to marry among one another.
C. Levites, Israelites, impaired priests, converts, and freed slaves are permitted to marry among one another. (Neusner II, 186)
The Mishnah was not perceived as merely a newly composed law book for the Jews. It was considered the Oral Torah – laws of the Jewish people that were given at Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah and carried on by sages and priests to the present time, when they were finally being put into written form. The Mishnah created a coherent way of living for the Jewish community, without the Temple. It was written in a utopian format, without outwardly recognizing the destruction of the Temple, but it created a structure that could function in the system of subjugation in which the Israelites now found themselves. The Romans needed a stable social structure over which they could keep control of the Jewish people and the Mishnah was adopted nearly as soon as it was completed.
But the Mishnah was not an end in itself; it was a beginning point of a much larger and comprehensive body of Jewish writings now called the Talmud. The Talmud was again a reaction to another political crisis in the Jewish world. In 312 Christianity was legalized and by the end of the century adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 429 the new Christian Roman rulers abolished the Jewish patriarchal system in Israel, ending a system of government that the Jews traced back to David. To prevent the collapse of Judaism, the Jewish sages again produced an intellectual and religious masterwork that served to further unify the Jewish faith.
Two Talmuds were produced. The first called Talmud of the Land of Israel (sometimes called the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud) was written about 400-450 CE. The second, called the Babylonian Talmud, was produced around 600 in Babylonia. Both of these Talmuds comment extensively on each of the components of the Mishnah, far beyond the original material and creating a blend of law, legend, philosophy, logic, pragmatism, history, science, anecdotes, and humor (Steinsaltz 4). Much of the commentary is in the form of debate between sages over various aspects of the Mishnah or related topics:
Rabbi Chiyah and Rabbi Shimon bar Abba were engaged in study. One said: When we pray we must direct our eyes downward, for it is written: “My eyes and My heart will be there (on earth) for all time (I Kings 9:3).” The other said: our eyes must be directed upward for it is written: “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven (Lamentations 3:41).” Meanwhile, Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yosei happened along. He said: What are you discussing? They told him. Then he said: This was the view of Abba: When we pray we must direct our eyes downward and our hearts upward, thus fulfilling both verses. (Gates 3)
Other segments of the Talmud give us insight into subtler aspects of Jewish life that may be hard to discern from other writing such as the actual place of women in Jewish life:
Some louts in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood were giving him a great deal of trouble, and in exasperation he prayed for their deaths. His wife Beruriah said to him: How can you think that such a prayer is permitted? Pray for an end to sin; then, sin having ceased, there will be no more sinners. Pray that they may turn from their ways. Then Rabbi Meir prayed on their behalf. (Gates 238)
Many of the anecdotes and stories of the Talmud are insights into the wisdom of the sages:
Rav Beroka of Bei Hozae was often in the market of Bei Lapat. There he would meet Elijah. Once he said to Elijah: Is there anyone in this market who has earned eternal life? Elijah said to him: No. They were standing there when two men came along. Elijah said to him: These men have earned eternal life. Rav Beroka went to them and said: What do you do? They replied: We are jesters, and make the sad laugh. When we see two people quarreling, we strain ourselves to make peace between them. (Gates 244)
The Talmud also helped to elaborate and refine the concept of the Jewish Messiah after the events of Christianity. It taught that the Messiah would yet come, and when he did, he would reaffirm the Torah and Israel as God’s chosen people. It was the Jews’ job to prepare the way for him by keeping the commandments and following the correct ways of a living – loving God rather than the ways of cruel and deceitful men.
The literary accomplishments of the age did not end with the Mishnah and the Talmuds. About the same time as the Talmud, another great body of writings was being composed, the Midrash, which also consisted of commentaries – not upon the Oral Torah, the Mishnah, but upon some of the books of the Tanakh.
There were extensive Midrash writings on the Torah and on other books of the Bible including Proverbs. The following is an example from Proverbs that elaborates on the wisdom displayed by Solomon when being quizzed by the Queen of Sheba:
She gave him yet another test. She brought in boys and girls, all of the same appearance, all of the same height, all clothed the same. Then she said to him, “Distinguish the boys from the girls.” He immediately motioned to his eunuch to fetch some parched grain and nuts, and began passing them out. The boys unashamedly stuffed their tunics full, but the girls, being modest, [only] filled their kerchiefs. He then told the queen, “These are the boys and those are the girls. ” She said, “My son, you are a great sage!” (Visotzky 18-19)
Another example from the Midrash on Proverbs shows how a contrasting commentary illuminates different approaches to the wisdom of Solomon:
Do not answer a dullard in accord with his folly, else you will become like him (Prov. 26:4) What is said thereafter? Answer a dullard in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise (Prov. 26:5) R. Huna said: Do not answer a dullard -in a place where people know both you and him. Why so? Else you will become like him – so that people would not say “Come see the sage having give and take with that fool.” R. Joshua be Levi said: Answer a dullard in accord with his folly – in a place where people would not know either you or him. Why so? Else he will think himself wise – so that people would not say , “Were it not that this sage is suspect in the matters that the fool is speaking about, would he not remain silent?” and it is said, Like a pebble in a heap of stones, so is paying honor to a dullard (Prov. 26:80). (Visotzky 108)
The Mishnah, the Talmuds, and the Midrash, all created after the fall of the Second Temple, produced a total design for living while under the subjugation of another people. As put by Jacob Neusner:
It emerged as a Judaism in which each of the elements of the Judaism of the Temple and cult would find a counterpart: (1) in place of the Temple, the holy people, in whom holiness endured even outside of the cult… (2) in place of the priesthood, the sage, the holy man qualified by learning… (3) in the place of the sacrifices of the altar, the holy way of life expressed through the carrying out of religious duties (mitzvot, “commandments”), and acts of kindness and grace beyond those commanded (maasim tovim, “good deeds”), and, above all, through studying the Torah. (I, 52-3)
To replace the sacrifice at the Temple the grace after meals created a personal ceremony for each family in their holiness interacting with God without the need of priestly intermediaries. Public prayer, observed three times a day, became a social event at the synagogue. The Sabbath remained a cornerstone of Jewish observance. The festivals mark the passage of time through the seasons and reflect on the history of the Israelites. The feast of the tabernacles, Sukkot, marks the end of agricultural toil and commemorates the wandering in the wilderness. Passover, Pessah, is the spring festival and celebrates the escape of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The Feast of Weeks, Shavuot or Pentecost, comes fifty days after Passover and celebrates the revealing of the Torah at Sinai. The Days of Awe are ten days that begin on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These festivals and feasts mark the Jewish year and give continuity to the present and meaning to the past.
Jewish communities formed self-sufficient groups within empires and countries. They survived and many times thrived under the centuries of Christian and Islamic domination, although periodically they were persecuted, and in our own century subjected to near genocide. The rabbinic system of Judaism intentionally created the Jewish community as distinct. They wore special clothes, they ate special foods, they lived in special areas, they held specific jobs, and they even spoke special languages in some countries. They were Jews living dispersed within many countries but they were still Israelites. With the development of nation-states in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this system began to deteriorate. In countries that began to democratize their governments, Jews became citizens. They were no longer just Jews, they were also American, French, English, and so on. They had new allegiances beyond their ethnic, religious communities (Neusner I, 171).
Reform Judaism began in the early part of the nineteenth century as a reaction to these new political circumstances. Jews believing that major reconstruction of the faith was necessary made changes in liturgy, dress, food, and purity to accommodate modern times. They accepted the moral laws of the Torah and the messianic message of a kingdom to come, but no longer saw Jews as a nation but as a religious community. In the mid nineteenth century the Orthodox movement began as a reaction to Reform Judaism. Its followers attempted to maintain more of the original teachings of the Dual Torah: trying to maintain as much of the law as possible while entering into the mainstream society for their livelihood. A third movement arouse, Conservative Judaism, that tried to take a middle path between Reform and Orthodoxy. It embraced keeping as much of the Torah as possible while also accepting many of the Reform Judaism’s positions on integrating into society (Neusner I, 13).
The great body of Jewish scriptures and commentaries are not static. Especially the Talmud and Midrash writings encourage active and ongoing debate and reinterpretation. The heritage of study and debate has produced formidable sages in each period, people who took the vast religious and philosophical heritage of the Israelites and made it live for their own time and for ages after. One of the most famous is Maimonides of the 12th Century. The following are two famous quotes by the master:
Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. We have been given free will. Any person can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jereboam. We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us, no one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or the other; we ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way (Gates 8).
With regard to all human traits, the middle of the road is the right path. For example: Do not be hot-tempered, easily angered. Nor, on the other hand, should you be unfeeling like a corpse. Rather, take the middle of the road: keep an even disposition, reserving your anger for occasions when it is truly warranted. Similarly, do not cultivate a desire for luxuries; keep your eyes fixed on only genuine necessities. In giving to others, do not hold back what you can afford, but do not give so lavishly that you yourself will be impoverished. Avoid both hysterical gaiety and somber dejection, and instead be calmly joyful always showing a cheerful continence. Act similarly with regard to all the dispositions. This is the path followed by the wise (Gates 8).
The first quote is an eloquent statement of self-determinism, and the second could have as easily been made by the Buddha or Confucius. This tradition of wisdom is not a relic of the past. A 20th century example is the great scholar and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel left Poland in 1939 to teach in the United States, thereby avoiding the pogrom. He eventually settled at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City where he taught until his death in 1972. His writings bring to life the concepts of the Torah in vivid, meaningful imagery for the contemporary mind. He takes Biblical concepts such as grandeur, the sublime, wonder, mystery, and awe and makes them reverberate with his intelligence and faith. The following is a sample:
The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for the truth. The perception of beauty may be the beginnings of the experience of the sublime. The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves…. It is that which our words, our forms, our categories can never reach. This is why the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in the arts, thought, and noble living. Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no work of art, no system of philosophy, no theory of science, ever brought to expression the depth of meaning, the sublimity of reality in the sight of which the souls of saints, artists, and philosophers live.
The sublime, furthermore, is not necessarily related to the vast and overwhelming in size. It may be sensed in every grain of sand, in every drop of water. Every flower in the summer, every snowflake in the winter, may arouse in us the sense of wonder that is our response to the sublime….
The sublime is not simply there. It is not a thing, a quality, but rather a happening, the act of God, a marvel. Thus even a mountain is not regarded as a thing. What seems to be a stone is a drama; what seems to be natural is wondrous. There are no sublime facts; there are only divine acts. (Heschel 38)
Heschel had the power to confront questions of faith and contemporary doubt head on and with clarity and conviction:
Since the days of the Deists, the idea of man’s self-sufficiency has been used as an argument to discredit the belief in revelation. The certainty of man’s capacity to find peace, perfection, and the meaning of existence, gained increasing momentum with the advancement of technology. Man’s fate, we were told, depended solely upon the development of his social awareness and the utilization of his own power. The course of history was regarded as a perpetual progress in cooperation, an increasing harmonization of interests. Man is too good to be in need of supernatural guidance.
The idea of man’s self-sufficiency, man’s exaggerated consciousness of himself, was based upon a generalization; from the fact that technology could solve some problems it was deduced that technology could solve all problems. This proved to be a fallacy. Social reforms, it was thought, would cure all ills and eliminate all evils from our world. Yet we have finally discovered what the prophets and saints have always known: bread and power alone will not save humanity. There is a passion and drive for cruel deeds which only the awe and fear of God can soothe; there is a suffocating selfishness in man which only holiness can ventilate. (Heschel 74)
He can challenge some of the most revered ideas of the late 20th century, such as the new worship of nature, with such precision as to make one seriously question deeply held beliefs:
It is suspiciously easier to feel one with nature than to feel one with every man: with the savage, with the leper, with the slave. Those who know that to be one with the whole means to be for the sake of every part of the whole will seek to love not only humanity but also the individual man, to regard any man as if he were all men. Once we decide to serve here and now, we discover that the vision of abstract unity goes out of sight like lightning, and what remains is the gloom of a drizzly night, where we must in toil and tears strike the darkness to beget a gleam, to light a torch…. The norms of spiritual living are a challenge to nature, not a part of nature. There is a discrepancy between being and spirit, between facts and norms, between that which is and that which ought to be. Nature shows little regard for spiritual norms and is often callous, if not hostile to our moral endeavors.
Man is more than reason. Man is life. In facing the all-embracing question, he faces that which is more than a principle, more than a theoretical problem. … Yet, to refer to the supreme law of nature as God or to say the world came into being by virtue of its own energy is to beg the question. For the cardinal question is not what is the law that would explain the interaction of phenomena in the universe, but why there is a law, a universe at all. (Heschel 100)
Heschel explores the fundamentals of Judaism with such insight as to seem to be a man in the dark with a flashlight illuminating concepts as he approaches them. He describes mitzvot, commandments, as, “spiritual ends, points of eternity in the flux of the temporality.” He describes life as a concern, “A man entirely unconcerned with his self is dead: and man exclusively concerned with his self is a beast.” He regards needs as natural to humans but, “He who sets out to employ the realities of life for satisfying his own desires will soon forfeit his freedom and be degraded to a mere tool. Acquiring things, he becomes enslaved to them; in subduing others, he loses his soul.” Heschel regards the ultimate need not one of ours but the need of God for man. Man is needed. Life is a partnership with God – a commitment – a covenant. Heschel does not look to God in heaven but believes the true dwelling place of God is in the heart of everyone willing to let God in. He believes that law of the Torah is what holds the world together but it is the love of the Torah that will bring the world forward.
Abraham Joshua Heschel had deep compassion in interpreting a Judaism of constructive love and law; but he also looked upon contemporary times with great despondency and said the only honest preaching of the day can be a “theology of despair.” He said:
The central problem of this generation is emptiness in the heart, the decreased sensitivity to the imponderable quality of the spirit, the collapse of communication between the realm of tradition and the inner world of the individual. The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, or how to resist the deceptions of the silent persuaders. There is no community of those who worry about integrity. (Heschel 251)
But even in his despair he did not give up hope:
The spirit is still a small voice, and masters of vulgarity use loudspeakers. The voice has been stifled, and many of us have lost faith in the possibility of a new perceptiveness. …
Yet, man is able to break the chains of despair, to stand up against those who deny him the right and the strength to believe wholeheartedly. Ultimate truth may be hidden from man, yet the power to discern between the valid and the specious has not been taken from us.
Surely God will always receive a surprise of a handful of fools – who do not fail. There will always remain a spiritual underground where a few brave minds continue to fight. Yet our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs but rather how to remain human in the skyscrapers. (Heschel 254)
Judaism is a religion, a way of life, a design, of a relationship between God and people in this life. There is little talk of heaven, paradise, devils, and hell. The emphasis is on living a life of justice and wisdom in a covenant with God.
The legacy of Judaism to the Western world is enormous. It has not only created a remarkable religious, philosophical, and historical heritage – no small accomplishment for a small, usually weak and many times countryless people – it is also the fertile ground on which two more of the world’s most influential religions grew, Islam and Christianity. Not all of the Jewish heritage may be looked upon by all with glowing favor, including the male-dominated patriarchal society, a contribution to Western society that Judaism shared with the ancient Greeks. To look upon Judaism and see the 3000 year transition from a small, sacrificial cult to the living, evolving religion of today, to look upon the heritage of faith, wisdom, and determination of this extended family of Israel, to gain some insight into this religion and people is an experience of awe.
Gates of Repentance, The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984.
Heschel, Abraham J., Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism, selected, edited and introduced by Fritz A. Rothchild, New York: The Free Press, 1959.
Neusner (I), Jacob, A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992.
Neusner (II), Jacob, The Mishnah: Introduction and Reader, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
Steinsaltz, Adin, The Essential Talmud, New York: Bantam Books, 1976
Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.
Vitotsky, Burton L., translator, The Midrash on Proverbs, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
all Biblical quotes not from the above sources came from:
Sacred Writings Volume 1: Judaism: The Tanakh. The New JPS Translation (Jewish Publication Society), New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, 1992.
1995 copyright Mark W. McGinnis
Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com