Friday, May 13, 2011

Religion Friday: Judaism

Judaism is as much an ethnicity as a religion. The Old Testament follows “the children of Israel” and “God’s chosen” through their history. And their history reaches over 3,000 years, making it another old monotheistic faith. It originated in the Middle East, rooted in various writings (primarily the Tanakh and Talmud) that reveal God’s laws to His people. Abraham is the father of both the Hebrew people and the Jewish faith. The symbol for the faith is the Star of David, which has no religious meaning but has been used as a symbol for the Hebrew people for a long time.

There are variations on how strictly to adhere to certain laws, but observance of the law is always important. And because the religion is so tightly intertwined with an ethnicity, there is a cultural importance of community and cultural ritual that goes along with the faith. Some laws deal with how to prepare food and what foods are allowed, or are kosher. Boys are circumcised at eight-days-old and given their Jewish name. Boys and girls both celebrate their mitzvah at 13. It is a coming of age ceremony where the boy or girl publicly lead prayer and read from the Torah.

Jews celebrate the weekly Shabbat from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, which acknowledges the day of rest God took after the six days of creating the world. There are special rules for Shabbat that pertain to avoiding work (including the use of money, lighting a fire, extended travel).

While Hanukkah and Passover are probably the best known Jewish holidays (mainly due to their calendar relation to Christmas and Easter), the most important holiday to the faith is Yom Kippur a.k.a. Day of Atonement. It is a day full of fasting and prayer, usually spent entirely in synagogue (house of worship). Many people wear white that day. Another high holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Jews still follow the lunar Hebrew calendar. Christians follow this calendar to determine the annual date of Easter.

Because some Jews are Jews only in ethnicity and some only in faith, it’s hard to calculate an exact number of Jews, but most put the number around 14 million. About 42% of the world’s Jews live in Israel, which was created in 1948. Another 42% live in the U.S. with the rest scattered out over the rest of the world.

Jews are known for their history of struggle. They’ve been enslaved, killed, kicked out of their homeland, dispersed, killed again, discriminated against, killed again, and ostracized. They didn’t get along with other early faiths because the surrounding peoples were polytheistic (and claimed the land the Hebrews happened to live in). After that, Jews have had a complicated relationship with Christians. Christians tend to look at Jews in dual yet opposing ways. First, Judaism is the root of Christianity. Both faiths share the beliefs and history of the Old Testament/Torah. But second, Christians see the Jews as ignoring the Messiah. Some Christians have blamed Jews for killing Jesus and working with the devil. Some want to use a support for Israel as a means to bring about the end times. But support/non-support for a country is not the same as support/non-support of Jews. It’s a complicated international political issue. If I had to sum up Judaism, it’s that it’s complicated. It has a long, rich history of struggles and victories and a long set of laws to obey. I don’t envy those trying to navigate how to live the old law in the modern world.

Jews usually welcome religious debate. In fact, questioning God can be healthy. And by debating with one another over various laws, they better learn the laws and find deeper meaning. I think this aspect of studying one’s religion is missing in many forms of Christianity. If God wanted us to follow blindly, he wouldn’t have given us free will. If your faith is in the right place, then questioning and friendly debating will lead to a deeper understanding.

While I acknowledge that Christianity has Jewish roots, I feel a strong disconnect from that religion. Many passages of the Old Testament feel like family histories to people with whom I don’t share genes. They may (or may not) have once been God’s chosen people. God at least chose to send His son through them, I’ll give them that. But what’s important now is that everyone is God’s. Salvation is open to everyone, even the Gentiles.

Next Friday: Greco-Roman gods

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