Judaism was the first ethnic and religious group to oppose the prevailing Greek and Roman beliefs in many gods and to permanently adopt monotheism. Many Jewish beliefs and values were later carried over into its two most powerful progeny, Christianity and Islam, and Judaism continues to exert an influence far beyond that which one might expect from a relatively small religion.
According to the Old Testament, in the thirteenth century BC Moses was commanded by Jehovah to deliver the Hebrews from their Egyptian bondage. Aided by miracles, he eventually succeeded. On reaching the desert, Moses climbed Mount Sinai, returning after forty days with the Ten Commandments. These became fundamental Hebrew laws, and emphasize the importance of property, communal equality, individual rights, personal freedom and sexual morality.
Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The written Torah is maintained on scrolls in every synagogue where each week portions are read aloud. This, and the oral Torah (recorded as the Mishnah and the Talmud by rabbis in the Middle Ages) are said to contain all of God’s teachings for humankind.
The Hebrews, under Joshua, conquered Palestine, and later, under King David, established their capital in Jerusalem in 1003 BC, unifying the tribes of Israel. There, King David’s son Solomon built the first Jewish temple. Periods of prosperity as well as misfortune followed, and are recorded in the Old Testament. Assyrians, in 721 BC, conquered northern Israel, then drove ten of the twelve Israelite tribes into exile. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, and the Hebrews were later exiled from the southern kingdom of Judah. Eventually the Hebrew tribes were allowed to return to Jerusalem as subjects of the Persian Empire. After a brief independence, they became subjects of the Roman Empire. Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman legions in 70 AD during the Great Revolt, and again the Jews dispersed. Many centuries of persecution followed, and the Jewish people only regained a land of their own, Israel, in 1948.
Jews maintained their faith through the many intervening centuries because they demanded strict adherence (through study, prayer and observance) to Judaism and to the Jewish Law; because they utilized one common language that all are required to know; because they practised an integrated communal and spiritual life; and because they were guided by an irrepressible hope for, and faith in, the establishment of a messianic kingdom.
Orthodox Jews believe that there is only one God, Yahweh, who created the universe, and who continues to govern it in an intelligible and purposeful manner. They also believe that they hold a covenant with their god, whereby they obey His laws in return for His acknowledgement that they are His chosen people, to be carefully cared for. In effect, Israel is to be the model for the human race.
The Jewish year includes five major and two minor festivals. Three of the major festivals were originally agricultural, and are thus tied to the seasons. (Passover celebrates their exodus from Egypt.) Practising Jews pray three times a day and recite benedictions (particularly before meals, which follow strict dietary laws). Male children, when eight days old, are publicly initiated into the covenant of Abraham through circumcision. Boys reach legal maturity at the age of 13, when they are considered adults and assume responsibility for observing all the Jewish commandments (bar mitzvah), and are called for the first time to read the Torah aloud in a synagogue. Girls reach maturity at 12 years of age.
Both men and women are expected to dress modestly, and are prohibited (by an extension of the requirement to separate the animal and vegetable spheres of life) from wearing any garment that combines both wool and linen. Men are required to wear a head covering called a kippah.
Orthodox Jews expect the Messiah to return, the dead to be resurrected, and there to be everlasting retribution.
- One should bear in mind that archaeological findings to date fail to support, and often contradict, biblical accounts of the establishment of the Jewish people.
- The descriptions of Moses’ exploits were written some 500 years after his death. Modern scholars consider the books of Moses to have had multiple authors, that their stories and the laws have been reworked and polished over many generations, and that Moses may not in fact have been a real person at all.
(Since so many learned scholars and theologians conclude that most bible stories are invented, one wonders why they do not revise the Bible. Surely using an inaccurate source only perpetuates misunderstandings.)