Judaism: The Religion Founded On A Contract

The philosophical and ethical tenets of Judaism have served as the foundation for much of Western civilization. Yet, many people – including those with Jewish ancestry – are unaware of the history of the Jewish people and religion.

The “official” start of Judaism occurred approximately 2000 years before the birth of Christ, when Abraham entered into a contractual relationship with God. Abraham lived in the land of Canaan (the region now known as Israel), and the Canaanites were polytheistic. The god known as El was considered the most powerful deity among many. El commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham reluctantly agreed. When El saw Abraham’s integrity and faithfulness, he spared Isaac and offered Abraham and all of his descendants sovereignty over the land of Canaan. “If you will be my people, then I will be your God,” was the covenant into which Abraham entered, thus crossing over from a polytheistic culture to monotheism. The word “Hebrew” translates to “one who has crossed over,” and refers to this allegiance to a singular deity.

From that point forward, the Jewish people distinguished themselves from other tribes in northern Africa through their adoption of certain rituals, such as circumcision of their male children and ritual animal sacrifices. Three hundred years after Abraham’s covenant, and after a large number of Hebrews escaped slavery in Egypt, Moses received what are known today as the Ten Commandments. Shortly after this event, the Torah was revealed to Moses, which tied together creation, man’s expulsion from Eden and the flood with the Jewish people of that day and with God as a sovereign being. The Ten Commandments and the Torah serve as the basis of Jewish moral and ethical beliefs, and these two events marked the beginning of Judaism as a religion. Because the Jews trace their existence back to the creation of the earth, the Jewish calendar begins with the creation of Adam and Eve. That is why Rosh HaShanah began the year 5771 in September of 2010.

The Jewish people still had no territory into which they could settle, until Joshua regained Canaan. This allowed the Jews to establish permanent settlements that evolved into cities and towns. During this time period, the Jews also adopted a social structure that allowed for job specialization – in other words, rather than each person in the community producing their own food, clothing and tools, each person instead would specialize in providing one good or service to others in the community, and they would trade amongst themselves. As a result, the Jews prospered, compared to the many nomadic tribes residing in the area. In order to offer the people protection and provide some level of organization to society, the Jewish people adopted a monarchy, which began with Samuel crowning Saul as king. The golden age of the monarchies ended with the reign of Solomon. During Solomon’s reign, Canaan was divided into two kingdoms named Israel and Judah.

Prosperity attracts attention and produces envy, and Israel and Judah soon became the target of a number of invasions. The Assyrians conquered Israel, the Babylonians conquered Judah, and the Persians conquered the Babylonians. The Greeks invaded later, conquered the Persians and ruled the region. During this time, a schism arose between secular Jews who had adopted Greek culture and religious Jews. The Greek regional king banned certain Jewish religious practices. This led to the Maccabeean revolt and formation of an independent orthodox Jewish kingdom. This victory is memorialized by the celebration of Chanukah.

Eventually, the Romans surged into the Middle East, wresting control of Israel and Judah from the Greeks and the Jews, ultimately imposing autocratic rule over the region and banishing the Jews from inhabiting the land, including from living in Jerusalem. The Emperor Hadrian destroyed all vestiges of Jewish culture, including the temple, and even changed the name of the region from Judah to Palestine (referring to the area’s Philistine inhabitants.) This initiated what is known in Jewish history as the Diaspora, or dispersing, of the Jewish people into other parts of the Middle East, Asia Minor (Turkey and Armenia), and into Europe.

Rabbinical Judaism evolved and in many instances, flourished, for several centuries after the Diaspora. Rabbis were charged with the responsibilities of teaching and maintaining Jewish history, religion and culture while living in regions that were alternately tolerant of and hostile toward the Jews. Many rabbis wrote prodigiously, contributing greatly to the body of Jewish philosophical thought, literature and education.

Over time, the practice of Judaism changed. During the 1600s, the ultra-orthodox, mystically inclined Chassidic movement began. Both the Conservative and Reform movements were initiated in the late 1800s. The motivation behind all of these divisions was the preservation Judaism, whether it was by remaining true to traditional practices or by modifying those practices to accommodate modern life. The Reform movement has moved beyond strictly religious belief and embraces the progressive concepts of “social justice” and “inclusiveness.” Despite the differences in daily ritual and the manner in which traditional holidays are celebrated, every practicing Jew still holds fast to their obligations under the contract Abraham made with God; religious Jews can cite many instances during which God honored His obligation to the Jewish people.

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