Anokhee Yud-Hei-Vov-Hei, Eloheykha, Asheyr hohtseitikha mei-eretz mitzrayim, me-beit avadeem.
“I am the mysterious and unknowable name of God (the one who is and will always be your God), who [can] bring[s] you out of a narrow way of seeing things, out of your enslavement and worries.” (Felder, 1997: 17).
Judaism seems to be to be an intensely intellectual, oral and written tradition. This could be the influence of the rabbis which dates back to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Rabbis will argue over the meaning of the most minor seeming preposition. This may look like pedantry, but what I like about this: the scholars constantly contextualize and include not just authorial, but editorial intent in their dissection of their holy books.
The idea that someone not only wrote these scriptures, but combined them in a particular order, in a particular way, to tell a particular story: this is sophisticated literary interpretation at work! It is a nod of respect towards the editor, not just the writer. Maybe it’s my experience of attempting to write fiction; but as Phillip Pullman once said, once you start thinking about structure – that’s when you’re a writer. The rabbis uncover the storytelling art and interrogate it, not to debunk scriptural “truths” as is sometimes the rather narrow intent of biblical skeptics; but to better understand meaning. Rabbinic Jews are meaning makers of the first order.
In Islam, there are also studies of the Koran and the hadith; in Christianity there are innumerable discourses on the gospels of Christ. I think these traditions may be influenced by the rabbinical tradition; and this is itself a partial product of ancient Greek influence of discourse and reason.
A digression: but what made the Greeks explode into intellectual fireworks at the time of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and later Socrates and Plato? According to the top notch scholar Edith Hamilton, it was an innate quality of intellectual curiosity and play. The Greek god Dionysus was a playful god. Theatres were established as the arenas in which to worship him, giving rise to art, poetry, comedy and tragedy. What kind of a people invent a god of wine? People who understand that life is short, and that one need not enjoy it like a brute, but like a mensch.
Background to Judaism
“What lifted the Jews from obscurity to permanent religious greatness was their passion for meaning.” (Smith, 1991).
Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a monotheistic religion. Its core book, the Torah, is acknowledged by Christians and Moslems as holy (in Islam known as the Tawrat, in Christianity as part of the Old Testament). Again like the other Abrahamic religions, God is unique, transcendent, and wholly other from nature. Judaism elevates Moses as unique among prophets, and in this it differs from Christianity, which deifies Christ, and Islam, which recognizes a series of prophets including Moses and Christ culminating in Muhammad, who is thought of by Muslims as the last of the prophets.
According to commentators, Judaism is an orthopraxis, identifiable by what Jews do more than what they believe (Smith, 1991). Smith explains that the West, influenced by Greek thought, emphasizes theology and creed, whilst the East emphasizes ritual and narrative. Judaism echoes the Eastern approach to spirituality as practices rather than just beliefs.
Jewish ritual sanctifies all aspects of human life as it reflects God’s glory. Practices cover food preparation, what people should eat and drink, and when. The Sabbath is a day consecrated to reflection and community. These rituals constantly remind Jews of their connection to history, drawing spiritual strength and energy from times in history when God’s direct interventions for the survival of the Jewish people were knowable.
“Ritual, with its prepared score to orchestrate the occasion, channels our actions and feelings at a time when solitude would be unbearable.” (Smith, 1991).
The Holy Books
Judaism’s core books include:
• The Tanakh
• The Talmud
The Tanakh refers to what the Christians know as the Old Testament:
• The first section: the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch
• The second section: the Nevi’im (the Books of the Prophets)
• Section three: Ketuvim (Writings including poetic books and accounts of later historical events)
These three sections of the Tanakh were passed on from generation to generation and accompanied by an oral tradition known as the Oral Torah.
The Torah is the Jewish Law, comprising the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The Talmud includes the Mishnah and the Gemara.The Mishnah sets out rabbinic teachings about the Jewish law. The Gemara mostly comprises rabbinical reflections and interpretations of the Mishnah.
The Exodus describes the turning point in Jewish history in which the Jewish people became a people. It is a gripping account of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. At the time, the Jews were not much more than a loosely connected group of people, enslaved to the Egyptian rulers. With such odds, the Jews should not have survived. Yet they did: the eluded capture and established their own territory.
Through the lens of this miracle, the Jews re-evaluated their past as a series of events in which God had intervened to help them survive. Everything that had happened suddenly took on fresh meaning. God had been gradually guiding events until the Jews could found their own nation. The Exodus from Egypt was God’s direct revelation to the Jews that He existed, that He was powerful enough to overcome the Egyptians, and He loved and cared for the Jews.
The Jews’ God, Yahweh, had revealed Himself to the Jews through an active event in history. Unlike the animist gods of nature whom people worshipped at the time, Yahweh was an actor in human life. The Jews, instead of praising and offering sacrifices to the forces of nature, began to focus on how to please Yahweh and do His will.
During the Jews’ long trek through the desert away from Egypt, Moses took time out to consult with Yahweh at the top of Mount Sinai. He came back with the Ten Commandments which became the contract or promise between Yahweh and His people: if the Jews honoured God’s Law, God would take care of the Jews.
The Chosen People
There is much rabbinical and scholarly debate about why the Jews consider themselves to be “chosen” by God and what it means to be “chosen.” Smith offers a compelling rationale. The Jews were saved, against all explicable odds, from slavery in Egypt. This experience would leave an indelible impression and require immediate and wholesale transformative thinking to understand. How did the Jews make sense of their salvation? They were chosen by God.
But being chosen is not all sunshine and lollipops. The Jews had to take on the higher moral responsibilities owed to their God than other gods demanded. As Smith reminds us,
“From beginning to end – this is the point that lies at the heart of the matter – the story of the Jews is unique. According to expectations they should have not escaped from Pharaoh in the first place….The prophetic protest against social injustice is universally conceded to be ‘without close parallel in the ancient world.’” (Smith, 1993).
I want to tentatively build on Smith’s thesis that the Jews’ escape from Egypt was the defining event that created a people with an identity and shared faith. Smith offers a very believable explanation of why the Jews turned to God after the miracle of their escape. I think their religion became moral and thus created the conditions for a working society because they had been slaves.
In Exodus, it is stated that the Jews left with a good sized proportion of the Egyptians wealth. But they had no landed wealth, no gentry, no upper crust, no powerful few with a military to enforce their property rights. What did they have? They had a shared story of God choosing them and loving them enough to save them from the Egyptians. They had crossed the Red Sea, a feat which they still regarded with awed disbelief, for how on earth had they pulled that off, if not by divine intervention? They had survived weeks and months in the desert, seeming to find water and food just before starvation and dehydration started killing them off.
The Role of Moses
And they had Moses. Moses must have been a great tactician to get the Jews out of Egypt alive. When I think of Moses (and for that matter, Muhammad and Christ),I think, what an extraordinary response to extraordinary circumstances, by an extraordinary human. And from these three seeds arise a lasting religion which shapes the world.
Moses grew up as a ward of the royal Egyptian family, but is said to have been a Jewish babe, abandoned and then found and raised by an Egyptian princess. But like Gautama Buddha and Che Guevara, when he was an adult and saw firsthand the way human beings were being treated as slaves, he responded by up-ending his life of comfort to rescue the oppressed.
And much ingratitude he got for it, in the months and years that followed as the Jews wandered the desert. Eventually his father-in-law, Jethro, travelled to visit Moses and his motley crew, and saw that Moses was taking too much on himself. Jethro advised Moses to appoint judges as his representatives, and Moses did so, appointing them as leaders of “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18: 24). And so Moses created a social infrastructure for regulation and maintaining order.
Once Moses had done this he finally had a chance to climb Mount Sinai for some reflective time out. Whilst on the mountain, Moses experienced a series of revelations of the Law, including the Ten Commandments. He returned to the desert and shared these with the people, then returned to the mountain for further instruction.
It had been three months since the escape from Egypt and people were starting to wonder if they had made the right choice. When he came back again, the people had started worshipping a golden bull and Moses threw the tablets with the Law inscriptions and broke them.
I can only imagine that this incident of the golden bull describes the fickleness of ordinary folk. But Moses appears to have been a social genius, because he created the Law (or received it from God) and a whole suite of prescribed rituals and rules which succeeded in keeping the Jewish people united despite the desperate living conditions of the desert. The story of their salvation would have been a great asset in preventing the entire populous from disintegrating into factions following various gods.
After he had dealt with the bull situation, Moses went back up the mountain, cooled down and returned with a fresh set of tablets and a renewed covenant with God on behalf of the people.
The Book of Numbers tells the story of the approximately forty years that the Jews spent nationless in the desert until they settled Canaan. Moses took a census of the Jews at Mount Sinai, and then again at Moab, east of Jordan, about a generation later. What a genius idea, to take a census! It would have allowed Moses and his administrators, the “judges” appointed on his father-in-law’s advice, to keep track of the Jewish population: the people’s crimes and misdemeanours, sacrifices, contributions to the Lord, births, deaths and marriages, taxes and offerings.
Moses died before the Jews invaded and took Canaan for their own. He had got them thus far, but no farther. The Jews conquered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, who had been a trusted assistant to Moses. They settled the Land of Israel before 1000 BC and lived there for the next 500 years.
Exile and Return
Jacob Neusner describes the origins of Judaism (as opposed to the Jewish people) as the “exile and return” which took place in 586-500 BC. In 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, taking the craftsmen, politicians and artisans with them back to Babylon. The Babylonians colonised Israel and brought a mix of other peoples, who then mixed with those Jews who had not been taken.
Towards 500 BC, the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persian emperor Cyrus sought to win the loyalty of the diverse populations in the Babylonian empire by returning their homelands to them. The Jews were permitted to return to Israel. A small number did so and rebuilt the Temple. During the Babylonian years, rabbis studies and eventually compiled the Tanakh. Then in 450 BC, the Persians allowed Nehemiah and Ezra (both public officials) to go to Jerusalem and set up a Jewish government for the region.
Thus the scriptures constructed the historical narrative of the Jewish people. They were exiled, they escaped or returned; they sinned, were punished and were reconciled with God. This story of Judaism and Jews relationship with God persisted partly because the historical events kept reinforcing it.
The Land of Israel was constantly under threat, absorbed and re-constituted, and the story of Jews’ salvation by God is repeated. Around 320 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Middle Easy and incorporated Israel into the Greek empire. In 160 BC the Jews found themselves yet again fighting for independence, this time from Maccabee rule.
The Role of Rabbis
The Torah sets out in great detail the role of priests in offerings and rituals. However by the time of Christ, as in many institutionalized religions, priests were often corrupt and rules were just as often used to exclude people from power rather than unite a struggling people in the desert. Christ’s work was largely in response to the injustices of the priests and their complicity in the Roman subjugation of the Jews (that is for another chapter!).
After Christ’s death, the Jews made a number of desperate attempts to wrestle power back from the Romans and briefly managed it. But in 70 AD, the Romans took it all back by force. They destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and this led to a shift from the sacrificial rites of the Temple to the study of the Torah and the oral recitative tradition in synagogues and rabbinical academies.
The rabbis became the glue which held Judaism together, and synagogues were no longer just centres of study but also worship and community. Rabbinic Judaism is a deeply intellectual pursuit, interpreting the Torah for insight and revelation.
Edith Hamilton. (1942). Greek Mythology. Reprinted in 1998 by Back Bay Books.
Huston Smith. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: New York.
Jacob Neusner. (1993). “Judaism.” Our Religions. Ed. Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: New York.