From a historic perspective, Judaism is not just the religion of the Jewish people, it also reflects their culture, ethics and laws. It is one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths. From a religious perspective, Abraham is often considered the first Jew in that he was the first to reject idolatry and preach monotheism. As a reward, Judaism believes that God appeared to Abraham to tell him that
`his descendants would be numberless as the stars and covenanted to him all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:4-18)`.
The `Torah` is a Hebrew word meaning teaching, instruction, or possibly more appropriate in many cases - The Law. It normally infers just the first five books of the `Hebrew Bible` or the `Five Books of Moses `, which contains Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Collectively these works are also known as the `Pentateuch`, coming from the Greek word meaning `five containers`, possibly in reference to the containers in which the original scrolls were contained. However, in totality the Torah consists of 24 or 39 works, depending on the numbering system being used, and should not be thought of as a single document. These scriptures are a collection of works written in several languages over a period of more than nine hundred years, based on oral traditions of a nomadic people. Not surprisingly, over this amount of time, some of the works were adapted or completed in accordance to the requirements or interpretations of the day. In these terms, the Torah is truly an epic of biblical portions that began with the Israelite Monarchy, around 1100BCE. It was in this period that scribes were incorporated into the royal household for the task of writing down their oral cultural traditions:
- Poetry & wisdom
- Prophetic oracles of Jacob and Moses
- The Ten Commandments
- The legislative texts that established religious tradition.
As such, the Torah records the wider cultural history of the Jewish people, from its origins to the coming of Christianity. In the context of Christianity, the Torah is normally referred to as the `Old Testament`, although subject to different interpretations. In fact, when compared to the information found in the prefaces of today's Western bibles, it appears that many key facts are presented in a way that could be construed as misleading. Some go as far to state that fundamental facts concerning the history and writing of the Christian Old Testament are in conflict with the original interpretation of the Torah. However, the Torah remains the core of Judaism and provides both a religious and ethical framework in the form of God's ten commandments to humanity. According to Jewish tradition, God revealed this part of the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
So how does Judaism define God?
Surprisingly, the Hebrew Bible contains no systematic theology and, as such, there is no philosophical or rigorous definition of God. As a consequence, there is much scope for scholars and theologians to interpret the nature of God. For example, there is no description of God being omnipotent, omniscient, or omni-benevolent, although others have interpreted these attributes from the scripture, e.g.
"You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live".
Although the scriptures do not provide a systematic description, many argue that they do allow the character of God to be inferred, e.g.
"The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." (Exodus 34:6-7)
Although a matter of subjective opinion, this sort of rhetoric seems to reflect more the characteristics of men rather than God. However, the central tenants of interest to our overall discussion is that Judaism is a monotheistic religious believing in one-god, still actively sustaining the universe. Formally Judaism conceives of God without form, free of physical matter from which we might postulate that God has to exist outside the material universe and is therefore not restricted by the laws of physics. One other important belief in Judaism that should be mention is that of `The Moshiach`, which means `the anointed one`. The notion of `The Messiah` as a divine saviour who will sacrifice himself to save humanity from the consequences of its sins is purely a Christian concept, which has no basis in Judaism. The Moshiach is the one to be anointed as king at the `End of Days` and has distinctly different attributes:
- A charismatic political and military leader
- Descended from King David
- Well-versed in Jewish law,
- Observant of its commandments and
- Judge and maker of righteous decisions
However, for all this, the Moshiach is still a human being, not a god or demigod or any other type of supernatural being. However, it is believed that the Moshiach will herald the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people, which ultimately leads to the Jewish people returning from their exile among the nations to their home in Israel. At this stage, we are not questioning the tenets of faith, merely the process by which they evolved. In cultural terms, Judaism is a very old religion that reaches back into a world that was far less sophisticated, at least, in terms of scientific knowledge of the cosmos. Equally, Judaism is deeply rooted in the long and turbulent cultural history that is an integral part of the Jewish identity. Therefore, long ago, Judaism transcended the normal boundaries of theology, as it ceased to be just a matter of religious faith and became a social necessity of belonging to the Jewish community. Later, other religions would also seek to create a religious identity that would unfortunately lead to further division, rather than the unity of humanity.