God, Torah, and Israel

Simply put, JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol... is the way of life of the Jewish people. In the English-speaking Western world, “Judaism” is often considered a “religion,” but there are no equivalent words for “Judaism” or for “religion” in HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written.; there are words for “faith,” “law,” or “custom” but not for “religion” if one thinks of the term as meaning solely the beliefs and practices associated with a relationship with GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality. or a vision of transcendence. The Jewish tradition is much broader than this. As a way of life, it includes the social, cultural, and religious history of a widespread and diverse community, including people who do and do not think of themselves as “religious.”

Judaism embraces the intricate religious and cultural development of the Jewish people through more than thirty centuries of history, stretching from Biblical times to medieval Spain to the modern EmancipationEmancipation refers to the new legal equality, granted to Jewish communities by the modern nation-state following the French Revolution., and then to the HolocaustHolocaust (from Greek, entire burnt offering) refers in modern times to the Nazi German campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s with death camps and gas chambers. Six million Jews died in this Holocaust. In Hebrew, the Holocau... and the founding of the modern state of IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien.... The result is an experience that reflects the elliptical relationship between religious practice and peoplehood. From a religious perspective Judaism may be a theistic system, but from a peoplehood perspective, it is also the group memory of the manifold communities and cultures formed by Jews through the ages. It consists not only of TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh. (divine revelationRevelation is the gift or disclosure of knowledge, insight, or instruction from God to the human. The term is used in the Jewish tradition to refer to the revelation of Torah, the law; in the Islamic tradition to refer to the revelation of the Qur’an, t...) and mitzvotMitzvah means “commandment” and refers to the 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to observe. It can also refer to any Jewish religious obligation, or colloquially, to any good deed. (divine commandments), but also the diverse cultures of the Hebrew, YiddishYiddish is the language of Ashkenazic or Eastern European Jews, based primarily on German with words taken from Hebrew and many Slavic languages, and written in the Hebrew alphabet., and Ladino languages. It includes not only the visible markers of religious observance, such as the kippahA kippah is a headcovering, a skull cap, worn by Jewish men for worship, religious study, meals, or at all times. or the payot or the tzitzit, but also the communal structures of the kehillahKehillah is a Hebrew term for community, and generally refers to the formal communal structure of European Jewish communities., the mellah, and the shtetlShtetl is the Yiddish diminutive meaning “small town”. Shtetl refers primarily to the Jewish villages which existed in Eastern Europe starting in the 16th century and continuing until World War II. Though they varied greatly in size, the shtetls had a..., and what some would call “politics”—whether in Poland, America, or Israel. And it includes the whole range of Jewish education and family life, food and festival, music and dance, and custom and humor.

Each part of the Jewish tradition is integrally related to the whole. Jewish religion and Jewish culture are more than complementary, they are symbiotic; one is inconceivable without the other. When the American rabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... Mordecai Kaplan proclaimed the Jewish religion to be a “civilization,” he was simply articulating the common experience of Jews throughout history, around the world.

Judaism is perhaps best conceptualized as a triad with three points of reference: GodThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities., TorahTorah, meaning teaching or instruction, refers in its most specific sense to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or books of Moses, and to the scrolls on which these teachings are written. More broadly, Torah refers to the whole of the Hebre..., and the people Israel (that is, the Jewish people). None is central; all are interdependent, with varying degrees of emphasis at various times. God is the God of Israel, the God of all creation, the one God who is One. Torah embodies Judaism’s intellectual culture, focusing on the study, understanding, and interpretation of sacred texts. Israel focuses on Judaism as a historical culture and the civilization of a particular people; the “peoplehood” of the Jews includes customs and foods, arts and music, dance and folkways that are part of a way of life. Judaism is critically concerned with the evolving relationship between God, Torah, and the Jewish people, a relationship described as a covenantA covenant (or brit) is a mutual promise or compact between two parties. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covenant is of deep significance in describing the mutual relationship of God and the people of faith. The major covenants in Jewish scripture.... In the covenantal triad, God emphasizes the vertical relationship of the Jewish people to the Divine; Israel emphasizes the horizontal relationship Jews bear to one another, and Torah is both vertical and horizontal, for it defines the way of life of a whole people lived in relationship to God.

These three connotations of Judaism as a monotheistic system, as a literary tradition, and as a historical culture are sometimes viewed separately. For example, there are Jews who tend to see themselves as culturally Jewish, but who are also non-religious or atheistMultivalent terms that often are used to describe people (or their worldview) who reject the practices, dogma, and creeds of established religious traditions. Some people, on the other hand, may identify as Humanist and also consider this either a belief ..., often identifying more strongly with Jewish “peoplehood” than with traditional understandings of God and Torah. Even so, all Jews would recognize that these three points of reference have shaped and guided Jewish experience through the ages. They are interrelated, each intimately connected with the others. From the religious perspective, God is the source of all things. God composed the Torah as the blueprint for creation, and God entered into a covenant with the Jewish people. From this perspective Torah is God’s Revelation; Israel God’s “Chosen People.” From the perspective of Jewish intellectual and literary culture, however, Torah is the central symbol. The task of Israel is the study and interpretation of Torah. God is the wellspring of Torah, the creative source, the “divine inspiration.” It is through Torah that God is known. And from the more secular perspective of Jewish peoplehood, one may not experience God as a living reality, but still understand the “God-idea,” the concept of monotheism, as a great Jewish contribution to the world’s religious heritage. One may not understand Torah to be divinely revealed, but recognize it as the great Jewish literary achievement, which—together with Talmud—forms the basis of Jewish life. It is Israel’s great historical and legal text, its constitution.

The great symbols of God, Torah, and Israel have assumed varying positions of prominence throughout Jewish history, and our discussion of them thus necessarily unfolds within an ongoing historical framework. Such a historical approach is critical for an understanding of contemporary Judaism, for Judaism is a historical tradition—in which history is valued in and of itself. In many ways, Judaism has always been the sum total of all the history of its God, texts, and people.


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