Keeping Covenant with God in History
Judaism has a remarkable history characterized by uniqueness, critical scrutiny of all claims to metaphysical absoluteness, and survival. From the inception of the tradition, Jews are "the exception to the rule." Where the traditions surrounding them were increasingly polytheistic, the ancient Hebrews inclined toward monotheism. Whereas other peoples and traditions have been readily absorbed into the mainstreams of dominant culture, they have shown polite but insistent tenacity and endurance. The critical tradition of the prophets has been thoroughly infused into Judaism. Through education, study, and debate Jews have questioned, scrutinized, and resisted everything from the claims of foreign deities, to international sovereigns, to their own basis for faith. However one tries to explain the development of Jewish monotheism, and there are many theories, the intrinsic bottom-line affirmation is that it was through the acts of God that they were selected to be the bearers of the revelation that God is one. Despite the most adverse circumstances as a persecuted minority, Judaism has "kept the faith" over a longer period of time better than any other tradition facing similar circumstance.
- Ancient Israel emerged from Mesopotamian culture, and shared a number of common themes with its mostly Semitic neighbors. Stories such as the Garden of Eden and the flood were common cultural currency, though one can readily see the theological spin that Judaism placed on such stories.
- According to tradition, Abraham migrated from Ur of the Chaldees to Palestine, the land promised him by God in exchange for his loyalty. His migration reflects the general situation of the early Hebrews as wandering herders.
- Once the Hebrews became settled agriculturists there was a steady temptation to adopt the fertility gods and goddesses of their Semitic neighbors, abandoning their desert deity, Yahweh, for the likes of Baal and Ashteroth.
- This created some serious tensions in Israelite society with the prophets emerging as fierce loyalists for the God who had led them out of Egypt, and from whom Moses had received the laws that formed the basic rules of the nation.
- Syncretisms, however, undoubtedly took place and Yahweh worship began to incorporate farming feasts and offerings. As the authors state, "the desert god of the Hebrews lives today, while the Semitic agricultural religion, which seemed the height of sophistication in 800 B.C.E.," has thoroughly withered.
- The Hebrew Bible depicts an ongoing tug-of-war, see-saw, peaks-and-valleys relationship between God and the prophets, on one hand, and the wavering loyalties of the people of the covenant on the other. Adam and Eve have intimate fellowship with God in the Garden, but blow it. The people of the earth multiply and prosper, but become wicked. The God of history is able however to take corrective measures by destroying the wicked while saving the righteous elect. Abraham is faithful, but the patriarchs are conniving, deceitful, and even treacherous (as when they sell their brother Joseph into slavery), but God is able to turn that into an eventual means of salvation for his people since Josephs position in Egypt saves his people from famine.
- Though the depictions of the patriarchs are often less than glorious, that demonstrates that the power and agenda of God are realized not so much in the character of the players but in their calling. God is able to achieve his purposes even when his personnel is drawn not from the cream of the crop, but rather, from "the bottom of the barrel".
- One of the lowest ebbs in the fortunes of the Hebrews takes place after their sanctuary in Egypt is transformed into slavery. God becomes the first labor organizer in history as he negotiates through Moses and Aaron an equitable settlement for his people.
- The peak of the Exodus experience takes place with the giving of the law and the entrance of the people into a covenant with God. Peaks and declines teeter-totter back and forth as the people are seduced into the practices of their neighbors and then called to repentance by the prophets.
- From the institution of the Monarchy, to the replacement of Saul by David, to the building of the temple to the division of the whole house of Israel into the divided houses of the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah, to the destruction of Israel by Assyria and the eventual destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians, the deportation of the Jews into captivity, to their eventual repentance; all is interpreted by the prophets as the will of the LORD who controls history for the sake of his purposes.
- After the return from exile, idolatry is never mentioned again.
- The rebuilding of the temple parallels the reconstruction of Judaism under Ezra and Nehemiah.
- Increasingly Judaism became the religion of the synagogue and scripture.
- Under Ezra, according to tradition, the entire corpus of Hebrew scripture was edited to its final revision. No doubt this process was impelled by the experience in captivity where the only access to sacred activity was to be found in the gathering of the community, the recollection of tradition, and the celebration of sacred meals.
- By codifying the tradition and insuring its survival in the form of the synagogue, Judaism has been able to survive wherever it finds itself, temple or not.
- In 168 B.C.E., the fiber of Judaism was once again tested, this time by Antiochus IV, who desecrated the temple and prohibited the observance of Jewish practices.
- This oppression was ended by the rebellion of the Maccabee brothers who successfully expunged the oppressors from Jerusalem. This event is celebrated in the festival of Hanukah.
- It was over a century later when Rome established its rule over the Holy Land in 63 B.C.E.
- The development of the rabbinical tradition saw the rise of such men as Hillel, Gamaliel, and the school known as the Pharisees who posed an oral law alongside of the written law given by Moses. The oral tradition is compiled in the Mishna and Gemara, which together make up the Talmud, a vast multi-volumed and authoritative corpus of sacred tradition.
- The atmosphere of oppression occasioned by the precarious conditions of Hellenistic and later Roman occupation drew upon some pre-exilic roots but combined with post-exilic hope and expectation that God would bring about the judgment of the whole earth, consummating it in a purified kingdom and a new heaven and earth. This event was to be precipitated by the sending of Gods anointed, the Messiah.
- After the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., Judaism was forced to live in Diaspora, in scattered communities.
- The full transition to home-centered, synagogue-sustained worship had been anticipated since its days in Babylon, but now the center of Jewish identity would be protected by the "Fence of the Torah" and its Talmudic interpretation.
- New movements however arose in medieval Judaism. Kabbala was articulately expressed in the Zohar, or Book of Splendor. This had an influence on the development of a much more popular form of Jewish mysticism known as Hasidism, associated with the teaching of Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760).
- A more liberal and rationalistic form of Judaism draws roots from the erudite philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and finds fruition in the Enlightenment thought of such thinkers as Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).
- This led to the acculturation and, in some cases, secularization of a number of European Jews.
- Modern Judaism is a multi-textured tapestry, comprising strands from many different cultures and spanning a continuum of stances from traditional Orthodoxy to post-Enlightenment secularization and liberalism. There are different cultural traditions in the Ashkenazi Judaism of Northern and Eastern Europe as opposed to those of the Sephardim from the Iberian pensile, for example.
- The vociferous advocates most responsible for the establishment of the state of Israel were the Zionists.
- American Judaism is divided among Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist.
- Doctrine and dogma are not as important in Judaism as practice and participation. However, there is a broad consensus among Jews upon theological content.
- Maimonides 13 principles of faith can be broken down into essential touchstones of Jewish theological affirmation. God is creator of the universe, one, unique, spiritual, eternal, omniscient, and alone to be worshipped. God acts in history, particularly by manifesting the eternal and imperishable Torah through the greatest of the prophets, Moses. God rewards and punishes, will send the Messiah, and resurrect the dead. These tenets express 1.) Uncompromising monotheism; 2.) Gods hands-on intervention in history; 3.) The sufficiency of Judaism and Torah as a perfect path to God; 4.) The righteous justice of God, who knows each soul personally and in an eternally significant manner.
- Indirectly these tenets make no allowance for the Christian Trinity or Incarnation. They also deny that Moses could be superceded by later revelations such as the New Testament or Quran. Not mentioned in the above tenets is the idea of choseness.
- It is perhaps the idea of this chosenness against the sheer horror of the holocaust that has become the great watershed for modern Jews in considering the relevance of Judaism. Some have, as a result of the horror of the holocaust, left the God of Israel out of the picture as irrelevant. Yet it is the sense of this chosenness combined with the transcendence of God that has been at the crux of modern Jewish thought, and, for many, provides the pressing imperative for Jewish faith now more than ever.
- The poignancy of such thinkers as Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Abraham Heschel addresses a wide audience both Jewish and non. They are important expressions of Jewish faith in the modern world. Their emphasis on God as the maintainer of the transcendent significance of history, other people, and the whole of nature, is a needful antidote to the objectification of reality and people so rampantly evident in the holocaust and elsewhere.
- Jewish life reflects the wide diversity found in all major religious traditions. Yet, the sense of Jewish identity resonates no matter how secularized a Jew may become.
- The foundation of Jewish life is the family. Marriage is seen as a part of the covenant with God. It is with the family that Sabbath is observed and celebrated. As a day of rest, the Sabbath is a twenty-four hour period devoted exclusively to God, yet that attention to God takes place in the context of the immediate household community. Family and God are thus intricately bound together.
- Besides weekly Sabbath worship there are the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Passover. Additional holidays are Shavuot, Sukkot, Purim, and Hanukah.
- Important rites of passage involve circumcision of the male child when he is eight days old and Bar Mitzvah when he officially becomes a man by reading from the Hebrew scriptures.
- Bat Mitzvahs, which include girls as "daughters of the commandment", are increasingly celebrated.
- There are ambivalent paradigms in Jewish tradition concerning women. Of course, they are celebrated as wives and mothers, but as well, as charismatic luminaries, heroines, and intellectuals. The books of Ruth and Esther are named for exemplary women. However, women are also the subjects of suspicion in many texts and traditions.
- The Bible and Talmud are clearly written from androcentric, patriarchal perspectives. Other than the areas where womens lives intersect with men, women are relatively invisible. However, occasionally alternative visions slip through.
- Deborah is portrayed as a prophet, and successful leader, and military adviser.
- Generally, maleness is what counts whereas femaleness is deprecated such as in the traditional prayer which blesses God for not making the person praying a heathen, a slave, or a woman. A passage in the Talmud forbids women from reading Torah because it would dishonor the congregation. Though sexuality and passion are embraced and highly valued in traditional Judaism, women were not allowed to initiate divorce.
- Of course there may have been many ways in which women functioned significantly as vessels of God that have not been recorded because of the androcentric biases of the recorders.
- In the modern world, democratic ideals and consciousness of civil rights issues have caused some considerable rethinking of womens roles in Judaism.
- Reform Judaism had championed womens rights as early as 1846.
- In 1972 Sally Priesand ordained as a rabbi, the first of several women to be so honored.
- Feminist issues have served to raise the Jewish consciousness in several areas such as leadership roles, the use of inclusive language, and the ways in which God is envisioned.
- Feminists point out that both the spirit of God at the Sabbath, the Shekhinah, and Wisdom are divine feminine attributes.
- Though there are some very conservative reactions, feminists have witnessed significant progress and are encouraged to press their reforms to greater levels of inclusivity.