And what, by the way, is a Jew? The Jews have come through history a mix of people biologically with differences in taste, intelligence, aspirations and different attitudes toward spirituality and the tradition of Judaism.
The minority of Jews who follow religious law most strictly and who want to isolate themselves from foreign (gentile) influences are known as the ultra-Orthodox. They are often referred to in Hebrew as Haredim: " those who tremble" before the power of God.
Judaic "fundamentalism" would be problematic if some Judaic scripture were followed literally in the 21st century in Israel or the United States or other places. Jews would be stoning to death men or women who commit adultery. Disobedient sons, with the approval of community elders, would be stoned to death. And cities deemed idolatrous would be set afire and its inhabitants slain. The ultra-Orthodox would need a political power they do not have.
Beliefs among Orthodox Jews, ultra or not, are not known to include any of the above, but their core beliefs have been described as follows: the Torah was given to Moses; there will be no other Torah; Jehovah knows the thoughts and deeds of His people; Jehovah will reward the good and punish the wicked; the Messiah will come and the dead will be resurrected.
Jews, by the way, reject the doctrine of original sin. Jews believe that humans are born free of sin, with souls that are pure, innocent and untainted.
Those labeled merely as Orthodox observe religious law as do the ultras. They observe Judaism's ancient rituals. They do not question Judaic scripture and they trace their ancestry to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They agree with the ultras that the Torah and its laws are divine, eternal, unalterable and were transmitted by God to Moses. The story of Moses, in other words, remains central to Orthodox belief. The Orthodox also believe in a traditional oral law, derived from the story of Moses and related texts and embodying the belief that God made an exclusive, unbreakable covenant with the Children of Israel to be governed by the Torah.
But the merely Orthodox make compromises that ultras try to avoid. The merely orthodox have devised ways to participate in 21st century intercultural activity. Rather than shun modern culture they integrate themselves with it. They try as best they can to be a part of modern scholarship and academia.
Among Orthodox Jews there has not been complete unanimity in interpreting difference between right and wrong. A merely Orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, participated in the politics of Israel by assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Asked where he got his ideas, the youthful Amir told the magistrate that he drew on the Halacha, which is the Jewish legal code. "According to the Halacha, you can kill the enemy," Amir said. "My whole life, I learned Halacha. When you kill in war, it is an act that is allowed." Asked whether he acted alone, Amir replied: "It was God." Orthodox rabbis have a different interpretation of the Halacha. They condemned Amir's act. Fifty-four Orthodox rabbis across Israel, including five from West Bank settlements, excommunicated Amir.
More commonly than in conflict with each other, the Orthodox in Israel are in conflict with secular authorities. For example, in the year 2008, in Jerusalem, a judge ruled that restaurants and cafes could sell leavened bread during Passover, and this outraged Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews believe that religious law should be the law of the state of Israel for everyone, the religious and non-religious. It is the kind of authority possessed by Judaism's priesthood in the days of Ezra, when the priesthood had political power. It is the kind of political power that the Iranian revolution of 1979 gave to its Ayatollahs. And it has been resisted by Israeli society in general. A majority of Israelis prefer political modernity with its attendant freedoms. Israel today is not the Israel that the priestly scribes wrote about. Ancient Israel and today's Israel are two different political entities. One was a theocracy. Today's Israel does not even have a state religion, and it is more of the mix of people than Ezra found when he purged from the priesthood those who could not prove that they were descended from purely Hebrew families. But Orthodox Jews, and some Christians, choose to interpret scripture and God's intentions as referring also to modern Israel.
Putting itself in tune with modernism is Reform Judaism, a movement that has modified or abandoned many traditional Jewish beliefs, laws, and practices. Reform Judaism sets itself at variance with Orthodox Judaism by challenging rituals, laws and customs set down in what the Orthodox consider sacred texts. Reform rabbis in what is now Israel date back to the 1930s. It became known as the Israeli Progressive Movement. Its first synagogue was founded in 1958. Their rabbis in the 1970s were trained in the United States, and the Israeli press and public began labeling Israel's Progressive Movement as "reform."
Reform Judaism in North America has more than 900 congregations and 1.5 million people. Reform Jews describe themselves as being freely diverse in belief. Some believe in a deity and some do not. Most believe that Genesis is to be understood only symbolically. Some believe in heaven and hell as only states of mind. Reform Judaism is similar to America's formerly Christian Unitarians: eclectic and spiritual, with emphasis on learning and humanitarian issues rather than creed. There is advocacy of family devotion and perhaps some private prayer. Observing the Sabbath and holy days and celebrating the major events of life and involvement with the synagogue and community are encouraged.
Many Jews, of course, are not at all religious. They are said to constitute from 15 to 37 of the population in Israel, numerous enough that with Reform Jews they are able to prevent Orthodox Jews from turning Israel into the religious state that Judah was in ancient times.
Some religiously inclined Jewish scholars feel duty-bound to do what scholarship requires: to question and keep ideas about the supernatural out of their descriptions of the natural world. And some scholars are among those who have no religion.
Archaeological diggings in the Holy Land have produced conclusions at odds with Orthodox views. The Orthodox in Israel complain about their academics just as some Christian conservatives do in the United States.
Meanwhile there is concern that modern-day assimilation is eroding Jewish identity. Judaism's Orthodox have feared assimilation ever since the high priest Ezra arrived in Jerusalem from Babylon and, according to the Old Testament, tore at his hair, his beard, his garment, his robe, and sat down appalled, having found that the Hebrews of Judah had not separated themselves from other peoples. Those identifying themselves as practicing Jews are only around 0.22 percent of the world's population, compared to 33 percent for Christianity and 21 percent for Muslims.
In the United States, those who identified themselves as Jews were about 2 percent of the population. Alan Dershowitz, a well-known Jewish lawyer and scholar wrote in his book The Vanishing American Jew, published in 2001 that "... today's most serious threats come not from those who would persecute us, but from those who would, without any malice, kill us with kindness – by assimilating us, marrying us, and merging with us out of respect . . . even love." Dershowitz cites a Harvard study that predicts that if demographic trends continue, the American Jewish community is likely to number less than 1 million and conceivably as few as 10,000 by the time the United States celebrates its tricentennial in 2076.
Copyright © 2010-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.