What is Judaism

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What is Judaism? Is Judaism a religion? Maybe it is far more than that. There are ethnic components in Judaism. There is a national, and even a geographical component in what we call Judaism. Maybe it should be redefined or presented in another fashion.

When we define Judaism as one of the great world religions, we are confining a complex social phenomenon under a one-dimensional category. Christianity and Islam are faiths. They are systems of beliefs, and they embrace diverse ethnic communities and even nations. Judaism also heeds to particular beliefs and practices, but many Jews would probably consider the designation of Judaism as only a religion as being far too narrow or far too confining as a categorization.

The Non-Religious Aspects of Judaism

Judaism in the Bible is practiced by a group of people referred to as the nation of Israel. Israel is a nation. If we go through the literature of the Bible we will find that there is a number of criteria that label Israel as having something far beyond than just a belief. Their destiny was to have faith in God’s promise to give a particular land to the offspring of Israel’s founding patriot Abraham. Now you find Judaism related to land and not just to a belief.

The tribal roots of the Israelite religion would be maintained for several years. When this promised land was ultimately settled by the people of Israel, they divided it among the same tribal lines of demarcation. We have an ethnic demarcation in a piece of geography. Again, this is far more than just religion.

There are agricultural regulations in Judaism. Farmers are required to refrain from working the land every sabbatical year. These laws pertain to the land of Israel, so we have again a geographical component.

For much of the Biblical period, Israel was ruled as a monarchy, at first united, and then as two smaller kingdoms. The monarchical dynasty, going back to its second king, David, served as the ultimate symbol of unity and as a focus for a belief in a future restoration. Here we actually find Judaism as part of a kingdom.

The biblical Israelites were instructed to refrain from intermarry with surrounding tribes that might corrupt their faith. These enhances even further the ethnic character of this Israelite faith.

The Name Judaism

What are the origins of the name Judaism? This too points to an ethical and geographical beginning. Judaism comes from the name of the fourth son of the patriot Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham. This forth son was named Judah. This name was ultimately the name of the kingdom that would be established originally by king David and his son Solomon.

With the establishment of this Israelite kingdom there is a movement from the term Judah as a son, to Judah as a designation of a land, and the kingdom that goes by that name until its very conquest by the Babylonians in the year 586 B.C.E. What is more important, even after the conquest of the land and throughout all the subsequent periods of Persian, Hellenistic and Roman rule, the official designation of the territory would continue to go by a variation on the name Judah.

It is only in the Hellenistic period, in the second century B.C.E., that the phrase Judaism appears for the first time in the way we might use it. That is to say, as the designation of a culture or a way of life maintained by those who lived in the land of Judah. The word Judaism appears for the first time in a book known as the Second Book of Maccabees. It was a book written by a Jew living a Greek-speaking environment. It describes a clash in Palestine between the Jews of that land and the Hellenistic rulers.

What is interesting and not so well-known is that the same book of Maccabees is not only the first book to use the word Judaism, but is also the first book anywhere to use the phrase Hellenism. The use of the same suffix, -ism, for both systems of life and belief may be the forerunner for later tendencies to equate a cosmopolitan and multicultural Hellenism with another culture which was not cosmopolitan, that of Judaism. A modern equivalent of this comparison might be that between Judaism and Christianity.

The Essence of Judaism

Over the centuries, various attempts at defining the essence of Judaism have been made. Some attempts have designated portions of the Bible as representing the essence of what would emerge as Judaism.

For instance, one common belief is “Judaism can be summarized in the Ten Commandments that were given by God to Israel on Mount Sinai”. The first five of them deal primarily with relations between man and God: the requirement to believe in one God, to worship no other deities, to refrain from using God’s name in vain. Interestingly, the fifth commandment is to honor one’s parents. The rabbis say that God is involved there as well. It is part of your commitment to God to honor your parents.

The other five commandments are clearly those regulations that relate to human interaction: the prohibition of murder, adultery, stealing and so on. Actually, synagogues very often would place the Ten Commandments on the head of the synagogue. We may think that there is major stress on the Ten Commandments, but frankly, already in the first century of the Common Era, we find figures opposed to the special role of the Ten Commandments. They claim that this would tend to assign to all the rest of the Bible a secondary status.

The prophet Habacuc makes the statement: “The righteous person shall live by his faith”. According to this approach, the most important aspect of Judaism would be a trust in God, with apparently everything else evolving from this.

Common to these attempts was a wish not to go beyond the Bible. Nevertheless, Judaism has been subject to a wide variety of post-biblical attempts to isolate the most basic components of the faith. For instance, one of the early Rabbinic books known as the Mishnah, claims that all Israelites have a share in the world to come, except the following three exceptions: those who claimed that there is no resurrection of the death, those who believe that the Torah was not given from heaven, and epicureans (rabbis used the name of the Greek philosopher Epicure as a symbol of heretic beliefs).

Some people would claim that this is the essence of Judaism: not to be an idolater, to believe that the Torah was divinely given and not to have any heretic belief. Another example in describing martyrdom, the rabbis claim that one must never give up one’s life, except in three very dire circumstances: when you are required either to participate in idolatry, in forbidden sexual relations or in murder. Some people say maybe this is the essence, these three components.

These attempts were never presented as creed affirmations or cathecism. These were attempts to point to the principles or major components of Judaism. Such formulations are significantly missing from rabbinic literature of the first centuries of the Common Era. It’s only in the Middle Ages that the search for the roots or the essence of Judaism becomes more commonplace.

This search for the principles of the Jewish religion was probably motivated, or at least partially encouraged by a number of external factors, specially the contemplative activity of Islamic theologians known as mutakallimiin. Their speculation regarding the nature of religious faith spread to Jewish thinkers as well. Jewish authors looked for the roots of their religion. Often, confrontation and polemics with the Christian and Muslim worlds enhanced the perception of the need to articulate the differences between Judaism and the two other monotheistic faiths.

Maimonides’ 13 Principles

The most famous attempt at formulating a list of Judaism’s principles was made by the renowned Jewish philosopher of the 12th century Maimonides. His list appears as a commentary to one of the statements in the Mishnah that talks about those who have a place in the world to come. He tries to elaborates who in fact has a place in the world to come. He says that these are people who believe in the following thirteen things:
  1. The existence of God
  2. God’s unity
  3. God has no corporeal aspect
  4. God is eternal
  5. God alone and no intermediaries should be worshipped
  6. Belief in prophecy
  7. A belief that Moses was the greatest of all prophets
  8. That all the Torah in our possession is divine and was given through Moses
  9. That the Torah will not be changed or superseded
  10. That God knows the actions of man
  11. That God rewards those who keep the Torah and punishes those who transgress it
  12. A belief that the Messiah will come
  13. A belief in the resurrection of the dead

Some of these principles were clearly aimed at refuting what Maimonides believed to be major challenges posed by Islam or by Christianity. For instance, the principle that Moses was the greatest of all prophets clearly seems to reject the role that was ascribed either to Muhammad or to Jesus in Islam and Christianity. Or the principle that the Torah would not be superseded was clearly a response to the claim that it had been abrogated by subsequent texts of the two younger religions.

Maimonides’ formulation appeared first as a commentary to the Mishnah, but by the 16th century, it was already published with each of the principles proceeded by an affirmation: “I believe with absolute faith that...”, then each of the thirteen principles follows. This type of formulation is the first actual presentation of a cathecism in Judaism and was clearly influenced by a similar phenomenon in the Christian world.

The list of Maimonides’ principles ultimately found its way into the Jewish prayer book and was even the basis for a popular poem known as the Yigdal. This is a song sung in synagogues to this very day.

Although it was ultimately embraced by broad segments of the traditional Jewish community, Maimonides’ list engendered widespread reaction among Jewish thinkers. Some attempted to shorted the list, others to refine it, others to add other aspects. Others opposed the whole enterprise. Among these was Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel. Writing around the year 1500, he maintained that the very notion of principles in the Torah suggests different levels of sanctity or of truth in that very same text. That also encourages a sort of heresy. If the Bible is completely divine, how can you single out some portions as opposed to others.

What is interesting is that by listing the principles of faith, Maimonides was not ignoring the ethnic communal aspects of Judaism. After he enumerates in his commentary to the Mishnah the thirteen principles, he says that one who does not accept all these principles effectively removes himself from the community of Israel. This is interesting. Here we were thinking that we were talking about principles of faith and suddenly we are back at ethnicity.

Judaism and Modernity

Modern realities would inject new thinking regarding the relationship between the communal and the religious aspect of Judaism. The attempts by Western European societies in the 18th century to grant Jews equal rights, we refer to this as the emancipation, while encouraging them, at the same time this openness led to attempts by some Jews to doubt their communal and national roots. They thought that they could join the European society and downplay the ethnic component of Judaism.

In certain cases this led to upright assimilation into the open society. In other cases, it led to reforming Jewish practice and beliefs that hopefully rendered Jews more adaptable to new political and social realities.

In the 19th century we would encounter Jews for whom all religious manifestations of Judaism were almost unacceptable. Here we find a heightened rediscovery of the national and ethnic components of Judaism. One of the many political groups to emerge from this reappraisal of the national roots of Judaism is the movement known as Zionism, which was a secular movement.

Suddenly we realize that we encounter a totally different representation of Judaism. Zionists did not claim that they were not part of Judaism, but for them, Judaism meant returning to the Biblical land, returning to the land as farmers, creating a productive Judea in manners of old Biblical reality. The first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, really believed that Zionism would return the Jews back to a Biblical reality.

I think that this would be a factor in all this website. We would always talk about Judaism as a religion, constantly aware of the fact that Judaism has ethnic components, national components and national aspirations. It is linked to a particular land, it is connected to a particular language, and in this context, it is in fact different from the other great religions.