Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh Feb 17 2012
Judaism, the religion of the Jews is one of the oldest religions of the world and also the smallest. It was born about 4,000 years ago and has only 12 million followers.
The language of the Jews – Hebrew, contains no word for “Judaism”. Only in the 1880s Judaism became widely used as a religion mainly to differentiate from Christianity, which was then followed by 14 million worldwide.
A Jew is someone who, besides having a Jewish mother or having converted to Judaism, affirms his identity with other Jews.
The Old Testament is a Christian term for the Hebrew Bible – the religious writings of ancient Israel. Christians regard the Old Testament as a preparation for the New Covenant and New Testament.
The belief in one God (monotheism) began with Judaism. Moses was its principal architect. The ancient Israelite religion was not monotheism but monolatry ie worship of one God while believing in the existence of other gods, similar to Hinduism.
To emphasise the existence of only one God of Judaism, Deuteronomy 6:4 (Bible) says: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.” The Israeli God was believed to be a divine being who revealed his will to Israel, inspired its leaders and protected them during their wanderings in the desert for 40 years and led them to the Promised Land.
The worship of any other god was strictly forbidden. “Thou shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). In fact, Moses sent the Levites, the tribe that followed him, to kill many Israelites (3,000) who continued to worship the old god – the idol of a golden calf.
Jewish history begins with the covenant established between God and Abraham around 3,800 years ago. The Torah (Jewish law) – the primary document of Judaism was given to the Jews by the Prophet Moses about 3,300 years ago.
The truth finally dawned on Abraham (Genesis 22), when God tested him by commanding him to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. This is one of the most puzzling of Judaism as well as Christianity and Islam. It raises the act of human sacrifice – something very cruel in itself and God’s sense of justice. There are all sorts of explanations.
In Judaism God gave generously to the Jews as his Chosen People (Pentateuch), the Promised Land and everything in it, but God retained freehold of everything ie he elected Abraham and his descendents to carry out God’s providence with the donation of the Promised Land.
Both gifts are leasehold rented to the Jews. God tells the Israelites: “And the land is not to be sold in perpetuity, for all land is mine, because you are strangers and sojourners before me.”
God promised the land to Abraham: “To your descendents I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates and Jebusites.” Later on, God promised only a portion of the larger gift: “And I give unto thee, and to try to seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan [roughly modern Israel, Palestine and Lebanon] as a perpetual possession.”
Jews believe that the Lord’s promise is irrevocable and the land will ultimately revert to Israel, even if she loses it for a time. I remember reading this in the Biblical prophesies, in my school days, and I believed the Jews will one day come back to Israel, as they have done now.
The name ‘Israel’ originates from one of Abraham’s grandsons, who was called Jacob and later changed to Israel who had 12 sons who fathered twelve tribes known as the “children of Israel”.
Judaism’s most important text is Torah. It is composed of five books of Moses and also contains 613 commandments (mitzvoth), and the Ten Commandments. Torah means ‘to teach’.
Torah is also part of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible or Old Testament), which contains not only the five books of Moses but 39 other important Jewish texts.
The five books of Moses are: (1) Genesis (in the beginning). It talks about the creation of the world; (2) Exodus, tells the story of Israelites in Egypt, the Ten Commandments and their wanderings; (3) Leviticus, deals with priestly matters; (4) Numbers – a record of events; and (5) Deuteronomy, recounts Moses’ accounts of the journey that ends with his death just before they entered the Promised Land.
Another important Jewish text is Talmud (instruction). It is a record of rabbinistic discussions pertaining to Jewish laws, ethics, philosophy, custom and history.
The concept of God and his relationship with human beings are the same in Judaism as in any other major religion like Hinduism. All Jews consider the Ten Commandments to be the most important commandments, though not all Jews adhere to the 613 mitzvoth.
The land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) was part of the covenant made between God and Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
The Ten Commandments:
- You shall have no other Gods but me;
- You should not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it;
- You should not misuse my name of the Lord your God;
- You should remember and keep Sabbath day holy;
- Respect your father and the mother;
- You must not kill;
- You must not commit adultery;
- You must not steal;
- You must not give false evidence against your neighbour;
- You must not be envious of your neighbour’s goods, his house and his wife.
Dress code of orthodox Jewish women consists of wearing a modest skirt reaching to her knees and legwear but no trousers and a head cover of some kind.
The orthodox men have untrimmed beard and ‘payot’ (sidelock) ie the hair in front of the ears extending to beneath the cheek bone (often in braids), and a head covering of any sort.
The dietary habits are dictated by Halakhic law ie they eat only kosher (fit to be eaten) foods (Leviticus). They eat animals that are ritually slaughtered as halal slaughter in Islamic law, except pigs that have a split hoof like cows but does not chew cud (Leviticus).
Many modern Jews have second thoughts about being the Chosen People of God.
According to CM Pilkington (Judaism), it refers to the word “remember”, a key word in Jewish observance for historical events such as Yom Kippur.
In this context, she represents the contrasting approaches of Jews as they remember Holocaust. Some of them demand that Jews do not allow themselves to be permanently imprisoned in it.
Robert Rubenstein’s book “After Auschwitz” 1966 edition shook the traditional Jewish belief. He maintains that the Holocaust and the notion of a God acting in history, particularly, the history of the Jewish people is irreconcilable.
He thinks the biblical image of a saviour God has to go. God is rather ‘Holy Nothingness’ and God is dead. He cannot believe in God’s covenant with Israelites after Auschwitz, as divine providence and Hitler as an agent of God’s punishment. He finds it impossible to celebrate Passover (Hebrew – Pesach), a very important Jewish yearly festival in which Jewish people remember the Exodus, 3,000 years ago with all its assumptions of divine concern and intervention.
He emphasises that the focus is no longer God, but rather, the community of Israel and that Jews have to create meaning and not to assume that existence derives meaning from the divine. He argues for a return to primal origins, for the importance of nature, especially in the land of Israel, and the sanctity of bodily life. He has mellowed a bit since, defining a notion of God as ultimate reality rather than as radically transcendent, or even nonexistent.
Rubenstein was opposed by Eliezer Berkovits, in his book, Faith after Holocaust (1973). He avoided to explain why God seems to be absent from the experience of the believers. His argument that God wants to give space [how does he know God’s mind?] in order for people to develop as moral beings did not go down very well.
This justification of evil, the so called ‘free will defence” is a very ancient Jewish and Christian (Catholic) thought, to take the blame away from God. This is known as Theodicy – introduced by Leibniz in 1710 (Ref: author’s book, pp 67 69, 2003, My search for God).
Like all religious people, in the minds of religious Jews, the Holocaust (3 million plus killed) was a punishment by the ever-merciful God, for some misdeed or the other, though nobody will be able to identify what the misdeed was.
In the end, I also cannot help wondering why as God’s “chosen people”, the Jews have suffered so much since the Romans destroyed their Second Temple in 70 CE. They have always been hated and persecuted throughout their history; and now, having been back to the Promised Land of Israel, officially on May 4 1949 from all over the world they are still suffering in the hands of Muslims, who are trying to erase Israel from the map of the world.
A new and shocking wave of anti-Semitism is spreading in the Middle East beginning from Iraq where more than half of the Jews have been driven out of the country and some are forced to marry Muslims or leave their homes.
The writer is based in the UK