to study is to pray and perspective on Judaism

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Study Part 1: To Study is to Pray

Welcome Back


Jewish Star; Star of David


This is a picture of a Jewish Star


Judaism is a small religion in terms of numbers, but it has had an enormous impact. This is not only for the obvious religious reasons (Judaism providing the roots of both Christianity and Islam. Jewish influence and culture also impacts us. Three very influential Jews who were not religious are Karl Marx, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Their impact on the 20th Century alone is simply overwhelming.


Preparing for Your Essay: Study Guide


Taking notes while studying academic writings and videos facilitates critical thinking and deeper engagement. This, in turn, makes writing the essays less time consuming.

Difficulty understanding is most often the result of a lack of focus, rather than the difficulty of the material.

Checking and answering text messages, having the TV on, or trying to study with other people around prevents you from focusing. These distractions are not conducive to understanding anything deep and profound.

Learning Goals


Describe both traditional and modern Judaism and understand how it is a pioneer of the monotheistic faiths.

Understand the meaning of “covenant.”

Discuss how Judaism is concerned with God and following the Torah and the importance of the Talmud in that understanding.

Understand the important role played by the Sabbath and other festivals, holidays, and ceremonies.

Describe the role of the Messiah and the Messianic Age.

Understand why Judaism is more of a practice than a belief system.

Understand the general outlines of Jewish history.

Describe the role of women in traditional Judaism and how this is changing in modern Judaism.



Judaism is so many things that it is difficult to know where to start. It is, of course a religion. But it is also a culture and a people. There are Jews who do not believe in God or consider themselves religious. Could this be true of Christianity or Islam? No. Both of those religions require faith in God, but they are not a people the way the Jews are. It would be difficult to say “I am a Christian but I do not believe in God.”


It is not inaccurate to say “I am a Jew and an Atheist.” And yet Jews are not a race the way Chinese and Japanese people are considered a race! Confused? It is understandable! There are white and black Jews, European and American Jews, African and Chinese Jews, religious and secular Jews. There are Jews who are also Israelis and Jews who do not identify with Israel, and do not approve of all that Israel does.


So how do you know if you are even Jewish? Traditionally, you are considered Jewish if your mother is a Jew. It is also possible to become a Jew through conversion. Jews do not try to convert other people the way some religions send out missionaries, but they do accept people into Judaism who wish to convert.


It is not easy to convert. One must study and learn a great deal before one is allowed to join, but this prevents those who wish to become Jewish from doing so based solely on an emotional impulse. Instead you must make a thoughtful and rational choice over a period of time while you study what you are committing to. It typically takes a couple of years of preparation and study.


There are a lot of stereotypes about Jews. You have probably heard some of them, such as all Jews are rich or they are trying to take over the world, or that they control the media. Such stories might be somewhat harmless for other groups of people, but Jews have found themselves persecuted in brutal ways all over the world for over two thousand years.


As a result, they are very sensitive to some of these stereotypes about “who they are.” It will be our task to sort out all of this the best we can and study Judaism with a fresh and open mind. Most important is to keep in mind that Judaism does not represent any single race, belief, or viewpoint, values or politics.


The Traditional Story of Judaism


Michalangelo’s Moses in San Pietro


This is a picture of Moses carved by Michelangelo


As many of you know, the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) told the story of the origin of not only the Jews but of the world as well. The Jews believe God created the world and trace themselves back to Abraham. The Bible says that Abraham came from Ur in the Valley of the Two Rivers in Mesopotamia.


The Jews believe that Abraham was called by God out of Ur to found a people who would worship the one true God. The story is too long and involved for this essay, but I hope that if you are not already familiar with the history that you will sit down sometime and read about it in the Bible or a history book.


Knowing this story is important because, “A fundamental feature of the Hebrew Scriptures is what we have spoken of as a historical or linear concept of time, in which God himself imparts new revelations in history. …It is a history in which God is himself acting and revealing more of himself” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 265).


Briefly, I will summarize a few points. Abraham had a son named Isaac who had a son named Jacob (later changed to Israel). Israel had 12 sons and from them we get the 12 tribes of Israel. The story continues with the famous journey of Moses and the Exodus. As they passed through the desert, God revealed his Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to Moses on Mount Sinai. Torah means “teaching” or “instruction” or “law” and is commonly known as the Law of Moses. Jews continue to follow the Torah and this will be discussed more later in my essay. But first, we will finish this overview of history.


The Jews eventually arrived on the border of Canaan. At this time the Jews decided to claim this land as their own, for they believed it was given to them by God through Abraham. For a number of years they lived with ups and downs under temporary leaders called judges, and under religious leaders called prophets.


Around the year 1000 B.C.E. the Jewish people developed a kingship under Saul that was short lived and passed to another tribe, the tribe of Judah. The great King David united the twelve tribes, built his capital, made plans to build the temple in Jerusalem.




This is a sculpture of King David by Michaelangelo


The kingdom was united for less than a hundred years and then divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South. Eventually Israel was defeated in a war and the 10 tribes in the North disappeared into history. No one really knows what happened to these people, but it is assumed that those who were not killed assimilated with the conquerors.


Judah in the south (where the name Jew comes from) continued on but it also had many ups and downs. It too was conquered, but a remnant always survived. At one point the Jews were sent into exile in Babylon (modern Iraq) but were later allowed and even encouraged to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, which had been destroyed.


Dome of The Rock, Jerusalem


This is a picture of the Dome of the Rock, traditionally located where the Jewish Temple stood before its destruction by the Romans.


This was approximately 500 years after King David. The Jews continued to live in Israel (Palestine) for the next 500 years, sometimes free and independent, but usually ruled by some foreign power. Persia, Greece, and eventually Rome, all had their chance to rule the Middle East, including Israel.


In the year 70 C.E. the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule was crushed, and the second temple was destroyed along with Jerusalem. After a final rebellion around 135 C.E., which was also crushed, the Jews were exiled from Israel and dispersed among the nations.


The Jews lived and moved around all over the world for the next two thousand years until they returned to Palestine to re-form the Israeli nation in 1948. While this founding of a new nation has been controversial for many, particularly the Arab nations, for Jews it was considered little less than a divine intervention. Never had history seen a nation re-form itself and its language.


If you watch the news, the situation in Israel is never calm. There have been several wars and much terrorism. Despite these difficulties, Israel has prospered and grown and seems to be surviving its many challenges.


It is important to keep in mind that the majority of Jews live outside of Israel. In fact, there are more Jews in the United States than in Israel. Almost as many Jews live in the New York City area alone as live in the whole nation of Israel.


Biblical Judaism


Now it is important to return to the idea of monotheism that was pioneered by Abraham, but actually took quite a while to develop fully. It is easy to think that monotheism just came along and swept polytheism away, but a closer look reveals a different story.


It is also easy, at a time when most of the Western world takes monotheism for granted, to forget that it was a radical break with the common philosophical understanding of the Divine at the time. Most people around the time of Abraham were polytheists.


At first the Hebrew God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only later is this God recognized as the one true God of everyone on Earth. The Jews believed that God made a covenant with Abraham to bless him and make him a great people.


In return, Abraham promised that he and his descendants would worship and follow only God. This covenant is an essential idea to grasp. The Jews are sometimes referred to as a covenant people. A covenant is a special kind of contract between two parties. It is a sacred agreement.


The remarkable thing about this is the idea of faith in a God who had a personal relationship with Abraham. This idea of relationship —covenant relationship — is crucial. It explains Judaism in a nutshell.


The Jews have an agreement with God that is often tested but is never to be broken. Abraham’s God was not located in any temple but was available as a presence wherever the Jewish people travelled.


Many of the great religions at the time of Abraham had huge temples and elaborate rites and hierarchies of priests and servants. Yet, amazingly enough, all of those gods are almost forgotten today, while the God of Abraham is recognized as the one and only God by the majority of Western people, including Christians and Muslims, who also trace their roots back to Abraham.


A Covenant People


Another interesting idea about the “covenant relationship” is that in Judaism, God works mostly through ordinary people. “In the Bible, however, it is not the self-purification or spiritual achievements of a yogi or adept or Buddha that makes one available to God to advance his work. It is rather that the one God, with true omnipotence, is able to reach to the “bottom of the barrel” if he wishes and select whomever he wants, however unpromising” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 266-267).


Jews place the emphasis on God’s grace reaching out and pulling them up rather than on their reaching up to God through their own inherent holiness. If you study the Bible, you will see that it is full of stories of very ordinary people, full of human weaknesses, who are nevertheless called on to do great things.


At first, worship was centered on the temple in Jerusalem and its animal sacrifices. When the Romans destroyed the Temple and they lost their country, Jews again had to find a way to successfully adapt their religion to changing circumstances. The fact that they did so is a central reason for their survival as both a faith and a people.


This adaptation began, though, before they built the second Temple, while they were in exile in Babylon. The Jews began to focus their worship on study of the Torah and prayers and worship. This would become so much a part of their life that even after the second temple was built, Jews who did not live in Jerusalem continued to gather in houses of study called synagogues to study and pray together.


The Talmud




This is a picture of one page of the Talmud


Rabbis (teachers) wrote commentaries and tried to show how the Torah was applicable to areas of life not covered by the original instructions. There was also a strong belief that besides the written Torah, God had revealed to Moses and the other prophets after him an oral teaching. This Torah was not written down but passed from teacher to student by word of mouth. Due to the upheaval of the times, there was a fear that this oral teaching would be lost and therefore it needed to be preserved.


“These labors were compiled in the Mishnah (c.200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.), a compilation of stories that fill in the gaps in the oral Torah, and the Gemara (c. 200 to 500 C.E.), rabbinical commentaries on the Mishnah to connect it to the written Torah; both together make up the great multi-volume text known as the Talmud” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 270).


Jewish scholars today spend a lifetime studying the Talmud. It is the book most sacred, after Scripture. Jews do not believe that you can just pick up the Bible and understand it. Or rather, you may understand a very superficial level of meaning, but without training and study, you will miss the deeper truths that are being revealed.


While on the topic of the Torah and Scripture, it is important to understand how the Jews look at the Bible. They divide it into three sections. The Torah is the first section and includes the first five books of the Bible. The Prophets is the second section and includes some books of history. The third section is called the Writings. It includes the “wisdom” literature, including the Psalms and Proverbs.


It is important to note that sometimes when Jews speak of Torah, they mean the whole Bible, sometimes they include the Talmud, and other times they include all sacred revelation. It depends on the context, but since one meaning of Torah is “instruction” you can make the argument that wherever God’s will is revealed is also Torah. Mystics in particular expand the meaning of Torah.




This a picture of a Torah scroll in ceremonial wrapping


The Messiah


A final important idea of Biblical Judaism is the concept of the Messiah. When the prophets spoke about the judgment of God, it was not only in the negative terms of condemnation. It was also in positive terms of God helping to make things right again, not only with the Jews but with the whole world.


Central to this idea was that the Messiah (the “anointed one”) would be sent by God to usher in these days of justice and peace. There were different ideas circulating about what this Messiah would be like and what he would do, but the expectation was there. Some Jews still await a literal Messiah while other Jews see the Messiah as a symbol of the Messianic Age, a time when we all together, will bring about the justice and peace God has always wanted for humanity.


Of course, as we will see later in this course, Christians believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, it is important to understand that the Jews do not believe Jesus fulfilled the requirements of being the Messiah. You might also recognize that this fundamental disagreement between Jews and Christians has been going on for two thousand years.


I have taken you through some of the history of early Judaism and its core concepts found in the Bible. Long after the Bible was settled and accepted, Judaism continued to develop and change. We will now look at some of these post-biblical times.


Medieval Judaism


Czech-03843 – Altneuschul


This is a picture of a Medieval Synagogue


Surviving the destruction of the second temple by Romans was not as difficult as might be imagined, because the Jews already had a tradition of synagogue worship and study. Now it became their only option. Judaism became the way of Torah as practiced in the home and synagogue.


With the emphasis on study and prayer, it was only natural that Jewish spirituality would start to develop a unique mysticism of its own. Jewish mysticism is known as Kabbala.


Kabbala, “based on finding deeper, allegorical meanings in the words and letters of the Hebrew Torah that point to metaphysical realities held that God in himself is infinite and incomprehensible, but that his attributes provide windows of insight into God as he relates to humanity” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 273).


For a long while the teachings of Kabbala were hidden from the majority of the people and considered dangerous. You could only study Kabbala from a teacher who determined that you were ready. This is no longer true in a day and age when you can pick up a cheap paperback copy of so many mystical traditions at your local bookstore. However, many Jewish adherents of Kabbala would say that the modern popular form of Kabbalah made famous by Hollywood stars is not really the same as the ancient and hidden path which must still be learned from a master, rather than from a book.


I am not in the position to judge the truth of that statement, but I know I lean in the direction of caution when any spiritual discipline becomes too popular.


It seems to be a truth that a serious spiritual practice requires a great deal from the practitioner. It is not simply a “quick fix” approach to life. It requires commitment and fidelity through the tough and difficult times and humility and gratitude through the more blissful times.


What I have learned about Kabbala is that it is a path of meditation based on the dynamic interaction of certain basic attributes of God drawn from the scriptures and arranged into a pattern of male-female polarities found on the Kabbalistic tree of life.


Kabbala has much in common with other forms of mysticism that believe that God can be known in the heart through love. It shares the faith that God wishes to be known and is closer to us than we are to ourselves.


Various practices developed over the years to teach the student how to be more present to that Presence known as the Divine. From the introduction on developmental states of consciousness, the study of the Talmud could be related to the rational state, and practice of Kabbala to the trans-rational state.


Modern Judaism


Tree of Life: Labeling


This is a symbol of the Kabbala Tree of Life


Kabbala became known in a popular form in the 18th century as Hasidism. This was a devotional movement that started in Eastern Europe through the teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov. “Hasidism is a feeling-oriented reaction against rabbinic emphasis on learning and legalism and against stifling social conditions” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 273.)


Judaism had reached a stage of stagnation in some ways. Study was limited to men and only those men who could find some way of being supported so that they could study full time. This left the great majority of the people without much of a spiritual path. Hasidism did not teach that study was wrong, but that it was not as necessary as previously thought.


Hasidism taught that God made himself known to the humble and unlearned if they opened their hearts in prayer, song and worship. Hasidism placed emphasis on the intention one brought to one’s life. Emphasis was placed again on some of the prophetic teachings on justice and mercy.


God required the Hasidic disciples to be merciful rather than to spend all their time at their books. Mostly it was a correction and reawakening of what was best in Judaism all along. Most religions need these wake-up calls and reformations at times.


Jews were also influenced by the European enlightenment and the modern rationalistic discoveries of science and philosophy. This had the effect of encouraging a pre-rational understanding of Judaism to make the leap to a rational understanding and updating of Jewish beliefs, but it also had the unintended effect of many Jews embracing secular life and leaving religious life behind them.


Traditional Judaism, mystical Judaism and rationalistic Judaism influence modern Judaism. But persecution and anti-Semitism have also shaped it. The unthinkable happened when six million Jews were killed in the death camps of Nazi Germany. It is impossible to know how much this devastated European Judaism.


Day 4: The crematorium of Majdanek


This is a picture of a crematorium used during the Holocaust


Philosophy and theology students have been struggling with how this could have happened ever since. The Holocaust has had a profound effect on Christian-Jewish relations and dialogue. Many Christians have had to ask themselves how this happened in a “Christian” country during a “civilized” century. And many people have worked long and hard to make sure that those who died are not forgotten and that we do all we can to prevent something like this from happening again.


Another influence on Modern Judaism is Zionism. Zionism is a modern movement that led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Jews who started this movement wanted a homeland of their own, focusing their efforts on their ancient homeland. Palestine had always had a few Jews living in certain cities, but Muslims had ruled it for a thousand years, and at the time it was part of the Turkish Empire. Nevertheless, Jews started immigrating there in the 1890’s.


After World War One, the British took over parts of the Middle East, including Palestine. Immigration was slow but steady, and with all of the changes in power during the two world wars, Israel was eventually recognized by the United Nations in 1948 when the British pulled out.


Judaism in America


Jews in America have experienced anti-Semitism, but in general, America has been good for Jews as it has been for so many other immigrant people. The majority of Jews live in just a few areas including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There are over six million Jews in the United States.


There are four main branches of Judaism. While they have much in common, they also have a number of differences that relate mainly to how closely the Law of Moses is followed.


I always find it interesting to see how movements change. As explained above, when Hasidism entered Judaism, it entered as a liberalizing force to free up some old and stagnant ways. But over time, it has become the main support of the Orthodox movement. The roles of men and women are traditional in this form of Judaism.


The most common form of Judaism practiced in the United States is Reform Judaism. “Reform Judaism, which calls its places of worship “temples” rather than “synagogues,” has roots in the German Enlightenment experience. It is liberal in attitude, oriented more to the prophets than the Law, and believes the essence of Judaism does not involve following the Law legalistically. Many Reform Jews follow it hardly at all, save for major holy days and festivals, though they refer to its underlying principles in thinking about ethical and moral questions” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 275).


Women have been ordained in Reform Judaism for quite a few years now. Women’s roles are not as traditional in this branch.


Conservative Judaism — the third branch — gained strength as Reform Judaism became too liberal in some Jews’ estimation. They wanted a more liberal Judaism, open to the best of the modern world, but they did not want to “throw out the baby with the bath water.” That is, they missed hearing Hebrew, missed some of the rituals that brought meaning and value to their lives, and missed the sense of tradition that comes in the Orthodox branch.


Many Jews find Conservative Judaism a happy medium. As a result of the success of Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism has come back to the center over the years, bringing back some of the older traditions and using a little more Hebrew. Women are now ordained as Rabbis in Conservative Judaism.


Reconstructionist Judaism is very liberal and is the branch that sees belief in God as optional. They put more emphasis on Judaism as a philosophy and culture. They see many of its rituals and practices as ways of promoting peace and fellowship and worth in themselves. Reconstructionist Jews leave belief in a personal God up to the individual.


McCoy Family


This is a picture of a Jewish woman lighting the Sabbath candles


Jewish Education


Thus far, you have read about Jewish history and community and some key ideas, such as Monotheism and Covenant. It is important to take some time now to look more closely at what religious Jews actually believe. One example: education


Jews are interested in dialogue and questions. Debate is promoted by the lack of rigidity to which they hold their beliefs. There is room for debate, and this is seen most clearly in the seminary training where a good part of the time is spent standing over a text, usually the Talmud, and “arguing” with your study partner over what the text means.


One may be surprised at how loud a class can get. This debating is not done from an adolescent need to be obstinate or just for the sake of debate, but it is done in the spirit of inquiry that places faith in the idea that truth is revealed in the middle somewhere between two points of view.


It is connected with the original idea of democracy, that the truth emerges from debate, rather than one side being wrong and the other right. Instead, both are needed to somehow struggle together for the truth to emerge.


At Shul Web Ready


This is a picture of four rabbis from the four branches of Judaism studying the Talmud


Core Jewish Beliefs


“A conventional touchstone for its [Jewish beliefs] delineation has been 13 principles of faith put down by the great medieval thinker Moses Maimonides:


God is Creator and Guide.

God is One in a unique way.

God does not have a physical form.

God is eternal.

God and God alone is to be worshipped.

God has revealed his will through the prophets.

Moses is the greatest of the prophets.

The Torah was revealed to Moses.

The Torah is eternal and unchanging.

God is all knowing.

God gives rewards and punishments.

The Messiah will come.

The dead will be resurrected” Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 276).

These statements emphasize certain basic themes, such as that God is one, that he is active in the world, that the Torah is essential to understanding the need for human engagement in bringing about a just world.


This implies a belief in a personal God, not just a cosmic divine force. This is a God who cares and is involved with individuals and the community. There is a relationship here that means that one is required to be faithful, not to some ideal principles, but to the relationship itself.


This is one reason why Jews believe that they do not need to convert to another religion. They do not believe they need a mediator like Jesus because God has revealed His will for them already and God’s will has not changed. All they need to stay in that covenant relationship with God is to be faithful to what they have already been given.


It is also interesting to note the belief in a resurrection and the continuity of life. Early Judaism does not speak much about eternal life. If you read the Torah carefully, you will not find much emphasis or teaching about what happens after death. Slowly, Judaism did develop some of these ideas.


Eventually the Jews had a full-blown theology of eternal life. But even with this, the emphasis was different from many other religions. Judaism does not go into many details about what eternal life is like. It continues to place the emphasis on this life.


The next life, Judaism seems to say, will take care of itself if we take care of this life now. Most Jews do not believe in an eternal Hell. If there is a place of judgment and punishment, it is limited in time until justice has been satisfied. The emphasis is on mercy.


You will notice that nowhere in these 13 principles was the idea of the Jews being the “Chosen People” of God affirmed. This is a much-misunderstood term and has been used against the Jews for centuries.


The idea of being “chosen” does come from the Bible, where God chooses Abraham to father a people who will be God’s people in some special way. What is often overlooked is that Abraham is not chosen only for the sake of the Jews but to be a blessing to all people.


Being “chosen” does not mean God loves the Jews more than other people, although in the early Scriptures it may seem that way. As Judaism evolves it becomes clear that not only is the God of Abraham the one God of all people, but that God is concerned that all people receive justice and mercy.


Jews are not exclusive in the sense that they think they are the only ones to be saved by God. Religious Jews believe that all good people who follow their conscience are loved by God and receive his mercy as much as they do.


Having said all of this, many Jews have found the term too problematic and no longer use it. This is especially true of Reconstructionist Jews.


Core Jewish Practices


Isaac Wise Temple (Plum Street Temple)


This is a picture of the Isaac Wise Temple in Cincinnatti, Ohio


Jewish life is based less on belief than on practices. Let’s look at some of these practices now.


The main idea behind Jewish practices is the making holy of all things. Many of the laws they follow might seem silly or antiquated to non-Jews (called Gentiles). However, from the viewpoint of spirituality, they make a lot more sense.


Jewish practices have much in common with Buddhist mindfulness exercises. That is, in order to follow all the Jewish laws and customs, one must practice attention and presence. These qualities are central to all of the world’s mystical traditions.


Religious practice begins with the family. The family is the core of Judaism. Most rituals and laws, especially since the destruction of the Temple, are carried out in the home rather than the synagogue.


Unlike many religions, Judaism has no celibates, for the most part. The relationship in a marriage is considered to be a model of the relationship between God and Israel. And when Jews fall away from God, this is considered an act of unfaithfulness, just as if a couple were to cheat on one another. The emphasis is on relationship.


The first practice that is essential to understand is the Sabbath. It is the place in the week where one recognizes the holiness of time. If celebrating the Sabbath seems like just another obligation that interferes with what you really want to do, then you are missing the point of what the Sabbath means to a religious Jew.


First, it is important to recognize that before the Jewish Sabbath was established there was no such thing as a six-day workweek, let alone a five-day workweek. The vast majority of people in biblical times were slaves, and they worked constantly. Every day was a workday except for the occasional festival.


The celebration of the Sabbath was a major breakthrough in understanding that people need some time to relax and recover from the stresses of life. It was a major statement about human rights and even animal rights as animals too were to be given the day off.


As important and significant as that is, it is its lowest meaning. Sabbath is to the week what meditation is to the spiritual practice of someone on a spiritual journey. It is a day to pay attention in a special way to what makes the other six days worth living in the first place. It is when you set aside your regular concerns and instead look at your other values, which tend to get pushed aside by the pressures of daily living.


I find it unfortunate that historically, the day has been presented (and often lived) as a day of restriction. There is a much more positive way to look at the Sabbath observance than simply what you can’t do. It can be looked on as a day of freedom to do what you really want to do. Of course, that assumes you have an interest in spiritual things.


For religious Jews, the Sabbath is a day to relax, be with your family, see friends, eat good food, take a nap and not least important, make love.


Yes, the Sabbath is the day Par Excellence to make love! It is a day to break free from the rut of things. It is a day of joy. If it is not these things then people are missing the point.


It seems important to be reminded of the real meaning of the Sabbath in a day and age when stress is causing so much disease and death. Perhaps we are not religious. Even so, the need to slow down and change the pace of our lives is all too evident. The Sabbath rest is one of the great blessings Jews have brought to the world.


The Sabbath also includes public worship in the synagogue or temple. Most services consist of readings from the Torah, prayers, chants and songs, and a sermon of some sort. There is special drama in bringing the Torah out of the Ark (an ornamental box) and reading from it. Individual services will vary between different congregations and different denominations.


As mentioned above, for example, the amount of Hebrew used will vary depending on what kind of service you go to. In Orthodox services men and women do not sit together, but in Reform and Conservative services they do sit together. In recent times there have been many experiments in making services more meaningful for the congregation, especially young people.


Hebrew script


This is a picture of Hebrew Script


Festivals and Practices


The Sabbath is the most important “festival” and the only one mentioned in the Ten Commandments. However, there are other important holidays that you should be familiar with, especially the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and Passover.


The High Holy Days are also known as the Days of Awe. They start with Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year, and end ten days later with Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement. These days come around in the Autumn, but the actual dates vary as the Jews follow a lunar calendar.


Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is also a celebration of the creation of the world. It is a joyous time much like our secular new year on January 1st, but it also has strong spiritual overtones. This is because the Jewish New Year begins with the ten days of repentance that end with the Day of Atonement.


It is a time for Jews to take stock of their lives and seek to correct their faults. The idea of New Year’s resolutions is similar, but also very different. A secular resolution may have to do with simple things like trying to exercise more or stop smoking, but the Jewish New Year looks closer at the moral virtues of how we live our lives and treat one another. It is also a time when Jews are to repair damaged relationships and seek forgiveness.


This process culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a solemn day of repentance and fasting and long synagogue services of collective repentance. This day is especially important because it only comes once a year.


Unlike Catholics, for example, who are encouraged to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a week, Jews do not put a lot of emphasis on sin and repentance. In Judaism there is no idea similar to the Original Sin in Christianity. When they do take some time to focus on their shortfalls, they tend to take it seriously and try to make the most of it.


Passover is probably the most famous holiday and the most well-known to Christians because it is believed that the Last Supper celebrated by Jesus with his disciples was actually a Passover ritual meal, or Seder. Passover is a celebration of freedom.


Seder Table


This is a picture of a Passover Seder table with its ritual food


Passover is not only a holiday celebrating a past event, but for many Jews it has evolved into a celebration and prayer for freedom in all places at all times. After the ceremonial part of the meal in which the story of the Exodus is told through questions and answers and ritual foods representing different aspects of the Exodus are consumed, a traditional feast is enjoyed.


Hanukkah is another minor festival that has only recently grown in recognition, if not importance, due to its proximity to Christmas, especially in the United States where that Christian celebration has such a commercial focus.


At the time of the historical re-dedication of the temple, there was only enough oil to light the temple lights for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days until more oil could be brought. This holiday is a festival of lights, which many religions and cultures celebrate.


Hanukkah is a renewal of hope at the darkest time of the year. Christmas lights are also connected to this need for light in the dark of winter, a sign of hope and joy. Many traditional Jews regret that this minor holiday has taken on so much commercial and expensive attributes, while others welcome it as an opportunity to take part in the holiday atmosphere at this time of year.


Coming of Age


Not a festival, but an important practice that you have probably heard of is the Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The term means son (bar) of the commandment (mitzvah) or bat (daughter) of the commandment. This is a big celebration because much hard work and study goes into the preparation for this day. It takes years to learn the Hebrew language and all the customs and traditions.


It is a rite of passage because a youth of 13 is expected to be responsible for his/her own spiritual life and adherence to Jewish law by the time they undergo this celebration. Many adults who never went through this ceremony but who later decide to become more traditional in the practice of this religion will undergo the training in order to celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvah even if they are much older.


Lia Bat Mitzvah (7)


This is a picture of a Bat Mitzvah


Another observance to know about regards the Jewish dietary laws. Many people know that Jews don’t eat pork, but that is actually only one small part of the diet. The dietary laws require the Jews who follow them to be very strict about what and when they eat.


It is common for some people think the laws were for health reasons and are no longer necessary, but that is not true. The truth, ultimately, is simply that God has asked the Jews to follow these laws and so they do.


Supposed reasons like health are just rationalizations that may have some truth to them but do not really explain anything. There are all sorts of health laws not included for example, so that argument is weak. Many Jews no longer strictly follow all the rules, probably because they can’t figure out a reason to do so that makes sense to them.


It is interesting to note that many religions have dietary restrictions. Many Buddhists don’t eat meat, Mormons don’t drink, smoke, or use caffeine in coffee or soda, Muslims don’t eat pork, and Roman Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays. The rules go on. I have never found a good answer other than the mindfulness eating this way can engender in the participant.


How do the Jewish dietary laws work? Vegetarians have it easy because all the laws have to do with animal products. If you are vegetarian, you are pretty close to being kosher. What is kosher (or edible) is a discipline (practice) that again requires attention. Some very orthodox Jews will even have two refrigerators, one for dairy products and one for meat products.


Another observance is required of men. They are required to pray in the morning and night and to make time for Torah study. Many women have also taken on these requirements on a volunteer basis.


The focus on almost all of the holidays and observances is on the present. We have seen that Jews do not talk a lot about the next life. It is a this-worldly religion concerned with the here and now.


The Challenging Side of Judaism


Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism has only rarely had much political power over others, and so its darker side is not as historically evident. However, we can see this negative side externally in some of the ancient stories in the Bible and in some of the issues that come up with the modern state of Israel.


In the Bible, the Jews seem to have an evolving sense of God. The early understanding of God seems to be of a tribal God who is one among many. As a tribal God the concern is with the Jews rather than with all people. You see this a great deal in the books of Joshua and Judges.


The takeover of the indigenous people of the Holy Land is portrayed in quite brutal terms. Often even the women and children were to be “put under the ban,” which meant a complete elimination. It was this idea that came to be known in the United States as Manifest Destiny.


This belief was used to rationalize the move of immigrants from the east coast of America all the way across to the west coast, even when there were native people “in the way.” I mention this because it is easy to judge the Jews for harshness for their actions over three thousand years ago, while Americans have a history that is much closer in time, as was discussed in the Early Religions essay in the last module.


The Jewish understanding of God eventually enlarged itself under the prophets, who taught the Jews that God loved all people and the Jews were to treat all people with justice. As a result, there were even rules about how slaves were to be treated, and eventually the Jews gave up holding slaves and their wars became defensive rather than offensive.


Modern Israel


Modern Jerusalem


This is a picture of modern Jerusalem


Difficult issues, many still unsettled, arose with the founding of modern Israel in 1948. As a nation with a Constitution, Israel is secular. Many people do not realize this.


In a philosophy class focused on religion rather than politics, it is important to recognize that Israeli policy does not always reflect Jewish religious thought and values.


I find that many people make arguments such as “Why do the Jews treat the Palestinians the way they do?” It is important to be clear in our use of language and terminology. What so we mean by the “Jews.” Do they mean American Jews? They don’t. American Jews are all over the board on political issues in Israel.


It is also important to realize that not all Jews are Israelis. In fact, the majority of Jews are not. The appropriate question is: “Why do Israeli Jews treat Palestinians the way they do?”


Just as all Americans are not in agreement agree with the War on Terror, for example, so not all Israeli Jews agree with Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. You have to be careful when you talk about a “Jewish” policy, just as you have to be careful about calling an American policy a “Christian” policy.


While it is true that many Americans are Christian, it does not mean the United States can speak for the Christian religion officially, as the religion is much bigger than the Christians in the United States alone. There is so much controversy about Israel it is important we be clear about our terms and what we mean.


Having said all of that, modern Israel poses real problems for religious Jews who want to follow the teachings of the Law and prophets and yet must make the hard and “worldly” decisions of a modern nation. It is not for me as your instructor to teach a political science class, but I did want to point out some of the philosophical issues so that no matter what your personal opinion is, you are fully informed.


It is important to think for oneself about Israeli policies. However, it is unfair to judge all Jews by the actions of the Israeli government. I hope the difference is clear.


Hasidic Jews before Sabbath


This is a picture of Hasidic Jews today


The Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law


On an internal level, the challenging side of Judaism has been most apparent in its focus on the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law. There is nothing inherently wrong with following the letter of the Law. It is even admirable and, as we have discussed, can be a real call to mindfulness.


However, it is very easy for human nature to get caught up in all of the little things and miss the big picture. Even in ancient Israel, the prophets were often calling the people to task for adhering to small rules but missing the big picture of living in a compassionate and just way.


We can all see this in our own lives. We all know people who pay all their taxes, don’t speed, but then judge other people, gossip about them and in general don’t treat people right.


It is not easy to be consistent. A focus on rules can easily blind people to the bigger issues. This has been an ongoing problem for Judaism and you will see that each time Judaism has renewed itself from within, such as in the Hasidic movement, it has had to deal with this issue.


Women in Judaism


As promised in the Introduction to this class, it is important to have a section devoted to the topic of women. Judaism is a patriarchal religion. The question a philosopher must ask himself or herself is whether the religion is inherently patriarchal or not.


One must remember that the patriarchal revolution occurred before the founding of the historical religions. Many scholars think that the world went from matriarchal to patriarchal about 10,000 B.C.E., around the same time as the agricultural revolution that changed so much of our planet’s history.


For tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors were followers of the Early Religions discussed in the second module. Then everything changed. The historic religions all arose after this change. What is not clear is how much the historical religions, such as Judaism, shaped patriarchy and how much patriarchy shaped the historical religions.


There is much new information and still a lot of controversy, but if this subject really interests you, I suggest you take a Women’s Studies class and read some of the current literature. For the sake of this class we do not need to make a decision about what came first, but simply describe two elements: women in traditional Judaism and women in modern Judaism.


Women in Traditional Judaism


Only some men received extensive educations and as a result, they were the recorders of history. There was not only a male bias toward what was worth recording, but there were whole areas of women’s lives not recorded at all.


Most of what was written down was the area of women’s lives that intersected with men, especially in the areas of marriage and childbearing. Other areas, like devotions performed only by women, women’s relationships with one another, how they saw themselves, are all missing from the record. However, a few stories were recorded about women.


Rabbi Sharon Brous


This is a picture of a Rabbi Sharon Borus


In the book of Judges, for example, there was a woman named Deborah who was one of the “judges” of Israel who ruled the nation for periods of time before the monarchy was founded with Saul and then David as the first two kings.


Deborah played an important part in a battle which saved the nation and as a judge she was respected for her insight, wisdom, and ability to hear and discern the will of God for his people. These types of stories are rare.


The role women played in the home was so important that women were exempted from many of the religious duties of men simply because they did not have the same amount of time to go to synagogue.


Confining women to this role in the home meant that a great deal of emphasis was put on a women’s fertility. This was of course not only limiting to women but was also unfair, as women were blamed for childlessness, as men’s roles in fertility were not fully understood. Almost needless to say, sons rather than daughters were the preferred offspring.


Many of the laws found in the Bible and in the Talmud seem to show that women were considered the property of men rather than individuals with their own inherent worth. We even see this attitude played out in modern weddings when the father walks his daughter down the aisle where she is “given” to the husband. Some women are getting around this implication by either walking down the aisle by themselves or having both parents walk them down the aisle.


As a side note, it is interesting to me that many people who place the Bible on a puritanical level tend to forget that it contains stories of the abuse and killing of women. Yet I find it to be a remarkable document because it includes these stories. The Bible does not whitewash human nature. It includes everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly.


As a result of these limitations, marriage was a significant time in a woman’s life. Parents usually arranged the marriages (as was common practice everywhere, not only in Judaism, until the last few hundred years in the Western world) although a woman’s consent was considered necessary. How free a woman was to decline, though, makes this consent somewhat problematic.


The patriarchy really reared its head in the rules governing divorce. Only a man was free to seek a divorce. A woman could only get a divorce if the man agreed to give her one. It is currently being hotly debated in Israel and in Orthodox Judaism.


Most of the above has to do with ancient and traditional Judaism and how those traditions are still upheld by the Orthodox adherents. Many students will be happy to read the next section, where many of the issues facing women in the modern world are being addressed in modern Judaism, as it is in most religions around the world to one extent or another.


Jewish Women Today – Modernity and Feminism


Traditional Judaism lasted more or less until the 1800’s. Before that time Jews were often suppressed and persecuted in the societies in which they lived. As a result, they stayed very close to their traditional faith as a means of keeping themselves together.


However, when the movement called Modernity came to Europe, the Jews were emancipated from living in ghettos and were allowed to participate more fully in the culture of Europe. This encounter challenged their traditional ways of life and thought.


Modernism, as discussed in the Introduction to this course, brought about movements such as democracy, pluralism, and civil rights. The Jews could not encounter these ideas without having to reevaluate the role of women in their religion. Change seems to be happening, although the change is too radical for some conservatives and too slow for progressives!


Feminism is continuing to challenge traditional Judaism in many ways to find a way for more women to be fully involved in the practice of their religion. In feminist research, much about the past has been questioned.


For example, some claim that the traditional separation of men and women during worship is not a part of the ancient religion, nor is it inherent in the religious teachings and doctrine. Rather, this is a tradition that was picked up along the way from other cultures and can thus be safely discarded. Many congregations no longer have separate seating arrangements.


Women have also challenged the use of male terms for God when God is understood to be gender neutral. If God is seen as male and it is believed that humans were created in God’s image, some believe that this understanding places women in second place right from the start. In order to change this, women have sought gender-neutral language for liturgical prayer and services. For example, instead of saying “We praise His name” they would say “We praise God’s name.”


It may seem like a small change to some people but it can make a big difference to how both men and women feel about the prayers of their own tradition. Language, and how we use it, can be a help or a stumbling block.


Women are challenging the negative stereotypes of femininity. “Some have begun to emphasize the feminine images of the Divine, readily accessible in the mystical tradition, which can be found in Jewish texts and traditions – Shekhinah (the spirit of God at the Sabbath, which is feminine) and Wisdom (imaged as female and present with God at the beginning of creation)” (Ellwood and McGraw, 2002, 288).


Many Jewish women have worked towards bringing new life to the rituals that have such great meaning in Judaism. They have created the Bat Mitzvah to balance the Bar Mitzvah discussed above. This allows girls who are coming of age to also receive this initiation into Jewish religious practice. They have also updated the wedding ceremony and created new rituals to mark turning points in a woman’s life such, as childbirth and menopause.


We live in an exciting time, when all these changes are taking place, not only in religion, but also in many other areas, including politics and business. Some people find the changes too slow and difficult. Others have found a spirituality that honors the masculine and the feminine equally.


Some people leave their faiths, but others choose to stay within their own tradition, but work for change. The historical and developmental perspective that is central to Integral Philosophy allows one to see that progress may seem slow, but has actually been quite rapid, considering that Judaism is a religion nearly 4,000 years old.


Jean-Léon Gérôme – The Wailing Wall [1880]


This is a picture of the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall). Rather than a real wall, it is is belived to be part of the foundation of the Second Temple, where the Dome of the Rock sits today.




Judaism begins with a nomadic people in the Middle East who were pioneers of a great monotheistic faith. They understood themselves as chosen by God to be in a covenant relationship.


For a long time Judaism was centered on the temple in Jerusalem in the land of Israel. But the Romans defeated the Jews in the year 70 C.E. and the temple was destroyed. After that, Judaism became centered in the family home life, in the synagogue, and in the study and following of the Torah. The Jews moved all over the world, but primarily in various communities in Europe and the Middle East. Sometimes they prospered and sometimes they were persecuted.


American Jews are members of four distinct groups: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox congregations. Many Jews do not belong to a congregation, but instead call themselves secular Jews. These are non-religious Jews who are proud to be members of a culture and philosophy that is ancient and full of wisdom, but who no longer believe in the religious teachings of Judaism or follow the Law of Moses in any of its details, although they may approve and practice its basic ethical laws.


We also looked at some of the major holidays and festivals. By far the most important is the weekly celebration of the Sabbath, a day of rest and renewal. The importance of the High Holy Days was discussed as well as various coming of age ceremonies, especially the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, when young people assume their adult roles within Jewish practice.


You may have heard of “Messianic Jews.” These Jews believe in Jesus. These are people who are Jewish by birth but who have converted to Christianity. They accept the Christian teaching that Jesus is the Messiah promised by God.


This group, also known as “Jews for Jesus,” are very controversial among Jews. Some Jews feel that this movement is a real betrayal of everything held sacred by Jews, especially considering the deplorable way Jews have been treated by Christians for most of Christian history.


Jews who believe in Jesus obviously feel differently, as they consider themselves “fulfilled” Jews and do not wish to join a Christian Congregation. They want to hold traditional services, in Hebrew, but they add the additional Christian belief in Jesus.


As always, my essays are brief introductions. Don’t draw heavy conclusions from what you read here. If you really want to know what Judaism is like, you need to read a great deal more and, mostly, you need to spend time with some practicing Jews.



Study Part 2: Perspectives on Judaism



please read part 1 and watch 3 videos from part 2 , and put your opinions and perspective to the essay


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