The Jewish people have been in existence for some 4000 years, and consider the Biblical patriarch Abraham to be the first Jewish person. In the Jewish story, God created a covenant with the Jewish people, first with Abraham, and then reiterated with Abraham’s descendants, all the way to Moses. In this covenant, the Jewish people agreed to follow God’s ways and do what is just and right (see Genesis 18:19), and in return, God promised to make the Jewish people numerous and a blessing to the rest of the world, and to give them the Promised Land (see Genesis 12:1-3).
According to the Biblical Book of Exodus, God made a major statement of this covenant to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and gave the Jewish people the Torah (see Exodus 20). Ever since that time, Jews have upheld this covenant through living out the Torah, following the commandments within the Torah as guidelines for living a moral and ethical life. What binds Jews together is not a common required set of beliefs, but rather a common set of behaviors, and the attitude that all Jews are members of the same extended family.
Despite there not being a required set of Jewish beliefs, many Jews embrace these traditional Jewish theological ideas:
- Ethical Monotheism: There is one God, and God demands that human beings behave ethically. One of the clearest expressions of this idea is the statement known as the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
- Divine Image: Human beings are created in the Divine image of God (Genesis 1:27). Therefore, all people have infinite value, and all people have a Divine purpose in life. For Jewish people, holiness is achieved by taking on behaviors to fulfill the obligations of the commandments in the Torah.
- God as Creator of All: God created everything, the good as well as the bad. Judaism has no Devil as a source of evil--“ I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, make all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7).
- Idolatry is the cardinal sin: An idol is anything viewed as more important than God. “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5)
- Pure Soul: Everyone is born with a pure soul, free of sin. There is no concept of Original Sin in Judaism. “My God, the soul you gave to me is pure” (from a traditional Jewish prayer).
- Tikkun Olam: Literally, “Repair of the World,” it is the Jewish mission to repair the world, to make it a better place. Jews attempt to partner with God to mend brokenness—poverty, war, injustice, abuse—through acts of loving kindness, following the commandments in the Torah.
- Messiah: Literally, “anointed one,” Jews look forward to a “Messianic Age” when the world will be perfected, when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Jews hold that because war has not yet been eliminated and the world has not yet been perfected, the Messiah has not yet come. The proof of the Messiah will be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of universal peace.
- After-life: There is not one Jewish view on after-life. Many Jews believe that each person contains within them a soul given by God, which is their Divine essence, and when a person dies, their body goes “from dust to dust” while their soul returns to God for everlasting life. Some Jews believe in the resurrection of the dead, although this view is not widely held today in the Jewish world. Many Jews hold that as no one knows what happens after death, the best approach is to leave that in God’s hands, and not be concerned with after-life, instead focusing attention and behaviors to make this world into a better place.
Important Religious Texts
The Hebrew Bible is the sacred text of the Jewish people. It contains three parts: The Torah, the Books of the Prophets (examples include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Zechariah, Malachi), and the Writings (examples include the Psalms, the Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ruth, Job, Chronicles). Christians have come to call the Hebrew Bible the “Old Testament,” but Jews prefer the term “Hebrew Bible,” or the term “Tanach,” which is a Hebrew acronym representing the three parts of the Hebrew Bible.
However, Judaism--its rituals, customs, and ethical teachings--continued to evolve after the completion of the Hebrew Bible, and its evolution is reflected in the volumes of the Mishnah and the Talmud, composed by the great sages and rabbis of Judaism from about 200 BCE to 500 CE. This evolution continued into the Middle Ages with influential texts by Jewish commentators Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, Joseph Karo, and others, and into modern times with rabbis contributing “responsa,” or religious responses to ethical questions arising from contemporary society, on such topics as organ transplants, civil rights, and gender equality.
- Kosher Food: Many Jews follow kosher food rules, which are given in a series of commandments in the Torah. The purpose of the kosher rules are to serve as reminders of God at every meal each day, and thus to elevate the mundane task of eating food into a holy, sacred occasion. Jew who follow the kosher rules put mindfulness into their eating habits. Kosher rules include only eating certain kinds of meat (mainly from cows, goats, or sheep), in which the animal has been slaughtered in a special procedure designed to minimize the pain to the animal, only eating fish that have fins and scales (such as salmon, trout, tuna), and not mixing dairy and meat at the same meal. Foods that are not kosher include any food from a pig and shellfish.
- Jewish Calendar and Holy Days: Many Jews follow a special Jewish calendar in addition to the secular calendar. The Jewish calendar is based on the phases of the moon, adjusted according to the seasons of the year. The phase of the new moon signifies the beginning of a new month. In addition, seven times every nineteen years an extra month is inserted into the calendar, so that the annual Jewish holy days will always fall in the same season each year. These holy days include the three Pilgrimage Festivals—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot—when Jews in ancient times would journey to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to donate the best of their crops to feed those in need. Major holy days also include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, also referred to as the High Holy Days; these holy days are concerned with personal introspection to improve behavior and character, with reconciling with family and neighbors, and with gaining forgiveness from God for sins committed. Other yearly holy days are Purim, Chanukah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.
Worship, Prayer, and Practice
The traditional Jewish way of life is concerned with making ordinary moments and ordinary things holy. Jews try to infuse Godliness into ordinary aspects of life. God is viewed as ever-present, and it is the role of Jewish people to live life in constant acknowledgement of God’s presence and blessings. Many Jewish customs are centered on creating this feeling of everyday holiness:
- Making time holy: A major traditional Jewish observance is the Sabbath, known as “Shabbat” in Hebrew.The Sabbath is the day of rest, held on the seventh day of every week, defined as beginning each Friday evening at sundown and ending each Saturday evening at sundown. One of the commandments in the Torah is to observe the Sabbath day to make it holy. Some Jews like to view Shabbat as a taste of the world to come, when everyone will be in harmony and peace with each other.
- Worship: Traditionally observant Jews will worship three times each day—evening, morning, and afternoon. Some synagogues will hold worship services every day, while many others will only have worship services on Shabbat and holy days. While one may pray alone at any time, it is preferable in Jewish custom to pray in the presence of a “minyan,” a quorum of at least ten Jewish adults. The presence of community while a person prays is considered to be especially meritorious, and provides a strong sense of support and fellowship. In fact, the most important prayers at a Jewish worship service may only be recited when a minyan is present, which reinforces the value of community. A Jewish house of worship is referred to as a synagogue, congregation, temple, or shul; a Jewish house of worship is never referred to as a church. In many synagogues, it is customary to wear a head covering; synagogues with that custom will always have a supply of head coverings available for visitors and congregants.
- Movements within Judaism: Many synagogues are affiliated with a major Jewish movement; among the largest are the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. There are also congregations that are independent of any of the movements. Orthodox synagogues tend to be very traditional in practice and the worship services are almost entirely in Hebrew. The Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements tend to be more contemporary in practice, with a mix of Hebrew and English in their worship services.
- Commandments: Jews consider the 613 commandments in the Torah to be guidelines for living a holy life. Many of the commandments deal with everyday life and include: love your neighbor as yourself, love the stranger, be respectful of all of your employees, observe honest business practices and don’t cheat your customers, comfort the sick and those in mourning, honor your parents.
Ways to be Invovled at BenU
Here are a few classes offered at BenU about this faith tradition. Please visit the Course Catalog for more information and click here to learn about the Interfaith Studies Emphasis.
- RELS 230 Introduction to Judaism
- RELS 130 Abrahamic Faiths
- IDS 303 Interfaith/Culture Dialogue
- THEO 301 Survey of the Hebrew Scriptures
- THEO 212 Land, Justice and Peace