Judaism

The Jews are known the world over. Through the centuries and millennia, Judaism has held together in its belief in the Shema:

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

That this expresses the heart of Judaism is seen in the fact that this is repeated in every Jewish religious service. Judah, the father of the Jews, is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Others of the tribes of Israel, such as Levi and Benjamin, have come to be associated with "Judah", or the Jews. From the beginning, Israel was warned against having any other gods before the true God. What does this mean?

Deity itself is a picture of Diversity working in Unity. That is, God has many diverse expressions of "himself", and yet all of these facets of God work together in unity. Indeed, God is one, and yet images of him can be seen in the macrocosm of the universe, the microcosm of biology. He can be seen in the love a husband and wife share for each other. God's tenderness and vulnerability can be seen in a baby. The qualities of mercy, compassion and sacrifice also show diverse aspects of God. And yet God is "one." So what is meant by the having of "no other gods but the true God"? This simply means to attach the name "God" to no entity, personality or attribute that does not reflect the glory and goodness of the true God.

The "Law"(1) is an attempt to express the character of the one, true God. To rob, kill and steal, for example, are things alien to the nature of God. And yet these negative qualities have been assigned to foreign "gods." For thousands of years, the Rabbis and scholars within Judaism have in noble fashion sought the deep meanings of the various laws given to Israel. These have often been faithfully passed down from generation to generation.

A distinctive quality of Judaism has been Sabbath observance: the setting aside of one day in seven-specifically the seventh day-as a day of rest and return to the things of God. Modern secular psychology has stumbled onto the wisdom of this practice. We are all physical as well as spiritual beings, and we all need the rest and time of reflection that Sabbath observance provides.

A second grouping of Jewish literature is called the Prophets. Lest anyone become bogged down in myriad laws, the Prophets expressed the meaning of law within a social context. The prophets were not tellers of the future as much as they were tellers for God! Often a prophet would reduce the spirit of the law in a practical, livable way. For example, Isaiah stated the attributes of a person who has pondered the spiritual implications of the Law:

He who walks uprightly, and speaks sincerely, Who scorns the gain that is won by oppression, Who keeps his hand free from the touch of a bribe, Who stops his ears against hearing of bloodshed, And closes his eyes against looking on evil.

The prophet Micah reduced the law to three great priorities:

You have been told, O man, what is good, And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God.

Notice that these are "relational" attributes, having to do with ones relationship to his neighbor and to his God. The prophets are sometimes called social prophets in that they spoke directly to the social problems of the day. Over and over the prophets warned of "inequity" and the plight of the poor. Indeed, certain laws and customs of Israel also spoke directly to these issues-even issues involving the environment. The seventh year Sabbath land rest was to be observed, lest the soil become depleted through over-cultivation. With soil depletion would come erosion and the spread of the dessert. Resting the land one year in seven was an act of faith and obedience-with physical blessings for the agrarian society to follow.

The fifty-year festival, or Jubilee year is full of social implications. This was to be a year of "release." Slaves gained their freedom and family land lost to shrewder neighbors returned to the original families. The Jubilee had a great social, leveling effect on Israel. Tithing, a principle that was designed to include help for the "orphan and widow", was another among many laws aimed at benefiting society. That these laws were not kept was often a concern of the Prophets. The Writings are a third section in the Jewish Bible. These include the Psalms (spiritual songs and praises) and other books of poetry. Often it is the "arts"-music, drama, poetry, etc.-that give highest expression to our inner, spiritual selves. The Law by itself is rather "clinical."

The Writings, such as the psalms, often give articulation to our deepest fears and our deepest hopes. As such, the poets within any religion should be sought after as being some of the best "theologians" within that system of belief.

It is true that some Jews have thought of themselves as special people-the "apple of God's eye." And yet we can all be special people without being "exclusive." An anonymous prophet quotes God as saying: "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage." The more we know of God, the more that we understand fairness and equity. God deals with each individual, with each nation, uniquely. And without the strife born of exclusivism and competition.

A noble tenet of Judaism is its refusal to actively seek the conversion of others. Somehow the Jews understand at some deep level that such a thing is disrespectful of the unique paths others are taking: that God loves and cares for all and deals with all in special, unique ways.

Israel was also given seven annual "holy days" based on a lunar calendar and sacred year. Beautiful imagery of planting and harvesting are reflected in these annual "high" days. Indeed, two harvest times are revealed in the days. The early spring barley harvest, a small, or "first fruits" harvest is seen in the "Feast of Weeks." In the Fall season, the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles was celebrated, picturing the great fall harvest. This feast lasts seven days, at the end of which is added a final holyday, the enigmatic "eighth day of the feast." Some have thought that this final feast day represents God's final harvest-the salvation of all who have not as yet received salvation.

The Kingdom of God is a hope and picture of a beautiful, future time of redemption, shared by the "People of the Book." Conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in a literal "Kingdom of God" to fill the earth. The more liberal in these faiths see every person a "Messiah"-with the Kingdom of God, representing the values of God-slowly permeating the earth with its righteousness.

Many good, practicing Jews remain agnostic about how everything will work out. They bank on the ultimate goodness of the Creator as expressed in the following:

Oh Lord, how can we know Thee? Where can we find Thee? Thou art as close to us as breathing and yet art further than the farthermost star. Thou art as mysterious as the vast solitudes of the night and yet art as familiar to us as the light of the sun. To the seer of old Thou didst say: Thou canst not see my face, but I will make all my goodness pass before thee. Even so does Thy goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives. When justice burns as a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow before the vision of Thy goodness? Thou livest within our hearts, as Thou dost pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Thy presence.

(1) The Law is called the Torah, consisting of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Jewish Holydays

There are seven Holy Days celebrated by the Jewish people, in addition to the weekly Sabbath, or seventh day of rest. These are found in the Jewish Bible, Leviticus 23. The annual "high" days are calculated by the lunar calendar.

Passover. Celebrating Israel's release from captivity in Egypt. Celebrated in the Spring Feast of Unleavened Bread. A seven-day spring feast commencing and ending with a holy day.

Feast of Firstfruits. A holy day celebrated 50 days later.

Feast of Trumpets. A Fall holy day celebrated with the blowing of trumpets.

Feast of Atonement. A Fall holy day of fasting and penance. Most solemn of feast days.

Feast of Tabernacles A seven-day feast celebrated in the fall, commencing with a holy day.

Feast of The Last Great Day A holy day and separate feast, concluding the Festival of Tabernacles.