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Judaism. The Hebrew Bible. Jews are ‘People of the Book’, or, perhaps ‘ People of the Scroll ’. The Hebrew bible consists of 24 books… Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy

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the hebrew bible
The Hebrew Bible

Jews are ‘People of the Book’, or, perhaps ‘People of the Scroll’.

The Hebrew bible consists of 24 books…

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy

These first five are the books of Moses, called the Torah, or Pentateuch, the most sacred scriptures in Judaism.

See Judaism 101 for a list of the books and their organization, if interested.

A Torah scroll, open to Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea


Genesis is the story of creation, the fall, the descendants of Adam & Eve, the moral corruption of the world, the great flood of Noah, God’s choosing of Abraham’s lineage to be “His people” … Abraham has Ishmael & Isaac, Isaac has Esau & Jacob, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel … Israel has 12 children … his favorite is Joseph, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. All of Israel’s children wind up in Egypt … setting the stage for the book of Exodus.

The Ark resting on the mountains of Ararat

If curious, you can read a Twitter-sized summary of these books


Exodus is the story of God using Moses (and a few plagues) to free His people from Pharaoh in Egypt, part the Red Sea, receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, build the Ark of the Covenant to transport them, and set up the Tabernacle and the priestly tribe of Levi that will attend to God who will be traveling with them to the Promised Land.


Leviticus is a book of instruction for the Levites, the priestly tribe, regarding rituals, sacrifices, priesthood, atonement, etc., that mediate the relation between God and the Israelites.


Numbers tells the story of the journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land. The Israelites are counted and begin marching. They complain a lot, God provides manna from heaven but they complain about it, and many of them die in the wilderness. They spy out the land of Canaan, but refuse to go in. God condemns them to wander for 40 years, so that none but their descendants, 600,000+, enter the Promised Land.


Deuteronomy means ‘second law’… Moses gives 3 sermons as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land:

  • Retells the journey from Mt. Sinai to this point.
  • Exhorts Israel to keep the law and adds further laws.
  • Announces that if they should fail to keep God’s laws and so lose the land, it can be regained through repentance.

Moses is not permitted into the Promised Land; he dies on Mt. Nebo and God buries him.

Basilica of the Memorial of Moses, Mt. Nebo

transition slide
Transition Slide

In wondering why the religion of the Jews endured while other small nomadic people’s religions disappeared, Smith suggests it was the Jewish “passion for meaning” that lifted them from obscurity, and uses that notion as a foil to explain Judaism. (p272)

Smith might have focused instead on their concept of God as the “most high” who exists “from everlasting to everlasting,” as that concept is a source of fascination, and compels investigation into the meaning of some of the most mysterious and important concepts we can consider: the nature of necessity, eternity, human nature, morality, the meaning of life, and so on.


The World’s Religions, 50th Anniversary Edition, Huston Smith (hereafter “Smith”)

Read the chapter on Judaism

meaning in god
Meaning in God

Smith, pp272-276, considers four ways to interpret our existence on earth that drain life of meaning, and how the Jews avoided those interpretations through their concept of God. Those four interpretations are …

  • Prosaic
  • Chaotic
  • Amoral
  • Hostile

Interpretation #1, prosaic, which means ‘lacking poetic beauty’, is avoided by seeing God as a personal being, rather than a mere creative force or energy.

meaning in god1
Meaning in God

Interpretation #2, chaotic, is avoided by seeing God as the only true God

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” Deut. 6:4.

Other gods are subordinate, not in any way true competitors, as the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia were to each other.

When there is only one true God, the only chaos to be expected depends, perhaps, on volatile emotions.

The Hebrew God, while emotional, is, however, a God of principles and promises.

Interpretations #3 and #4, amoral and hostile, are both excluded by conceiving of God as supremely moral and supremely loving.

meaning in creation
Meaning in Creation

The creation story tells of God creating everything outside of Himself, and everything God created he “saw that it was good.” (Genesis chapter 1)

Recall from Hinduism & Buddhism the physical world, or world of complex objects, is illusory.

In Judaism, creation, while not the top priority, is praised ... there is a Promised Land. (Smith, p278)

Humans are given dominion over the earth, and are expected to be good stewards of it. (Smith, p279)

Moses viewing the Promised Land

meaning in human existence
Meaning in Human Existence

Pages 280-282 Smith simply notes how the Hebrews assessed human nature in relation to God … humans are:

  • Frail (“dust,” “crushed like a moth,” “like grass that flourishes, then fades and withers,” etc.)
  • God-like (“Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels” … which is better translated “than God, or the gods,” as the word Hebrew word is ‘elohim, which can be either singular or plural)
  • Sinners (“I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” [Psalm 51:5] … sinners ‘miss the mark’)
  • Free (God presents humans with choices that shape their destiny and saddle them with responsibility)
  • Beloved Children (Humans know they belong to a family whose Father loves them)
meaning in history
Meaning in History

History is meaningful as God has chosen to intervene and direct human affairs. Smith, p284 …

…vividly illustrated in the epic of Abraham … deterioration of the world from its original, pristine goodness. Disobedience (eating the forbidden fruit) is followed by murder (Cain of Abel), promiscuity (the sons of god and the daughters of men), incest (Lot and one of his daughters), until a flood is needed to sluice out the mess. In the midst of the corruption, God is not inactive. Against this backdrop, in the last days of the Sumeric universal state, God calls Abraham. He is to go forth into a new land to establish a new people. The moment is decisive. Because Abraham answers its call, he ceases to be anonymous. He becomes the first Hebrew, the first of a “chosen people.”

Click image to see the trailer

meaning in history1
Meaning in History

Meaning is nowhere more evident than in a story. The quality of a story gives meaning to its characters, and vice versa.

Part of what drives the story, and so the meaning of history for the Jews, is that there are various goals.

For India, human destiny lies outside history altogether … The nature religions of Israel’s neighbors reached the same conclusion … The Egyptian [did not ask] if the Sun god Ra was shining as he should, … -Smith, pp284-285

Nature is to be improved in Judaism, not ignored or simply protected from change.

God has a plan for Israel, and following His direction is essential for the accomplishing of the plan, and even discovering what it is.

meaning in morality
Meaning in Morality

Smith suggests social life is meaningful, or at least not devoid of meaning, when it is guarded from barbarity with rules.

While there are 613 specific commandments in Hebrew scripture, Smith, p286-288, focuses on four fundamental precepts among the basic ten commandments:

  • Thou shalt not murder
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery
  • Thou shalt not steal
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness

Each of these involve emotions so strong they destabilize society when not respected.

meaning in justice
Meaning in Justice

Smith uses the examples of King Ahab and King David to show how justice keeps power from destroying society. Ahab had an innocent man stoned so as to get his land, and David had Bathsheba’s husband killed so that he could have her.

Lowly prophets, in both cases, confronted the Kings with their injustices and both Kings acknowledged their wrongs.

In a world of might making right all around them, the Hebrews passion for justice brings meaning to social life.

Prophet Elijah confronts Ahab and Jezebel in Naboth’s stolen vineyard

meaning in suffering
Meaning in Suffering

1. 721 BCE Assyria “came down like a wolf on the fold” and wiped the Northern Kingdom from the map forever, converting its people into “the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” In 586 Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was conquered … leadership intact … Nebuchadnezzar marched it collectively into captivity in Babylonia. –Smith, pp293-294

This is the famous period of exile in Hebrew history; “exile was teaching the Jews the true worth of freedom.”

Nebuchadnezzar sacking Jerusalem, 586 BCE

meaning in suffering1
Meaning in Suffering

Suffering captivity teaches the “true worth of freedom,” but, of course, suffering generally teaches the true worth of WHATEVER is lost in suffering. (On the right, list at least 3,000 examples.)

2. A second lesson is that those who persevere through suffering will be vindicated…

Go out from Babylon, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,

send forth to the end of the earth;

say, “The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob.” (Isaiah 48:20-22)

Cyrus the Great freeing the Jews from Babylonian captivity, 538 BCE

meaning in suffering2
Meaning in Suffering

3. Not only do the Jews learn the true value of freedom, but their experience teaches the whole world:

I have given you as a light to the nations,

to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:6-7)

Again, this sort of lesson can be expanded to all suffering … part of its meaning, or a way to give it meaning, is to employ its lessons to help others.

meaning in messianism
Meaning in Messianism

Messianism is the climax of the meaning in suffering.

Smith attributes the very idea of utopianism to “the West,” decisively shaped by the Jews. (Smith, p296)

  • India and China (the two other enduring civilizations) had their outlook shaped by the brahmins and “the literati,” respectively. Top dogs.
  • The Jews were underdogs. They were always ‘looking up’, as it were.

Beginning in the period of exile (in Babylon from 586-538 BCE), the Jews began looking for …

“a redeemer who would effect the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ to their native homeland.” After the second destruction of the Temple (70 CE), the honorific title ‘Messiah’ was used to designate the person who would rescue them from that diaspora. (Smith, p297)

meaning in messianism1
Meaning in Messianism

Historically, the idea of a Messiah was never univocal in Judaism.

  • Sometimes it was a personal deliverer, sometimes just an expectation of deliverance by God through unseen means.
  • Sometimes it was the notion of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy in idealized form; other times it was the notion of a new utopia never seen before.
  • Sometimes it was the idea of a gradual improvement of the existing order; other times it was the “end of days” apocalyptic shake up where a new world replaces the old entirely.

Throughout those variations of emphasis and specificity, the three constants of Messianism were …

  • Hope
  • National restitution (always a political component)
  • World upgrade (always a spiritual component) (Smith, p297)
the hallowing of life
The Hallowing of Life

Pages 299-303, Smith discusses the role of ritual in Jewish life under the heading “The Hallowing of Life.”

This is an important section in an ideas course (philosophy courses are ideas courses) because it reminds us that Judaism is to a large degree what Smith calls an ‘orthopraxis’ rather than an ‘orthodoxy’—a way of living rather than a way of believing (‘ortho’ means ‘correct’ in this context; ‘praxis’ means practice or custom, ‘doxy’ means belief).

How do you live right in Judaism? You give meaning to everything in life by ritual…

the hallowing of life1
The Hallowing of Life


If you want a reminder of how ritual hallows life in Judaism, re-watch this clip. 


Smith anchors the Hebrew trust in revelation (the words of the prophets) to the exodus from Egypt:

It is true that Genesis describes a number of divine revelations that preceded the Exodus, but the accounts of them were written later in light of the decisive Exodus event. That God was a direct party to their escape from Pharaoh, the Jews did not doubt.—Smith, p304

The Exodus event proved three things to the Jews:

  • God’s power: “The Exodus, that incredible event in which God liberated an unorganized, enslaved people from the mightiest power of the age, was not only the event that launched the Israelites as a nation. It was also the first clear act by which Yahweh's character was made known to them.”—Smith, p304
  • God’s love: “Though it might be less obvious to outsiders, it was overwhelmingly evident to the Jews who were its direct recipients … ‘Happy are you, O Israel; who is like you—a people saved by Yahweh?’ (Deuteronomy 33:29)”—Smith, p305
  • God’s willingness to act for the good in human history.

From the goodness of God’s character displayed in the Exodus event, the Jews now conclude God wants them to be good as well.

  • First stop, Mt. Sinai and the Ten Commandments.
  • Next, book after book extending the commandments … the Jews receive the Law.
  • A Covenant is formed between God and the Israelites: “To the Jews, God’s self-disclosure was an invitation to a covenant.”

Covenants, p306, differ how from contracts? ___________

the chosen people
The Chosen People

How odd

of God

to choose

the Jews

Smith begins this section with that quatrain to pose the notion of God’s singling out someone for a special revelation and role in history as problematical. It can seem so. Consider:

“The Lord God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.” –Deuteronomy 7:6

Does it make sense God might do this? Is it “mere religious chauvinism”?

3 “Excuses”:

1. The Jews did not see themselves as singled out for privileges; instead, they see they are chosen to serve, and suffer a loss of freedom others did not in having received the Torah, the Law.

the chosen people1
The Chosen People


… [G]rant that God called the Jews to heroic ordeal, not sinecure; the fact that they were singled out for a special role in the redemption of the world still looks like favoritism. –Smith, p308

2. Smith goes all-anthropologist at this point, offering 2 excuses for the affront of claiming special status with a universal God:

  • It is a natural conclusion of a small band of slaves who escaped the most powerful tyrant of the day, then almost immediately were brought to an understanding of God that was radically more advanced than that of their neighbors.
  • For 3,000 years they have endured while beset on all sides by somewhat to very hostile neighbors.

Then Smith asks the question whether it is more reasonable that these events are explained by the Jews acting alone, or by God’s intervention. He does not see Jews as unreasonable in choosing to think it was God’s doing.

the chosen people2
The Chosen People

3. A third effort at excuse is found in a “midrashic legend” to the effect that …

when God made Adam from the earth, he used every color of clay from every part of the earth “to insure the universality and basic homogeneity of the human race.” –Smith, p309

God’s choice of the Jews then would appear entirely whimsical or arbitrary … thereby removing any hint that there is something special about the Jews … so here, at least, there is a tradition in Judaism of making an effort to avoid offence.

The question then is, does it make sense that a universal God might single out some group of humans, even arbitrarily, to work out some plan or purpose?

Try to divine Smith’s hypothesis in support of that possibility at the bottom of page 309 and top of page 310. What is his argument? ____________________

israel the state
Israel (the state)

Read this section on your own, if you like; I will not quiz or test you on it—it is a complex political topic, not a conceptual topic suited to our class.


All images but the He’Brew Beer image are taken from Wikimedia Commons.

They are Public Domain images requiring no attribution for use; the images contain links to their source.

He’Brew beer image is a link to the image source, Smaltz Brewing Company.