08 November 2001


Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
Thus spoke Moses (Judaism's most important prophet) to semitic warrior nomads and former Egyptian slaves in the 13th century B.C., as he exhorted them to follow precepts that would give rise to Judaism — the world's first instance of ethical monotheism. Emphasing progress, individuality and freedom, Judaism became one of the chief the cornerstones of Western and now world civilization. Judaism is the progenitor of Christianity and Islam, both of which are enriched when they look to their roots in the more ancient faith.

The sacred literature of Judaism begins with the TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible), which contains the Torah (Law), the Nevi'im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings), arranged in roughly historical order to take the reader from the beginning of the Universe to the end of the Age of Prophecy in ancient Israel. (The Old Testament contains the same material, but rearranged by Christian editors to convey a sense of prophecy leading up to the event of God's Incarnation in Jesus Christ.)

After the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and its priests in 71 A.D., a group called the Tannaim (rabbis who had been spared by the Romans in hope they could help pacify the Jews) produced the Mishna, a compilation of Biblical and Halakhic (legal) interpretation which would govern Jewish living and worship. After the Mishna, one could be a good Jew without having to make an annual pilgimmage to sacrifice animals at the Temple in Jerusalem. Over the next few centuries, rabbis in Palestine and Babylon wrote the Talmud, which contained extensive commentaries on the Mishna in the form of debates spanning both geography and time. To this are added various collections of Midrash, which are commentaries on the Torah concerning matters of Law. What emerged from this process was rabbinic Judaism, a made-for-diaspora religion in which only a teacher (rabbi) and a few books were needed to pass on the learning and tradition of the faith to the members of the community, all of whom could lead the community in worship. The Jewish legal/moral tradition is continued in many great works, the Mishneh Torah by Moses Maimonides and the Shulhan Arukh by Joseph Caro, among them. For more details see Talmud & Midrash. Central to the observance of Jewish Law is the observance of the Holidays of the Jewish Calendar.

There are strong spiritual and mystical traditions within Judaism, most particularly the tradition of teachings known as Kabbalah. The roots of present day Kabbalah are found in the Zohar.

Judaism has since split into three principal movements since the haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) of the 18th and 19th centuries: Reform Jews do not acknowledge the authority of the Talmud, while Conservative Jews consult it. Orthodox Jews (of whom there are several varieties) observe its precepts as literally as possible and seek to establish Halakha (Jewish Religious Law) in place of current secular law in Israel, just as Islamic Fundamentalists seek to establish Shariah (Islamic Religious Law) in Muslim countries.

Jewish worship consists of daily prayer and ritual in the home for both men and women, and communal worship at a synagogue on Shabbat (Sabbath, observed on Saturdays) and High Holidays. There are also special holiday prayers and rituals for the home. Jewish liturgy is written in several types of prayer-book: a Siddur for home prayer and Shabbat worship, a Mahzor for High Holidays (like Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement), and a Haggadah for the seder (Passover — which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt) service held in the home. Various versions of prayer books have been written for these observances according to one's preferred style of Judaism. For a quick introduction to Jewish observance, holidays, literature, and the state of Israel, see Herman Wouk's, This is my God.

The central narrative of Judaism is the story of the Israelites, from God's promise to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would inherit Canaan and be God's Chosen People, to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the beginning of the dissolution of the Southern Kingdom (Judah). The central story within that narrative is the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt: Moses challenges the Pharoah (Rameses II?) and leads his people out of Egypt to the border of the Promised Land. In a dramatic encounter with God at Mt. Sinai, witnessed by all the people, Moses receives the first Ten Commandments of the Law, which establishes both a code of behavior and a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. This is a story of liberation combined with one of responsibility: the Israelites are freed, but their freedom is not arbitrary. They are freed to become People of God.

Judaism Links:

About.com: Judaism
HADASSAH - because my grandmother said so.
Jewishnet - Global Jewish Information Network
Online Jewish Library
Maven - The Portal Directory to the Jewish World
Virtual Jerusalem - another Jewish Portal
National Museum of American Jewish History
Nizkor: A Holocaust Rememberance
Navigating the Bible II: Online Bat/Bar Mitzvah Tutor
Torah.org — online study of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament)
Where was God in the Holocaust? — A RealAudio Sermon by Rabbi Dr. N. Cardozo, hosted by 613.org
Chabad.org - Chabad Lubavitscher Hasidic Judaism for the Internet Age.
A Jewish Catechism

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