Distinctive characteristics • Dialogical • Jewish history is “a continuing dialogue with God” rooted in a covenant • Both sides—people and God—participate • Often takes the form of argument in the Bible and rabbinic writings • The dialogue is grounded in each side’s obligations to covenant • Adaptive • Has changed, radically at times, to accommodate new cultures and new challenges while preserving essential tradition • Ortho-praxis (“right practice”) • Focus on keeping mitzvot (commandments) as expression of covenant • Doctrine can vary widely
Ancient Israel: Historical setting • Developed in Mesopotamia ca. 3000 yrs ago • Tiny land, small group of people fighting for survival • Surrounded by powerful empires that rise and fall • Akkadia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome • Yet incredibly influential in Western culture
Key ideas • Monotheistic • Fundamental statement of belief: Shema Yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One” • Contrasts with other Ancient Near Eastern religions • Had multiple deities, consorts, were more like humans • Also had fertility gods and rituals; Creator might be hostile • In contrast, Israel’s God is different from humans • not male (no consort) • Always draws contrast (“Am I a man, that I should lie?”) • Calls humans to higher moral standards • But, cares deeply about people
Covenant • Central idea in Judaism • God is revealed in history • History has an end goal, is meaningful • Belief is lived out practically • Covenants in Judaism • God with Noah • God with Abraham (Gen 12, 15, 17) • Big one: God with Moses and Israel on Mt. Sinai (book of Exodus)
Exodus Story • Central narrative in Judaism • Paradigm: continues to interpret new experiences • Retold each year in the Seder meal of Passover • Remembers past, and interprets present circumstances as an ongoing story of God’s liberation of the oppressed • Story that establishes identity • Of God as liberator • Of Israel as a people of God • Of their covenantal relationship: each has obligations
Seder • Haggadah • Traditional story, blessings, songs, prayers • Yet flexible: many versions • Unites past, present, and future • Foods: symbols of Exodus story • Cup for Elijah • Roles for the kids
Seder, cont. • What makes this a ritual? • What makes it meaningful? • How does it disclose identity: • Of Jews (Settings, p. 134, 137) • Of God • What does it mean for Jews today?
Ongoing development: Rabbinic Judaism • Major crisis: destruction of Jerusalem Temple by Romans in 70 CE • Need new ways to practice religion in diaspora, without a geographic center, Temple, or priesthood • Rabbis present new adaptable model: study and prayer in the synagogue and at home • Focus on study • Torah: Hebrew Bible • Talmud (400-500 CE) includes: • Mishnah (200 CE): record of oral tradition by rabbis • Gemara: commentary on Mishnah • 613 mitzvot (commandments) • Focus on ritual and prayer in home and synagogue • Sabbath (shabbat), holidays, keeping mitzvot
Major change: Reform Judaism • Assumption: “Jewish law, halachah, is an historical collection of human responses to the divine.” (“Synagogues,” 100) • Redefined Judaism’s place in the modern world (101) • Develops in 1800s Germany • Time of Enlightenment • Belief in universality of truth, known through reason • Religion seen as valuable for teaching morals • Questioned religious authorities, scriptures • Legal changes • Emancipation laws give Jews citizenship • Many Jews see value in assimilating to European society • Adapted rabbinic Judaism to modern life • Focus on moral law and social justice • Traditions are adaptable • keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, studying Torah and Talmud critically
Movements of Judaism • Orthodox • About 10% of American Jews • Majority of Jews in Europe, Israel • Conservative • Started in 1913 in U.S. as a middle ground between Reform and Orthodox • About 40-43% of American Jews • Reform • About 35-40% of American Jews • Reconstructionist • Started in 1967 in U.S.