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Judaism at a Glance


Judaism is the original of the three Abrahamic faiths, which also includes Christianity and Islam. According to information published by The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, there were around 13.1 million Jewish people in the world in 2007, most residing in the USA and Israel. According to the 2001 census 267,000 people in the UK said that their identity was Jewish, about 0.5% of the population.

· Judaism originated in the Middle East over 3500 years ago.
· Judaism was founded by Moses, although Jews trace their history back to Abraham.
· Jews believe that there is only one God with whom they have a covenant.
· In exchange for all the good that God has done for the Jewish people, Jewish people keep God's laws and try to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives.
· Judaism has a rich written history, but the central and most important document is the Torah.
· Jewish traditional or oral law, the interpretation of the laws of the Torah, is called halakhah.
· Spiritual leaders are called Rabbis.
· Jews worship in Synagogues.

There are many people who identify themselves as Jewish without necessarily believing in, or observing, any Jewish law.


Jewish faith and God
The relationship with God

Jews believe that there is a single God who not only created the universe, but with whom every Jew can have an individual and personal relationship.

They believe that God continues to work in the world, affecting everything that people do.

The Jewish relationship with God is a covenant relationship. In exchange for the many good deeds that God has done and continues to do for the Jewish People...

· The Jews keep God's laws.
· The Jews seek to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives.


Judaism is the faith of a Community

Jews believe that God appointed the Jews to be his chosen people in order to set an example of holiness and ethical behavior to the world.

Jewish life is very much the life of a community and there are many activities that Jews must do as a community.

· For example, the Jewish prayer book uses WE and OUR in prayers where some other faiths would use I and MINE.

Jews also feel part of a global community with a close bond to Jewish people all over the world. A lot of Jewish life is based around the home and family activities.


Judaism is a family faith

Judaism is very much a family faith and the ceremonies start early, when a Jewish boy baby is circumcised at eight days old, following the instructions that God gave to Abraham around 4,000 years ago.

Many Jewish customs revolve around the home. One example is the Sabbath meal, when families join together to welcome in the special day.


Who is a Jew?

One who is born a Jew. A Jew traditionally can't lose the technical 'status' of being a Jew by adopting another faith, but they do lose the lifestyle element of their Jewish identity.

Someone who isn't born a Jew can convert to Judaism.


Judaism means living the faith

Almost everything a Jewish person does can become an act of worship.

Because Jews have made a bargain with God to keep his laws, keeping that bargain and doing things in the way that pleases God is an act of worship.

And Jews don't only seek to obey the letter of the law - the particular details of each of the Jewish laws - but the spirit of it, too.

A Jew tries to bring holiness into everything they do, by doing it as an act that praises God, and honors everything God has done. For such a person the whole of their life becomes an act of worship.

Being part of a community that follows particular customs and rules helps keep a group of people together, and it's noticeable that the Jewish groups that have been most successful at avoiding assimilation are those that obey the rules most strictly - sometimes called ultra-orthodox Jews.


It's what you do that counts...

Judaism is a faith of action and Jews believe people should be judged not so much by the intellectual content of their beliefs, but by the way they live their faith - by how much they contribute to the overall holiness of the world.

The Jewish view of God
A summary of what Jews believe about God

· God exists
· There is only one God.
· There are no other gods.
· God can't be subdivided into different persons (unlike the Christian view of God).
· Jews should worship only the one God.
· God is Transcendent:
· God is above and beyond all earthly things.
· God doesn't have a body.
· Which means that God is neither female nor male.
· God created the universe without help.
· God is omnipresent:
· God is everywhere, all the time.
· God is omnipotent:
· God can do anything at all.
· God is beyond time:
· God has always existed
· God will always exist.
· God is just, but God is also merciful.
· God punishes the bad.
· God rewards the good.
· God is forgiving towards those who mess things up.
· God is personal and accessible.
· God is interested in each individual.
· God listens to each individual.
· God sometimes speaks to individuals, but in unexpected ways.

The Jews brought new ideas about God

The Jewish idea of God is particularly important to the world because it was the Jews who developed two new ideas about God:

· There is only one God. · God chooses to behave in a way that is both just and fair.

Before Judaism, people believed in lots of gods, and those gods behaved no better than human beings with supernatural powers.

The Jews found themselves with a God who was ethical and good.


God in the Bible
But how do Jews know this about God?

They don't know it, they believe it, which is different.
However, many religious people often talk about God in a way that sounds as if they know about God in the same way that they know what they had for breakfast.

· For instance, religious people often say they are quite certain about God - by which they mean that they have an inner certainty.
· And many people have experiences that they believe were times when they were in touch with God.

The best evidence for what God is like comes from what the Bible says, and from particular individuals' experiences of God.


God in the Bible

Quite early in his relationship with the Jews, God makes it clear that he will not let them encounter his real likeness in the way that they encounter each other.

The result is that the Jews have worked out what God is like from what he says and what he does. The story is in Exodus 33 and follows the story of the 10 commandments, and the Golden Calf.

Moses has spent much time talking with God, and the two of them are clearly quite close...

The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Exodus 33

But after getting the 10 commandments Moses wants to see God, so that he can know what he is really like. God says no... you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.

Then the LORD said, There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen. Exodus 33


Two sides of God

Jews combine two different sounding ideas of God in their beliefs: · God is an all-powerful being who is quite beyond human ability to understand or imagine.
· God is right here with us, caring about each individual as a parent does their child.

A great deal of Jewish study deals with the creative power of two apparently incompatible ideas of God.


Prayer in Judaism
How to Pray

Prayer builds the relationship between God and human beings.

When people pray, they spend time with God. To pray is to serve God with your heart, obeying God's commandment:

...to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. Deuteronomy 11:13

Jews, like other people of faith, pray in many different ways.
· They pray so that their hearts can reach out to God.
· They pray to express and exercise their beliefs.
· They pray to share in the life of a worshiping community.
· They pray to obey God's commandments.

The important things about prayer are:

· You should do it with total concentration on God-there should be nothing else in your mind.
· The prayer should be completely from the heart.


Three Times a Day

Jews are supposed to pray three times a day; morning, afternoon, and evening.

The Jewish prayer book (it's called a siddur) has special services set down for this.

Praying regularly enables a person to get better at building their relationship with God. After all, most things get better with practice.


Three ways to pray... and there's more!

There are three different sorts of prayer, and Jewish people use all of them.

These are prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise, and prayers that ask for things.

Jews believe that God will take action in response to prayer, and a teaching from the rabbis tells us that the more we ask God to help us, the more God will love us. (Midrash Tehillim 4:3)

But prayer doesn't just do the things that the words say it does-thanking, praising, requesting.

· Prayer changes our faith, and it changes us too.
· Praying with heart and mind and soul takes a person into a state of being that is different from their everyday awareness.
· Prayer enhances a person's closeness to God.
· Prayer enhances a person's closeness to their fellow Jews.
· The formal prayer in the synagogue provides a weekly (if not daily) revision class in the fundamentals of Jewish belief.
· Helping Jews to remember what they believe.
· Helping Jews find new insights into their relationship with God and with each other.


Public prayer and blessings
Public prayer

Much of Jewish prayer consists of reciting the written services aloud in synagogue.

Praying in public affirms that a person is a member of a community, and when they do so, an individual puts themselves into the context of other Jews, and to some extent puts their own particular situation aside to put the community first.

It's also an act of togetherness with Jewish people who are doing the same all around the world.

And attending regular services, and following the order of the prayer book, is a valuable spiritual discipline, and a mechanism that enables a person to spend time with God on a regular basis.


The prayer book

The Jewish prayer book is drawn from the writings of the Jewish people across the ages. It contains the wisdom of great thinkers, and some of the most beautiful Hebrew poetry.

Spending time with these prayers enables a Jewish person to absorb the spiritual teachings of the Jewish people.

For example, this extract from the Morning Service is a profound lesson in the nature of God, as well as an act of worship.

Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being; blessed be He.
Blessed be He who maintains the creation.
Blessed be He who speaks and performs.
Blessed be He who decrees and fulfills.
Blessed be He who has mercy upon the earth.
Blessed be He who has mercy on his creatures.
Blessed be He who pays a good reward to those who fear Him.
Blessed be He who lives for ever, and endures to eternity.
Blessed be He who redeems and saves; blessed be his name...


Blessings

Observant Jews will say a blessing over everything they eat or drink, and in the face of many natural events. Doing so acknowledges that God is involved in everything.

So before drinking wine a Jew would say (in Hebrew): Blessed are You - the Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Or on seeing trees blossoming for the first time in the year: Blessed are You - the Lord our God, King of the universe, who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees for the enjoyment of human beings.


The Nature of G-d Level: Intermediate

· Most areas of Jewish belief are open to significant dispute, but not the nature of the Creator.
· There are several well-accepted beliefs about the nature of the Creator.

The nature of G-d is one of the few areas of abstract Jewish belief where there are a number of clear-cut ideas about which there is little dispute or disagreement.


G-d Exists

The fact of G-d's existence is accepted almost without question. Proof is not needed, and is rarely offered. The Torah begins by stating "In the beginning, G-d created..." It does not tell who G-d is or how He was created.

In general, Judaism views the existence of G-d as a necessary prerequisite for the existence of the universe. The existence of the universe is sufficient proof of the existence of G-d.


G-d is One

One of the primary expressions of Jewish faith, recited twice daily in prayer, is the Shema, which begins "Hear, Israel: The L-rd is our G-d, The L-rd is one." This simple statement encompasses several different ideas:

1. There is only one G-d. No other being participated in the work of creation.
2. G-d is a unity. He is a single, whole, complete indivisible entity. He cannot be divided into parts or described by attributes. Any attempt to ascribe attributes to G-d is merely man's imperfect attempt to understand the infinite.
3. G-d is the only being to whom we should offer praise. The Shema can also be translated as "The L-rd is our G-d, The L-rd alone," meaning that no other is our G-d, and we should not pray to any other.


G-d is the Creator of Everything

Everything in the universe was created by G-d and only by G-d. Judaism completely rejects the dualistic notion that evil was created by Satan or some other deity. All comes from G-d. As Isaiah said, "I am the L-rd, and there is none else. I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil. I am the L-rd, that does all these things." (Is. 45:6-7).


G-d is Incorporeal

Although many places in scripture and Talmud speak of various parts of G-d's body (the Hand of G-d, G-d's wings, etc.) or speak of G-d in anthropomorphic terms (G-d walking in the garden of Eden, G-d laying tefillin, etc.), Judaism firmly maintains that G-d has no body. Any reference to G-d's body is simply a figure of speech, a means of making G-d's actions more comprehensible to beings living in a material world. Much of Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed is devoted to explaining each of these anthropomorphic references and proving that they should be understood figuratively.

We are forbidden to represent G-d in a physical form. That is considered idolatry. The sin of the Golden Calf incident was not that the people chose another deity, but that they tried to represent G-d in a physical form.


G-d is Neither Male nor Female

This follows directly from the fact that G-d has no physical form. As one rabbi explained it to me, G-d has no body, no genitalia, therefore the very idea that G-d is male or female is patently absurd. We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience's sake, because Hebrew has no neutral gender; G-d is no more male than a table is.

Although we usually speak of G-d in masculine terms, there are times when we refer to G-d using feminine terms. The Shechinah, the manifestation of G-d's presence that fills the universe, is conceived of in feminine terms, and the word Shechinah is a feminine word.


G-d is Omnipresent

G-d is in all places at all times. He fills the universe and exceeds its scope. He is always near for us to call upon in need, and He sees all that we do. Closely tied in with this idea is the fact that G-d is universal. He is not just the G-d of the Jews; He is the G-d of all nations.


G-d is Omnipotent

G-d can do anything. It is said that the only thing that is beyond His power is the fear of Him; that is, we have free will, and He cannot compel us to do His will. This belief in G-d's omnipotence has been sorely tested during the many persecutions of Jews, but we have always maintained that G-d has a reason for allowing these things, even if we in our limited perception and understanding cannot see the reason.


G-d is Omniscient

G-d knows all things, past, present and future. He knows our thoughts.


G-d is Eternal

G-d transcends time. He has no beginning and no end. He will always be there to fulfill his promises. When Moses asked for G-d's name, He replied, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh." That phrase is generally translated as, "I am that I am," but the word "ehyeh" can be present or future tense, meaning "I am what I will be" or "I will be what I will be." The ambiguity of the phrase is often interpreted as a reference to G-d's eternal nature.


G-d is Both Just and Merciful

I have often heard Christians speak of Judaism as the religion of the strict Law, which no human being is good enough to fulfill (hence the need for the sacrifice of Jesus). This is a gross mischaracterization of Jewish belief. Judaism has always maintained that G-d's justice is tempered by mercy, the two qualities perfectly balanced. Of the two Names of G-d most commonly used in scripture, one refers to his quality of justice and the other to his quality of mercy. The two names were used together in the story of Creation, showing that the world was created with both justice and mercy.


G-d is Holy and Perfect

One of the most common names applied to G-d in the post-Biblical period is "Ha-Kadosh, Barukh Hu," The Holy One, Blessed be He.


Avinu Malkeinu: G-d is our Father and our King

Judaism maintains that we are all G-d's children. A well-known piece of Jewish liturgy repeatedly describes G-d as "Avinu Malkeinu," our Father, our King. The Talmud teaches that there are three participants in the formation of every human being: the mother and father, who provide the physical form, and G-d, who provides the soul, the personality, and the intelligence. It is said that one of G-d's greatest gifts to humanity is the knowledge that we are His children and created in his image.


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