World Religions 9: Judaism
Judaism, like Hinduism, is a religion of a particular ethnicity that spawned major world religions that reached across ethnic boundaries to become international (Hinduism spawned Buddhism, and Judaism spawned Christianity and Islam). It is interesting, considering the Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are the largest systems of thought that the world has seen, how similar these developments are. Consider also that both Hinduism and Judaism are revered by non-members as sources of mysticism and ancient wisdom.
While it is not completely untrue to say that the “Old Testament” is composed of the sacred books of Judaism and the “New Testament” is composed of the sacred books added by Christianity, it is better to say that Jews have the Torah rather than the “Old Testament” because this is what Christians call the collection of books (to Jews, it is really the ONLY testament). Also Christians put the books in a different order than they are in the Torah. For instance, because the Book of Revelations (last book of the New Testament) is modeled on the Book of Daniel (both are visions of apocalypse and the final battle between good and evil) the Christians put the Book of Daniel at the end of the ‘Old Testament’ arrangement to make the two testaments symmetrical (matching) while Jewish tradition places the Book of Daniel not with the prophets but with the ‘extra’ writings. The Book of Daniel is one of the most overtly Zoroastrian texts in the group of books, and Christians place great emphasis on the final battle led by the Messiah, so they put the Book of Daniel as the conclusion of the Old Testament. As we will get into with Christianity next week, and already mentioned last week, there was much Zoroastrian influence in Israel in the time of Jesus, and so a highly Zoroastrian book like the Book of Daniel would be seen by Christians as predicting the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. From this point on in this lecture, I will refer to the collection of books as “the books of the Torah” to avoid confusion.
While some traditional religious Jews and Christians believe the books to have been written thousands of years ago, scholars today agree that the books were written across many centuries but mainly between 1300 BCE and 100 BCE. There are some books written much earlier than others. The first five books of the Torah (and also, in the same order, the first five books of the ‘Old Testament’ Christian arrangement) are called the Pentateuch (literally, ‘The Five Works’ like the five in Pentagon) were written early. Later books, particularly those about the prophets, are written later (and become increasingly influenced by Zoroastrianism). Scholars have done much work documenting the Babylonian, Egyptian, and Persian influences on the early and late books.
The Pentateuch, the first five books, are believed by traditional religious folk to have been written by Moses himself. It was only in the 1600s that scholars began to question this (for instance, the Jewish philosopher Spinoza from Amsterdam), based on the observation that Moses dies in the end of the fifth book. No one questioned the doctrine of ‘Mosaic authorship’ strongly before this time.
The Pentateuch begins with Genesis (selections of which are your reading), containing the account of the seven days of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Cain and Abel, the descent of Adam and Eve’s children, and the story of Noah and the flood. It has long been affirmed by scholars that the seven days creation story and the story of Noah both borrow from earlier Sumerian and Babylonian sources.
The second book is Exodus, the account of Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and to the promised land of Israel. While Genesis is mainly influenced by Mesopotamian sources, it is easy to guess that Exodus rather incorporates much Egyptian culture. For instance, there are earlier Egyptian texts that refer to Egyptian sorcerers doing the same miraculous acts by calling on polytheistic gods that Moses himself performs by the power of his monotheistic god. One text describes a sorcerer splitting waters by raising his staff to rescue the golden ball of a princess out on a boating voyage.
The author of Exodus (who scholarship no longer believes to be Moses) is essentially showing us that Moses has taken up the powers of the Egyptians and can beat them at their own game. This is good evidence that Judaism incorporates much from Egypt while bringing it into their own culture and thereby making it ‘their own’. It is also agreed by scholars today that it is highly unlikely that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, and even less likely that they were whipped into building the pyramids. The Egyptians had fewer slaves proportionally than the Greeks, and the Egyptian historical texts tell us that the pyramids were built by conscripted labor (peasants were offered food, lodging and wages by the state to join the massive workforce required). Why, then, does the book say that the Jews were captive, in Egypt? The Israelites were caught in many wars between the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians (the Babylonians, Assyrians, and then the Persian Zoroastrians). The book was written in a time where Egypt was an enemy, taking captives from Israel and displaying its might by building pyramids. This is the best explanation so far according to the scholarship, though nothing is settled by far.
For your second reading, I cut out a small passage of Exodus, the famous ‘I am’ passage (though the text, a scholastic work, says ‘I will be’ is more appropriate, which is interesting). We have seen that religions, in drawing together diverse groups of people, group many gods into traditions with a central god, and then often the central god becomes abstract such that it becomes ‘life’, ‘good’ or ‘order’ itself. Yahweh is the name given in the text for “the God of Moses”, but in this passage ‘God’ says ‘I AM’ as the name when anyone asks. ‘God’ as one god, without any other name, comes from this (“god” means ‘good’ in Old English, thus, ‘the Good itself’). Yahweh is simply “the god”, simply Being itself, without visible human form. Consider the difference between this and the traditional gods of Egypt, which were depicted in visible human and hybrid human-animal form. Essentially, Being itself is telling Moses (a ‘mandate from heaven’, if you will) to go to the Israelites and convert them to monotheists (notice that Moses says that when he goes to them, they won’t know which god is talking at first).
Several books of the Torah are composed of law codes gathered from many sources and times. Today, while reformed Jews do not believe in following many of these laws, orthodox Jews believe in following them all as much as humanly possible. Today, one of the most problematic of these politically today is Leviticus 18:22, the law which states, ‘for a man to lie with another man is an abomination’. To give my own perspective (and that which I was taught in class), there are plenty of other ‘abominations’ in Leviticus, most of which the average American has never heard of much less follow. Consider that orthodox Jews do not cut the hair on their sideburns (the ringlets seen on every orthodox Rabbi) because Leviticus says that cutting this hair is an ‘abomination’. Consider that eating shellfish or pork is an ‘abomination’. Wearing clothes of two different fabrics mixed together is an ‘abomination’. If an evangelical televangelist cuts their hair with a typical American style, wears a polyester suit and eats lobster, they are committing three abominations right there. If you don’t believe me, pick up the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
The Prophets occupy much of the rest of the books of the Torah. The prophets come when Israel is being beaten and occupied by enemies, telling the Israelites to shape up and fly right or face destruction. Part of this has to do with excesses of luxury (trade with other cultures) and worship of different gods (religions from other cultures).
Islam was the culture to rise up and become the greatest civilization the world had seen before Europe then rose up and did very much the same. One of my favorite subjects is how much our modern life and European culture owe to Islam. I will get very much into this in two weeks, but for now, it is important to mention that Jews were protected by Islamic law as monotheists. Nestorian Christians and other types of Christianity that the middle age Catholic Church persecuted as heretics fled to Islamic lands, along with many Jews, to find shelter under Islamic law. Islamic civilization was instrumental in developing the roots of trade and capitalism, which includes borrowing and lending. While the ‘old testament’ is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it says not to borrow or lend money, all three of these people ignored this to large degrees to become powerful and wealthy. Jews were often the conduit into Christian lands for these systems of mathematics and business practice, and this is the root of much anti-Semitic and racist ideas about Jews and money.
As Europe became wealthier than Islamic lands, Muslims were increasingly killed on sight, but Jews were often tolerated, but not always. The most dramatic evidence of this is the Spanish Inquisition. In 1492, not only did Columbus sail the ocean blue, but he did so because that was the year that Christians retook Spain from the Muslims and the year of the Spanish Inquisition. This was not a coincidence, as Jews (merchants and scholars of the highest caliber) flourished in Islamic Spain but were then persecuted en masse the year the Christians took over. Some scholars say that Columbus could have himself been a ‘converso’, a Jewish convert to Christianity to escape persecution, which would explain why he would want to get so far out of town. These same scholars say there were likely Jews and Muslims who took Christian names and were baptized similarly on Columbus’ three ships.
My professor for my Jewish Heresies class (yes, this was too cool), who is Jewish, said that one of the saddest things he sees today is his young Jewish students convinced that Islam has been their enemy for centuries, when in fact it has been particular groups of Christians and Europeans who have done the worst. Up until the modern conflict of the state of Israel (which we will get to in the ‘conflicts’ class) Jews and Muslims got along much better than Christians and Jews (consider that WWII and the state of Israel both happened within the last 70 years, and the Holocaust of WWII came first). Unfortunately according to some sources British and American media have done much to reverse these perceptions since the founding of the state of Israel over the last 50 years. I hope it does not sound like I blame particular people for particular tragedies, as there is no simple answer or singular blame to assign here.
Today, we see two divergent Jewish European ethnicities due to the split of Jews in Islamic and Christian lands. Sephardic Jews come from Spain, Portugal and other Mediterranean lands (all Islamic lands until 600 years ago). Ashkenazi Jews are Germanic, from Northern Europe (particularly Germany and Poland, the two places to suffer drastically from the Holocaust).
One last issue before we end this lecture: Jews and the American Media. There are terrible prejudices that are alive and well in this country that say “Jews control the media”. As with many lies, there is a grain of truth to this xenophobic nonsense but no more than that. In the early days of the American stage and cinema, ‘ethnic’ acts were often the most popular (including minstrel shows and bands that employed black performers). Running a stage or movie house meant that one would have to interact with many ethnicities of people, and often Jews stepped in to do this because American protestant main stream individuals did not find it pleasing. Also, American mainstream audiences wanted shows with ‘ethnic’ personalities and found the shows put on by mainstream Protestant producers to be dry and dull. Jews, themselves a minority in America, became heavily involved in the entertainment industry because it was an area to succeed that was open to them. Consider that many Jewish producers brought Jazz from black clubs to American mainstream audiences. Today, there remain many prominent Jewish individuals in the movie and music industries, some of whom own studios and production companies. However, and I want to make this ABSOLUTELY clear, the companies that OWN the studios (and the companies that own those companies, the larger holding companies) are full of Protestant Christians. Thus, it is not true that Jewish individuals control or have a dominant interest in the media of this country. This sort of belief has existed before, particularly in Germany before WWII where it was used with disastrous consequences.
Needless to say, it is too easy to blame another people for what our media says or what our country does. It has never ceased to amaze me how human beings can perceive some ‘evil other’ to be the controlling force in their OWN COUNTRY rather than look at their own kind with skepticism.