Although there are only 17 million Jews in the world as compared to 2 billion Christians and 1.2 billion Muslims, as the first of the world's great monotheistic traditions and the source from which the others have sprung, Judaism has an importance that far exceeds what is suggested by mere numbers. It all began with Abram, who was "called" by God (Yahweh) from his native Mesopotamia (now northern Iraq) to the land of the Canaanites (now Israel/Palestine) where, according to the biblical narratives in the book of Genesis, he was to live in faithful obedience to God. In return, God promised to make of him and his people "a great nation" with a permanent home on that land. For a relatively small group of people living in one of the most unstable regions of the world, this promise was considered
the foundation upon which their own purpose and place in history was established.
To Jews, this "promise of the land" has become even more deeply felt in modern times because of the history of persecution in which the Jewish people have been forced from one country to another with no place on earth they could call their permanent home. Adolf Hitler's attempt to eliminate the Jewish people in a policy of mass extermination was only the penultimate chapter in a long and tragic story. Yet, the establishment of the modern state of Israel, while seen by Jews as the fulfillment of God's ancient promise, tends to be seen by the Palestinian and Arab inhabitants of the region as an unwelcome repeat of "conquest." Today, the Middle East is locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and vengeance with many on both sides thoroughly convinced that the God of Abraham is their advocate. Meanwhile, the nations of the world, including the United States, appear to be drawn to the conflict as partisans rather than peacemakers, and the planet is engulfed in a "clash of civilizations" with no end in sight. (It appears to this writer that only the miraculous intervention of the one God recognized by all the parties in the conflict can bring a just and lasting peace to the region, for all the most visible human actors appear to be moving in the wrong direction.)
Judaism and Christianity
Christians have much to learn from Jews, as the Hebrew Bible is the foundational document for their own faith. What better way could their possibly be to learn about God's Word than to study these texts alongside those who have been pondering them with great care for two millennium? Also, there may well be no greater source of insight into the life and teachings of Jesus than Jewish readers and scholars who in some ways may be better positioned to understand what this first century Jewish rabbi was up to, even as they do not accept interpretations of his teachings that have become dogma within the churches established in his name. (Similarly, Jews may benefit from studying their own texts alongside thoughtful Christians who are willing to explore the contemporary implications of texts that both Jews and Christian believe to be inspired and thus relevant not only for the time in which they were written, but for all time.)
In this rich conversation between Jews and Christians, there are many difficult questions to be addressed, to be sure. But without facing the hard questions such as the meaning of God's promises, the identity of the Messiah, or the role and responsibility of faithful people everywhere in carrying forward God's plan for salvation, neither Jews nor Christians are likely to become the just and faithful people they are meant to be. An additional challenge and opportunity for both Jews and Christians today is to invite Muslims into the conversation, thus completing the circle of understanding among the children of Abraham that may be the most urgent piece of unfinished business for the entire human family.
Judaism, the religious beliefs and practices and the way of life of the Jews. The term itself was first used by Hellenized Jews to describe their religious practice, but it is of predominantly modern usage; it is not used in the Bible or in Rabbinic literature and only rarely in the literature of the medieval period. The word Torah is employed when referring to the divinely revealed teachings of Jewish law and belief. Judaism is used more broadly, including also the totality of human interpretation and practice. Thus, one may speak of “secular Judaism,” referring to an adherence to values expressed by Judaism but removed from any religious context. The most important holy days in Judaism are the weekly Sabbath, the major holidays of Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot, and the minor holidays of Hanukkah, Purim, and Tisha B'Av.
The history of Judaism predates the period to which the term itself actually refers, in that Judaism formally applies to the post-Second Temple period, while its antecedents are to be found in the biblical “religion of Israel.” The Bible is no longer considered a homogeneous work; the many traditions represented in it demonstrate variance and growth. While the historicity of the patriarchs' existence and of Moses as the giver of all laws is under question, certain dominant themes can be seen developing in this early period that have importance for later Judaism.
Central to these themes is the notion of monotheism, which most scholars believe to have been the outgrowth of a process that began with polytheism, progressed to henotheism (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others), and ended in the belief in a single Lord of the universe, uniquely different from all His creatures. He is compassionate toward His creation, and in turn humans are to love and fear (i.e., stand in awe of) Him. Because God is holy, He demands that His people be holy, righteous, and just, a kingdom of priests to assist in the fulfillment of His designs for humankind and the world.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.