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What Do Jews Believe?

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.

The minority of Jewish people who follow religious law most strictly and who want to isolate themselves from foreign influences are known as the ultra-Orthodox, but this a derogatory label. They are also described as followers of Heredi Judaism – Haredim in Hebrew referring to " those who tremble" before the power of God.

Judaic "fundamentalism" would be problematic if today some Judaic scripture were followed literally. Jews would be stoning to death men or women who commit adultery. Disobedient sons – with the approval of fundamentalist community elders – could be stoned to death. If they had the political power, cities they deemed idolatrous they could set afire and have its inhabitants slain. But beliefs among Orthodox Jewish people are not known to include any of the above. Fundamentalism among the Jewish people today in Israel has 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. They believe humans are born free of sin, with souls that are pure, innocent and untainted.

There are differences among the Orthodox in the observance of religious law. The Orthodox observe Judaism's ancient rituals. They do not question Judaic scripture and they trace their ancestry to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Ultra or not, they agree 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.

The ultra-Orthodox might be offended by a comparison between themselves and those Muslims adamantly opposed to modern culture. Such Muslims are known to dominate movements that employ terrorism.

The question of violence arose when an Orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, in 1995 assassinated 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.

The assassination accentuated a division among Jews. J.M. Rosenberg wrote of it in December 2007 in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He described Yigal Amir as no "lone lunatic." He wrote of "right-wing extremists and religious fanatics" having called for Rabin's death. Rosenberg described Amir as "a hero to a portion of the Israeli public, especially the ideological settlers."

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 an authority resisted by Israeli society in general. A majority of Israelis prefer political modernity with its attendant freedoms. This includes, in the words of the internet's Jewish Virtual Library, "guarantees freedom of religion and conscience, and equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion."

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, those Israelis who identify themselves as Heredi are one-tenth of the population. One-tenth identify themselves as Orthodox, one in seven as Traditional Orthodox, twenty-three percent as Traditional, and forty-four percent as secular.

And there are those who identify with Reform Judaism, a movement that has modified or abandoned many traditional Jewish beliefs, laws, and practices. Reform Judaism questions the rituals, laws and customs proclaim in what the Orthodox consider sacred texts. Reform rabbis in 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."

In North America in 2013 a poll of Jewish people had 35 percent describing themselves as Reformist, compared to 18 percent as belonging to Conservative Judaism and 10 percent as Orthodox. But the Pew Research survey had Reform Judaism with an estimated 670,000 members and roughly the same size as Orthodox Judaism. 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 Unitarians: eclectic and spiritual, with emphasis on learning and humanitarian issues rather than creed. With Reform Judaism 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.

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. Archaeological diggings in the Holy Land have produced conclusions at odds with Orthodox views, and the Orthodox in Israel complain about their academics similar to complaints among Christian conservatives in the United States. (See an article online at the Jewish Virtual Library titled "History of Jerusalem: Myth and Reality of King David's Jerusalem.")

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 in the fifth century BCE. Those identifying themselves as practicing Jews are diminishing as a percent of the world's population – something like 0.22 percent, compared to 33 percent for Christianity and 21 percent for Muslims. In the United States, those who identify themselves as Jews are today 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.

Jews appear to be other than diminishing to their neighbors the Palestinians. Belief among Jews today who support or settle the West Bank – under Israeli rule since 1967 – tend to believe that the are involved is a gift from their God. It's not terribly different from the attitude of Christians who settled in the Americas, except that the gift for the Jews is seen as more ancient in origin and the land they want to settle as having been lost to interlopers. Economic and political power plays a role, mixed with religion in that the state of Israel allows and offers incentives to the settlers – cheaper housing. Religion is only a part of what in 2015 is still a major world conflict point. The United Nations considers the settlements a a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and many in the international community consider the settlements as violations of international law. Israelis who support the settlements do so not because they think might makes right. They do so because they think the settlers are right with God, and they believe that this takes precedence over what some claim to be international law.

Copyright © 2010-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.