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LEADER RESOURCE 1: Additional Judaism Background

In our previous workshop on Judaism, we learned that Judaism is monotheistic (believes there is one God), covenantal (based on a covenant of faith and practice between its believers and God), varied in its expressions, and geared to raise awareness and gratitude for every aspect of life. We also recognized that Judaism, grounded in the Torah and its stories, birthed both Christianity and Islam and has comprehensively influenced Western philosophy, culture, and thought.

Here are some other important things you should know about Judaism.

A People, and a Faith

Judaism is both a nation and a faith. In ancient Jewish history and in Hebrew scripture, the two aspects of Judaism were intertwined. However, in our contemporary society, an individual who identifies as Jewish by heritage may or may not also consider themselves Jewish by religion. Further, there is great variety among Jews' religious beliefs and practices. A Jew might belong to a synagogue in Judaism's Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist movement; to a faith community which follows a particular leader, such as the Chasidic Lubavitch community; or to an informal faith community called a chaverah (ha-veh-RAH) which meets for worship, without a rabbi, in people's homes.

Many Jews consider themselves "cultural" Jews; while they do not embrace Jewish theology or observe religious rituals, they may affirm faith-based principles and values associated with Judaism. They may honor some combination of ethnic and religious practices at home.

The State of Israel is a political entity. Its identity is based on the nationhood of the Jewish people. However, in Israel one will find as broad a spectrum of Jewish religious identity and beliefs as one sees among Jews in the U.S.

The Diaspora

A central feature of Judaism is the historical fact of the diaspora (dee-AS-por-uh), or scattering, of the Jewish people across the globe. The homeland of the ancient Hebrews was the kingdom of Judea in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE. The heart of the kingdom was its Temple. When the Babylonians conquered Judea, they destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled most of the Jewish population. Many traveled and settled together, but Jews fanned out in every direction and many have never been "home," that is to Jerusalem, since.

Destruction of the Second Temple

Over the next several hundred years, Jews regained Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple, again according to biblical instruction. However, in the year 70 CE, just after Passover, the Jerusalem city walls were breached by Titus Caesar, son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. It took Roman soldiers another three weeks to defeat Jews defending their city, but they slaughtered everyone left in the city and on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, the very same day the First Temple had been destroyed, the Romans burned the Second Temple to the ground.

The destruction of the Second Temple is one of the most important days in Jewish history. The Jews who escaped the massacre in Jerusalem fled for their lives, and the diaspora was renewed. Today, all Jews living outside the State of Israel are considered to be living in diaspora.

Matrilineal

Judaism has traditionally been matrilineal, meaning it follows the female bloodline. Someone born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish. In biblical times, the community might not know a child's father but would usually be sure of who a child's mother was; that is sometimes given as an explanation for the matrilineal tradition. The Torah indicates the matrilineal principle, in Deuteronomy (7:3-4):

Thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods.

This clearly implies that the ancient Hebrews believed a child's loyalty to Judaism followed the mother. Matrilineal descent was codified into Jewish law before the 2nd century CE and remained incontestable until the 20th century. In the U.S. and other Western countries, interfaith couples where the woman was not Jewish began bringing children into Judaism. These couples became dissatisfied that their biological children needed a conversion ceremony in order to be considered Jewish. In 1983, the Reform movement of Judaism—the most religiously liberal—agreed to accept children of Jewish fathers as Jews, without a conversion ceremony, if they had been raised as Jews. This is still absolutely rejected by Conservative and Orthodox Jews, however, who accept anyone as Jewish with a conversion ceremony, but only automatically consider someone Jewish who had a Jewish birth mother.

Prophetic Tradition

Most of the names we think of as from the Bible are from the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, and they almost all are prophets, meaning human beings who have received truth directly from the Source, personified in the Bible as God. Jonah, Deborah, Samson, Miriam, David, Daniel, Moses—55 in all—are people in Hebrew scripture considered prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Unitarian Universalism also proudly follows a prophetic tradition. While we do not always call our religious sources prophets, and we do not always call our source of truth God, we honor the truth that human beings receive directly from their own experience and intuition, and honor the sacred calling to share what truth we come to know.

Our story this workshop is about one of the most important prophets of the Hebrew Bible: Moses.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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