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SPEAKER: Judaism embraces the intricate, religious, and cultural development of the Jewish people through approximately 30 centuries of history, stretching from the Bible to the Roman Empire to medieval Spain to the Enlightenment to modern times and the founding of the state of Israel. The result is an experience that reflects a mysterious relationship between religion and peoplehood. From a religious perspective, Judaism is a theistic system. But from a peoplehood perspective, it is also the group memory of the manifold communities and cultures formed through the ages. It consists not only of Torah, divine revelation, and mitzvot, divine commandments, but also diverse cultures and languages. Among others, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Yiddish, Ladino, and English. It includes politics, whether in Poland, America, or Israel.
And it includes the whole range of Jewish education and family life, food, and festival, music and dance, and custom and humor. Judaism is not just a religion. It is the sum total of all the diverse elements that make Jews distinctive. Judaism as a religion is often summarized under three heads-- God, Torah, and Israel. Each of these elements has assumed varying positions of prominence throughout Jewish history. And an understanding of them necessarily unfolds within an ongoing historical and cultural framework. It was between 1,200 and 500 BCE that the Israelite people of the ancient Near East began to articulate a radical new understanding of divinity. The belief in a universal, singular god is arguably one of the greatest religious innovations among the world's historic religious systems. Through the visions in the voices of prophets the god the Israelites conceived was all powerful, yet benevolent, just,
yet merciful. Rejecting the anthropomorphic tendency of the time, the Hebrews did not represent God in any human form or earthly likeness, but as a universal moral god engaged in a lasting relationship with humankind. These themes initially developed through oral literature, evolved over time into the written record of the Hebrew scriptures. Meaning literally instruction or guide book, the Torah is the central text of Judaism, referring most specifically to the first five books of the Bible called the Pentateuch-- traditionally thought to be penned by the early Hebrew prophet Moses. More generally, however, Torah applies to all of the Jewish sacred literature, learning, and law. These written traditions and the social relationships derived from them would continue to unfold in the context of shifting experiences of homeland, statehood, exile, and diaspora. The Jewish bookshelf contains many books beyond the Torah.
The Hebrew Bible-- called by Jews the Tanakh and called by Christians the Old Testament-- includes the Torah to be sure but contains many books besides-- notably, the books of the prophets, the book of Psalms, and the Book of Job. Beyond the Bible, the Jewish book shelf contains books of law, ritual, scriptural interpretation, homilies, philosophy, history, poetry and much else composed from ancient to modern times. Among these works perhaps the best known is the Talmud-- a massive work composed in Babylonia-- modern day Iraq-- in the first centuries of our era. In literary form, the Talmud is a commentary on earlier work-- the Mishnah-- and in turn became the focal point of innumerable commentaries written in the following centuries. For religious Jews, the Talmud is the foundational document of Jewish law to this day. From both traditional and historical perspectives, the bond of peoplehood has informed Jewish identity throughout the centuries.
Conversion to Judaism is possible, but the concept of family heritage remains paramount. The convert is welcomed as a new, adopted member of the family. In political terms, Jewish statehood found expression in early unification of the Israelite monarchy under King David. Though beginning with the exile in Babylonia, this was followed by much longer periods of dispersion to a varied set of global, cultural, social, and political contexts. Living apart in diverse regions over many centuries, Jews have taken on a multiplicity of cultural and even racial characteristics. But nonetheless, distinct elements of Jewish identity have persisted throughout history of diaspora. Theological and ethical thought within Judaism also continues to respond to the changing historical context through which Jewish communities have journeyed. Philo of first century Alexandria, [INAUDIBLE] Sa'adya Gaon of 10th century Babylonia, Maimonides of 12th century Spain and Egypt. Many great Jewish thinkers have taken pains
to integrate the Judaism of the Torah and the Talmud with the best of contemporary thought. Modern times have seen the birth of secular Judaism, of Jewishness as ethnicity, peoplehood and culture shorn of religion. The most famous Jews of modern times-- Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, not to mention Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and J. Robert Oppenheimer-- all were or are secular Jews. Judaism remains vibrant in today's world as Jews understand and express their Jewishness in numerous, diverse ways.
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