Judaism Is a Religion of Ethical Monotheism Term Paper

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Judaism is a religion of ethical monotheism, centered on the belief in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who created the universe and revealed his plan in the Tanakh (Bible), starting with the Torah (Pentateuch or first five books that are still attributed to Moses). In addition to the Written Torah, the Oral Torah of the rabbis, compiled in the first to sixth centuries AD, is also a vital part of the legal and ethical tradition of Judaism. Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud date from this period, although the latter is now "dominant…in Jewish theology and law" (Fisher, p. 245). Jewish history is based on repeated stories of exile, persecution and extermination, with the worst being the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazis, which led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, almost 1,900 years after the Romans destroyed the last one. Almost all of this persecution was inflicted by Christians, whose traditions of anti-Semitism and accusations that the Jews were collectively responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ dated back to the first century. This is ironic since almost all the founders of Christianity were Jews, and the two religions share a common Bible and ethical tradition, but the historical circumstances of the great split between the two religions and the strong opposition of Jews to conversion or acceptance of the divinity of Christ frequently led the Christians to a mania of persecution.

Summary of Interview at Tree of Life Synagogue

The Hebrew Bible is the Tanakh, or Old Testament to Christians, which is the scriptural basis for both religions. In the first five books, called the Torah (teaching) are the familiar stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Exodus, as well the Ten Commandments and the Jewish law. There are also books of Major Prophets like Samuel, Isaiah and Ezekiel, as well as twelve Minor Prophets and another section collectively known as the Writings, including the Psalms (songs) and Proverbs. These books were based on oral traditions and did not assume their final form until many centuries later. Genesis has two creation stories, for example, with the first one describing a "transcendent creator, without origins, gender or form, a being utterly different from what has been created." In the second story, which is probably much older, YHWH (God, whose Name must not be written out or spoken by Jews) is the "supreme male deity" who creates Adam and Eve, but with the male superior to the woman (Fisher, p. 229). Adam and Eve sin by obtaining the knowledge of good and evil, and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. This same theme of exile and dispersion appears "continually in the Hebrew Bible, and in later Jewish history," as the Jews sin and fall away into idolatry and immorality, and then suffer divine punishment, forgiveness and reconciliation (Fisher, p. 230). They are enslaved in Egypt and then liberated by Moses, an event that is still celebrated during the Passover holidays, while later God allows then to be conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. According to rabbinic tradition, the mission of the Jews is to "lead humanity to a life in harmony with God," based on the Covenants made with Noah, Abraham and Moses, who were all models of obedience to God's will (Fisher, p. 230).

During the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV, Jews began to hope for a deliverer or Messiah who would liberate the country from foreign rule and establish the Kingdom of God, over which the savior-king would rule the entire world from Jerusalem. Led by the Maccabees ("Hammers") the Jews refused to accept the attempt to ban the Torah and circumcision, and successfully overthrow their Greek rulers, a rebellion that is still celebrated every year at Hanukah. This desire to be free intensified during the three centuries of Roman rule, and led to the revolts of 66-70 AD and 132-36 AD. All the sects that existed during the time of Jesus first appeared in the second century BC, including the Sadducees (the elite priestly and aristocratic caste), the Pharisees (founders of Rabbinic Judaism), and the Essenes. This latter group was led by a Teacher of Righteousness whose name was unknown, and withdrew from what they perceived to be a repressive and corrupt society to live under strict monastic conditions in the desert.

Christianity and Judaism Compared

Paul, Jesus and John the Baptist were all influenced by this ascetic group that lived in expectation of an apocalypse and a Messiah would establish the divine kingdom (Fisher, p. 241). Daniel, an important apocalyptic book set in the Babylonian Captivity but actually written centuries later, described the destruction of the great empires of antiquity as part of God's plan, and described a Messiah figure would conquer the world and establish peace and justice among all nations from his capitol at Jerusalem (Fisher 242). In both of the Jewish Revolts against Rome, self-proclaimed Messiahs like Simon bar-Kochba appeared, but these rebellions were crushed ruthlessly. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and in 135 AD they forbade Jews from living in Jerusalem at all. Judea was renamed Palestine, the Bible was banned, and the Sabbath and circumcision forbidden. Almost all of the Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire or even far beyond its borders, and after this time, the Pharisees and rabbis ensured the survival of the Jewish religion over the next 2,000 years (Fisher 243).

All of this took place at the same time the Christian Bible was being written, and most of its authors went to great lengths to describe their opposition and antipathy toward the Jews, and to distinguish themselves as loyal citizens of the Empire. Even so, the Roman elites had difficulty distinguishing Christians from Jews (or Jewish-Christians) in the early days of the movement, and emperors like Nero and Domitian persecuted them severely. At these times, Christian writers also copied the apocalyptic tradition from earlier Jewish writers, and indeed the last book of the Christian Bible, the Apocalypse or Revelation, is drawn directly from this tradition, although in this case of course, Jesus is the Messiah or Son of God who returns to earth to establish his Kingdom. Even so, the Jewish Revolts and destruction of the Jewish-Christians led to a greater division between Judaism and Christianity and an increased antipathy between the two religions that was already reflected in the Gospel writers in 70-100 AD.

This mutual hatred should not necessarily be read back into the time of Jesus, however, since he was also influenced by the early Pharisees and rabbis, such as Hillel the Elder. His emphasis on "loving relationships, good deeds, and charity toward the less-advantaged" along with his commandment "what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor," are clearly part of the authentic teachings of Jesus as well (Fisher, p. 244). At the same time as Christianity was being formulated, the early Talmud and Midrash writers were also adding ideas not found in the original Hebrew Bible such as the immortality of the soul, and were describing God in "more transcendent, less anthropomorphic ways," such as the Shekhinah or manifestation of the divine spirit that is drawn down to earth by "human acts of faithfulness, charity, and loving-kindness" (Fisher, p. 246). Parallels between this idea and the later Christian concept of the Holy Spirit are obvious, even though Judaism naturally refused to accept the Trinity of the divine status of Jesus as affirmed by the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. For that matter, it has never been clear that Jesus and Paul thought in these terms either.

Paul and Jesus were both rabbis and Pharisees, and even the earliest Gospel accounts mention that Jesus taught in the synagogue from an early age and was famous for his great wisdom and learning. Paul was also influenced by non-Jewish religions, especially of the Gnostic and Greek-Hellenistic variety, which have not been as thoroughly studied as Judaism and 'orthodox' Christianity (Sanders, 1977, p. 21). Almost all Christian scholars have found that Paul turned hostile to Judaism at some point, and sought to found a new religion that mystified the family and disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem. They have usually asserted that Paul denounced Judaism and the Law of Moses as a religion based on "legalistic works-righteousness" rather than in the salvation offered by the Son of God (Sanders, p. 3), although as previously noted the true situation was more complex than that. Nevertheless, for most Christian writers, Paul's attacks of Judaism were "frequently taken to be accurate and to the point" rather than just polemical or added to and revised by later anti-Jewish editors of the Christian Bible (Sanders, p. 6). A minority of Christian writers thought that Paul remained a Jew throughout his life and had no real argument with the Pharisees apart from accepting Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, he was part of the "Messianic age of Jewish expectation" that was common at…[continue]

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