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What Beliefs Do Jews Share?

Most Jews share certain beliefs. Among these are

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the unity of God

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God's concern for humanity

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the partnership of God and humanity

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the concern that one person should show for another

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the belief in a world to come or in the Messiah or in a Messianic Age

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the covenant, an agreement between God and the people of Israel expressed through God's laws for the proper use of the universe

Jews who participate in religious observances also share

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Jewish life-cycle practices

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Jewish holy days and the Jewish calendar

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the observance of Jewish ethical practices and practices of holiness

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practices of Jewish prayer and study

Finally, those who in any way identify themselves as Jews, share the long chain of tradition that is the history of the Jewish people.

ONE GOD

The Bible tells us that some time during the Early Iron Age (from about 1900 to 1400 BCE -- see note), a man named Abraham lived in the Middle East. According to Jewish legend, Abraham questioned the religious beliefs of his ancestors and of the Mesopotamian community in which he lived. He failed to understand how people could bow down to and worship idols -- statues made of wood and clay. The legend describes Abraham’s quest in a colorful way.

At first Abraham thought that the stars and the moon should be worshiped; but as night passed and the sun came up, the stars and the moon vanished. He reasoned that the stars and moon could hardly be the most powerful force in the universe if they were so easily vanquished by the light of day. So Abraham decided to worship the sun. But clouds came up and covered the sun and the wind blew the clouds, which rolled up into great thunderheads. In turn, Abraham worshiped the clouds, the wind, the mighty claps of thunder, and the bolts of lightning. But all of these soon passed away. Abraham concluded, "There must be one who rules over all -- over sun, moon, stars, wind and cloud; and over all the creatures of the earth. I shall worship the Ruler of the Universe, the One God." Then Abraham bowed before the God he could not see and spoke a prayer in his heart. It was at that moment, the legend tells, that God spoke to Abraham, saying, "I am here, my son."

The Bible relates how God commanded Abraham to leave his home and go to a land of promise, Canaan. Canaan was located in the part of the Middle East later called by many names: Israel, Judea, and Palestine. To the Jews, however, it has always been known as both the "Holy Land" and the "Promised Land." According to the biblical story, God entered into a covenant, an agreement, with Abraham. God promised that Abraham's children would one day become a great nation that would inherit the land of Canaan. In return, Abraham promised to be faithful to his belief in the One God and to perform the ceremony of Brit Milah (circumcision) as a sign of the covenant.

Modern-day historians are not sure if there ever was a person named Abraham. But to the Jewish people it is hardly important whether Abraham existed or not. The story of Abraham as told in the Bible still teaches the most central of all Jewish beliefs -- there is one God who rules over all. This belief in one God, which began with Abraham, was embellished by Moses, and was fully developed in the later prophets of the Bible, came to be called Monotheism.

GOD'S CONCERN FOR HUMANITY

According to the Bible, Abraham's tribe increased in size and wealth. Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The Bible describes how the descendants of Ishmael later became the Arab peoples, while the descendants of Isaac became the Jewish people. Isaac also had two sons, twins named Esau and Jacob. The leadership of the tribe passed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.

Jacob (who was also given the name, Israel) had twelve sons and one daughter; and the Hebrews (as the Jews were then known) continued to increase in number. Like many merchant tribes of the Middle East in this period, the Hebrews were semi-nomadic. They would settle for a time when they found good grazing land for their cattle and sheep or when they wished to plant seeds and grow crops, but they would move from place to place when the time came to increase their wealth through commercial efforts. From the description in the Bible we can be sure that they were not simple shepherds -- not only were they wealthy in silver and gold, but they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, as well.

Once, as the Bible tells, a great drought lingered in the land of Canaan. Rather than starve, the Hebrews sought food in Egypt. One of Jacob's sons, Joseph, was already there. Many years before, his jealous brothers had sold him into slavery and Joseph had eventually become the pharaoh's most trusted administrator. Joseph recognized his brothers and, even though they had treated him cruelly, he forgave them and enabled them to settle in Egypt in the section called the Land of Goshen. There, they continued to increase in size.

Many years passed and a new pharaoh came to power -- a pharaoh who did not remember Joseph, a pharaoh who enslaved the Hebrew tribes. According to the Bible, the slavery so oppressed the Hebrews that their cries of suffering were heard even in the heavens. In the end, a new leader emerged -- a man named Moses.

In the case of Moses, just as in the case of the earlier leaders of the Hebrews, truth and legend are closely intertwined. Certainly someone, perhaps Moses, led the Hebrews (or some significant portion of the Hebrew tribes -- since some scholars believe that other portions of the Hebrew tribes never left Canaan) out of Egypt and into the wilderness of Sinai. Following Moses, the Hebrews wandered as semi-nomads in this wilderness for forty years, settling down for a few years at a time before moving on. During this forty-year period, the Hebrew tribes more or less unified into a single nation called the Israelites (or Children of Israel) and Moses taught them the importance of law and the belief in one God.

According to the Bible, a new covenant was made between God and the people of Israel at the mountain of Sinai. Alone, Moses went up the mountain, returning after forty days and forty nights with the Ten Commandments engraved on two stone tablets. These commandments, which included prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and idolatry and enjoined the Israelites to honor parents, observe the Sabbath, and maintain loyalty to the One God, became the cornerstone not only of Judaism but of Christianity as well.

A legal code like the Ten Commandments was not a new idea in the history of religions. Kings and pharaohs had claimed to be given laws by their gods before this. What was unique about this covenant was that God had entered into a direct partnership with the people of Israel, that the proof of God's love for the Israelites and all humankind was found in the laws themselves, that the choice between good and evil was a personal choice (as well as a national choice) and that blessing or curse would be bestowed in kind based on the choices a person (or a community) made. For the first time in history (in theory, at least), no intermediaries -- kings, prophets, or priests -- stood between God and the individual or the community. Such is the agreement between God and the Jews still celebrated as the Sinaitic Covenant (the covenant made at Mount Sinai).

Before the Sinaitic covenant, the Children of Israel had a more or less monotheistic religion. Now, through the leadership of Moses and the acceptance of God's laws, it had become an ethical religion as well. The Children of Israel now believed that God was interested not only in worship and sacrifice, but also in how people treated one another. This has been termed ethical monotheism.

A PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND HUMANITY

Jews today continue to believe there is a partnership between God and humankind, and especially between God and the Jewish people. The Jewish religion teaches that God cares for the world, renewing it daily, and expects human beings to care for it as if it were their own garden. The Jewish religion teaches that God has given laws instructing individuals to behave fairly toward one another. Moreover, the Jewish belief in the One God implies that all human beings are created equal; every person is a son or daughter of the One God, created in God's image; and each human being is precious and unique.

Basic Judaism--Keyterms: Jewish, jewish, Jews, jews, Judaism, judaism, Jewish beliefs, Jewish observances, Jewish holidays, Jewish holy days, Jewish history, Rossel, rossel, Seymour Rossel, seymour rossel, beliefs, belief, observances, holy days, holidays, prayer, study, professions, history, past, future, basic, introduction, customs, ceremonies, modern, movements, Moses, monotheism, faith, philosophy, Hasidism, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Torah, prayer, study, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, Jewish law, reference, WannaLearn award, ritualTHE WORLD TO COME

The biblical prophet Isaiah dreamed of a time, when

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; …
They shall not hurt nor destroy
In all my holy mountain;
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,
As the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah's dream of a time of ultimate unity, peace, and prosperity was similarly expressed by many of the prophets. It continued to be developed and explored through ongoing generations.

Jews speak of this prophetic vision of the future as "the world to come," and they believe that the person who will arise to rule over this future united world will (figuratively or literally) come from the family of the King David.

The special name set aside for that future ruler is Mashiach, the "anointed one," the Messiah. According to Jewish belief, the messiah will be a person, not a god; he will simply lead the nations of the world in a time of unity and peace.

Jews do not believe that Jesus was the messiah because Christianity holds that Jesus was both God and man. Jews do not accept this idea. The Jewish religion teaches that man and God are separate -- just as no human can be God, so too God cannot be human. In addition, Christianity generally teaches that the world to come can only be achieved in heaven (after death) and not on earth, but the Jewish idea of the world to come is historical -- it looks forward to a time at the end of history when that ideal world will be established here on earth. Also, the Jewish view that every person is equally created in God's image augurs against accepting any one person as the "son of God," especially since every one of us is considered by Judaism to be the son or daughter of God. Jews do recognize that in his time Jesus was probably a great Jewish teacher who lived and died as a Jew with no thought of creating a separate religion. Through the centuries, many a Jewish leader has engendered a cult following that claimed him as "the" messiah. Since none of these so-called messiahs has managed either to unify the world or to bring peace to all humankind, they are collectively known as "false messiahs," no matter how widespread their following. When mainstream Jews speak of yearning for the messiah, they simply mean that they look forward to the time when one person who understands God's concerns for the world and for humanity will rule all nations.

Most Jews today continue to believe in a special time to come in this world when all people will live in harmony under the leadership of the messiah. Jews do not speculate overmuch on what the world to come will be like -- the major concerns of Jews and Judaism are aimed at perfecting or "repairing" this world in which we live daily -- but almost all Jews agree (without defining the precise details) with the simple statement made in the Talmud that every Jew will have a place in the world to come.

THE CONCERN OF ONE PERSON FOR ANOTHER

What the prophets taught, the rabbis and sages made clear. The rabbis (who were teachers and jurists) began the work of creating a Jewish way of life about three hundred years before the Common Era. Some of them became very famous: Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai -- and their teachings and stories about them are still studied today in Jewish schools.

One of the most famous stories concerns the Jewish sage, Hillel, who flourished in the first century, B.C.E. A Gentile (non-Jew) once presented Hillel with a strange request, saying, "Teach me the whole Torah, all Five Books of Moses, while you stand on one foot." A man of lesser patience might have driven the Gentile away, but Hillel was extremely patient. Supposedly, he raised one foot from the ground and said, "Do not unto others that which is hateful unto you." Then, he continued: "This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—now go and learn."

Hillel's statement (later rephrased in the positive and repeated by Jesus) is the Jewish Golden Rule. It was the way the sages and rabbis of the Talmud phrased the teaching of the prophet Micah:

It has been told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP TO THE LAND

According to Jewish legend, before creating the world God first made a small model containing all the elements -- the various kinds of terrain, the many variants of temperature and climate, the manifold varieties of flora and fauna -- that the created world would eventually contain. On the evening of the sixth day of creation, the legend goes, when God had completed the works of heaven and earth, this small model was given a special place. It became the Land of Israel.

As shown by the covenant between Abraham and God, the Jewish people have always had a special attachment to the Land of Israel, calling it the Promised Land. They have always believed that the Land of Israel was included in the covenant between God and the Jews. Historians point out that despite the many years when the majority of Jews lived outside the Promised Land, there has been a continual Jewish presence in the Promised Land from the time of Abraham to the present day. And even when the majority of the Jewish people were separated from the Promised Land, Jews longed to return.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a new movement called Zionism (named for Mount Zion in Jerusalem and modeled on the emerging nationalism in Europe) began. It called for the Jews to rebuild the Holy Land as a Jewish state. (The Holy Land was then called by the name the Romans had given it after they destroyed the Jewish state, Palestine.) In 1948 the State of Israel was established More than six million Jews live in Israel today. And most Jews (religious or not) who live outside of Israel feel a special attachment to the Jewish state of Israel.

THE COVENANT

All of these ideas and beliefs derive from the covenant of law and love between the Jewish people and God. According to the Bible, this covenant was made with not only with the Children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God speaking, but also with all their descendants from that time to this, and forward to the end of time.

The central element of this covenant is expressed as God's laws. The laws contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, are called Mitzvot or commandments According to Jewish tradition, there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah (the number is mainly traditional -- lists compiled by Jewish authorities through the centuries always contain 613 mitzvot, but no two lists agree).

The rabbis of the Talmud (who were teachers and jurists) taught that every commandment in the Torah is important no matter how slight, and that the reward was the same for not harming a mother bird as for not killing another person. Nevertheless, through the ages, Jews have generally accepted the idea that the Ten Commandments are the most important laws of the Torah.


BCE ("Before the Common Era") & CE ("Common Era") -- The abbreviations BC ("Before Christ") and AD ("Anno Domini": Latin for "In the Year of the Lord") are both references to Jesus. Because Jews do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, they substitute the abbreviations BCE for "Before the Common Era" (that is, before the year 1) and CE for "Common Era" (that is, after the year 1). Back to text.

 


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