Dear Jonathan Keren-Black
I am currently studying world views in year 10. I chose Judaism as my religion of choice to learn and develop my knowledge on. I understand that these questions are difficult and really require detailed explanations, but I know your time is precious, and only need fairly brief responses. I would very much appreciate your help on this matter.
Thank you very much,
I’m glad you are studying Judaism as it is an ancient and fascinating, continuously developing and still relevant and valuable spiritual framework for life. I'm happy to try to help - and I am also putting this on my blog, as I am sure there are others who would also find it useful.
Where did the Jewish religion begin? Traditionally, we say 4000 years ago (2000 BCE which stands for Before the Common Era. This is the same timing as BC, but we don’t recognize Jesus as ‘Christ’ and therefore don’t say ‘Before Christ’. Similarly we say CE instead of AD |(though the years are the same) as Jesus is not our Lord, so we don’t like to say Anno Domini (Year of our Lord).
More historically, the Israelite tradition probably emerged some hundreds of years later, about 3500 years ago (1500 BCE)
Who started the religion or is there an important person within the religion?
Our tradition and story is that Abram, with his wife Sarai, began to recognize God’s voice when God told him to leave his family, in Haran, and go to the land that God would show them (which turned out to be Canaan, modern day Israel). Once Abram and Sarai had developed a relationship with God, they were both renamed (both had a ‘H’ added which symbolizes God in their lives). Abram becomes AbraHam, and Sarai becomes SaraH
Why is this person important? Note that the tradition has been very male-dominated in telling our story, and says that Abraham recognized and introduced to the world the truth that there is ONE GOD of the whole world, of all people and all animals and all the universe – but that, as I said above, Sarah evidently also had a relationship with the one God.
What countries mainly follow the religion?
The Israelite religion (which eventually became known as Judaism) developed in Canaan and also in Babylon. Canaan was later known as Judah and then Judea, and was renamed by the Romans as Philistia which eventually became ‘Palestine’. When granted independence by the United Nations in 1947, and formally established in May 1948 (66 years ago), it was renamed Israel. Babylon is today’s Iraq. The Jewish community spread across the entire Roman empire, and Arab countries (Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Yemen) and all these countries had very significant and influential Jewish communities for hundreds or thousands of years. But from the destruction of Judea, Jerusalem (the capital) and the Temple which was Judaism’s holiest place, in the year 70 CE, until 1948, there was no ‘Jewish country’ at all. Since it was re-established in 1948, Israel is the only Jewish country in the world.
By the way, you may be surprised to know that Israel is a tiny country – you can fit more than three Israels into Tasmania! My daughter finished school last year and is spending a gap year in Jerusalem and exploring Israel at the moment, and we visited her a few weeks ago.
What beliefs, values and practices does the religion follow?
We believe in the One God, invisible, far beyond our limited human understanding. God is both transcendent Creator (unlimited, Eternal, immensely powerful Creator of the universe), yet also immanent (we can feel God in our hearts and minds, almost ‘speak to God’)
God is all-knowing, caring, compassionate, forgiving, just, loving, helping, supportive, always there – and in our lives and behaviour, we try to act ‘as God does’ or ‘as God would’.
God cares for all people – poor, homeless, sick, lonely, needy, all colours, all ages – (and I believe, all sexual orientations, though traditional Judaism finds this more difficult). Therefore we must care for all as well.
God acts in the world through human beings – we are God’s tools, God’s hands. Our task is Tikkun Olam – to repair, heal or perfect the world.
‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ (that’s ours, though we’re pleased that Christians borrow it!)
God cares for animals – therefore we care for them, feeding them before ourselves, milking them even on the day of rest (Sabbath or Shabbat in Hebrew)
God rested on the seventh day of creation (we don’t have to take this literally as we know that creation took billions of years) – but if God needs (or chooses) rest, how much more do we mere humans.
I do not do mundane things like shopping or getting petrol on Shabbat. Some Jews have much stricter rules that they decide to follow – not turning on lights or anything electric, not driving or travelling, not even tearing toilet paper (for them, it has to be pre-cut before the Sabbath).
There are a variety of different sorts of Jews. Some are ultra-orthodox (the men wear black hats and coats, and let their hair grow in long side curls), the women and girls do not show arms or legs. They dress like 18th century Polish nobles – because this is when and where their movement developed! Not surprisingly they are the Jews who are easiest to spot. Then there are orthodox (the men cover their heads with a little ‘kippah’ cap) – and then there are Progressive – that is what my congregation is. We have a more modern approach to combining our tradition with the modern world and modern understandings – that is why we treat men and women equally, recognize homosexuality, work hard in interfaith understanding and looking after the environment etc. Most of us do not cover our heads except in formal prayer services. All of these so far consider themselves to be ‘religious’ - And then there are many who think of themselves as ‘secular’, not very religious at all. And many of those who live in Israel fir into this category – they think living in a Jewish country is enough – they don’t have to pray as well! These are like most Australian Christians!
To help us remember to ‘act as God does’, we have many commandments (the Ten Commandments are the tip of the iceberg!). Tradition says there are 613, 365 do nots, and 248 dos! Actually no-one can do all of these – some are for men, some for women, some for kings, some for priests in the Temple that no longer exists, some for those who live in Israel, others for those who don’t. Still, there are lots left. For example, we don’t eat blood (as it is taken to be the life force of the animal), so some people make sure their meat is killed in a particular, quick and painless way (shechitah), and salted to remove all the blood. We light Shabbat Candles on Friday night (the Jewish day starts at nightfall and finishes at the next nightfall (as Christianity used to do – hence Christmas Eve services). We give charity.
What is your belief on these following questions:
Who/what is God? Don’t know! Very hard to grasp. God is NOT a ‘superhuman father figure’. God is a presence (one of the words for God is Shekhina, dwelling presence). God always was, is and always will (Eternal). See above
What is God's relationship with humans? See above. God hears and listens, gives support and love, is with us at all times, and when we die (as all things do except God), we poetically say we ‘return to the shadow of God’s wings’ (God doesn’t have wings, or any other body parts as Gods is invisible and intangible and way above human. There are however many descriptions in the bible that are in 'human terms', eg God's back, God's outsretched arm, God's nostrils!).
What is the purpose and value of life? Every life is of great potential and infinite value. Our task is to achieve our potential. The purpose is to work with God to do our part to perfect the world.
What is the state of the world like? Very bad. The rabbis commented on the story of Noah and the flood (where it tells us that God destroyed the world because of human wickedness) ‘It would have been better if God had never made humanity. However, now that we are here, we’d better make the most of it!’
How will the world become a better place? When humans act together in love for each other and creation. They need to recognize that no-one has the whole truth, that we can all learn from and help each other, that there are many paths to God and to what different religions call different things, Nirvana, Salvation, Perfection, Messiah, Messianic Times, End of Days.
Can you convert to Judaism?
Yes, some people are surprised to learn that Judaism has always had converts. Judaism is not a race - for example, there were many who escaped from Egypt with the Israelites who eventually became part of the people, and later Ruth the Moabitess joined the Jewish people and has a whole biblical book (Ruth) about her story - it even concludes by pointing out that King David was descended from her!
It is not easy to join the Jewish people however. A person needs to study through at least a year to understand and experience all the festivals, and needs to be able to read Hebrew to join in with the prayers etc. But sincere converts to Judaism are very welcome, and once converted, they should be treated exactly like any other Jew.
What are basic Jewish rituals?
Male babies are circumcised (the foreskin of their penis is surgically removed). This is supposed to be a sign of the covenant between Jews and God.
The ‘Sh’ma’ is a declaration made twice a day, when we lie down and when we rise up – Listen up, you Jews – The Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is One.
Traditionally Jews should pray three times every day. Main services are on Shabbat – Friday night, Saturday morning. We welcome Shabbat in the home at Friday sunset by lighting two or more candles, saying a blessing over wine or grape juice, and over the challah, a braided sweet loaf of bread. We then have a lovely family meal with a white tablecloth, and songs may be sung. At the end of Shabbat on Saturday evening, there is a similar short ceremony over wine, candle and spices to say goodbye to Shabbat and mark the transition back to the working week. This is called Havdalah.
Jewish men wear a prayer shawl (Tallit) with fringes (another reminder of the commandments) and cover their heads, during formal prayers. In Progressive Judaism, where we recognize the equality of women, women and girls can do the same. On Sabbath services, we read from the Torah, the handwritten parchment scroll containing the so called ‘Five Books of Moses’. The Torah, and many of the prayers, are read in Hebrew (Hebrew is read right to left). Hebrew is not too difficult to learn. The Torah is translated, and the prayers may be read in English, or the translation is always in the prayer book.
At 13, boys celebrate Bar Mitzvah, leaving childhood, by reading or singing from the Torah, and telling the congregation something they have learnt about it. In our Progressive congregations, girsl do the same.
We have various festivals in the year. The New Year and Day of Atonement (with eight days of penitence between them) – when we seek forgiveness for things we have done wrong, and try to examine our past year and commit to being better in the new year just started. The three pilgrimage festivals (when, in the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews would travel there three times in the year with their offerings) – these are Sukkot (Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost). Each of them has a historical meaning from the Torah as well as marking a harvest in Israel.
There are also Festivals marking later events in Jewish history such as Purim (a story about an attempt to destroy the Jews in Persia), Chanukah (the Jewish Maccabees succeed in recapturing and rededicating the Temple from the Seleucid Greek army), Yom HaShoah (in which we mourn for the more than six million Jews of Europe killed in the Nazi Holocaust) and Yom YaÁtzmaut (in which we celebrate the re-establishment of the Jewish State in 1948).
Not exactly a ritual, but Jews are obligated to give of their time and or money as Tzedakah (righteous acts, usually translated as ‘charity’ but not optional).
Hope that us useful.