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Handbook of Denominations in the United States
By Craig D. Atwood, Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Judaism is one of the oldest religions of the world. All Western religions trace their origins in some way to Judaism. Today there are about twelve million Jews in the world, half of whom live in the United States. Judaism can refer to both a religion and an ethnicity, and there are, of course, disagreements among Jews as to what truly makes a person Jewish—whether it is a matter of birth, cultural heritage, or religious observance.
Unlike Christianity, which is generally defined in terms of doctrines and beliefs, Judaism as a religion is defined primarily by rituals and ethics. Put briefly, Jews understand themselves as the people to whom God gave the commandments to observe as their obligation to God. By following God's instructions, the Chosen People in turn become a blessing to the entire world as they help to establish God's realm of justice and peace (shalom).
History. Jews trace their heritage back to the patriarch Abraham, who answered the call of God and left his home in Mesopotamia to seek a promised land beyond the Jordan River. According to tradition, Abraham's grandson was Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with an angel. The twelve sons of Jacob/Israel became the fathers of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel.
The defining event for the Israelites and their descendents was the Exodus. After many years serving as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet named Moses was called by God to lead the people to freedom. Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds) and led the people to Mt. Sinai. There he established a priesthood and gave instructions on how they should live. Israel's obligations to God became known as the Torah ("Law" or "Instruction"). Torah is the centerpiece of all forms of Judaism down to the present day.
Around 1000 BCE, the second king of Israel, David, established a strong and prosperous centralized government with a standing army and efficient bureaucracy. He captured the Canaanite city of Jerusalem and made it the capital of his realm. Despite his personal flaws and failings, David was heralded as the perfect king, God's own son. Prophets and priests alike proclaimed that God had made a special covenant with the house of David so that there would always be a son of David on the throne in Jerusalem. Jewish kings were known as the Lord's Anointed, which in Hebrew is Messiah. David's son Solomon expanded the kingdom and built a large central temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was proclaimed to be the holy city, the dwelling place of God. Centuries after the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem is still viewed as the holy city by most Jews, and the Temple Mount is the most holy land in the Holy Land.
After Solomon's death, there was a rebellion against the Davidic kings, and the kingdom divided into two unequal parts. The smaller southern kingdom of Judah consisted primarily of the tribe of Judah, and its capital city was Jerusalem, where the descendents of David ruled until the sixth century BCE. The words Judaism and Jew come from "Judah." The northern kingdom was known as Israel, and its capital was Samaria. In the early eighth century this kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. The people were dispersed, never to reunite. From that time on, the southern kingdom assumed the heritage of Israel. Around 587 BCE the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. The temple was destroyed and thousands of citizens were taken into captivity. During the forty years of exile, the prophets, priests, scribes, and scholars began the process of codifying the writings that became the sacred Scripture.
Eventually the Jews were allowed to return to the land of the patriarchs and they built a nation under Persian and later Greek control. There was no longer a king; instead the high priest served as the chief administrator of Judea. In the second century BCE their Hellenistic overlord, the Syrian Emperor Antiochus IV, tried to crush the Jews and their religion in order to make them more subservient to his rule. Copies of the Torah (the scrolls of the first five books of the Bible) were burned, Jews were forbidden to circumcise their boy babies (the physical sign that one is in the covenant), and the Temple was desecrated by the sacrifice of an unclean animal to a pagan deity. Rather than crush the spirit of the Jews, these measures led to open revolt. This revolt of the Maccabbees on behalf of the right of Jews to observe the commandments of God is commemorated each year at Hanukkah.
Within a hundred years of the revolt against foreign domination, though, Judea fell into Roman hands. At the time of Jesus, it was administered by a Roman governor. Rebellion again broke out in 66 CE, but this time, the Jews were defeated. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70. By that time, there were Jewish communities throughout the Roman and Persian worlds, and they grew in importance when the heart of Judaism was destroyed. The Diaspora, or scattering, of the Jews was facilitated by the development of a mobile form of religion that was based in the family and small community. In diaspora Judaism, it takes only ten men to form an assembly and conduct worship. Even without a synagogue, Judaism can be observed in the home, in secret if need be.
As Christianity emerged as the religion of the Roman Empire, anti-Semitism grew in the Empire. But with the rise of Islam, which has many affinities to Judaism, Jews were met with a measure of toleration in the new Islamic Empire. Jews often had positions of great power and influence, particularly in the learned professions, such as medicine. Jews in the Islamic world generally spoke Arabic or other local languages and even translated the Torah into Arabic. They assimilated outwardly while maintaining Jewish observance and theology. These Jews of the Mediterranean basin would eventually be called Sephardic, from the Hebrew word for "Spain." Spain had a thriving Jewish community until Isabella and Ferdinand consolidated their rule over the Iberian Peninsula. In 1492, the year Columbus sailed west, the Jews were forced to leave Spain or face the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. Many Sephardic Jews made their way to the New World, settling in Brazil, New York, and Rhode Island.
Jews in the Christian kingdoms of the West had a more tenuous existence than did those in Islamic lands. During the struggle to define Christianity as separate from Judaism in the patristic period, much anti-Semitism found its way into Christian theology and practice. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish communities were subject to harassment by Christian mobs. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Jews were expelled from England and France. Many made their way eastward into the sparsely settled lands of Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Russia. There they established separate communities, often building entire farming villages, where they could observe the Torah in relative peace. These Jews became known as Ashkenazi, from the Hebrew word for "Germany," and they developed a unique German dialect known as Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew letters. The Ashkenazi were generally less sophisticated and secular than the Sephardim.
Persecution of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe began in earnest in the nineteenth century, and thousands immigrated to the United States. Soon anti-Semitism increased in Germany and throughout Central Europe. Hatred of Jews reached a fever pitch in the first half of the twentieth century. When the National Socialist (Nazi) Party came to power in Germany through popular elections, violence against Jews increased. Adolf Hitler (1889—1945) and his aides put in place a series of anti-Jewish laws that stripped Jews of their civil rights. Soon, the Nazi regime began shipping Jews to concentration camps, where as many as six million Jews, along with millions of Gypsies, Slavs, and other hated groups, were brutally tortured and murdered. This Shoah, or Holocaust, marked a watershed in Jewish history that continues to affect Judaism in profound ways. Never before had the threatened destruction of the Jewish people been so close to fulfillment. Perhaps half of the world's Jewish population died during the Nazi era.
The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 was connected with the horrors of the Holocaust. Since the nineteenth century, when many peoples of Europe had agitated for their own nations, there had been calls for a Jewish nation. This Zionist, or Jewish nationalist, movement was led by Theodor Herzl (1860—1904), who laid the groundwork upon which the Jewish homeland would be erected. Initially a rather small movement among secularized Jews, many of whom had socialist convictions, Zionism grew in power as Jews learned the truth about the Holocaust. A Jewish state free from Gentile control seemed to be the best solution to Jewish survival. In the 1960s and 1970s, religious Jews became firm supporters of the Jewish state as well; and many people perceived a link between the future of Israel as a nation and the establishment of the long-hoped for messianic age. In the last quarter of the twentieth century there was a growing fundamentalist movement focused on Zionist goals.
Jews in the United States. Sephardic Jews arrived early in American history. During the colonial period synagogues were established in New Amsterdam (1654), Newport, Savannah, Charleston, and Philadelphia (1730s and 40s); however, the first official rabbi did not arrive until the middle of the nineteenth century.
President George Washington was able to assure a delegation of Jewish leaders that the new Constitution of the United States guaranteed freedom of worship and conscience to all people, not just Christians. Because of this guarantee of freedom from persecution, America gradually became a second "promised land" for world Jewry. In the nineteenth century, some Jews embraced American culture so completely that they redefined Judaism in terms familiar to liberal Protestants. Hebrew was dropped, except in special services, the rules of ritual observance were relaxed, and organs were added to synagogues. Some synagogues even began worshiping on Sunday rather than on the Sabbath. Other Jews rejected this assimilation to the Protestant American mainstream and retained traditional elements of worship and observance.
The massive influx of Eastern European Jews, the Ashkenazi, profoundly affected the American Jewish community. Millions of immigrants settled in the major northern cities, creating large Jewish neighborhoods where they could maintain much of their Old World identity in the midst of industrial America. There were about half a million Jews in the United States in 1900. By 1940 there were over four million, and they made a significant impact on American popular culture. The Ashkenazi tended to be more conservative than the Sephardic Jews who had lived in the United States for decades. Many of the most famous American entertainers came out of this Yiddish culture, with its distinctive foods and traditions. By the end of the twentieth century, Judaism was so well established in American society that an observant Jew, Joseph Lieberman, could be nominated for vice president in 2000.
While the local synagogue is very important to Jewish life in the United States, there are hundreds of Jewish organizations that help to define and defend Judaism. They range from those focused on Jewish rights to youth societies. There are some two hundred periodicals and newspapers and two news syndicates dedicated to Judaism. The American Jewish Committee is organized to protect the civil and religious rights of Jews around the world. It seeks equality in economic, social, and educational opportunities and gives aid and counsel in cases of intolerance and persecution.
Jewish institutions of higher learning, affiliated with the various movements, serve the community nationwide, not only by training rabbis, but also providing general Jewish learning for all interested people. The most important are (Orthodox) Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York City; (Reform) Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem; (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City; and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Yeshiva University in New York City is the only Jewish college that awards a B.A. degree; Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, is the only nonsectarian Jewish sponsored college or university in the United States.
Theology and Practice. Rabbinic Judaism was the only form of Judaism to survive ancient times and the destruction of the Temple. It actually developed at the same time that Christianity was being formed. In fact, in the first century, Christianity was simply one of many forms of non-rabbinic Judaism. By the sixth century, the two religions had developed the basic structures, theology, and practices that define each to the present.
Judaism as a religion is based on the Hebrew Scriptures (for Christians, the Old Testament), but it is distinct from the form of religion described in those texts. The ancient religion of the Israelites focused on cultic observances, particularly animal sacrifice, and revelation given by prophets. Priests were in charge of seeing that cultic rites were properly performed and that ritual purity was maintained. Prophets served social and religious functions as well. They were men (and occasionally women) through whom God spoke, especially in judgment. Prophets challenged the leaders of society, even the king, to live by the ethical demands of the covenant. Justice for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed was a major theme of the prophetic judgment.
Over time, scribes codified the pronouncements of the prophets and the laws of the priesthood, producing an enormous body of legal and ethical material that has profoundly shaped Western society. However, many of the laws and instructions contained in the scriptures clearly reflect the world of an ancient agricultural people. First the priests and later the rabbis helped people understand and apply the Torah in radically different historical and social contexts.
Rabbinic Judaism grew out of the Pharisee movement. The Pharisees in the first century CE were a Jewish party that controlled most of the synagogues in and around Palestine. They differed from the priests and other Jews by their strict interpretation of the demands of the Torah: It should be observed as faithfully as humanly possible. To make observance of the Torah easier, the Pharisees taught, Jews should keep themselves separate from Gentiles, especially at meals, when it would be hard to observe dietary restrictions. Marriage to Gentiles was also forbidden. The Pharisees deemphasized Temple observances and the sacrifice of animals and focused on the demands of the Torah in day-to-day living. Justice, not sacrifice, was what God demands, the prophet Micah had said, and the Pharisees agreed. For the rabbis, prayer and study of Torah served the religious needs that the priests had once met.
One of the key concepts of rabbinic Judaism is that there are two Torahs. The written Torah was given to Moses and is contained in the scrolls of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). These writings were revealed by God through the prophetic lawgiver, but the written Torah can be very confusing and difficult to observe unless you live in a small agricultural society. Here is where the second Torah of the rabbis comes in. This is the oral Torah, which was also communicated to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. The oral Torah is the key to understanding Scripture and to applying the teachings of Scripture to one's daily life. The written Torah says to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. The oral Torah tells you how to do this. According to tradition, this oral Torah was passed down by a succession of prophets and scribes, such as Ezra.
After the destruction of the Temple, though, it became necessary to codify and clarify this oral tradition and preserve it in written form. This culminated in the production of the Talmud around 600 CE. The Talmud is one of the masterpieces of world literature and intellectual history. It contains the debates of the rabbis on questions of biblical interpretation and how to understand and apply the Torah. There are, in fact, two Talmuds, one produced in Babylon by the descendents of Jews who had not returned to Israel, and one produced in Palestine centuries after the destruction of the Temple.
The Talmud has two main parts, one of which, the Haggadah, deals with biblical interpretation, customs, legends, and edifying stories. The other part concerns Halakah, the rules of the covenant with God. Halakah involves the traditional 613 commandments that Jews are to obey and practice in their daily lives. This can be difficult as the world changes, so the Talmud also provides guidelines for interpreting Halakah. This process of interpretation, adaptation, and even disagreement over the meaning of Torah is the thread that runs through the history of Judaism.
Excerpted from Handbook of Denominations in the United States by Craig D. Atwood, Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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