Taking a Look at Jewish Religious Beliefs
Judaism was the first tradition to teach monotheism, the belief that there’s only one God. As Judaism evolved, the idea of God evolved, too, focusing on One unknowable, universal, image-less Being, Who, because the universe is framed in Love, requires justice of human beings.
Judaism tends to focus more on the way in which you practice and live in the world than it does on analyzing the nature of God. In fact, biblical monotheism is usually called “ethical monotheism” because of the very strong linkage of right acts to the belief in one God. While some religious traditions consider belief alone to be adequate, Judaism isn’t one of them; to Jews, belief is most significant in light of the actions motivated by that belief.
What is unique, perhaps, to Judaism is the notion of arguing with God. For example, in the Bible, Abraham argued with God for the sake of the righteous citizens in Sodom and Gomorrah. He didn’t just say, “Whatever you say, God” — he bargained! It’s like the whole stage was set for a particular kind of exchange with the Divine. Jews are even called the “Children of Israel” because of the Biblical story of Jacob who wrestled with an angel and got his name changed to Israel, which means “one who wrestles with God.”
While the idea of a complete surrender to faith, a surrender to God, is harmonious with many Christian and Muslim faiths, it’s much less comfortable for most Jews, who are traditionally taught to question in order to learn more deeply. Judaism tends to encourage individuals to explore their own personal relationship with God. For those people who are comfortable with the idea of surrender, God-wrestling is not an easy concept.
Some Jews see God as an external force, a Being outside of the universe Who listens to prayers, controls lives, creates miracles, and judges. But that doesn’t mean that God looks like us. In fact, Jewish thought is very clear on this: Any reference to God being like a human should be taken as poetic metaphor — as though it were followed by the phrase, “so to speak.”
Some Jews say God contains the Universe, but is infinitely greater. Other Jews say God isthe universe, and the universe isGod. Some folks say all these ideas are true. The one thing Jews won’t argue about, period, is that God is ultimately unknowable and, therefore, un-namable.
Most traditional Jews won’t write out the word “God,” so many Jewish books and periodicals print it “G-d.” Just as the name of God isn’t supposed to be pronounced, some Jews extend this restriction to writing names of God. Also, it ensures that a name of God won’t be defaced or erased if the paper is ripped up, soiled, or thrown away.
The two most frequently used names for God are the unspeakable YHVH (usually translated “Lord”) and the word Elohim (usually translated “God”).
The essence of the faith
Historically and in the present, the heart of the faith is carried and communicated through the way, the path, and the teachings of Torah.
The word Torah refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which are written on a scroll and wound around two wooden poles. On one level, the five books narrate a story from the creation of the world to the death of Moses, around 1200 B.C.E. On a deeper level, the Torah is the central text that guides the Way called Judaism (the word Torah derives from the verb “to guide” or “to teach”).
The five books are named Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
- Genesis (Bereisheet, “In the beginning”): Deals with the creation of the world, the patriarchs and matriarchs (like Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and so on), and concludes with the story of Jacob, Joseph, and the eventual settlement of the Hebrew people in Egypt.
- Exodus (Sh’mot, “Names”): Tells of the struggle to leave Egypt, the revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai (including the Ten Commandments), and the beginning of the journey in the wilderness.
- Leviticus (Vayikra, “And He called”): Largely deals with levitical, or priestly, matters, concerning the running of the Sanctuary, although some incredible ethical teachings are in this book, as well.
- Numbers (BaMidbar, “In the wilderness”): Begins with taking a census of the tribes and continues with the people’s journey through the wilderness.
- Deuteronomy (D’varim, “Words”): Consists of speeches by Moses recapitulating the entire journey. Deuteronomy concludes with the death of Moses and the people’s entrance into the Promised Land.
The Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is the most important item in a synagogue, and it “lives” in the Aron Kodesh (the Ark or cabinet, which is sometimes covered with fancy curtains and decorations). A portion of the Torah is read in every traditional synagogue each week, on Mondays, Thursdays, Shabbat (Sabbath), and on holidays.
The Tanach: The Hebrew Bible
The five books of the Torah appear as the first of three sections of the Hebrew Bible, which contains 39 books reflecting texts that were gathered over almost 2,000 years. Another name for the Hebrew Bible is the Tanach, which is actually an acronym made up of the first letters of the names of each of the three sections: “T” is for Torah, “N” is for Nevi’im (“Prophets”), and “Ch” is for Ketuvim (“Writings”).
If you want to sound like a mayven (expert), don’t call the Hebrew Bible the “Old Testament.” The Old Testament is a Christian term based on the idea that there is a New Testament that supersedes the Hebrew Bible. Jews prefer to call their Bible either the Hebrew Bible, or simply the Holy Scriptures. What Christians call the New Testament is usually referred to in Jewish settings as the Christian Bible.
Jewish “fundamentalism” doesn’t focus on the “literal truth” of the Bible as some other forms of religious fundamentalism do. While many traditional Jews believe that the Tanach expresses the Word of God, very few Jews would argue that the literal meaning of the words is the right one. An important rabbinic teaching says that there are 70 interpretations for everywordin Torah — and they are all correct! Jewish tradition talks of four dimensions of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the metaphorical, and the mystical.
Studying different interpretations is called hermeneutics, and it’s an important part of the Jewish understanding of Torah. Hermeneutics is why five different rabbis can make five different sermons on the same topic. More fundamentalist Jewish groups don’t focus on an exclusive interpretation of the Torah text as much as on a very strict application of ritual practice.