Sunday, November 7, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.2 of 3)




Just as defining Judaism as an ethnicity is nearly impossible, the religious ingredient of Judaism can be difficult to pin down. Perhaps the most logical place to begin an attempt to understand Judaism is through a historical perspective. As Huston Smith points out, “To the Jews, history was of towering significance,” in part because of the value generally placed on human social action and God’s action within history. For most of Jewish history, pivotal events such as the Exodus, where God liberated the Israelites from oppression, as well as the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, have usually been understood to be historical – and deeply meaningful as such. The future is also of great importance, as traditional Jews wait on the Messiah figure. But even amongst today’s more liberal Jews who reject the historical factuality of much of the Torah, there is still a great importance placed on remembering the history of the Jewish people – a history of survival against oppression and genocide, as well as a deep concern for embodied, human action in history. The guiding narrative of “exile and return” may be seen as mythological, but it remains central for liberal Jews. A historical perspective of Judaism reveals a complex early history that develops into a tradition that is diverse enough to contain a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal Jewish views.

The historical roots of Judaism, going back to ancient Israel, reveal a process of evolution towards the Judaism of today. Just as Christianity evolved out of the 1st century CE to become increasingly diverse, so a diverse Judaism evolved out of the 1st millennium BCE. While it is true that the core of Jewish theology is monotheism (reflected by the Shema), the ancient Israelites, in whom contemporary Judaism is rooted in, evolved from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism over the course of many centuries. The sacred Torah itself reveals this process of theological evolution. Even after becoming firmly monotheistic around the time of the Hebrew prophets, the Jewish community evolved significantly and split into different groups in the post-exilic period.

Within this long process of development, what we know as Judaism today is rooted in rabbinic Judaism, which began developing in the exilic and post-exilic period between 586 BCE and 70 CE when the tradition slowly moved from being centered on Temple sacrifice to sacred texts. In the 2nd century BCE, there were splits within the Jewish community that resulted in three different sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. While these sects represented a minority of the Jewish community at the time, the Pharisees were responsible for the development of rabbinic Judaism. In the six centuries that followed the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70CE until the completion of the Talmud, a Judaism of the dual-Torah (one written, one oral) developed through the work of many Jewish rabbis. The Talmud alone is testament to the diversity that is Judaism, which is essentially a collection of rabbinic opinions and fights over interpretations of a variety of things, including Jewish law.

Despite its inherent diversity, what made the basic form of rabbinic Judaism last through the 19th century was largely an ability to address urgent questions of politics. With the more recent emergence of the nation-state in a capitalistic context, new Judaisms were born out of traditional rabbinic Judaism that were all in conflict in various ways with parts of the traditional Judaism of the dual-Torah. From the 19th century down to the present 21st century, contemporary Judaism includes multiple branches that differ significantly in their understanding of the tradition, though all are basically united with varying degrees of respect for the Torah. Beyond this shared respect for their sacred text, the similarities between the various Judaisms largely break down. Here we can compare three important branches.

The first significant subset of contemporary Judaism is the more traditional Orthodox branch. They maintain strict observance of the commandments (or mitzvot) in the Torah, expect a literal return of the Messiah, and only ordain male rabbis. Even the Orthodox branch then splits off into other versions of Judaism, including Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Hasidism. The second major branch of Judaism is the liberal Reform branch which accounts for a majority of American Jews. Reform Judaism emphasizes the social justice element of the Hebrew prophets, understands the Torah to be much less authoritative than the Orthodox, and ordains female rabbis. They are very open to the results of modern science, embrace historical-critical studies of the Torah, and reject the literal expectation for a Messiah figure. The third major subset of contemporary Judaism is the Conservative branch, the moderate path of contemporary Judaism. They join the Reform branch in their openness to modern thought and the ordination of female rabbis, but their observance of the law (which respects both the ethical and ritual as halakha) is closer to the Orthodox branch. Beyond these three major branches are many other versions of the Jewish religion, including mystical and more humanistic branches.

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