What is Judaism?

What is Judaism? January 7, 2020

THE QUESTION:     What is Judaism?


How are we to comprehend the series of attacks on American Jews during the holiday season? Why were there 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. during 2018, by Anti-Defamation League count, which was double the 2017 total and the third-worst year on record?

Whatever the explanation, the related three words above were the headline and subject of an online article just before the recent repellent events. See www.dennisprager.com/what-is-judaism Author Dennis Prager is a religiously and politically conservative Jew whose talk show airs on many “Christian-formatted” stations in the Salem Radio Network.

Prager said he raised this very fundamental question because “fewer and fewer Jews know anything about Judaism,” and many non-Jews “erroneously identify Judaism with what most Jews believe,” namely some vague secularized outlook.

This is no easy question because Jewish identity has a dual nature, religious and ethnic. Many Americans who consider themselves Jewish may be religiously Buddhist, or atheistic, or could care less about any religion and see their identity only as a cultural heritage. Also, unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a religion with defined creeds and confessions.

The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 told us Judaism is quite simply “the religion of the Jewish people,” which doesn’t get us very far.

An Orthodox and maximalist approach defines Judaism as the entirety of the Bible’s first five books (a.k.a. the Torah or Pentateuch) with all 613 commandments listed by Maimonides (1135-1204), and the discussions of them in the Talmud’s massive collection.

A minimalist approach sees the essence in the Pentateuch’s Ten Commandments or in the revered shema: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Jewish Publication Society translation). In Christians’ New Testament, Jesus Christ recites that formulation (Mark 12:29-30). Similarly, a brief profession (shahada) is the first “pillar” of Islam: “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

The daily liturgy in Jewish prayer books has descriptions of God that likely predate the 1st Century C.E. emergence of rabbinical Judaism as we know it (as well as of Christianity out of its Jewish roots). Philo of Alexandria, writing in that pivotal era, is thought to be the first to codify Jewish belief as five principles: God exists, God is one, the world is created, the world is one, and God is the creation’s providential ruler.

Jewish essentials systematized in a major work by the medieval sage Saadia (882-942) added the beliefs that God is non-physical, Jewish revelation has a divine origin, humanity is called to righteousness with divine rewards and punishments, humans are resurrected, and Jews await the coming Messiah. The most widely recognized credo, the “Articles of Faith” from the commentary on the Mishnah by Maimonides, has 13 points.

First, God is eternal, perfect, and the cause of everything upon which all others’ existence depends. 2) God’s absolute oneness. 3) God is non-material. 4) God’s existence was prior to everything else. 5) The one God is the only object of worship. 6) The existence of prophets and prophecy. 7) Moses is the greatest of the prophets. 8) God’s word, the Torah, is from heaven. 9) Nothing can be added or subtracted from the Torah. 10) God knows all human actions. 11) God rewards those who obey the Torah and punishes those who do not. 12) The Messiah will come. 13) The dead will be resurrected.

In the modern era, traditional beliefs and practices are challenged from within the faith by its liberal or Reform branch. In the U.S., its founding “Declaration of Principles” or “Pittsburgh Platform” of 1885 declared as much what Judaism is not as what it is.  It said the Bible “reflects the primitive ideas of its own age” so that only its “moral laws” are binding while ceremonial and dietary tenets not adapted to “modern civilization” are rejected. The soul is immortal but beliefs in bodily resurrection and eternal rewards and punishments are rejected. Jews are a religious community but “no longer a nation,” and do not await “a return to Palestine” (this last point was later overturned).

That brings us back to Prager, who presents a  21st Century version of the ancient and medieval substance, as follows. Here again, God is the creator of all, not physical, eternally existing outside of time and nature, and personal. He “knows each of us.” Because God is moral, there is “one universal morality,” and “God’s primary demand is that people be good.” Therefore, “right behavior” matters more than even faith.

Although “there is an afterlife, God wants us to be preoccupied with this life.” In the afterlife, or heaven, reward “is available to all good people, not just good Jews.” Because “human beings are not born basically good,” Judaism’s primary task, and that of society, “must be to make good people.”

“All people are created in the image of God,” so that “racism is theologically impossible.” The most important distinction among humans is not race, religion, nationality, class, or sex but “behavior.”  While “human life is sacred,” animal life is not, though gratuitous suffering imposed on animals is forbidden.

Jews are, yes, “the Chosen People,” but this never meant they are better than any others. In fact, Scripture emphasizes Jewish flaws. Rather, Jews are “chosen to bring mankind to the God of the Torah (but not necessarily to Judaism). . . . Any non-Jew is welcome to embrace Judaism and become a member of the Jewish people. But no one needs to become a Jew to be saved.”

“The Torah ultimately comes from God, not men.” However, this does not necessarily mean God dictated each word or that only literal interpretations are valid.

Then according to Prager “Judaism is a religion of distinctions,” namely “God and man, good and evil, man and  woman, holy and profane, life and death.”

So —  How many Jews today accept these concepts? To what extent do followers of Christianity or Islam agree?

Also note this resource: https://www.patheos.com/library/judaism

Browse Our Archives

error: Content is protected !!