Judaism




The term Judaism generally connotes the religion practiced by the Jewish people. Many, however, ascribe to it a much broader definition, most accurately as “a way of life” encompassing the expressed heritage of wisdom and creativity of the Jewish people, and subsuming such modes of expression as (nonsacred) literature, music, and graphic art. Here we will limit our discussion of Judaism to the religion of the Jewish people, speaking of it on both the horizontal (more or less contemporary) plane and on the vertical plane of its historical evolution.

Judaism might more properly be called the Religion of Israel (as did the renowned scholar of Judaism, Ezekiel Kaufman, in his magnum opus by that title). The term Judaism more accurately refers to a later title for the religion of an ethnic group that was the majority population in the geographic region that first became called Judah in Hebrew Scriptures, that area having been designated by Moses as the divine allotment for the tribe of Judah. Nearly a dozen more allotments were simultaneously designated for other tribal members of the tribal confederacy of the people of Israel, who were the descendants of the clan of Jacob—son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and often referred to as the Israelites—and who had later become mighty in number during their four-century sojourn in Egypt. Sometime after the Mosaic allotment, the tribes banded into a single polity under David as monarch, only to relatively quickly coalesce into two kingdoms—the northern called Israel and its southern counterpart Judah—following the death of his son, Solomon. When the northern Israelite kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BC and its inhabitants  exiled  to Assyria,  they  ostensibly  were forcibly  assimilated,  ultimately  losing  their  ethnic (and religious) Israelite identity; hence the popular term “the Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. The southern kingdom at that time was able to ward off the Assyrian invader and remained intact until 586 BC, when it was overrun by the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzer. Like its brethren to the north a century and half earlier, its inhabitants—virtually all from the tribe of Judah (along with a substantial number of Levites, who being custodians of the religious cult were never given their own tribal allotment and therefore lived spread among the various tribes)—were exiled northward. Unlike members of the exiled northern Israelite kingdom, however, they maintained their identity and, after Nebuchadnezzer’s dynasty was displaced by the Persian Cyrus some 60 years later, eventually were allowed to return to their homeland in Judah. Many returned and rebuilt their central religious shrine, the Holy  Temple.  Coupled  with  the  disappearance  of the northern kingdom, the restoration of Judah— albeit as a vassal of Persia—probably represents the point at which the Israelites became better known as “the Jews” and when the “religion of Israel” permanently took as its new name “Judaism.”

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Belief System

Judaism professes the belief in one God, who calls on believers to practice a system of ethics emanating from a body of wisdom called Torah. Belief and practice  originated  about  4,000  years  ago  in  the  lives of the patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah, whom God called to venture forth from their home in Mesopotamia to go to “the Land that I will show you”—the land of Canaan, which has been known ever since as “the Promised Land.” God soon brought Abraham into a covenant, calling on him to rear his not-yet-born offspring in righteous ways; thus was initiated an ever-accumulating spiritual heritage, which has come to be known as ethical monotheism.

The  next  major  stage  of  religious  development took place a half millennium later, in the time of Moses, when, according to the Biblical record, God rescued Abraham’s descendants—who had lately been fruitful and multiplied—from Egyptian servitude. Once free, God brought the entire people—by scriptural  estimates,  some  2  million  souls—into  a new covenant at Mt. Sinai, revealing Himself while giving the Ten Commandments, which He later inscribed  on  stone  tablets  and  gave  to  Moses  to bestow on the people. In its most basic understanding,

the  new  covenant  provided  mutual  consideration: from God to the people of Israel, the land of Israel; from the people of Israel to God, performance of the mitzvoth—the Commandments.

Since that time, Judaism has taught that it is incumbent on members of the covenant—all Jews 13 and older (see entry on Bar/Bat Mitzvah)—to scrupulously adhere to practice of the mitzvoth, which can be broken into two main categories: ritual and ethical. (With the advent of Reform Judaism some century and a half ago, Reform Jews have placed the main focus on ethical commandments.) From a theological standpoint, performance of the mitzvoth is said to ensure the additional reward (besides the Promised Land) of material security, not to mention spiritual gratification. In reality, it has come to be understood that such assurance is fraught with problems, attested to by an ethnic history replete with a litany of disasters. Nor are large-scale episodes the problems of theodicy.

Nevertheless, at least at its outset, Jewish theology was held to be a significant advance beyond the polytheistic notion not just of many gods but of an arbitrary primordial realm held responsible for bad things happening to good people (and vice versa), to borrow a phrase from the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s timeless book on the subject. Jewish religious thought was a breakthrough in that it claimed that human behavior produces the properly commensurate divinely ordained outcome: Virtue is appropriately rewarded and vice likewise punished. So promises Scripture at its most direct, especially Deuteronomy 11.

Sacred Literature

One often hears Jews referred to as “People of the Book.” Justifiably. From its inception, Judaism has been a “book religion.” Its earliest collection of sacred literature is, of course, the Bible. Fundamentally, Judaism teaches that the Bible is the word of God. Many Jews, albeit the minority nowadays, believe every word of the Bible is divine in a literal sense. Others hold that the Bible as it stands is propositional— that is, divinely inspired. Others still would refrain from claiming any supernatural involvement in the Bible, describing it as the product purely of human creativity. No matter, all agree that it represents the earliest written collection of sacred literary accounts stemming from the Israelite/Jewish religious impulse to seek the Divine.

The Hebrew  Bible  consists  of  some  two  dozen separate books, varying according to the historical context, voice, and theme. On a larger scale, the Bible is divided into three main sections: the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings. The first letter of each section in Hebrew forms the Hebrew name for the Bible, the TaNaKh. It is worth noting that of the three, Jews most venerate the Torah, which is chanted in synagogues in its entirety each year, following a format of weekly sequential portions. Additionally, in terms of Jewish law, the Pentateuch carries an authority that by far exceeds that of the two other sections of the Hebrew Bible.

Alongside the Bible in Sacred Literature is the Talmud. Unlike the Bible, the Talmud originated and long remained oral in character, giving the evolving Jewish religious tradition enormous flexibility and dynamism during a period of a millennium or more, up to its publication in approximately 500 AD. There are actually two Talmuds, the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions, which, although they bear much resemblance to each other, are nevertheless discrete collections. Of the two, the Babylonian version is the more popular, as well as more legally authoritative. The Talmud consists of two types of literature: law and lore. It no doubt is best known as a compendium of religious law and is especially noteworthy for its invariable penchant to include the extensive jurisprudential argumentation involved in discoursing most issues of Jewish law.

Because of its popularity (even outside the Jewish world) of late—literally in the past several years— we would be remiss not to mention the existence of a substantial body of mystical literature among Jewish sacred literature. Best known by its generic term, kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition is built around a sizeable collection of literature called the Zohar. Tradition holds that the Zohar is the outcome of a 12year experience of divine revelation received by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his son, while hiding in a cave during  the  Hadrianic  persecution  in  Judaea  some 1,800 years ago. This tradition further holds that, once received, the revelation remained mostly dormant for another thousand years, until finally being brought to light by the Spanish Rabbi, Moses de Leon. The Zohar and much other kabbalistic literature derive their purported mystical powers and properties through the application of an exceedingly esoteric symbolic system based on a scheme of types and degrees of combinable divine emanations, decipherable from kabbalistic literature by only highly trained mystics. Because of the extensive background required— not to mention the purported potency of the religious experience kabbalah can unlock—it has popularly been held that no one is permitted to delve into kabbalah before the age of 40.

Holy Days

Foremost among Jewish holy days is the Sabbath, thought to be an Israelite innovation. Jews celebrate the Sabbath each Friday night and Saturday as the weekly anniversary of God’s resting after 6 days of creating. In addition to refraining from labors, Jews join  together  for  special  prayers  and  meals.  Some Jews refrain from using most kinds of technology, such as electricity and automated travel. The Sabbath is the Jewish holy day, par excellence.

Next in importance among Jewish holy days is a twofold observance consisting of Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which fall 10 days apart and form a conceptual unit of a season for repentance. Traditional Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana over a 2-day period, as with the Sabbath reciting special prayers for the day and eating festive  meals. Yom  Kippur  is  a  1-day  observance whose most outstanding characteristic is a full-day fast, refraining from all food and liquid. Many Jews wear a special white robe symbolizing purity on this day, and also refrain from wearing leather shoes, which symbolize comfort. Additionally, Yom Kippur features the largest array of special prayers for any holy day, many Jews spending the better part of the day in synagogue in prayer. The theology behind this holy period, known as the Days of Awe, was laid down in the Torah as a time of judgment, when the Almighty decrees the fate of each Jew during the new year. Hence, the period’s emphasis on repentance, which along with prayer and good deeds forms the triumvirate of prescribed activities for this 10-day period.

During the nearly millennium-long period when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem (from roughly 950 BC to 70 AD, with an interruption between 586 and 512), Jews celebrated Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles)—by making pilgrimage to that central religious shrine. The practice was discontinued for obvious reasons after the Holy Temple was destroyed. (Although the Temple was never rebuilt, Jews have continued to venerate the site, specifically the Western Wall of the mount on which it was erected.) The three pilgrimage festivals form a conceptual unit on an agricultural theme. Passover marks the earliest point of harvest, when barley ripens. Shavuot celebrates the fructification of other produce and, while the Holy Temple was standing, called on worshippers to bring “first fruits” to the altar. Sukkot is the full-blown harvest festival, celebrating the bounty of produce realized at the end of harvest. Passover and Shavuot also have historical and theological facets equally important to their agricultural significance. Passover famously commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot recalls God’s revelation and bestowal of Torah at Mt. Sinai exactly 7 weeks later.

Each of the three pilgrimage festivals is celebrated in a unique way. Two of them, Passover and Sukkot, are weeklong festivals, featuring a Sabbath-like holy day on each end. Sukkot’s end-day is a self-contained holy day called Shemini Atzeret, which marks the end of the entire pilgrimage festival season for a given year. Shavuot, on the other hand, is a daylong holy day. Among the unique aspects of Passover is a special diet for the week, eschewing ingestion of foods and liquids that have gone through the process of leavening. The most notable Passover food is matzoh, an unleavened cracker bread reminding Jews that their ancestors fled Egypt before giving their dough time to rise before baking. Passover’s other notable characteristic is the popular Seder meal, usually celebrated in each family household, which retells the story of the Exodus through food and recitation of a special liturgy called the Haggadah. Whereas Sukkot doesn’t impose any dietary changes, it does call for each household to construct a special booth, whose roof must be made from natural material, usually wood branches and leaves, so as to remind Jews of the simple structures their ancestors used in the Sinai wilderness. Jews eat their meals in these booths throughout the Sukkot festival week. Additionally, during Sukkot, Jews make use of a four species collection comprising a palm branch, willow and myrtle branches, and a citron bound together for purposes of waving before God during prayers. This ritual thanks the Almighty for the blessings of nature’s beauty and bounty.

Lesser Holidays

Unlike the major holy days, Judaism’s lesser holidays are “later developments,” insofar as they are not part of the divine legislation of the Pentateuch. Best known of these lesser holidays (likely because it falls on or around Christmas) is, of course, Hanukkah. Hanukkah is an 8-day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple, following its occupation and desecration by Hellenists in 165 BC. Often called the festival of lights, Hanukkah’s primary observance entails the kindling of a candelabrum called a menorah, beginning with one candle for the first day and adding a candle on each successive day until eight are lit. (Practically speaking, there are nine because an extra candle is lit each night as the shammash, or guardian candle.) The eight candles follow the 8 days of Hanukkah, whose length comes from the legend that, when the Holy Temple was rededicated, the quantity of holy oil found for the Temple’s candelabra was enough for just 1 day, but miraculously lasted 8 days. Many Jews celebrate Hanukkah by eating fried foods—a reminder of the miracle of the oil— such as potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. Jewish children  play  a  game  with  a  special  spinning  top called a dreidel. In many families, children are given monetary gifts by their parents.

Although not nearly as widely known by gentiles as Hanukkah, the holiday of Purim is at least as significant in Jewish life. Purim is a 1-day holiday celebrated each year, usually in March, which commemorates the salvation of the Jews of Persia from annihilation some 2,500 years ago. The central observance of Purim is the communal cantillation of the Bible’s Book of Esther in its entirety (a half-hour-long ritual), accompanied and followed by merriment and gaiety. Some Jews consume food and alcohol in abundance. Jewish children usually dress up in costume, often playing one of the principal characters of the Purim story, Esther or Mordecai—some even come dressing as the villain, Haman, whose name, incidentally, inspires jeering from the community while the Book is being chanted. Purim observances also include the exchange of food gifts, as well as mandatory gifts to the poor.

Other minor holidays can be briefly noted. Jewish arbor day, Tu b’Shvat, is marked each year in January or February, coinciding with late winter in Israel. This is the birthday of trees in the Land of Israel, when sap starts to rise. Jews mark this holiday by buying trees for planting in Israel. Some hold a special Seder meal, similar to  the  Passover  Seder,  featuring  foods  and wines native to Israel. Next, ever since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Jewish calendar has featured 3 days of fast, marking the progression of ruin to Jerusalem during the two periods of destruction, first in 586 BC and then in 70 AD. Each fast day falls on the anniversary date of a significant stage in the impending ruin. The first, the 10th of Tevet, marks the beginning of siege; the second, the 17th of Tammuz, marks the breach of the city walls; and the final, the 9th of Av, marks the actual destruction of the Holy Temple. Whereas the first two are so-called minor fasts, insofar as they obligate fasting from only sunrise to nightfall, the 9th of Av is one of Judaism’s two major fasts (it will be recalled that the other is Yom Kippur), calling for a full-day fast, lasting from the beginning of twilight 1 day until nightfall the next. The 9th of Av— usually called Tisha b’Av—also calls for the chanting of the Bible’s Book of Lamentations, alongside with a litany of poetic dirges composed through the ages in commemoration of the black day.

Finally, a relic of what once was a much larger holy day celebration: Rosh Hodesh, or the New Month. In the days of the Holy Temple, Jews celebrated each Rosh Hodesh as a Sabbath-style holy day. Since its destruction, celebration of this occasion has been greatly reduced, to the point at which the only significant departure from an ordinary day is a fairly small segment of additional liturgy, coupled with a short chanting of scripture associated with the day.

Jewish Practice

The Jewish religion is structured around a system of Mitzvot—divinely ordained behavior, stemming from Scriptures, principally the Pentateuch. Several of these Mitzvot are especially notable and will be discussed herewith, in no particular order of importance.

Jewish dietary practice, known as kashrut (or, “keeping kosher”), is in essence a conglomeration of several Mitzvot. They can be briefly delineated as follows.

Forbidden Species

Best known in this category is the prohibition against  consuming  pork  products. Along  the  same lines, Scripture forbids the eating of shellfish—that is, any fish not having both fins and scales. The Pentateuchal books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy also have extensive lists of various forbidden birds and insects. Finally, consumable beasts must both chew their cud and have cloven hooves.

Ritual  Slaughter

Consumable land and flying animals require ritual slaughter—shehitah—by a certified practitioner. Ritual slaughter entails taking animal life by slicing open the jugular, preceded by a special blessing. Following shehitah, the carcass is inspected for signs of lethal disease; if such signs turn up, the carcass is declared nonkosher.

Forbidden Mixtures

Thrice the Pentateuch adjures, “Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Scriptural interpreters extended this prohibition to include all admixtures of milk and milk by-products with beef or fowl. Additionally, kashrut requires an interval wait of several hours (how many varies among communities) between the consumption of milk products and meat products. Most Jews who adhere to prohibitions against forbidden mixtures retain completely separate implements for storing, preparing, cooking, eating, and cleaning after milk products on the one hand, and meat products on the other. Again, it must be noted that, because Reform Judaism teaches that many rituals are optional, few Reform Jews keep kosher.

Traditional Jewish prayer is structured around an inherited liturgy, as well as certain mandated junctures of the day, and additionally in certain situations. Not to be overlooked is the fact that, outside Reform Judaism, Jewish prayer takes place nearly uniformly in Hebrew. The Jewish day comprises three unique liturgical services: morning, afternoon, and evening. Among the main elements, common to each service is the Amidah, or standing prayer, which, aside from the Sabbath when it is considered unfavorable to make requests of God, is a sequence of very ancient blessings on themes of thanks and request. Morning and evening services also have in common a three-section affirmation of faith, known as the Shema. (This prayer contains the most famous line of prayer in all of Judaism, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”) Especially important is to note that Jewish teachings place the highest value on community prayer. A prayer quorum consists of 10 or more Jews aged 13 and older. (In Orthodox Judaism, as well as some conservative synagogues, only Jewish men may count toward a quorum.) As for prayer garb, Jewish men don skull caps and prayer shawls (for morning prayers), as well as special phylacteries for the arm  and forehead called tefillin—all of which are optional in Reform circles. It is preferable, though not strictly necessary, for community prayer to take place in a synagogue or any other space with a Holy Ark containing  a  Torah  scroll.  In  Orthodox  Judaism,  men and women pray separately. Beyond prayer services, Judaism has prayers for myriad special and mundane (such as after using the restroom) occasions, known as blessings or in Hebrew, berakhot. Best known blessings include those over eating bread and drinking wine.

In its lengthy history, Judaism has developed a sequence of Rites of Passage, herewith described.

Jewish males require ritual circumcision at 8 days old. The ceremony is called Brit Milah—often elided to bris—and usually is performed by a trained functionary called a mohel. Conceptually, the ceremony brings the baby boy into God’s covenant. This rite goes all the way back to the patriarch Abraham (who, it will be recalled by those familiar with Scripture, circumcised himself). The Brit ceremony also bestows the child’s Hebrew name. Although no such covenant ceremony was prescribed either in the Bible or Talmud for girls, modern Judaism has begun exploring ceremonies for baby naming and covenant invoking.

Judaism’s puberty rite is the Bar and Bat Mitzvah at age 13.

Judaism’s concept of marriage has been thoroughly monogamous since 1000 AD, when the illustrious Sage Rabbi Gershom issued an edict forbidding polygamy. Marriage in Judaism is a holy covenant between husband and wife, affected by a formal marriage ceremony built around legal acquisition through witnessed ring exchange. In Judaism, marriage may be brought to an end through divorce, although implementing divorce is somewhat more complicated than marriage (owing to Judaism’s reluctance that marriage end except in completely irreconcilable circumstances), requiring that a divorce decree (in Hebrew called a get) be handwritten by a licensed scribe while two valid witnesses watch, then delivered to the wife by a specially designated emissary. Once again, it is necessary to add that Reform Judaism by and large has done away with the requirement of the traditional divorce procedures, recognizing in their stead civil divorce decrees.

Finally, when a life ends, Judaism has a highly developed set of rituals regarding burial and mourning (bearing in mind again that Reform Judaism has declared optional most if not all traditional rites associated with death). Jewish law requires that, except in extenuating circumstances, burial take place as soon as possible after death, usually the next day (unless that day is a holy day). In Jerusalem, burial often takes place on the same day as death, often within just a few hours. The reasoning behind such insistence on quick burial stems from the concept of kvod ha’met—or, “honoring the deceased.” According to Jewish law, cremation is forbidden, and burial must take place underground (rather than in an aboveground vault) unless local ordinances require otherwise. Mourning practices include a 7-day period of cessation from all workday pursuits, known as shiva, and shaving and cutting hair is frowned upon for an additional 23 days. The entire monthlong period is called sheloshim. A person is designated a mourner for purposes of the above rituals upon losing a direct relative—parent, spouse, sibling, or child. Perhaps the most well-known of mourning rites is the “mourner’s kaddish,”  an Aramaic  prayer  recited  by  mourners at public prayers during the sheloshim period and during an additional 10 months following the loss of a parent.

A word about afterlife in Judaism: Unlike many Christian traditions, Judaism does not place enormous emphasis on the speculative realm of afterlife. Judaism lacks a clear, unambiguous concept of heaven and hell—hence its emphasis on perfecting the here and  now.  Nevertheless,  traditional  Jewish  thought long ago developed a notion of life after death, featuring a singular notion of bodily resurrection followed by final judgment, and only then subsequent eternal reward. In this conceptual framework, body and soul die and are resurrected together, then part ways only after final judgment, when worthy souls live with God for eternity.

The Synagogue

Jewish  communities  have  long  erected  facilities for prayer, fellowship, and learning. Usually called synagogues, in the early 20th century some—most Reform—congregations began calling their structures temples. In either case, the focal point of the synagogue is the chapel or sanctuary, within which lies the Holy Ark, which houses the community’s Torah Scrolls—handwritten on parchment by a trained scribe. Most synagogues have an educational arm and administrative area, along with a banquet facility. Some also have a ritual bath, used for conversion and purity purposes.

Modern Denominations

The Jewish religion today consists of four primary denominations, one of which is further subdivided into various self-segmented groups. Denominational distinctions began to emerge in Germany in the mid-19th century, when several traditionally ordained rabbis banded together to commence a project of reformation. Their ideas and followers coalesced into a formal movement, Reform, and soon established a growing body of leaders and synagogues. Among their major reforms were de-emphasis of ritual law, removal of Hebrew as the main language of prayer, and repudiation of the hope of return to Zion.

Amidst the early move to reform, some rabbinical leaders felt uncomfortable with the pace and degree of recommended reforms. So began an incipient counterreformation movement, which came to be known as Conservative Judaism. Likewise, at about the same time, leading traditional rabbis who opposed altogether any major reforms began calling themselves orthodox. Thus was born the term Orthodox Judaism. It should be noted that, whereas Reform and Conservative Judaism are considered “movements” (a concept subsumed within their names), Orthodox Judaism never has considered itself as such.

Nearly a century after Reform and Conservative Judaism emerged, in the early 1960s, a fourth denomination—Reconstructionism—was born in America from the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose most notable innovation was a thoroughly naturalistic concept of God. Like its counterparts, Reconstructionism has its own synagogue arm and seminary but remains substantially the smallest of the four denominations. Orthodox is the next largest (in North America), followed in order by Conservative and Reform, which, until recently, were at virtual parity in affiliation. Reform has eclipsed Conservative Judaism in the past decade or so, probably owing to its more liberal definition of Jewishness. To elaborate, in an atmosphere where the intermarriage rate exceeds 50%, Reform Judaism is at an advantage in that it holds that Jewishness is passed to children through either parent, as opposed to the Orthodox and Conservative traditional position that it comes from the mother only.

As mentioned earlier, one denomination— Orthodox—is  further  subdivided  in  several  ways, most noteworthy by a split between Hasidic (pious ones) and non-Hasidic (often referred to by the Hebrew term, Mitnagdim, or opponents). This split occurred in mid-18th century Eastern Europe, after the advent of a charismatic leader affectionately known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of a Good Name). Unlike its counterpart, Hasidic Judaism revolves around the charismatic leadership of several dynastic “Rebbes,” and such leadership almost invariably passes from father to son. Hasidic Judaism is even further subdivided into dozens of sects, each with its own dynastic leader. Within the Mitnagdim, Orthodoxy is likewise further subdivided along the lines of Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, each group having its own set of seminaries, synagogues, and international leaders. Among the primary differences between Modern and Ultra Orthodox are appearance and mode of dress; Ultra-Orthodox men invariably wear long beards and black clothing. UltraOrthodox Jews also are more prone to live in insular enclaves, isolated as much as possible from the outside  world. A  notable  exception  among  the  UltraOrthodox is the Chabad Movement, whose recently deceased charismatic leader urged his followers to spread out in the world and missionize among Jews, hoping to attract followers.

The 20th Century And Beyond

Judaism  underwent  two  major  upheavals  in  the 20th century, the first tragic and the second triumphant. The first, the Holocaust, resulted in the death of 6 million European Jews, murdered by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. The Holocaust has had an inestimable impact on Jewish thought in the second half of the 20th century, which no doubt will carry over into the 21st and thereafter. Jewish thought has struggled to integrate the staggering loss of fully one third of world Jewry into its theology. A number of prominent Jewish theologians, among them Rabbi Harold Kushner, propounded a radical and controversial theology many say represents a return to the idea of a realm beyond God’s control. Alternatively, many others, including survivor Elie Wiesel, suggest that the only appropriate response to the theological problem posed by the Holocaust is silence.

Triumphantly, only 3 years after the Holocaust ended, the State of Israel was born, representing the culmination of more than a half century of effort by the Zionist Movement, formally initiated by Theodore Herzl in 1897. Although its first six decades have been little other than struggle for acceptance and survival, the existence of Israel has provided a “shot in the arm” to a Jewish world devastated by the Holocaust. Since the birth of the Jewish state, fully one third of world Jewry has relocated into the Jewish state, whose Jewish population now exceeds 5 million.

Despite the lessons of the Holocaust, antiSemitism unfortunately continues to rear its ugly head in some quarters. At the time of this writing, French Jews, numbering some 600,000 and Europe’s largest Jewish community, have seen a dramatic upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the past half decade, leading several thousand to depart each year for haven, mostly to Israel. Equally troubling, many quarters of the Muslim and Arab world, although virtually bereft of Jews, have recently begun to spout an especially virulent type of Jewish hatred, blaming them for many of the ills affecting their societies and even harking back to the medieval blood libel—the accusation Jews murder children to use their blood for ritual purposes.

In the United States, which still houses the world’s largest Jewish community, the concern is not antiSemitism; rather, it is assimilation. Now in its fifth generation since the great migration of some 2 million souls from Eastern Europe, U.S. Jewry is showing signs of erosion. More than 50% of Jews getting married marry non-Jews. Many century-old Jewish communities in smaller cities are deeply on the wane. Still, Judaism has many pockets of great vibrancy. Judaic studies programs at major universities are on the rise and increasingly popular. Books on Jewish subjects are published by the hundreds each year and eagerly read by thousands. Many once-lapsed Jews are returning to the fold, in some cases composing the bulk of entire synagogue communities.

“Ahm Yisrael Chai”—The age-old tradition lives on.

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