David R. Blumenthal

© 2008




             Judaism is a very long and very deep tradition. It is not possible to summarize or epitomize it, yet one must make the effort if trialogue is to be possible. In trying to present Judaism in brief and accessible form, I have adopted several conventions that I would like to spell out for the reader.

             First, I have chosen ten terms all but one of which are in Hebrew, for Hebrew is the primary language of Jewish civilization. By using indigenous terms, I hope to convey the semantic range of each word and, through that, the complexity and depth of each issue dealt with.

             Second, to understand contemporary Jewish life it is indispensable to comprehend the existence and nature of secular Judaism, for there is a completely valid form of Jewish identity in the modern world that is not “religious.” Trialogue must reach out to grasp this. Accordingly, in almost every chapter, I have presented the religious and the secular understandings of the issues. The chapters entitled Am Yisrael and History are, perhaps, the strongest presentations.

             Third, I have arranged the ten articles in what I perceive to be their order of importance to the general Jewish community. Orthodox Jews might choose different items and would arrange even those I have chosen differently; so would secularist Jews; and Reform Jews. The general sense of priority, as I see it, is: Torah, Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, Halakha and Aggada, Hashem, Sho’ah, Shabbat, Mistva, History, and Shalom.

             Fourth, I have highlighted key words and phrases so that the reader will become familiar with them and will be able to locate them quickly. These terms are the vocabulary of Jewish self-understanding; they are the words of Jewish identity. The reader should make a conscious effort to learn and to use them. Further, the nature of all such systems is that the terms thereof are interlocking and overlapping; accordingly, I have liberally cross-referenced each article.

             Fifth, I have tried to be as inclusive as I can, presenting as much of the traditional teachings as one can compress into ten short articles.

             It is my hope that these brief presentations will add to the trialogue and allow a more informed and subtler understanding of Judaism and Jewish civilization.



             The term "Am Yisrael" means "Israel, the Jewish People" and it, together with the complex of terms that goes with it, are central to Jewish self-understanding.

             To be Jewish is to belong to the Jewish people. It is to identify oneself as a Jew, to claim Jewish history, and to appropriate Jewish culture. It is to own one's Jewish ethnic identity and to acknowledge one’s destiny as a Jew. For some, the core of this commitment is religious; in this case, Jewish peoplehood is rooted in the doctrine of chosenness. For others, the core of this commitment is secular; in this case, Jewish peoplehood is rooted in history and culture.

             For religious Jews, the idea of the chosenness of the Jewish people is rooted in the Torah (see entry). Five times God chooses Abraham and blesses him with the threefold blessing of seed, land, and blessedness. The fifth time, God actually swears by God's own Name that God will fulfill the blessings of chosenness:

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you ... The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said: “‘By Myself I swear,’ the Lord declares, ‘because you have done this and have not witheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.’” (Genesis 22:1-18; cf. also Genesis 12:1-7;  13:14-16;  15:17-19;  17:3-8).

The blessings of chosenness are renewed with Isaac (Genesis 26: 1-5) and Jacob (Genesis 28:10-15; 35: 9-12). These blessings and promises are also confirmed with the Jewish people in the desert; there the blessings are linked with loyalty to the covenant:

For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples of the earth your God chose you to be His treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you -- indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.... Therefore observe faithfully the instruction -- the laws and the rules -- with which I charge you today. If you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant He made on oath with your fathers. He will favor you and bless you and multiply you ... in the land that He swore to your ancestors to assign to you... (Deuteronomy 7:6-17)

After the Torah, the promise of chosenness becomes a refrain embodied in the prophets and reiterated in the later liturgy:

You have chosen us from among all the nations. You have loved us and wanted us, and have raised us above all the other languages. You have made us holy through Your commandments and have drawn us near, our King, to Your service, and You have set Your great and holy Name upon us. (holiday liturgy)

             Chosenness, however, is also a burden, for to be chosen is to expose oneself to the hatred of others. To be chosen by God is to be deeply resented by others. Antisemitism is rooted in this hatred; persecution of the Jew is firmly planted in this deep resentment. As chosenness is without reason, so Jew hatred is irrational. As the election of Israel is a scandal, so antisemitism is a stigma. The two are linked in divine and human psychology.

             For the secular Jew, to be Jewish is to accept the history, culture, and destiny of the Jewish people as one’s own. Judaism is the civilization of the Jewish people, the cultural expression of the accumulated wisdom of Jews. Jewish life is embodied in Jewish history, in the story of the literary, social, political, economic, and artistic life of the people. To be Jewish is to learn this history, to know the personalities and events of this civilization, and to participate in its culture. It is also to accept the existential destiny of the Jewish people, to know that my fate depends on the fate of my people, that my future is linked to the future of my people.

             For the secularist, too, there is the negative view: The non-Jewish world has not let us forget our Jewishness, the outside world has not allowed us to assimilate. Jews who had been culturally, religiously, and politically assimilated for generations were sent to the gas chambers as Jews -- not as political enemies, but as Jews. Jewish destiny ruled their lives, in a negative way, and to be Jewish is to know that it could rule my life that way too.

             For both the religious Jew and the secularist Jew, “being Jewish,” precisely because it signifies being part of Am Yisrael, means being active in creating and maintaining the Jewish community. It means building orphan homes, schools, synagogues, Jewish community centers, teenage youth groups, providing Jewish courses and services for universities, adult education, building Jewish community centers, constructing and maintaining homes for the elderly, and providing cemeteries. It also means caring for the singles, for the young marrieds, for the divorced, for the stressed families, for Israelis living abroad, even for the homosexuals and battered and abused in our midst. It means absorbing Jewish immigrants, providing kosher facilities, creating a Jewish divorce court, paying teachers a living wage, and training professionals: teachers, social workers, community service personnel, rabbis, etc. It means creating and maintaining public relations organizations to survey antisemitism, to develop coalitions with non-Jewish organizations, and to participate in general community issues. It means being active politically on behalf of Jewish causes: locally, state-wide, and nationally. It means networking with parallel Jewish organizations and communites in America and Israel. And, of course, it means organizing to accomplish all these things, including raising and allocating the money to fund all these tasks. Jewish peoplehood is concrete; it is in the actions one takes as an individual and as a community. To be Jewish is to be active in caring for the Jewish community.

             There is, however, a danger in the view that Jewish identity is rooted in Jewish peoplehood: it is the danger of exclusivism and paranoia. One can mix up chosenness with superiority. One can emphasize election, and forget obedience and stewardship. Chosenness has its responsibilities, and these cannot be forgotten. Similarly, one can avow destiny, and forget that Jewish history is also placed within universal history. One can emphasize Jewish peoplehood, and close one’s eyes to the dignity of the peoplehood of others. Either way, one can be so caught up in the inescapability of Jewish being that one comes to believe that every “other” is an enemy, that every non-Jew is an antisemite. Reasonable suspiciousness of the other is certainly called for, but total distrust of all others is unreasonable.

             Religiously, the other can be seen within a series of covenants: God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, that is, with all humanity. This covenant was renewed and expanded with Noah and his descendants after the flood. Only later was an additional covenant made with Abraham and the Jewish people. This covenant was, then, renewed and expanded on Mt. Sinai. All humanity, then, is in covenant with God. Moral, spiritual, intellectual, and artistic capacities are, therefore, universal; all persons are called to be moral, to think, to create, to love. Jews are within humanity; Jewish covenant is within human covenant; Jewish chosenness is within human chosenness.

             For the secularist, too, the other can be seen within the universal bond of humanness. We are biologically bound to one another and this very bond of nature is the basis for the human rights that we claim for ourselves and for others. Nature, which includes society and history, shapes and binds all humans. In this view, too, Jews are within humanity; Jewish destiny is linked with the destiny of humankind.



             The term “Eretz Yisrael” means “the land of Israel,” sometimes known as “the Holy Land.” It is intimately linked with the concepts of covenant and history and it is closely related to, but not identical with, Zionism and Medinat Yisrael (“the State of Israel”).

             Religious Jews believe that Eretz Yisrael, “the land of Israel,” is rooted in God’s covenant (see Am Yisrael). God, as the Creator of heaven and earth, assigned the earth to all humanity, giving all of us responsibility over our environment (see Shabbat). God also gave the land of Israel to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants as one of the three covenantal blessings. These blessings were renewed with Isaac and Jacob, and confirmed in covenant with the Jewish people (see Am Yisrael). The covenant with the people, however, distinguishes between the promises of Eretz Yisrael and of political sovereignty. The blessing and promise of the land of Israel is eternal; it is irrevocable, like all God’s covenants. Political sovereignty in the land, however, is conditional on observance of the covenant.

If you walk in the way of My statutes and if you observe My commandments and do them, then I shall grant you rains in their proper times and the land will give forth its produce ... But if you do not listen to Me and do not do all these commandments ... I shall personally destroy the land, and your enemies who will inhabit it will be astounded over it. I shall scatter you among the nations, sending the sword after you; your land will be desolate and your cities in ruin ... Even so, when they are in the land of their enemies, I shall not have rejected them and detested them so as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. Rather, I shall remember the covenant of the ancestors whom I took out of the land of Egypt before the very eyes of the nations in order to be a God for them; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 26, passim).

             The promise of Eretz Yisrael first took political shape with the conquest and settlement of the land. The first political governance of the Jewish people was a federation of the tribes; this later changed to a monarchy. The first Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Yisrael, then, extended from Joshua to the destruction of the Temple, 1200 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E. After a period of seventy years, the second Jewish commonwealth was established by Ezra; it, too, had several types of governance. Eventually, it was destroyed by the Romans; it thus extended from 546 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. After a long hiatus, the third Jewish commonwealth was established in 1948 as Medinat Yisrael, “the State of Israel”; its form of governance is that of a democractic republic. Religious Jews believe that there will be a fourth Jewish commonwealth, that of the messiah; its type of governance will again be a monarchy (see Shalom).

             The boundaries of Eretz Yisrael varied considerably. Those of the covenant with Abraham are described as extending “from the River Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River” (Genesis 15:18), “the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan” (Genesis 17:8). The boundaries of Joshua and the Judges were more restricted while those of Kings David and Solomon were more expansive. Those of Ezra were more restricted while those of King Herod were more expansive. Halakha (rabbinic law, see entry), which defines the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael for the purpose of determining which parcels of land are obligated for tithes, sabbatical years, and other matters, sets moderate boundaries. It also discusses clearly the conditions under which political sovereignty must be exercised and under which it must be yielded, though opinion differs on these matters.

             Secular Jews do not root the idea of Eretz Yisrael in God’s promises and covenants. Rather, they look to the concrete political history of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael. There have been long periods of Jewish sovereignty over the land and, in between, there has always been a residual native Jewish population which maintained a Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael, then, is rooted in the history of the continuous Jewish presence in the land. Both religious and secular Jews accept that, during the periods between Jewish sovereignty, Eretz Yisrael was occupied by foreign powers.

             Exile is the state in which the Jewish people is deprived of political sovereignty over  Eretz Yisrael and in which a large segment of the people must take refuge outside its boundaries. Those who live in foregn lands are called the diaspora. Life in the diaspora, like life in Eretz Yisrael, has known moments of achievement and moments of deep persecution. There are two important differences between life in Eretz Yisrael and life in the exile. First, in exile, Jews are usually powerless to defend themselves while, in Eretz Yisrael, Jews may be defeated but they usually have some real political power at their disposal. Second, exile is an existential state; it is an awareness of being a foreigner, of being away from one’s roots. Living in Eretz Yisrael, too, is an existential state; it is a awareness of being home, of being in the land of one’s ancestors. Jews who return to live in Eretz Yisrael are coming home, no matter how long they have been away; so are Jews who visit Eretz Yisrael. Jews who remain in the disapora, for what ever reason, are in exile. Furthermore, the diaspora and Eretz Yisrael are in tension with one another. The center needs the periphery and the periphery needs the center; exile discloses home and home discloses exile.

             Zionism is the movement that calls for the national liberation and revival of the Jewish people. Zionism call for the cultural, economic, social, political, and existential reassertion of Jewish peoplehood. Thus, Hebrew language is central, literature and art are created, economic and social policies are evolved, and Jewish ethnic identity and pride are cultivated. Chief among the many goals of Zionism is the reestablishment and maintenance of Jewish political sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. The revival and liberation of the Jewish people is not complete without Medinat Yisrael, “the State of Israel.”  The national resurrection of the Jewish people is not possible without a secure and peaceful homeland. In all this, Zionism is very like other national liberation movements, even where it is in conflict those movements (see Shalom).

             Because of the centrality of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, and Medinat Yisrael (the people, land, and State of Israel), the attitude of the non-Jew towards these issues is the litmus text of dialogue from a Jewish point of view. Jews do not expect non-Jews to agree on all matters pertaining to Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, and Medinat Yisrael; Jews themselves disagree on many issues pertaining to the political, religious, and social life of the Jewish people. However, Jews do expect non-Jews to be in solidarity with them on the right of the Jewish people to its proper national existence; without such solidarity, there can be no dialogue.



             “Halakha”[1] is the term used to describe the complex set of actions and behaviors by which Jews identify themselves. “Aggada” is the term used to describe the network of values and concepts which inform Jewish behaviors. Both halakha and aggada are rooted in textual interpretation, in accumulated tradition, and in concrete life situations.

             For religious Jews, halakha is the system of ruled behaviors which define the concrete will of God. These rules are derived from the Torah (see entry), by the authority of the rabbis, through study, legislation, and judicial decision. When questions of textual interpretation arise, when situations not already embodied in the halakha come up, or when popular custom acquires widespread acceptance, the rabbis consider the issues and determine the halakha in an authoritative way. At certain times, this is done by vote of a rabbinic court; most of the time, halakha is determined by a slowly-evolving consensus of the rabbis. Rooted in God’s revelation and covenant, as interpreted by proper rabbinic authority, halakha has the force of law, that is, of rules which are binding or obligatory and enforceable though, within halakha, there are varying degrees of obligatoriness and enforcement.

             Halakha, then, is: (1) the system of ruled behaviors, (2) the process by which ruled behaviors are determined, and (3) any given ruled behavior. Halakha implies the institutions of the rabbinate, the yeshiva (academy), and the bet din (rabbinic court). Halakha also generates  literature: the Talmud is composed of the Mishna which is an ordering of the ruled behaviors by topic (220 C.E.) and the Gemara (500 C.E.) which is an elaboration of the Mishna; the Responsa which are the decisions handed down by individual rabbis as questions are raised; and the Codes which are topical reorderings of the halakha, or parts thereof. Various communities have developed their own interpretive and customary traditions of halakha.

             For secular Jews, the complex set of actions and behaviors by which Jews identify themselves is not binding or obligatory. Such patterns of behavior, thus, are not halakha; rather, they constitute the traditions or the folkways of the Jewish people. All societies have traditions or folkways, that is, ruled behaviors that define and identify the group, patterns of action by which a community organizes itself. For secular Jews, Jewish ruled behaviors, thus, are culturally necessary, but they are advisory or desirable and not binding or obligatory except insofar as they are the law of the land in which one lives. Many religious Jews do not accept the full authority of the rabbinic tradition; they also think of Jewish ruled behaviors as traditions or folkways.

             For both religious and secular Jews, ruled behaviors constitute the praxis of the community, the concrete means by which the group identifies itself. Halakha / folkways are learned like a language; they are the cultural-linguistic expression of, and key into, the community. Conversion into Judaism, while it also is a matter of faith or ideology, is primarily a matter of praxis, of action. One must learn the cultural-linguistic forms of halakha / folkways, for it is through them that the community identifies itself.

             For religious Jews, aggada is the network of values and concepts which inform Jewish behaviors. Concepts such as shalom (peace), tsedek (justice), zekhut avot (merit of the ancestors), derekh erets (good manners), malkhut shamayim (the kingship of God), rahamim (merciful love), hesed (unmerited love), gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness), and many others are not only ideas; they also have a normative dimension. Aggadic terms preach as well as teach; they are value-concepts. Value-concepts pervade and inform all genres of rabbinic literature. Thus, a story about a rabbi may illustrate and model shalom or hesed; an interpretation of a verse may depict and exemplify malkhut shamayim or rahamim; a liturgical text may reflect and teach zekhkut avot or derekh erets; and a halakhic ruling may embody gemilut hasadim or tsedek. Midrash (see Torah), whether of legal or narrative texts, always illustrates and models aggadic value-concepts.

             Aggadic terms do not function in a vacuum; they are linked to one another; they interact with one another according to the personal inclination of the interpreter. Thus, for a given text or halakhic situation, several value-concepts may be present; the relative emphasis will be dependent upon the interpreter. For instance, which is most important justice, mercy, or peace? the kingship of God, acts of kindness, or unmerited love? deed, prayer, or study? Which value-concepts are embodied in the story of the Exodus? in the laws of Shabbat? Aggada, thus, lends value-conceptual meaning to acts of halakha; it sets halakha in an axiological framework; it creates space for the structured legal mind. Halakha, on the other hand, provides a firm, logical, pragmatic framework for aggada; it sets aggada into a realistic, communal praxis; it creates secure boundaries for the moral imagination. Covenant is a mixture of aggada and halakha, of value-concepts and ruled behaviors, of axiology and praxis.

             For secular Jews, the ideological values which inform folkways and traditions function the same way aggada does for religious Jews. Ideology preaches even as it teaches; it illustrates even as it models. Thus, a story about a cultural hero, a law passed by a legislature, a decision rendered by a judge, an article written in a newspaper, a theatrical production, a poem, and a play embody the values and ideas, the value-concepts and the folkways, of secular Judaism.

             For religious as well as secular Jews, then, each ruled behavior depicts and exemplifies value-concepts and each value-concept is depicted and exemplified in ruled behaviors. Through acting one’s value-concepts in ruled ways -- through halakha and aggada -- the Jewish community identifies itself, expresses itself, and perpetuates itself. Jewish life, then, is not rigid law; nor is it a fanciful mythology. Rather, through the interdependence of halakha and aggada Jewish tradition achieves it richness and depth, its beauty and its power.



             The God of the Jewish people has a name; it is the Name. But we do not know how to pronounce it; we only know how to spell it and, at that, all we have is the consonants: YHVH (sometimes rendered, YHWH). During the biblical period, the Name was apparently known by all and commonly used; later, it was utilized only by priests in the temple;[2] still later, its pronunciation was completely suppressed, perhaps because the temple had been destroyed, perhaps because people had been misusing it by utilizing it in magical formulae. Modern scholars have reconstructed the Name, deriving it from the fourth conjugation of the verb “to be,” and rendering it: “Yahweh / He Who causes things to come into being” -- a fitting Name for the Creator God, but still only a reconstruction. Jews do not use this term when referring to God. When the Name was suppressed, Jews substituted the word “Adonai, my Lord.” This meant that Jews saw YHVH and read Adonai; this is still the practice today.

             The Name of God is holy; it may not be used lightly. Hence: One does not swear by the Name of God. One does not write YHVH except in a holy document and then only after ritually washing one’s hands. One does not throw away a document with the Name in it; such documents are buried. One may not erase the Name. In reference to the substitute for the Name, Adonai: One does not pronounce the word Adonai, except in prayer or when reading Tanakh (see entry). One does not write it out, but uses various abbreviations and symbols. One does not throw away documents with Adonai in it; they too are buried. One does not erase the word Adonai. Similar rules apply to other names of God.[3]

             Still, God must have a name; we must be able to name God, to address God -- personally, intimately. “Hashem / The Name” is the term religious Jews use for God; The Name is the name of God. Hashem is the term which we use to speak to God in a familiar way. There are other terms, too: “Master of the universe” and “Father in heaven” but Hashem is the main term; it has become God’s proper name.

             God’s Presence is composed of two moments: God’s utter holiness which transcends and is exalted above anything we can know and God’s intimate personalness which is close to us and resembles us. The tradition -- the Tanakh (see Torah), the midrash (see Torah), and the liturgy -- uses language which describes God as both holy and personal; hence, God is said to be anthropopathic (having human feelings), though not anthropomorphic (having human form). The medieval philosophical and mystical streams of the tradition preferred language that, contrary to the rest of the tradition, was not anthropopathic; hence, some Jews adhere to a more depersonalized understanding of God. Even such Jews, however, address God personally in prayer and speak of God intimately when describing God’s action in their personal and national lives; in such moments, the familiar character of God surfaces and God is “Hashem.”

             For religious Jews, particularly in the non-philosophic streams of the tradition, faith or belief in God is not propositional. There are, to be sure, certain aspects of God which can be formulated propositionally: that God is fair, that God is loyal to God’s word, that God is the Originator of reality, that God is one, and so on; but there is no formal list of propositions that is universally used as a measure of faith. Rather, the reality of God is experiential; it is through experiencing the Presence of God -- in Jewish history, in our personal lives, in prayer, in texts, in interpersonal relations, and in nature -- that we come to know God and to understand the varied dimensions of God’s being. Through talmud Torah (see Torah), halakah and aggada (see entry), am Yisrael (see entry), shabbat (see entry), and many other actions, the religious Jew comes to know God. Consequently,  faith is faithfulness to God’s Presence; belief is turning yet again to God. Faith is loyalty to God; belief is fidelity to God’s being and action. We are faithful to God, as God is faithful to us; and both are faithful to the covenant which is between us.

             Tefilla (prayer) is addressing God. There are many kinds of tefilla: praise for the wondrous works of creation, praise for action in our national and personal lives, praise for moments of transcendence; gratefulness for life and its blessings; petition for knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, health, sustenance, justice, the messiah, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the promptings of the heart, the return to Zion, and peace; and acknowledgement of God’s kingship and our hope for a more just rule on earth.

             Tefilla has two dimensions: Liturgy is the sacred text of the prayers; it is contained in the siddur (prayerbook); one recites the tefillot (plural of tefilla). Kavvana is the intentionality behind the text, the consciousness which accompanies the recitation of the liturgy. Kavvana is attentiveness to the prayers, to God, to the context, and to the people. Kavvana is entering into God’s presence while we pray; it is evoking God’s Face in devotion. Kavvana is bringing ourselves before God. In Judaism, kavvana is almost always done in a liturgical setting; observing other commandments, when done with kavvana, becomes prayer. The ability to bring oneself into God’s presence, through kavvana, during the performance of any commandment and even in moments when one is not doing a religious deed, is called “Avoda / worship.” The commandmets (see Mitsva), especially those which recur regularly, provide continuous opportunity for doing deeds with kavvana.

             Most secular Jews do not completely reject the idea of God, though there are Jews who do so and it is possible to be an atheist Jew, that is, a full member of the Jewish people who does not believe in any conception of God and has no relationship to any understanding of God. For most secular Jews, however, Hashem is part of the background of one’s thinking and experience. God is just there; not prominent, not active except in unusual moments, but present in a remote and sometimes comforting way. For some, this background God is aloof; for others, this God is personal but removed. Apostasy (leaving Judaism) is not atheism. Rejecting Jewish identity, Jewish history, and Jewish destiny is not apostasy. Only actively accepting the God and praxis of another religious tradition is an act of apostasy; only actively accepting the folkways and beliefs of another religious tradition is a leaving of Judaism.[4]



             Judaism is a religion rooted not only in the present but deeply grounded in the past and in a vision of the future. History is the term used to talk about the past and eschatology or messianism is the term used to indicate the vision of the future (see Shalom).

             Jewish history is usually divided into six periods: the biblical, the intertestamental, the rabbinic, the medieval, and the modern periods. Biblical history begins with the creation of the world which, as reconstructed from the many lists of rulers, is ascribed to 3760 B.C.E.[5] Actually, that date is approximately the beginning of writing as shown from the earliest inscriptions available to us from ancient Sumer and Egypt. Most Jews, however, recognize that the earth and the universe are substantially older, as scientific evidence indicates; still, one counts years from A.M., annus mundi,  the year of the creation of the world.[6] Human history descended from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham. Abraham chose to leave his family because of his belief in the one God. He became the starting point for the Jewish people and is usually dated about 1800 B.C.E. (some date him to 1600).[7] Abraham’s descendants underwent a period of slavery in Egypt which ended in the Exodus about 1250 B.C.E. After forty years wandering in the desert, Joshua conquered Eretz Yisrael (see entry). His reign was followed by a period of rule by charismatic figures and eventually by a dynastic kingdom from the lineage of King David, who is dated to 1000 B.C.E. After the death of David’s son, Solomon, the kingdom split in two: the northern and the southern halves. During this period, the classical prophets lived. The northern kingdom came to an end when it was conquered and its ten tribes were exiled to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. The southern kingdom of Judea, from whence the words “Jew” and “Judaism,” came to an end when it was conquered, the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, and the people exiled to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E.

             Approximately seventy years after the destruction of the Temple, some of the Jews left Babylonia to return to Judea to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. This begins the intertestamental period because it falls between the so-called “Old Testament” and the New Testament. After being conquered by Persia and Alexander the Great, Eretz Yisrael was occupied by the Egyptian Ptolemies and then the Syrian Greeks. The latter in a war with the former defiled the temple by sacrificing unkosher animals. The Jews rebelled under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, the Hasmonean, and succeeded in expelling the Syrian Greeks and repurifying the temple. They then set up a Hasmonean monarchy which ruled from 165 - 44 B.C.E. at which time Eretz Yisrael came under Roman control, eventually becoming the province of “Palestine.” There were Jewish kings even under the Romans, the most famous of whom was Herod for, during his reign, Jesus was born, lived, and was crucified as a Jew. This period comes to an end with the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple by the Romans after a brief Jewish rebellion in 70 C.E.

             As the intertestamental period drew to a close, particularly after the destruction of the second temple, the people acquired new leadership in the form of the rabbis. These men redefined Judaism so that it would survive the loss of sovereignty and would continue in the diaspora (see Am Yisrael). From about 100 B.C.E. to the present, one can speak of “rabbinic Judaism” or the rabbinic period. It included the Talmud and other types of rabbinic literature; it is characterized by several rabbinic institutions; and it functions by the twin factors of halakha and aggada (see entry).

             The medieval period is an extension and development of rabbinic Judaism. From the end of the Talmud in 500 C.E. to the French Revolution 1789 C.E., rabbinic Judaism developed new genres of literature, independent communities in the diaspora, and maintained a presence in Eretz Yisrael. Jews in Spain and along the African littoral came under the sphere of influence of Islam; they are called sephardi Jews. Jews in Europe came under the sphere of influence of Christendom; they are called ashkenasi Jews. The conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims in 638 and the Christian crusades of 1096 and later are important moments in the Jewish history of this period. The stateless nature of Jewish existence during this whole period left the Jews vulnerable to persecutions: the crusades in 1096-, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Cossack massacres in 1648 were among the worst. As this period drew to a close, Jews left the Old World for the New World; the first Jews arrived there in 1654.

             The modern period began with the emancipation of the Jews after the French Revolution (1789). From France, this movement spread to other countries. Emancipaton meant the end of the coherent Jewish communities of the medieval period; it also meant the exposure of Jews to western Christian culture. The story of the resistance to, and the eagerness for, emancipation in Jewish and non-Jewish communities is the history of the modern period. Full emancipation -- social, religious, political, and intellectual -- has been slow in coming. One of the results of emancipation has been the development of non-orthodox forms of Jewish religion. Emancipation also meant the secularization of Jewish identity, the development of a non-religious yet positively Jewish national or ethnic self-consciousness, and the emergence of Zionism and diaspora nationalism (see Eretz Yisrael). Zionism culminates in the establishment and maintenance of the State of Israel. A third result of the emancipation was the growth of racial antisemitism; this movement culminated in the sho’ah (see entry).

             Another way of construing Jewish history is to develop a typology of Jewish existence and to trace its development through three periods of time. The typology would include: basic institutions, key values, and the models of leadership.

             In the biblical period, the basic institutions were: the monarchy, the temple, and the family unit. The key values were: loyalty to the monarchy, animal sacrifice, prophetic ethics, personal piety, and family. The models of leadership included: the king, the priest, the prophet, the psalmist, and the father of the family. Biblical society was very patriarchal.

             In the rabbinic period, the basic institutions were: the rabbinate, the synagogue, the academy, the court, and the organized community. The key values were: halakha, aggada, talmud Torah, tefilla, and kavvana. The models of leadership included: the rabbi, the judge, the representative of the community (who leads services), the student-sage, and the lay communal leader. In the medieval period, the philosopher and the mystic were added. Rabbinic society was also very patriarchal.

             In the modern period, the rabbinic forms continued but new secular forms developed. The basic institutions are: the voluntary community, the State of Israel, the school system, the Jewish community center network, and various social service agencies. The key values are: emancipation, Jewish nationalism, political action, and Jewish history and culture. The models of leadership include: political leaders, community professionals, active lay leaders, and academics.

             These two approaches to Jewish history are summarized in the following tables:


Jewish History: A Chronology[8]


date       external history                                  Jewish history                                    

3760     Sumer, Akkad, Egypt; writing            ascribed creation of the world

1800     Hammurabi*                                      Abraham

1250*   Ramses II                                           Exodus

1000     --                                                        King David, King Solomon; Torah*

             --                                                        split of the kingdom; Amos, Isaiah

722       Assyria                                               exile of the northern kingdom

586*     Babylonia*                                        exile of the southern kingdom

             --                                                        destruction of the first temple*           

             --                                                        end of first commonwealth*; Jeremiah, Ezekiel

525       Persia                                     return to the land, rebuild the temple; Tanakh*

332                                                                  Alexander, the Great    conquers Jerusalem

167       Antiochus IV                                      the Maccabean revolt, independence

0           Augustus                                            Herod and Jesus (30, crucifixion)

70*       Rome                                     destruction of the second temple

             --                                                        Massada* (73); end of second commonwealth*

             --                                                        rabbinic* Judaism: Talmud*, Mishna, Gemara

             --                                                        Dead Sea, early Christianity

325       Constantine, Nicean creed                  no intermarriage or Christian servants

500       --                                                        Babylonian Talmud

622       Mohammed to Medina                       Muslim conquest of Jerusalem (638)

1096     first of three crusades*, Europe         massacres of Jews; 1144 blood libel*

1215     IV Lateran Council; Magna Carta      Jews wear badges and Jew-hats

1348     Black death                                        massacres of Jews

1492*   Columbus                                          expulsion of Jews from Spain

1620     American pilgrims                              first Jews in the New World(1654)

1648     Cossack Polish rebellion                    massacres of Jews

1789     French revolution                               emancipation; Jews as “citizens”

1819     --                                                        Reform Judaism; academic Judaism

1897*   --                                                        Herzl and Zionism*; anti-semitism*,  Dreyfus

1933-45*        World War II                          holocaust*

1948*   --                                                        State of Israel* (= the third commonwealth*)

Jewish History: A Typolopgy



period              basic institutions                      key values                                models of leadership  


biblical             monarchy                                loyalty to the monarchy           king                                                    

temple                                       animal sacrifice                      priest

                        family                                      loyalty to the family                 father

                                                                        prophetic ethics                       prophet

                                                                        personal piety                          psalmist                      


rabbinic rabbinate                                halakha and aggada                 rabbi

                        synagogue                               tefilla, kavvana             one who leads prayers

                        academy                                  talmud Torah                           student-sage

                                                                                                                        philosopher, mystic    

                        court                                        justice, mercy                           judge

                        organized community              gemilut hasadim                      lay leader                    


modern voluntary community             political action             active lay leaders

                        State of Israel                          Jewish nationalism                  political leaders

                        school  system             Jewish history and culture       teachers, academics

                        community centers                  emancipation                           community professionals

                        social service organizations                                                                                        



             Mitsva (plural, mistvot) is the term used to denote: (1) a commandment from God transmitted through the tradition and (2) a good deed. There are many mitsvot: some are ethical, some are ritual, some pertain to civil, criminal, or personal law. Religious Jews view the mitsvot as commandments from God, as opportunities to serve and draw near to God. Some are more serious than others; all are regulated by halakha (see entry). Secular Jews understand mitsvot as folkways, traditions, or social rules of greater or lesser importance (see Halakha and Aggada). Yet, everyone acknowledges mitsvot as the cultural language by which Jews identify themselves, preserve continuity with their past, and prepare for the future.

             The following mitsvot are explained elsewhere: shabbat, tefilla, talmud Torah, and shalom. A few more will be explained here. Each has its “reasons” yet these reasons are afterthoughts; it is the actual practice that counts, much as it is the use of a language that counts, not the knowledge of its grammar.

             Kosher (noun, kashrut) is the term used to designate food which is acceptable according to the tradition. The rules of kashrut may be stated simply as follows: (1) There are certain animals mentioned in the Torah (see entry) which traditional Jews just do not eat such as horses, pigs, seafood, insects, and certain birds. We do not know why these animals are forbidden, though some of them are animals of prey while others are “creeping things”; one just does not eat them. (2) The animals one may eat such as cows, sheep, goats, and many birds must be slaughtered in a special way that provides for a fast and painless death. At the same time shehita, proper slaughter, allows the blood to drain from the body because the Torah teaches that one may not eat or drink blood, it being the “lifeblood” of all living things. The mode of slaughter is to sever the carotid artery and vein, together with the windpipie and esophagus, in one motion with an extra sharp knife. Following this teaching, one may not shoot an animal, kill it with a sledgehammer, chop off its head, or tear it to pieces, and then eat it. One may not, for the same reason, eat an animal that has been hunted. Birds are considered meat and must be properly slaughtered. Fish are not considered meat but only fish with scales and fins may be eaten; there is no special way to kill a fish. (3) Food which is meat or made with meat products (gravy, animal grease) may not be mixed with milk or food which is made with milk (cheese, cream, butter). One may not even cook meat dishes in pots that are used for milk dishes, and vica versa; or serve meat dishes on milk plates, and vica versa. Pareve is the term that designates that which is neither meat nor milk such as vegetables.

             The rules of kashrut are actually very complicated and Jews have organizations which supervise the preparation of food products. A traditional Jew, therefore, need only know a few rules and then buy food products that are labeled kosher. If one has a question, one asks a competent authority. Keeping kosher is no more difficult than adhering to any other diet, except that one keeps kosher as a service to God and/or as a way of expressing one’s Jewish identity.

             Jewish holidays are also mitsvot. Since the Jewish calendar is a combination of the lunar year (354 days) and the solar year (365 1/4 days),  Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year does not occur on the same day of the Christian calendar every year; it usually occurs during September. Rosh Hashana is a day of judgement for the Jewish people; one’s sins and one’s merits are summed up and the judgement on them begins on Rosh Hashana. It is, therefore, a solemn day, a day of acknowledging God’s kingship over the entire universe. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is the tenth day after Rosh Hashana. Before and on Yom Kippur, we do teshuva, repentance; that is, Jews consider their deeds, acknowledge their sins, regret having done them, and resolve not to commit them again. On Yom Kippur, one’s sins are weighed and, since religious Jews believe that there is a directly proportional relationship between one’s deeds and one’s life path, Jews believe that a decision is reached on Yom Kippur about one’s life for the coming year. Yom Kippur, however, does not atone for sins committed against one’s fellow human beings unless one has asked forgiveness directly from those whom one has wronged; only then, one can ask forgiveness from God for sins committed against fellow persons.

            Sukkot, Tabernacles usually occurs during October. Religious Jews build booths which are temporary shelters and eat, socialize, and study in them (some even sleep in them) for eight days. These sukkot (singular, sukka) remind Jews of the temporary dwellings in which they lived while in the desert. They also recall the temporary nature of all life and bring to mind the blessings of the harvest season. On Sukkot one also takes the lulav and the etrog -- a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow twigs, and a lemon-like fruit -- recites a blessing over them and waves them in the six directions of the sphere (forward, right, behind, left, up, and down) to proclaim God as king in all the directions of creation.

            Pesach, Passover occurs in the spring. Religious Jews do not eat foods that have been leavened, that is, that have had the time to rise when baked or which contain natural or artificial foodstuffs that cause them to rise. Jews do eat  matsa (sometimes spelled, mazzah) which, being unleavened, reminds Jews of the poor bread eaten by their ancestors when they were slaves in Egypt. Matsa was also the bread which the Jews baked when, in a hurry, they left Egypt; it is, therefore, also the bread of freedom. In addition, Jews eat maror, bitter herbs to remind them of the bitterness of slavery. And in the days when the temple stood and sacrifices were still made, Jews sacrificed the paschal lamb, whose blood protected them when God “passed over” their houses during the last plague. Pesach commemorates the redemption of the Jews from slavery in Egypt; it also calls to mind the blessings of springtime.


            Shavu’ot, Pentacost occurs in late spring. There are no special mitsvot for Shavu’ot; however, many Jews eat only milk foodstuffs for part or all of the holiday. Shavu’ot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the harvesting of the first fruits.

            Hanuka is the holiday commemorating the victory of the Jews, the Maccabees, over the Syrian Greeks who had been ruling Eretz Yisrael (see entry) from 201 - 165 B.C.E. In a successful guerilla war, the Jews forced the Syrian Greeks out of Jerusalem and were able to repurify the temple which had been profaned. The rededication ceremony, which involved lighting the great menora, candlelabra took eight days and we light our own menorot for that period of time. It is also the custom of some Jews to exchange gifts on Hanuka which usually occurs in December.

            Purim is the holiday, based on the book of Esther, which commemorates the victory of the Jews over Haman, an evil courtier who had plotted to exterminate all the Jews in the kingdom of Ahasuerus. It is customary to read the book of Esther and to make merry on Purim; it usually occurs in March.

            Tisha B’av, the ninth of Av is the holiday that commemorates the destruction of both temples (586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and 70 C.E. by the Romans). Tisha B’av has also become the day for national mourning for all the tragedies of Jewish history, including the crusades and the holocaust. It is customary to read the book of Lamentations, to recite various elegies, and to fast.

            Tsedaka, charity (sometimes spelled, Zedaka) is an important mitsva. By giving tsedaka we share our blessings with others. There are two types of tsedaka: giving a small donation to various Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and giving a large donation to various organizations. The former is spontaneous giving for the sake of giving. The latter represents a commitment to community responsibility; it is a kind of voluntary tax. A related mitsva is that of gemilut hasadim, doing kind deeds: visiting the sick, caring for the aged, preparing the dead for burial, comforting the mourners, and generally being helpful to those who need it. This is a tsedaka of acts.

            There are a whole series of mitsvot that pertain to the lifecycle of the Jew. A male child is circumcized at birth as a sign of his admittance into the corporeal covenant of the Jewish people; a female child is appropriately named. At thirteen, a boy celebrates his bar mitsva and at twelve a girl celebrates her bat mitsva as a sign of their being admitted to the adult Jewish community. The bar or bat mitsva usually is preceded by a period of study (and should be followed by another period of study) and the young person participates in the communal religious ritual. At an appropriate time, young Jewish people are expected to marry and have children, for it is in the institution of marriage and children that the continuity of the Jewish people is embodied; without children and their education in the family, there will be no future Jewish community. Reproduction and education are very positive mitsvot. When the time comes to die, every Jew must be buried and mourned. Jewish burial requires a very simple casket and the community is supposed to fill in the grave of the deceased as a last sign of respect. Mourning involves staying at home, receiving the comfort of the community, reciting prayers, and speaking of the deceased. Mourning rites are more severe for parents than for other loved ones.

            For religious Jews, each of these mitsvot is an opportunity for avoda, for service to God; each mitsva is a gateway to kedusha, to holiness, through Torah and halakha (see entries). For secular Jews, each of these mitsvot is an opportunity for identification with the Jewish people and its rich tradition of deeds; each is an expression of Jewishness in its most profound sense.

            There are several patterns of behavior that are not technically mitsvot but, since they are widely observed by contemporary committed Jews, they deserve to be mentioned: Political activism is a very important mitsva. Jews devote serious time, energy, and money to the security of the Jewish people wherever they are; this is especially true since the holocaust (see Sho’ah). Similarly, observing Yom haSho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom haAtsma’ut, Israeli Independence Day is a mitsva for committed Jews today for reasons explained elsewhere (see Sho’ah and Eretz Yisrael). Going on a mission to Israel to see what is being done with the funds raised in the diaspora is another mitsva for serious Jews today. Most important, belonging, identifying oneself as a Jew, as a member of the Jewish people -- and the converse: never denying that one is Jewish -- is an important pair of mitsvot for committed contemporary Jews.




             Regular rest is one of the great gifts of God and Judaism to the world. In a society in which people are subject to pressures just to accomplish the daily tasks of living, shabbat is a deep blessing. Not to answer the phone, to be free of the car, to be isolated from the television set, not to open one’s mail, to be free from one’s word processor -- independent of any positive actions one may take -- is rest from the work of creating order out of the chaos of life.

             Shabbat is the term for the day on which God rested from God’s work and, hence, the day on which Jews rest from their work. “Sabbath” is a hellenized form of the Hebrew, “shabbat,” the Greek language having no “sh” sound and rendering the final Hebrew letter of the word as “th” rather than the current form “t.”

             The idea of shabbat is rooted in the narrative of creation. According to the Torah (see entry), God was the sole force that existed prior to the universe. God, then, in God’s lordly power, brought the universe into being. Some take the narrative more literally than others but religious Jews accept that God is, one way or another, the ultimate majestic cause of the existence of the world. At the end of creation, God rested, setting aside the seventh day as a day of rest for all God’s creatures. By contrast, shabbat is also rooted in the idea of slavery, for a slave has no rest; a slave has no shabbat. Observing the shabbat reminds us of the Creator, of creation, and of its opposite, slavery.

             The idea of shabbat is also grounded in history for, when the Jews came out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert and had nothing to eat, God gave them the manna. For six days, the manna could be eaten only on the day it was gathered but, on the sixth day, a double portion was collected so that the Jews would have enough to eat without having to go out and gather manna on shabbat. From that first seventh day, the reckoning of shabbat has been constant for, while there have been calendrical schisms in Jewish history over the dating of the holidays, there has never been a disagreement over which day of the week was shabbat; rather, each generation educates the next to the regular recurrence of shabbat. The tradition of which day is the Sabbath is one of the oldest living traditions of humankind.

             God’s being the Creator of the universe and God’s resting on shabbat implies that humankind, too, has a dual relationship to creation. On the one hand, humanity is commanded to subdue nature, to rule over creation (Genesis 1:28). This means that there is a positive commandment to acquire knowledge of the universe, to understand the workings of creation, to extend our knowledge of the laws of nature as far as possible. It also means that there is a positive commandment to use nature for the betterment of humankind. Creation is not holy in and of itself; it is created, it fits into the will of the Creator Who has commanded us to use nature to our own benefit. Knowledge and use of creation are values inherent in God’s creatorship and rest.

             On the other hand, humanity is set into a reciprocal relationship with creation. We are commanded to serve it and to guard it (Genesis 2:15). We are charged by the Creator to be the stewards of creation, just as we are empowered to be its masters. This means that we cannot waste creation, we cannot uselessly or thoughtlessly exploit it even in our own interests. Ecology is also a value inherent in God’s creatorship and rest.

             Shabbat, therefore, is a time to recall creation and our dual relationship to it. Shabbat is a time to withdraw from society and reestablish contact with creation, to put into perspective our mastering of creation and to contemplate serving and guarding it. Shabbat is a time to think of ourselves as creatures, as well as masters. shabbat is a time to remember science and ecology, to ponder the blessings of human knowledge of nature together with the dangers of pollution especially its ultimate form of nuclear war.

             Shabbat is also a time for spiritual renewal. It is a time for talmud Torah (see Torah), a time to return to the sources through study. Shabbat is a time to renew one’s contact with Am Yisrael (see entry), to touch base with and strengthen one’s ties to the Jewish community. It is also a time to pause and turn one’s attention to Hashem (see entry), to come once again into the presence of God. For these reasons, religious Jews go to synagogue on shabbat. There, one can meet with the community and hear what is going on. There, one can read the Torah and study. There, one can enter the presence of God in community.

             For the same reasons, religious Jews turn toward their families on shabbat. One dresses specially for shabbat; one eats in the dining room on one’s best china; the food is specially prepared. Since one has no distraction from television, shabbat is a time for family talk, for visiting with friends, for sleep, and for rest. It is also a time to share rest with others, to acknowledge one’s common separation from society and from contemporary culture. Shabbat is a time to feel different, to share this difference with others, and to enjoy it.

             Religious Jews follow the halakha (see entry) of shabbat and refrain from those types of work which the halakha specifies. There are many types of work and the rules are complicated, but one learns them as one learns a language -- naturally, slowly; one grows into the rules, as one grows into any cultural system. The rules for not working on shabbat can be simply put as follows: One does not transact business, even household affairs. One does not do work that creates something new or changes the status of something already existing. One abstains from the active use of electricity and various means of transportation. In addition, one actively goes to the community and family to visit, to discuss community happenings, to study, to eat, and to pray.

             Secular Jews also observe shabbat, even those who do not accept the creatorship of God. For them, shabbat is a time of rest and recreation; of visiting, of leisure, and of culture. One listens to music, visits friends, goes to the country or the beach, pursues one’s hobbies, or just walks, reads, and rests.

             Most important, shabbat recurs regularly. Whatever its message and meaning, shabbat comes each week.




             Shalom, peace is the word used to say “hello” and to say “goodbye”; it is the basic word of greeting. Shalom is also the word one uses to justify doing that which one really does not want to do but which one must do in order to keep the people around one in a state of relative harmony. That is the first meaning of shalom, peace: Shalom is doing what one doesn’t want to do in order to preserve relative harmony with the people around one. In this sense, shalom means cease-fire, truce, coexistence. In this sense, shalom is functional, realistic.

             The classic moral example is in the Torah (see entry): When God announces the birth of Isaac to Sarah, she laughs and says, “After I have become worn out, shall I know pleasure? And my husband is old!” In the very next verse, God reports this conversation to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Shall I truly give birth since I am old?’” (Gen. 18:12-13) The commentaries noticed immediately that God changed Sarah’s intent, that God lied, and they respond that, for the sake of shalom in the home, God told an untruth. The other classic examples are in the Talmud (see Halakha and Aggada) where whole lists of actions are prescribed “for the sake of the ways shalom.”

             Political peace is shalom in this sense -- a series of compromises that one must make in order to preserve some harmony with one’s neighbors and enemies. Many Jews, in the State of Israel and outside, feel that shalom requires the acknowledgement of the rights of Palestinians, as persons and as a people. These Jews know that shalom will mandate doing what Jews do not want to do -- yielding territory and running certain security risks -- yet they realize that, to preserve some relative harmony among the people who occupy Eretz Yisrael (see entry), this is necessary; such are the exigencies and the nature of shalom. These Jews recognize, too, that Palestinians must share this vision of peace for, in this conceptuality, no one gets everything, yet all get something; in this perspective, everyone has do that which he or she does not want to do, but some larger if partial harmony is achievable through the process of shalom.

             Shalom in one’s family and one’s business enviroment, shalom in one’s social and communal circles, and shalom in one’s political milieu are all fragmentary, temporary, but realistic, rooted in compromise. Such shalom is never totally satisfying, but it works -- for a while -- and it is worth having. Religious and secular Jews share this definition of peace.

             There is a second sense to shalom, an ideal meaning: Shalom is a way of life that fulfills all one’s deepest yearnings for physical and spiritual wholeness. In this sense, shalom is much broader; it is utopian, visionary. This shalom is not realistic; it is a hope. For Jews, this ultimate shalom is embodied in two concepts: messiah and the world-to-come.

             In Jewish tradition, the mashiah, messiah is a human being, a male descendant of the line of King David. He will reunite all of Am Yisrael (see entry) in Eretz Yisrael (see entry) and will establish there a Davidic monarchy. This fourth commonwealth (see Eretz Yisrael and History) will last forever. The renewed monarchy will be characterized by justice and fairness -- for Jews and for non-Jews -- and the spirit of this justice will radiate forth from Zion. The messiah will also rebuild the temple in Jerusalem which will be the capital of the messianic kingdom and there will be a renewal of the presence of God in the temple, in the messianic king, and among the people.

             Beyond this, there is little agreement about the messiah-time. Some say it will be preceded by the resurrection of the dead while others say the resurrection will follow the coming of the messiah. Some say the messiah-time will be preceded by apocalyptic wars, good against evil, with the fate of humankind in the balance. Some say the dead will be healed and people will no longer have to work while others teach that the messianic period will be very much like historical time except that Jews will no longer be subject to foreign domination.

             All agree that, when the messiah comes, life will be better. Other religions will continue; not everyone will become Jewish. Other nations, too, will continue to exist. The world will not be faultless but there will be peace -- in the sense of coexistence but also in a deeper spiritual sense. There will be the opportunity to live one’s life again in the active presence of God and God’s messenger.

             Secular Jews do not accept the idea of a Davidic kingdom as the ultimate utopia; however, they do accept the idea of a better world. “Messiah-time” is an ideal toward which humanity must always strive, for it is through the efforts of human beings working toward practical shalom that ultimate shalom will come about.[9]

             Olam haba, the world-to-come exists after death. Religious Jews believe that there is some aspect of human being that transcends nature as we know it and that this aspect (some call it “soul”) goes on to a different life after this one. Religious Jews differ on the nature of life after death. Some teach that there is active punishment of the wicked while others maintain that there is no active punishment for the wicked, just a winking out of existence. Some teach that the righteous study Torah with God into eternity while others believe that there is an abstract bliss for the righteous. For religious Jews, death is not the ultimate meaning of life; furthermore, elementary justice requires that the unpaid evil committed in this world be requited in another. Olam haba brings shalom; it balances the books of moral existence fairly and hence in a peace-ful way.

             Most secular Jews do not believe in Olam haba in any of its traditional forms. Some believe that there is a continuity of life force, perhaps a return to the cosmic source of all energy; but there is no recompense for evil or good. This, too, is shalom though in a different way. For both secular and religious Jews, a person lives on in the deeds and teachings she or he leaves behind.

             Ethical living, tikkun haolam is the process of seeking shalom. Compromise does not always bring peace; yearning for physical and spiritual wholeness does not always bring shalom. But ethical living does. Tikkun haolam is looking as deeply as one can to the total context of what one is about to do -- looking to the tradition, listening to the persons, examining the situation, sensing the presence of God -- and then acting in the most informed, most faith-ful manner one can. Ethics is not the skill of living as close to the unethical as possible; it is the art of living as close to the holy as possible. Ethics is not figuring out the proper rule for any given situation; it is determining how any given action will bring one and one’s environment closer to the presence of God. Tikkun haolam keeps the compromise of shalom from being unethical.

             There are many things we do for tikkun haolam: We don’t enforce laws that appear unjust and we do enforce others so that there will be justice. We protect property and collect charity. We protect the environment and we love the unloved.

             The rabbis say that student-sages

multiply peace in the world. How do they do this? By talmud Torah (see Torah), for study enables people to differentiate, to delineate, to separate. Splitting hairs brings shalom because, after splitting hairs, one can agree in part, and disagree about another constituent, and agree to disagree with yet another aspect of the situation; after hair-splitting, one can agree in general and disagree in specifics, or agree in general and with some specifics and disagree with others. Shalom implies talmud Torah and tikkun haolam.



             “Sho’ah” is the Hebrew term used to designate “the holocaust.” Sho’ah refers to the systematic murder of 6,000,000 Jews by the Nazis during the second world war. Although there were many, many more people killed in the war and many more murdered as part of the shoah, Jews reserve the term for the organized extermination of the Jews of Europe.

             It is hard for us, a scant three generations from the shoah, to imagine that it happened. Every moral fiber in us as human beings rebels against the possibility that one people would systematically murder every member of another people. For Jews every ounce of self-pride rebels against the idea that someone would methodically murder every one of our kind for no reason other than our birth. Yet the shoah did happen. Three elements of the holocaust stand out.

             First, it was total: Not only able-bodied men but women, not only the elderly but  children were murdered. Why murder children? Why not just bring them up with a false identity? Yet 1,500,000 children were exterminated; infants were treated with special cruelty in this annihilation. There was no escape. Had the Nazis won the war, there would be no Jews at all anywhere in Europe. The term genocide is used to describe the total annihilation of another people, although the word is often misused to describe other mass killings and even to communicate severe cultural repression.

             Second, the motive was Jew hatred: The mere fact of being born a Jew was enough to condemn a person to death. Jews were not killed because they were economic oppressors (many Jews were poor), nor because of their religion (completely secular Jews were exterminated along with religious Jews). Conversion to Christianity did not protect Jews. Wealth, power, piety -- nothing helped. Jews were killed because they were Jews.

             Third, the shoah was not a pogrom, not an antisemitic riot. Rather, it was a very large scale, very well planned, governmentally sanctioned program. It takes a great deal of thought and organizing to murder 6,000,000 people: they must be gathered, their goods recuperated, their clothing collected, and then they must be killed and their bodies disposed of. This takes organization: transportation to move them, lies to deceive them, mechanisms to kill them, and facilities for disposing of the bodies. It takes trained personnel, too. At one point, the Nazi machine diverted railroad cars needed to evacuate troops from the collapsing eastern front to the deportation of Jews to ghettos and camps. The shoah was an industry, which mercilessly exploited the labor of some and mass-murdered most.

             Ghettos were used to consolidate masses of Jews in one area. In the ghettos, Jews were starved and died of disease. Some were transported to concentration camps where some were put to work in labor camps; most were transshipped to extermination camps where they were stripped, gassed in gas chambers, and burned in crematoria or open pits.

             The shoah has become the central event in Jewish identity-formation in the twentieth century; it will probably remain so well into the twenty-first century. This is because Jews, even those who did not live through the shoah, identify with the victims and the survivors. Every Jew knows that, but for the grace of God / the accident of time and place, he or she would have been among the victims. Every Jew knows, too, that the Jew hatred that motivated the shoah can spring back to active life at a moment’s notice, creating victims of all of us. Every Jew also knows that the world knew what was happening, though some knew less than others, and was silent; hence, Jews believe that they can trust no one, that no non-Jew (except a few very righteous gentiles) will come to their defense in the event of a recurrence of shoah-type conditions. Simply put, the Jewish people lives in the shadow of the shoah; Jews remain haunted by the holocaust.

             The shoah has become the symbol of our century, a paradigm for many of its evils. First, the shoah is the paradigm for Jew hatred, for that ancient hatred of Jews cultivated over the centuries by popular storytelling, as well as by Christian and Islamic teaching. Second, the shoah is the paradigm for racism, for the hatred of the other who is quintessentially different. Third, the shoah is the paradigm for helplessness, for there was almost nothing one could do. Other lands refused to take Jewish refugees; the allies refused to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria; the Nazis were unbelievably cruel -- morally as well as physically; and the individual, once caught up in the system, could do very little.

             Fourth, the shoah is the paradigm of passive evil, of lack of resistance, of allowing evil to happen, of going along with evil. The shoah is the embodiment of the banality of evil. Germans looked on and did nothing; the allies looked on and did nothing; the church looked on and did nothing; the labor unions and the medical and the legal professions looked on and did nothing; mental health professionals, educators, academics, soldiers, journalists, artists, politicians; the common people and the elite -- all looked on and did nothing. Even the Jewish community of America and Palestine looked on and did practically nothing. This passivity in the face of evil has created a strong sense of guilt, even for those who were not alive during the shoah. This is called  anticipatory guilt, and it motivates many Jews to be hypervigilant in matters that affect the security of Jews anywhere in the world.

             Fifth, the shoah is the paradigm for moral resistance, for there were a few thousand who did act to save Jews, who did resist the pressure of the Nazi regime and ideology, who did rebel against the banality of evil. The world tries to purge itself morally by pointing to these righteous gentiles, but the world cannot be let off the hook so easily. Each person must ask himself or herself: Had I been there, would I have conformed or would I have resisted? And each person must know that the odds are overwhelming that he or she would have conformed, not resisted.

             For many Jews, the utter helplessness of the Jews during the shoah is counterbalanced by the power of the State of Israel. The shoah did not create Medinat Yisrael (see entry); the State of Israel grew out of cold war politics, not European and American guilt. But Medinat Yisrael has come to symbolize the will of the Jewish people to resist being again in the position of complete helplessness. It is not true that the State of Israel could save any threatened Jewish community anywhere in the world, but it is an inner belief that the State of Israel would try, or at least avenge, any future shoah.

             One of the more insidious forms of Jew hatred is anti-Zionism, the opposition to the existence and legitimacy of Medinat Yisrael. Anti-Zionism strikes at the root of Jewish identity for it seeks to deprive the Jew of the only tool Jews have to protect, or avenge, themselves of another shoah. Anti-Zionism seeks to undermine the claim of the Jewish people to a secure existence in a very hostile and untrustworthy world. Anti-Zionism is, thus, another form of antisemitism, of Jew hatred. Naturally, one can criticize the policies of any government of the State of Israel (Jews in and out of Medinat Yisrael regularly criticize government policies there) but anti-Zionism undermines the very legitimacy of the State of Israel; it is a foreshadowing of another shoah.

             Denial of the holocaust is a growing trend, for there are those who claim that the shoah did not happen; or, more insidiously, that it did happen but it was not so bad. Deniers claim that the Jews fabricated the history of the shoah. Increasingly, they demand that their arguments, “the other side,” be given an open hearing. Denial is a denial of history; it is a distortion of the record about which the Nazis bragged openly. Denial is a psychopathological phenomenon, a new and particularly vicious form of Jew hatred.

             The holocaust has become the object of much literature, instruction, museum work, and memorialization. Some of this is a profanation of the shoah. The holocaust has also become the accepted label for any kind of mistreatment or disaster, even for political persecution. This, too, is a demeaning of the holocaust. The shoah is what it was -- the systematic extermination of the whole Jewish population of Nazi dominated Europe, because they were Jews. Its reality cannot be fully conveyed, and its meaning simply cannot be fathomed. “Lessons” must be drawn from the shoah with great caution. For Jews, the main “lessons” are: the world really hates us, only because we are Jews; and, we must always act to protect ourselves as best we can, no one will help us. For the world in general, Jews believe that the main “lessons” are: evil, particularly in its most banal forms, must be resisted actively; and, Jew hatred must be resisted with great force, for it is the doorway to genocidal racism.



             The word “Torah” means “teaching” and it encompasses a wide range of other terms and meanings:

             Tanakh[10] constitutes the twenty-four books of the Bible, known in English as the “Old Testament” or the “Hebrew Bible.” Consisting of literature from the 18th century to the 5th century B.C.E.,[11] the Tanakh comprises the authoritative repository of story, law, ethical teaching, and poetry from the earliest moments of Jewish civilization.

             Torah is the term within Tanakh for the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. The scroll on which the Torah is written is also called a Torah. A Torah scroll is always treated with extreme respect: it is stored in a special ark in a synagogue; it is taken out and moved in procession around the synagogue before and after one reads from it liturgically; it is read from regularly in the synagogue; and when it is no longer usable, it is buried in a cemetery.

             Midrash is the term which designates: (1) an interpretation of a particular term, verse, or group of verses; (2) the very process of interpretation; and (3) an anthology of such interpretations. There are many kinds of midrash though, usually, midrash is an interpretation generated by juxtaposing words, phrases, or verses such that a new meaning is engendered. The process of explicating the “simple” meaning of the text is usually called peirush, or commentary, as distinguished from midrash which is more interpretive, or hermeneutical, in thrust. In both processes, there exists a very active dialectic between the reader and the text; an intertextual fabric is woven from the threads of the depth and complexity of the text and the intelligence, sensitivity, and imagination of the reader.

             Talmud Torah means the study of Torah in any of its genres: law, ethics, narrative, or poetry. The process of study is itself a commandment; hence, study is a religious, as well as an intellectual, act. Talmud Torah is a form of worship, of communion with God. As a religious act, talmud Torah evokes for us the presence of God experienced in the texts, as well as in the very process of exploring those texts. Study is also the exercise of the mind to its fullest. It is the stretching of the intellect and understanding, as these apply to sacred texts and situations. Study also creates the tension between text and tradition, between the reader and that which is read. Talmud Torah, thus, is one of the most important religious activitiesin Judaism; it is the place where the Jew and God meet -- mind to Mind and Presence to presence. Talmid chacham (student sage) is the term used for someone who studies; rabbi is the term used for someone whose study has progressed to the point where that person’s interpretations are regarded as authoritative by the tradition and its community. The Talmud is a study collection in the genre of law (see Halakha and Aggada).

             Torah, thus, has many meanings within the broad signification of “teaching.” First, it means instruction, such as that given to explain the proper procedures for cultic ceremonies. Second, it means law in the sense of instruction that is binding, as in the ethical, criminal, and civil codes. Third, it means that which is revealed. In this sense, three concentric circles are intended: (1) the whole Torah given by Moses to the Jewish people before his death, including the Torah given on Mt. Sinai;[12] (2) the later prophetic and inspired books; and (3) much of the long interpretive tradition which accompanies the canonized sacred texts. The term written Torah applies to Tanakh (the Torah, the prophets, and the holy writings) while the term oral Torah applies to the accumulated interpretive tradition on Tanakh. Jewish tradition assigns the term revelation only to the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), while the prophets and holy writings are said to be prophecy or to be written in (or with) the holy spirit. This has the effect of giving greater authority to the Torah than to the prophets or other holy writings which, in turn, makes the provisions of the Torah more binding as law or covenant than the provisions contained in the rest of Tanakh.

             For religious Jews, the Torah is the word of God; the rest of Tanakh is that too, though to a lesser degree. Every Jew is enjoined to study Torah; however, authoritative interpretations share the status of the word of God. The tradition is vast; it is a sea; one really needs to study it full-time for a lifetime in order to probe its depths. For secular Jews (see Am Yisrael), Torah, Tanakh, and the accumulated tradition are literary expressions of the spirit of the people. All are part of Jewish culture; all are studied as part of the history of the Jewish people. For secular Jews, talmud Torah is the ideological and academic study of all the products of Jewish civilization, though Torah and Tanakh retain a special place of importance as the primary, founding documents of the Jewish people.

             Torah, then, encompasses sacred scriptures, the actual scroll of the Torah, and the accumulated narrative, legal, ethical, and poetic teachings of the tradition. A Jew without Torah is like a fish out of water, for Torah is the spiritual and intellectual substance of our self-definition. Torah nourishes our personal and national spiritual lives. It provides religious, ritual, ethical, and intellectual guidance. Torah is the living waters from which Jews drink. Hence, a Jew would risk his or her life, or even die, for Torah and would find it very, very painful to see a Torah scroll or other sacred books destroyed. The image of burning books and Torah scrolls is one of the searing images of the holocaust[13] (see entry) for such an act represents an attempt to wipe out that which is at the spiritual and intellectual core of our identity.


[1] On pronunciation, cf. Torah, note 1. The adjective of halakha is “halakhic” and of aggada is “aggadic.”

[2] As a matter of theological principle, I try to capitalize only words referring to God; hence, “temple” and not “Temple,” “messiah” and not “Messiah,” “shabbat” and not “Shabbat,” “talmud Torah” and not “Talmud Torah,” etc.

[3] Some Jews do not even write out the name “God” in English; hence, “G-d” or “Gd.” This does not appear to be required by halakha (see entry).

[4] For this reason, Jews who apostasize are not granted citizenship as Jews in the secular State of Israel.

[5] On B.C.E. and C.E. , see Torah, note 2. For a slightly different periodization, see Eretz Yisrael.

[6] The year 1993 C.E. is 5753 A.M.

[7] The dates given below are debated by scholars; I give the consensus as I understand it.

[8] * indicates an especially important moment.

[9] There are some religious Jews who share this view too.

[10] The phoneme “kh” (sometimes written “ch”) is pronounced as in the German “Loch.”

[11] B.C.E. = Before the Common Era, contrasted with C.E. = the Common Era. The usual Christian designations, B.C. = Before Christ and A.D. = Anno Domini (the year of our Lord), are inappropriate for Jewish usage.

[12] Modern literary critics point to the various layers of the Torah, some later than Moses. However, later Jewish tradition (and perhaps even late biblical tradition) understood the five books of Moses to form a whole, and they are so presented here.

[13] It is my custom for theological reasons to capitalize only words pertaining to God or nouns of books and festivals.