“But Judaism is a Religion!”

mosesI hear this a lot.

The claim is, that Judaism is at its essence a religion, a set of beliefs about the world. I myself lived under this assumption for years.

But what are these beliefs?

There’s no “Jewish Pope” who can tell us. For one example, though, we can look to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith:

1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.

2. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.

3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.

4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.

5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.

6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.

7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.

8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.

9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.

10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts, as it is written, “Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions” (Psalms 33:15).

11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.

12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.

13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, Blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.

Pretty serious stuff. I guess, by this definition, if I don’t believe all of these things I must not be a Jew.

But I think most people don’t look at Jewish identity this way.

Religious observance may be part of it for many people. But other kinds of observance, such as political activism and attendance at Jewish cultural events, may be just as much a part of it for many people. Still others seldom, if ever, participate in any kind of organized Jewish life, but still feel a connection to their Jewish identity. A well-known 2013 Pew Research Center study shows that one-in-five Jews describe themselves as “Jews of no religion,” identifying on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

One way to square this, is to look at Jewish identity from the perspective of Jewish peoplehood. The Jews in America have traditionally been known as a religious denomination, but throughout their long history, the religion of the Jews has been only a part of their rich cultural life. Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine explores these themes in his book Judaism Beyond God.

The Jewish people today, Wine asserts, represents an “international family” and a “‘civilization'” of many national cultures.” Citing the Bible itself as evidence, he expands further on these themes in a lecture series on the roots of Humanistic Judaism:

“Before there ever was a Jewish religion…there was this entity called “the Jewish people.” If you go to the Bible, the Bible does not regard the Jews as a religious denomination. The Bible refers to the Jews as an ‘am.’ The word ‘am’ is people. You could translate it as nation. When the Jews started out, they were as a collection of families, clans, and tribes. And if you put two Jews in a room, you got five philosophies of life, from the very beginning. Because any family has diversity. You don’t kick people out of the family because you’re a Republican, and I’m a Democrat, you’re a member of the family….The Jews are a people…and throughout our history, the belief systems of our people have changed.”

 

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Albert Einstein

Einstein pipeHis name has practically become synonymous with “genius.”

And that’s not all.

He was perhaps the first great scientist who was also a great moral philosopher.

A German Jew by background, Albert Einstein was a believer in humanity with a universalist worldview. In 1935, he wrote: “In the last analysis, everyone is a human being, whether he is an American or a German, a Jew or a Gentile.”

His idiosyncratic religious beliefs remain a subject of controversy, a subject on which the Israeli physicist and philosopher Max Jammer sheds some light in his 1999 book Einstein and Religion. On at least one occasion, it seems the famous scientist was comfortable referring to himself as “religious,” and many of his quotations referring to the force or entity he called “God” are well-known.

But Einstein rejected the concept of a personal God, or a God who responds to the prayers of individual people and intervenes in the world:

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals. . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

Einstein’s views earned him some strongly-worded responses from some American religious leaders in his time. These remarks were often clothed in the ugly language of antisemitism. One such leader wrote, “we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.” Another offered, “In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.”

Perhaps aware of these critics, Einstein was less than comfortable using the term “atheist” for himself. He said instead, “you may call me an agnostic,” and wrote, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being.”

Christopher Hitchens described Einstein as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism.”

Sounds good. That’s what I want to do too.

Who Wrote the Bible?

who-wrote-the-bibleSpoiler: it might not be who you think it is.

The story of the authors of the Bible, as best we can understand it today, is the story of the Jewish people from their earliest times to their return from the Babylonian exile. Richard Elliott Friedman offers us some answers, along with some beautiful textual analysis and history in his 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible?

Biblical criticism begins formally in the 19th Century, but some of its impulses can be traced back much earlier. Arguably it can be said to begin with the 17th-Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who dared to suggest that Moses was not the author of the Torah and suffered excommunication for his heretical ideas. The documentary hypothesis, taking shape in the 19th Century and codified by Wellhausen, forms the foundation of Friedman’s analysis. It holds that the Bible, as it came together in its final form, is primarily the work of four separate authors known as J, E, P, D. They are differentiated from one another by a handful of distinctive factors, including style, syntax, and names for God.

J and E are the earliest, perhaps dating from the time of the split of the unified kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. J is from the south (Judah); E is from the north (Israel). These sources include the second of the two creation stories (Gen. 2:4-4:26), stories of the patriarchs, and other portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. Wilhelm Vatke, a nineteenth century pioneer of biblical criticism, argued that these sources date from a time when Hebrew religion was concerned primarily with nature and fertility.

D was composed after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom and during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The D text includes nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. D represents a spiritual/ethical phase in the evolution of Hebrew religion.

The last major source, itself almost as long as the other three sources combined, is the P text. The first creation story in Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”) comes from the P source, as well as the entire book of Leviticus, and numerous other stories from the Torah dealing with covenants and ritual sacrifice. The P source represents a priestly stage of Hebrew religion.

Friedman devotes a good amount of space to discussion of when the P source was most likely to have been composed, and he presents evidence suggesting it was probably written much earlier than had at one time been thought. He references passages from the books of the prophets suggesting that they were familiar with the P text and that it therefore, too, must have been pre-exilic in its formation. He places its creation during the reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah.

Friedman also devotes some time to a discussing of the fifth author of the Bible: the redactor. It seems there was another separate individual who took the four sources and skillfully and artfully combined them into the unified text as we know it today. This text is not without its own internal contradictions and inconsistencies, but it is one which has nonetheless occupied a place of central importance in world culture for thousands of years.

Friedman concludes by asserting that the Bible is “more than simply the sum of its parts” and issues a charge to different kinds of readers:

For those of us who read the Bible as literature, this new knowledge should bring a new acquaintance with the individuals who wrote it, a new path to evaluating their artistry, and a new admiration for the book’s final beauty and complexity.

For those of us who read it in search of history, this enterprise continually opens new channels to uncovering what was happening in various historical moments, and new sensitivity to how individuals in biblical society responded to those moments.

For those who hold the Bible as sacred, it can mean new possibilities of interpretation; and it can mean a new awe before the great chain of events, person, and centuries that came together so intricately to produce an incomparable book of teachings.

And for all of us who live in this civilization that the Bible played so central a part in shaping, it can be a channel to put us more in touch with people and forces that affected our world.