VII. Judaism
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
In has been estimated that one-third of our Western civilization bears the marks of its Jewish ancestry. We feel its force in the names we give to our children: Adam Smith, Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Rebecca West, Sarah Teasdale, Grandma Moses. Michelangelo felt it when he chiseled his “David” and painted the Sistine Ceiling; Dante when he wrote the Divine Comedy and Milton, Paradise Lost.

In time span the Hebrews were latecomers on the stage of history. By 3000 B.C.E.  Egypt already had her pyramids, and Sumer and Akkad were world empires. By 1400 Phoenicia was colonizing. And where were the Jews in the midst of these mighty eddies? They were overlooked. A tiny band of nomads milling around the upper regions of the Arabian desert, they were too inconspicuous for the great powers even to notice.

When they finally settled down, the land they chose was equally unimpressive. One hundred and fifty miles in length from Dan to Beersheba, about fifty miles across at Jerusalem but much less at most places, Canaan was a postage stamp of a country, about one-eighth the size of Illinois.

What lifted the Jews from obscurity to permanent religious greatness was their passion for meaning.

Meaning in God

“In the beginning God.…” From beginning to end, the Jewish quest for meaning was rooted in their understanding of God.

It is easy to smile at the anthropomorphism of the early Hebrews, who could imagine ultimate reality as a person walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the morning. But when we make our way through the poetic concreteness of the perspective to its underlying claim— that in the final analysis ultimate reality is more like a person than like a thing, more like a mind than like a machine— we must ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the evidence against this hypothesis? It seems to be so completely lacking that as knowledgeable a philosopher-scientist as Alfred North Whitehead could embrace the hypothesis without reserve. Second, is the concept intrinsically less exalted than its alternative?

Where the Jews differed from their neighbors was not in envisioning the Other as personal but in focusing its personalism in a single, supreme, nature-transcending will. For the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, and lesser Mediterranean peoples of the day, each major power of nature was a distinct deity.

When we turn to the Hebrew Bible we find ourselves in a completely different atmosphere. Nature here is an expression of a single Lord of all being.

Though the Hebrew Bible contains references to gods other than Yahweh (misread Jehovah in many translations), this does not upset the claim that the basic contribution of Judaism to the religious thought of the Middle East was monotheism.

Meaning in Creation

Ivan is not alone in finding God, perhaps , good, but the world not. Entire philosophies have done the same—Cynicism in Greece, Jainism in India. Judaism, by contrast, affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it.

Meaning in Human Existence

Considering the freedom of Israel’s thought and her refusal to repress doubts when she felt them, it is not surprising to find that there were moments when they suspected that “human beings… are only animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other” (Ecclesiastes 3: 18– 19). Here is a biological interpretation of the human species as uncompromising as any the nineteenth century ever produced.

The striking feature of the Jewish view of human nature is that without blinking its frailty, it went on to affirm its unspeakable grandeur. We are a blend of dust and divinity.

We shall not have plumbed the full scope of its realism, however, until we add that they saw the basic human limitation as moral rather than physical. Human beings are not only frail; they are sinners: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51: 5). It is totally false to claim this verse for the defense of either the doctrine of total human depravity or the notion that sex is evil.

Meaning in History

For the Bible, history is neither maya nor a circular process of nature; it is the arena of God’s purposive activity.”

The Hebrew estimate of history was the exact opposite of this attitude of indifference. To the Jews history was of towering significance.

Meaning in Morality

There are four danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble if they get out of hand: force, wealth, sex, and speech .

In this sense the Ten Commandments are to the social order what the opening chapter of Genesis is to the natural order; without each there is only a formless void. Whereas Genesis structures (and thereby creates) the physical world, the Ten Commandments structure (and thereby make possible) a social world.

Meaning in Justice

It is to a remarkable group of men whom we call the prophets more than to any others that Western civilization owes its convictions (1) that the future of any people depends in large part on the justice of its social order, and (2) that individuals are responsible for the social structures of their society as well as for their direct personal dealings.

We have spoken of the Prophetic Guilds and the Individual Pre-Writing Prophets. The third and climactic phase of the prophetic movement arrived with the great Writing Prophets: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the rest.

Danger within was matched by danger from without; for , sandwiched between the colossal empires of Assyria and Babylonia to the east, Egypt to the south, and Phoenicia and Syria to the north, Israel and Judah were in danger of being crushed.

The prophets of Israel and Judah are one of the most amazing groups of individuals in all history. In the midst of the moral desert in which they found themselves, they spoke words the world has never been able to forget. Amos, a simple shepherd but no straw blown north by accident; instead, a man with a mission, stern and rugged as the desert from which he came; a man with all his wits about him and every faculty alert, crying in the crass marketplace of Bethel, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Meaning in Suffering

From the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.E., during which Israel and Judah tottered before the aggressive power of Syria, Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, the prophets found meaning in their predicament by seeing it as God’s way of underscoring the demand for righteousness.

The climax, however, is yet to come. Defeat was not averted. In 721 B.C.E. Assyria “ came down like a wolf on the fold” and wiped the Northern Kingdom from the map forever, converting its people into “the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” In 586 Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was conquered, though in this case its leadership remained intact as Nebuchadnezzar marched it collectively into captivity in Babylonia.

A prophet who wrote in sixth century Babylonia where his people were captives— his name has been lost, but his words come down to us in the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah— argued that Yahweh had not been worsted by the Babylonian god Marduk; history was still Yahweh’s province.

When Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylon in 538 and permitted the Jews to return to Palestine, the prophets saw another lesson that only suffering can fully impart: the lesson that those who remain faithful in adversity will be vindicated.

Meaning in Messianism

Hope has more purchase on the human heart when it is rendered concrete, so eventually Jewish hope came to be personified in the figure of a coming Messiah.

During the Babylonian Exile the Jews began to hope for a redeemer who would effect the “ingathering of the exiles” to their native homeland. After the second destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.), the honorific title “Messiah” was used to designate the person who would rescue them from that diaspora.

Apocalypticism, elements of which are visible in the prophets themselves, replaced hopes for military victory. The Messianic Age would break in at any moment, abruptly and cataclysmically. Mountains would crumble and the seas boil.

The Hallowing of Life

We must consider Jewish ceremonies and observances, for it is generally agreed that Judaism is less an orthodoxy than an orthopraxis; Jews are united more by what they do than by what they think. One evidence of this is that Jews have never promulgated an official creed that must be accepted to belong to this faith. Observance, on the other hand— the circumcision of males , for example— is decisive.

Yet with all its arbitrariness and seeming waste, ritual plays a part in life that nothing else can fill, a part that is by no means confined to religion.  From the triviality of an introduction to the trauma of death, ritual smooths life’s transitions as perhaps nothing else can.

The name for this right approach to life and the world is piety, carefully distinguished from piosity, its counterfeit. In Judaism piety prepares the way for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: the time when everything will be redeemed and sanctified and the holiness of all God’s creation will be transparently evident.

If we ask how this sense of the sanctity of all things is to be preserved against the backwash of the world’s routine, the Jew’s chief answer is: through tradition.

The basic manual for the hallowing of life is this Law, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.


For the Jews God revealed himself first and foremost in actions— not words but deeds.

It is true that Genesis describes a number of divine revelations that preceded the Exodus, but the accounts of them were written later in the light of the decisive Exodus event. That God was a direct party to their escape from Pharaoh, the Jews did not doubt.

Vividly cognizant of God’s saving power in the Exodus, the Jews proceeded to review their earlier history in the light of this divine intervention . As their liberation had obviously been engineered by God, what of the sequence that led up to it?

From the perspective of the Exodus, everything fell into place. From the beginning God had been leading, protecting, and shaping his people for the decisive Exodus event that made of the Israelites a nation.

Given these three basic disclosures of the Exodus— of God’s power, goodness, and concern for history— the Jews’ other insights into God’s nature followed readily.

The entire gestalt, when it burst upon the Jews, took shape around the idea of the covenant. A covenant is a contract, but more. Whereas a contract (to build a house, for example) concerns only a part of the lives of those who enter into it, a covenant (such as marriage) involves the pledging of total selves. Another difference is that a contract usually has a termination date, whereas a covenant lasts till death.

The Chosen People
There is a familiar quatrain that runs: How odd Of God To choose The Jews.

Certainly, the idea that a universal God decided that the divine nature should be uniquely and incomparably disclosed to a single people is among the most difficult notions to take seriously in the entire study of religion.

For unlike other peoples, the Jews did not see themselves as singled out for privileges. They were chosen to serve, and to suffer the trials that service would often exact.

How different from the usual doctrine of election this Jewish version turns out to be! How much more demanding; how unattractive to normal inclinations.

Our search for what led the Jews to believe that they were chosen will carry us past an obvious possibility—national arrogance— to the facts of their history that we have already rehearsed. Israel came into being as a nation through an extraordinary occurrence, in which a milling band of slaves broke the shackles of the tyrant of their day and were lifted to the status of a free and self-respecting people.

So the specialness of the Jewish experience must have derived from God’s having chosen them. A concept that appears at first to be arrogant turns out to be the humblest interpretation the Jews could give to the facts of their origin and survival.

Today Jewish opinion is divided on the doctrine of the election. Some Jews believe that it has outgrown whatever usefulness or objective validity it may have had in biblical times. Other Jews believe that until the world’s redemption is complete, God continues to need people who are set apart, peculiar in the sense of being God’s task force in history.


Judaism cannot be reduced to its biblical period. What happened was this. In 70 C.E. the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem that the Jews had rebuilt on returning from their Babylonian exile, and the focus of Judaism shifted from the sacrificial rite of the Temple to the study of the Torah and its accompanying Oral Tradition in academies and synagogues . Thenceforth it was not the priests, who were no longer functional, but the rabbis (literally teachers) who held Judaism together, for their synagogues became centers not only for study but for worship and congregational life in general.

Since the French Revolution the issue of Jewish identity has become something of a problem. With the emancipation of the Jews and their entry into the political, professional, and cultural life of the countries in which they live, the world no longer requires that their identity be retained.

Marx, Einstein, and Freud have contributed enormously to modern thought. It seems reasonable to assume that their Jewishness had something to do with making them great.

Generally speaking, the four great sectors of Judaism that constitute its spiritual anatomy are faith, observance, culture , and nation.

The Torah is followed by the Talmud, a vast compendium of history, law, folklore, and commentary that is the basis of post-biblical Judaism. This in turn is supplemented by the midrashim, an almost equal collection of legend, exegesis, and homily, which began to develop before the biblical canon was fixed and reached its completion in the late Middle Ages.

The reasons leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 are complex. Beyond the powerful religious pull toward return, the chief contributing motifs were four.
1. The argument from security. They needed a place where their wounded and terrorized, still fortunate to be among the living, might gather to breathe the air of freedom and security.
2. The psychological argument. Some were convinced that it was psychologically unhealthy for the Jews to be everywhere in minority status; that this was breeding in them a subservience and self-rejection that only a nation of their own could correct.
3. The cultural argument. The stuff of Judaism was running thin and its tradition was bleeding to death. Somewhere in the world there needed to be a land where Judaism was the dominant ethos.
4. The social, utopian argument. Somewhere in the world there should be a nation dedicated to the historical realization of prophetic ideals and ethics— a better way of life in its totality, including economic structures, than history had yet evinced.
The tension between Palestinian national rights and Israeli security is acute and unresolved.