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On Judaism



As I have done for our units on Hinduism and Buddhism, I am including the text of my take-home exam on Judaism.  All references to "Smith" are to the book, The World's Religions, by Huston Smith.  We use this as a base textbook, but we read scriptures and other source books for each of the faiths in preparing our exams and rituals.  The readings and site visits for the assignments are enriching, and I think it is useful to prepare these "cliff notes" style guides for each of the religions.  

JUDAISM
1.       
         What are the four reasons Smith gives that history was of “towering significance” to the Jews?

A.      The first reason is that life cannot be removed from the context in which it is lived.  All of the events described in the Hebrew bible come out of a particular context; similarly, the presentation of biblical characters is inextricably linked to the circumstances surrounding their lives.  Our lives also take form in response to events, and events have history to them. 

B.      An emphasis on collective action follows from the great importance accorded to context.  The term commonly used for this in our society is social action.  For the Jewish people, cohesion was the result of oppressive circumstances; change was effected through group action. 

C.      History holds deep meaning for the Jews because of the opportunity for learning and growth inherent in each historical event.  Indeed, every calamity and trial presents a “learning experience” for the Jewish people.

D.     History is crucial because of the exceptionality of each historical event.  Decisive moments in history occur once, and only once; God intervenes in human history, and humans have a unique moment to answer God’s call, just as Abraham did when he ventured into new territory to establish a new nation.  Therefore, the Jews teach us to find the ultimate meaning in historical events by respecting their significance and seeing God’s hand at work within them. 

2.      Read “Meaning in Morality” noting that the “Law” came from the Hebrew word Torah, which means “instruction.” Read Exodus 20: 1-17.  Note how Smith connects the four “ethical” commandments to four “danger areas” in human experience.  Explain their connections.

Quote from Huston Smith: “There are four danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble if they get out of hand: force, wealth, sex and speech." 

Each of these danger areas are connected, in that they all have profound effects on human passions and behavioral actions and reactions.  When unmonitored and unrestrained, force, wealth, sex and speech can incite people to commit destructive acts that threaten the stability of the society and the species.  

A.      Force: Thou shalt not murder, is essentially saying that killing within the cultural group or society will not be tolerated, since it “instigates blood feuds that shred community.” 

B.      Wealth: Thou shalt not steal does not discourage wealth, but prevents ill-gotten wealth; have as much as you wish to have, but you mustn’t steal from your neighbor’s pile to increase your own.  This restraint safeguards communal peace. 

C.      Sex: Thou shalt not commit adultery prohibits sexual gratification outside of the marital relationship because it “rouses passions the community cannot tolerate.”

D.     Speech:  Thou shalt not bear false witness is, according to Smith, a commandment aimed primarily at ensuring the reliability and efficiency of a system of justice for the community.  One must not lie when brought before a tribunal, because it is crucial for the judges to know the truth.  Order within society must be maintained to prevent the more passionate and destructive parts of our nature from destroying us.

3.      Read “Meaning in Messianism.” What three features have remained constant in Messianic hope? Summarize the underlying theme of Messianism in one sentence.

The three enduring features of Messianism are “hope, national restitution and world upgrade.”  The Messiah of the Jews would elevate their status in the world to its right place, and also spiritually and morally advance the population of the whole world. 
A Messiah coming to live among the people is the personification of hope, the embodiment of the best that is yet to come. 

4.      Read “The Hallowing of Life.”  What are the two “functions” of ritual, according to Smith? What is “piety”?

First of all, ritual anchors us in times of uncertainty and gives us something familiar and enduring to cling to when we feel lost.  This centering effect of ritual can be seen in some the most mundane aspects of life, such as introductions, public gatherings and all manner of initiations.  The second most important function of ritual, according to Smith, is to “channel our actions and feelings” during what is arguably the most challenging phase of life: death.  Ritual is a steadying force that places death into a universal context and paves a way through its trauma. 

Piety is the practice of recognizing God’s presence and magnificence in all of our experiences and sensory perceptions.  Preparing and enjoying a meal, gazing at the stars, witnessing a sunrise, celebrating the birth of an infant; when God is celebrated in each of these moments, piety is observed.  Through piety, the “sense of the sanctity of all things is […] preserved against the backwash of the world’s routine.”

5.      Read “Revelation.” Note that the Jewish understanding of revelation is grounded in the concrete event of the Exodus. 

A.      Define “revelation” in your own words: Revelation is an act of God directed toward humanity.  Implicit in revelation is the idea of a relationship between the Creator God and the creation.  Through revelation, God communicates a message to the beings He created, and the act is not complete until the message is actively received. 
B.      What are the three characteristics of God as described in Exodus? Through the Exodus, God revealed Himself to be powerful, loving and deeply invested in humanity’s concerns. 
C.      Read the account of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17: 1-14.  The “sign” of this covenant is still practiced by Jews today.  What is it?  “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.” Genesis 17:10.  The Jews still practice the rite of circumcision for every male child, eight days following his birth, as instructed in Genesis 17: 11-12. 

6.      Read “Israel.”  How do Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews differ re: Faith, Observance, Culture, Nation?

Orthodox: The Orthodox tradition claims to be the classical or normative representation of Judaism.  Orthodox Judaism developed in reaction to Reform Judaism, as an effort to retain what the Orthodox Jews interpret to be the original character of the Jewish faith.  Orthodox faith is based in the belief that God’s will is completely revealed within the Torah and the Talmud, and they are strictly required to observe all of the instruction contained therein.  The observance is therefore strict adherence without flexibility.  The religious observances of Orthodox Judaism include: study of the Torah, traditional prayers, daily worship, gender segregation in the synagogue, and dietary laws.  Orthodox culture is evidenced through preserving and prizing the Hebrew language in worship and otherwise, strict standards of dress, strictly construed Sabbath observance, and the insistence by many Orthodox Jews on living segregated from the gentiles.  The Orthodox Jews living within a mixed community of gentiles remain removed from the culture at large, insisting on a pure and conspicuous preservation of their own culture in all of their visible activities.  Orthodox Judaism’s ideas with respect to “nation” are evidenced in the preservation of the Hebrew language and a strong belief in the religious sanctity and supremacy of Israel as the Jewish state, the Holy Land of God’s Chosen People. 

Reform: Reform Judaism developed in the 19th century as a movement that would enable Jews to successfully integrate into western European modern culture.  Religious innovation and creativity were a part of the European Enlightenment; the Reform movement applied these ideals to Judaism.  Reform Jewish faith is distinct in its belief that the laws and rituals of the Torah do not require strict observance in the modern world.  According to this faith, the Torah and Talmud are divinely inspired but not divinely authored.  Reform observance is flexible and therefore does not require adherence to prohibitions against labor on the Sabbath, strict dress codes, gender separation rules and a large number of other traditional Jewish laws.  Reform temples have dramatically altered traditional Jewish worship, adding features such as organ music, clerical gowns worn by rabbis and cantors, and Christian inspired architecture.  At one point, there was a movement within Reform Judaism to do away with the insistence on circumcision.  Circumcision is still retained as a mandatory practice, and many of the traditional rituals are being incorporated back into Reform Judaism, but observance is the most divergent aspect of Reform Judaism that separates it from the other branches.  The Reform Jewish concept of “nation” is significantly diluted in comparison to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, since the Reform movement removed many of Judaism’s nationalistic elements.  Initially, many of the prayers and rituals that focus on the separate national identity of Jews were removed from Reform Judaism, but these have gradually been incorporated back into practice.  Reform Judaism stands out in its interpretation of Messianism; the restoration of the ancient kingdom of Israel is the classical Messianic hope, but for Reform Jews universal peace and brotherhood are the pinnacle of the faith.  This view illustrates the more liberal construction of Jewish nationhood in Reform Judaism. 

Conservative: Conservative Judaism developed in the 19th century as a third alternative to Orthodox or Reform Judaism.  Conservative Jews hold more traditionally to rabbinic beliefs than their Reformed siblings, retaining the original flavor of Judaism while fully integrating into the modern world.  Conservative faith retains the belief that the Torah was wholly inspired by God.  The study of the Talmud and the rabbinic codes is also endorsed within Conservative Judaism, but their interpretation and legal rulings are more flexible than in the Orthodox tradition.  Views on the afterlife are the same as in the Orthodox school, other than the rejection by Conservative Jews of a literal belief in the “resurrection of the body.”  Conservative Jews observe the Sabbath and all major festivals and rites just as the Orthodox Jews do, yet they are more flexible about many restrictions such as driving on the Sabbath.  The culture of Conservative Judaism is reflected in the temple architecture, which is modern and functional; there is no elevated section or gallery for women, since there is no gender segregation, and the central bima (reader’s stand) has been replaced with an altar from which cantors and rabbis officiate.  Conservative Jews support full gender equality and recognize the rights of homosexuals.  Their idea of nation is traditional in that they are the most Zionistic of the three major branches of Judaism (supporting self-determination of the Jewish people in their own national homeland); however, Conservative Jews encourage interfaith dialogue and embrace a universal outlook.  Conservative Judaism strikes a true balance between the Orthodox and Reform traditions. 

7.      What, according to Smith, are the four reasons that led to the establishment of the state of Israel?

The first reason was a need for security; following the Holocaust, there was little to no hope for true security and freedom for the Jewish people within Europe.  The second reason was psychological; it was not healthy for the Jewish people to live as minorities in every location.  The third argument was cultural; Jewish culture had been progressively beat down and diluted to the point of near extinction, hence the need for a place where it could safely reemerge and predominate.  The final reason was the utopian argument; Israel was the answered prayer of the dreamers and idealists who longed for a land where divinely inspired principles could take root and flourish. 

8.      Describe one feature of the Jewish tradition or teachings that is most meaningful to you personally, and how it relates to your own experience and self-understanding.

The most meaningful aspect of the Jewish tradition in my view is the belief in a loving creator God who is actively present and concerned in all human matters.  I believe that I am a child of God and created in the image of God, and I know that this belief originates in Judaism.  I believe that God is present in all aspects of my life and provides for me at every turn, and even though I cannot understand all of the events in my life, God relates to me in each one of them, teaching me and guiding me. 

9.      Identify the following names:

Aaron: He was the older brother of Moses, and a prophet.  He is frequently referred to as Aaron the Levite, and his great-grandfather was Levi.  The tribe of Levi was set apart for priestly service.  Aaron was the first High Priest of the Israelites.

Abraham: The name Abraham means, “the father of a multitude.”  He is the originator of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and it is through Abraham that God initiated his monotheistic covenant with the Jews.  He was the son of Terah, the tenth of line in descent from Noah.  His name given at birth was Abram, and he was called Abraham when he entered into the covenant relationship with God at the age of 99.  It was then that he was promised by God that he would have a son by his wife Sarai, and God gave her the name, Sarah.  Their son was Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau, and one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites. 

The Baal Shem Tov: He was a Jewish mystical rabbi and the founder of Hasidic Judaism.  He was born in 1698 in a tiny village (Okop) in Ukraine.  His name is usually translated in English as, “Master of the Good Name.”  He taught that the entire universe, down to our very minds, is the manifestation of God.  He believed that nothing can be separate from God and all things are form in which God reveals himself.  He taught that Evil exists within God, and is not bad in and of itself, but only in relation to mankind.  He fought against the practices of asceticism and contempt for the world, and his doctrines were remarkably optimistic in nature.  He taught that the goodness of God is inherent in every human being and that sins are to be explained rather than condemned.  One of the most famous sayings attributed to him is that no person can ever sink so low that they cannot raise themselves to God.  Many of his followers believed him to be a direct descendant of David.

Martin Buber:  He was an Austrian born Jewish philosopher who created the “philosophy of dialogue,” a form of religious existentialism outlined in Buber’s book, I and Thou.  He was a cultural Zionist, and had a great deal of influence in the Zionist movement, which he considered to be primarily a vehicle for social and spiritual enrichment.  He was a scholar of Hasidic Judaism, which he viewed as a source of cultural renewal for Judaism.  Within Hasidism, he focused on the unification of daily activities and a direct experience of the unconditional presence of God; this is consistent with his philosophy of dialogue which interprets the relationship with God as a kind of mystical union, free of structure, concepts and objectification (the Ich Du, or I Thou encounter).  He believed that the majority of our experiences and interactions are based in the Ich Es or “I It”context, rather than the “I Thou,” wherein all interactions become objectified and tainted by mental separation of what is in essence not really separate; he believed the structure of modern society and most social interaction to be ultimately dehumanizing.  For Buber, living in the spirit is living in the power to relate. 

Elijah: The name Elijah means, “The Most High is My God,” or, “Yahweh is My God.” He is commonly known as the greatest of the Hebrew prophets and his story is found in the Book(s) of Kings.  He is most known for confronting King Ahab and defeating him and his Pagan gods in battle, hearing the “still small voice of God” in a cave, calling fire down from the sky and being taken up into a whirlwind in a fiery chariot.  He was a mentor to the prophet Elisha. 

Esther: She was a Jewish queen of the Persian king, Ahasuerus.  Her story is the basis of the celebration of Purim in Judaism.  She was an orphan, raised by her cousin, Mordecai.  When she was chosen to be the queen of Persia, she had to hide the fact that she was an Israelite.  When she was queen, Mordecai asked for her help to save the Jewish people from being killed according to the orders of Haman.  She approached her husband the King asking that her life and the lives of the Israelites be spared, thereby revealing her identity as an Israelite.  The King granted her request. 

Eve: She was the first woman created by God, according to the Abrahamic creational narratives.  She was the wife of Adam, created from the rib of Adam.  According to the creation myths, she was tempted by the serpent and ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thereby initiating mankind’s fall into the sinful condition.  She was the mother of Cain, Abel and Seth.  Noah and the whole of modern humanity are said to be descended from Seth. 

Hagar: She was the second wife of Abraham and the mother of Ishmael, patriarch of the Ishmaelites.  The prophet Muhammad, founder of the religion of Islam, came through Ishmael.  Hagar was Sarah's handmaiden. 

Rabbi Hillel: He was one of the most revered scholars and sages of the Jewish tradition, a rabbi who was born in Babylon in approximately 110 BCE.  He was descended from David on his mother’s side and Benjamin on his father’s side.  He lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus.  He is most known for his formulation of The Golden Rule, or the ethic of reciprocity: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a).

Ishmael: He was Abraham’s first-born child, son of Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden.  Sarai had offered Hagar to Abraham to bear him a son, since she was barren at the time.  When Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael, she was visited by an angel of Yahweh who told her that Yahweh’s promise to greatly multiply Abraham’s descendants throughout the Earth would be extended to Ishmael, and the angel said this of Ishmael: “he shall be as a wild ass of man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12).  Ishmael was circumcised with the rest of the house of Abraham at the age of 13.  Islamic traditions proclaim Ishmael to be the father of the Arab people. 

Jacob/Israel: The name Jacob means, “heel catcher,” and was given to Jacob because at his birth he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau.  Jacob was later known by the name Israel, which means “persevere with God,” or “one who wrestles with God.”  He was the son of Isaac and Rebecca, grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  He was the third patriarch of the Hebrew people and ancestor of the tribes of Israel, named after his descendants.  Jacob deceived his brother Esau, stealing his birthright and blessing. 

Miriam: She was the sister of Aaron and Moses.  She is called a prophetess.  She is the woman who hid the baby Moses by the side of the river so that he would not be killed along with all other Hebrew boys according to the Pharoah’s order. When the Pharoah’s daughter discovered Moses, Miriam suggested that a Hebrew nurse (Jochebed)  take care of him so that he would be familiar with his Hebrew background. 

Moses Maimonides: He was a well-known and highly respected physician and Torah scholar of the Medieval Era.  He was a philosopher, physician and rabbi in Morocco and Egypt during the twelfth century.  He authored the fourteen volume Mishnah Torah, a codification of Talmudic law.  He is known for having adapted Aristotelian thought to Jewish Biblical faith.  He is said to have greatly influenced Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Maimonides supported many neo-Platonic theories and was a proponent of Apophatic or Negative Theology (defining God by what He is not rather than what He is) and he wrote extensively on theodicy and Jewish eschatology.  It is interesting to note that he struck a unique balance in the arguments surrounding the resurrection of the body by stating that some instances of resurrection would occur as foretold in the book of Daniel, but that resurrection was not a permanent attribute of the afterlife for the righteous. 

Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel: These women are the original mothers of the Jewish people, the Hebrew matriarchs.  Sarah and Rebecca are identified above (mothers of Isaac, Jacob and Esau).  Leah and Rachel were the sisters that Jacob married, and who protected the young Jewish nation from being infected by the Pagan customs and thought of Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban. 

Solomon: He was the son of King David, a King of Israel, one of the 48 prophets and the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem.  He possessed great wealth, power and wisdom, yet his sinful deeds led to the division of the kingdom during his son Rehoboam’s reign.  He is known for the large number of women he possessed: 700 wives and 300 concubines. 

10.  What is the Kabbalah and how is it related to Jewish Mysticism?

The name applied to the whole range of Jewish mystical activity is Kabbalah.  Kabbalah is an esoteric discipline and set of philosophical teachings that complements Rabbinic Judaism while existing outside of it.  Kabbalah deals with the cosmological questions and the mystical elements of the Jewish faith, issues that are not addressed in the basic and traditional study of the Torah and Talmud.  There are a few hints in the Talmud pointing to a mystical school of thought that was reserved for advanced students; this school of thought came to be known as Kabbalah.  Many of the mystical teachings referenced in Judaism were written down in the Middle Ages in books such as the Zohar (a foundational text for Kabbalah).  Traditionally, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism were not taught to a person until they reached the age of 40. 

11.  Write a response to a selection of your choice from the Torah.

Genesis 27:36-40

36 Esau said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he's taken my blessing!" Then he asked, "Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?" 37 Isaac answered Esau, "I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?" 38 Esau said to his father, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!" Then Esau wept aloud. 39 His father Isaac answered him, "Your dwelling will be away from the earth's richness, away from the dew of heaven above. 40 You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck."

In the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Genesis, we learn some differences between the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau.  We learn that Esau was the more physical of the two, strong and hairy and a good hunter.  Jacob was the more reflective one, spending his time in tents (sheltered from the sun and the elements).  We learn of Esau’s selling of his birthright for a bowl of stew from Jacob.  The birthright was not only the ability to pass on titles and claim a larger portion of the inheritance, but it was also a claim to spiritual authority.  In his temporary hunger, Esau had little regard for the sanctity of his birthright and cared more about his immediate physical needs.  He swore to Jacob to give away the birthright in that moment.  

While it is easy to sympathize with Esau who was probably less clever than Jacob, and it is easy to see Jacob as cunning, it is difficult to ignore the foolishness and profanity of a move like selling one’s birthright for a single meal, irrespective of the level of hunger involved. 
We see in this story a foretelling of the fate of those who consistently prioritize the carnal over the spiritual.  It is undeniable that we all differ greatly by natural inclinations, strengths, personalities and talents.  In spite of these differences, we possess free will and we can choose to value the enduring over the fleeting.  Esau, by the selling of his birthright, demonstrated that he valued his momentary physical satisfaction over an enduring and much greater benefit than a bowl of stew.  There are natural consequences of such an action, and Esau suffered them.  He was told that he would later have an opportunity to get out from under the oppression of his poor choices, “…when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck,” nonetheless.  There are spiritual laws by which the Universe operates, but God is merciful beyond our comprehension and finds ways to restitute even the shallowest people who walk the Earth.  

12.  Write a description/impression of your site visit/experiential.

1.      I attended the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff, NY (Conservative).  My friend Leah chose this site visit for me as it her favorite temple in our area.  I really enjoyed hearing and participating in the singing of songs and prayers in the Hebrew language (very often I was unsure about pronunciation but after hearing my friend sing I picked some of it up).  I hadn’t really known exactly what a cantor does, prior to this service; the name “cantor” should have clued me in, but I needed a demonstration.  This cantor had a lovely, strong singing voice and I felt like his singing “filled up” the room and the hearts of those in it.  Most of the service was devoted to singing and the rabbi spoke for a relatively short time, but I remember him explaining the different cycles of Torah reading, and referring to the Triennial cycle wherein the entire Torah is read in services over the period of three years.  I found this interesting, but what most interested me was reading the translations in English of the songs and prayers in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book).  I saw references to mystical prayer and generally a more mystical message than what I could have expected.  I would like to read through the entire Siddur when I get the chance to do so. 

I found the mood to be light and relaxed.  I noted the rabbi hushing two preteen girls who kept chatting at an audible level.  When he hushed them there was no strictness or annoyance in his gesture and the girls seemed completely unperturbed.  No one seemed overly serious or uncomfortable.  Everyone seemed quite happy, actually. 

2.      I am including as a second site visit a recent bris I attended for the son of a close friend.  The bris was at her parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and it was a very happy occasion.  The Mohel was a woman and I thought she was quite adept (the baby boy barely made a peep during the circumcision).  The readings, prayers and songs that made up the ceremony were beautiful and inspiring.  I did not feel out of place as a non-Jew.  Everyone present was warm, friendly and happy for my friend and her family.  I particularly loved hearing the stories of the child’s namesakes as told by the relatives.  I also enjoyed drinking the wine and simply soaking in the love emanated by all who were present.  As compared to a Christian baptism of which I have attended many, including my sons’ dual baptism, I found the bris to be a longer and more joyful ceremony.  I was very touched by what I saw and heard that day.  I had attended one other bris in the past, and it was a similar experience, except that the more recent bris was attended and officiated by Reform Jews and the first one I had attended was performed by a Conservative Mohel.  That ceremony was a bit shorter and slightly more formal.  Both were beautiful occasions that I will always remember and I hope to be involved in the lives of both children (I am already seeing a lot of the first child and we say L’Chaim with his sippy cup). 

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