Basic Judaism Essay
My interpretation of Basic Judaism by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, and my own opinion of what it means to me to be a Jew
(NOTE: This was written in 1996, and my ideas may have changed considerably since then).
In his book, Milton Steinberg talks about what Judaism is. He talks about the different components of Judaism, and how they apply to life.
First, Milton Steinberg talks about the Ten Commandments. These are the basic rules that Jews are supposed to follow. The Ten Commandments set the rules for us, tell us what weíre supposed to do, and what we shouldnít do. They are a set of moral and ethical guide lines. Most basically, they tell us to love God and love each other. If we follow these rules, these Commandments, then we will be obeying God. We will be doing our duty as Jews.
Secondly, Milton Steinberg talks about the Torah. What is the Torah? The Torah is the Jewish holy book. It is a written account of what has happened since the creation of the world as we know it, to the death of Moses. It tells about the history of the Jews, and the covenant they have with God. The Torah is very important in the Jewish religion. In fact, it is one of its most basic characteristics. To quote from Milton Steinberg, "Judaism is a book religion, deriving from, centering about, and making explicit the contents of a sacred document." The Torah contains most of the basic teachings of Judaism, such as the Ten Commandments. Although it doesnít contain everything, it is the most important book in the Jewish religion. But it is not just a book, it stands for something too. The Torah stands for the history and the identity of the Jewish people.
Then Milton Steinberg addresses the issue of God. Judaism is a monotheistic religion. Rabbi Steinberg goes through a great deal to make this point: Judaism believes in only one God. First of all, there is one God, not many. He says this, to distinguish between Judaism and the other earlier religions, which are known as polytheistic. There is one God, not two. This is to distinguish between Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Apparently, it was very important to point out that these two religions are very different. Then, there is one God, not three. This is to distinguish Judaism from Christianity, and the Christian beliefs of the Holy Trinity. Last but not least, there is one God, not none. This is to defend Judaism from modern atheism. Now, after all this, just what is God? What does Rabbi Steinberg say God is ? According to Judaism, God is the divine creator of the universe. He created the universe, and he created all life, as is told in the Book of Genesis in the Torah. God is our creator, and God has made a covenant with the Jews. We are to obey a special set of laws he has given to us, and he will protect us. God is all-powerful, and God controls the world. But God does not control human thought and human action. He created us with the freedom of choice. He is a guide to us, and he has given us rules to follow to help us, and guide us on our path to be good, and righteous people.
The next thing Milton Steinberg talks about is practise. The things, the rituals and other activities, that Jew preform as part of their lives. The actions of being a Jew. First of all, God has given people the power of choice. We alone decide to be either good or evil. To chose the good things, to actively obey Godís Commandments, is one of the most basic practises required of a Jew. Also, there are other things, like prayer. Prayer is a great part of Jewish life. There are prayers for everything. Prayer is thanking God for what he has given us, what he has made possible. There are also holidays, to celebrate important events. But not all holidays are just fun and games kind of thing. Many of them are serious. And they all are very significant. Another thing, is special practises. Jews only eat kosher meat. And we donít mix meat and dairy foods. Traditional Jews also dress in special ways. And we celebrate the Sabbath.
The next thing Milton Steinberg talks about is the "world to come". All people eventually will be judged by God. What happens to them depends on how they have lived their lives. If they have been bad people, then they will be punished. If they have been good people, then they will be rewarded. But, and Rabbi Steinberg makes it quite clear, Judaism doesnít have such a concrete idea of heaven. And, it doesnít have the idea of "hell". There is a Kingdom of the Lord, and it is a wonderful place. But it is not described as some earthly, sensual paradise.
Although Milton Steinberg actually talks about this before talking about the "world to come", I want to mention it last here, to sum things up. I think this is a very major point. What is the role of Jews in the world? Jews are the Chosen people of the Lord. It is our duty to set an example for everyone else, show them what to do and how to be righteous. The Jews are not a single nation, rather, they are a relatively small multitude of people scattered all over the world. To be a Jew has nothing to do with ethnic group, culture, or nationality. Judaism is a religion, a set of beliefs and a way of life. However, all through history, the Jews have been united by their faith. They have frequently been persecuted and killed. But they have remained strong. Jews are a minority in the world today. But it is their duty to set an example for everyone else.
According to Rabbi Milton Steinberg, there are two different kinds of Jews. There is the modernist, and the traditionalist.
According to Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the traditionalist is rather rigid. She/ he believes that Judaism was perfect when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, and any changes or improvisations made will make it imperfect. They believe that the traditional ways are essential. All the customs and rituals must be observed. The commandments and rules in the Torah, they believe, must be followed exactly as they are said in the Torah. And they believe, on the most part, that the Torah is to be interpreted literally. The believe that the laws must be obeyed very strictly.
The modernist is much more liberal. The modernist believes that Judaism is like a living thing, it must be adapted to new circumstances and new situations. Change is constant, and Judaism has changed over time to adapt to the changes society has undergone. The modernist believes, also, that the laws in the Torah arenít supposed to be strictly observed. They donít believe that to break one of them means that theyíll be punished. The modernist also believes that the Torah can be deciphered in many different ways, it isnít to be taken literally. Also, they believe that the Torah was written by a number of different people over time. Unlike the traditionalists, who believe that the Torah was revealed to Moses while he was up on Mount Sinai, and then he immediately wrote it down, or dictated it to some one. The modernist is a lot more open to new ideas and approaches.
This basically sums up how I understand Rabbi Milton Steinbergís book Basic Judaism . Now, after this, what are my own ideas about being a Jew? a
These aspects of Judaism apply most to daily life. At least, for me they do, because Iím not an active member of any synagogue or Jewish community.
First of all, what do the Ten Commandments mean to me? I believe that these are the rules that I must follow. These are the basic guidelines for my life, showing me whatís right and whatís wrong. I donít think that theyíre rigid laws. I see them as guidance to help me to do whatís right. I believe that itís very important to obey them.
The next thing is the Torah. As I believe, the Torah is a sacred text. I think, as a Jew, itís very important to read it. Itís our history, it helps give us a sense of who we are. We were there all along, weíre somebody. The Torah helps me to understand more the question, just what is a Jew? Who am I? I donít think it should be taken completely literally. But it shouldnít be looked at as simply stories and prophecies and nothing more. The Torah is very important to me, I think I will learn a great deal if I read it all. I should read it. But, also, I believe that the other sacred texts of the other religions are very important. No one text is complete. The Torah in its self is not the whole picture, it is only part. To see the whole picture, I believe that I must read the sacred texts of the other religions too.
I believe that there is a God, a divine being who created this universe. I donít believe that this being is a masculine being. For complicated reasons, I believe that if God were either masculine or feminine, God would be feminine. This is because women posses the ability to have children. Women do most of the work in creating new life. So I prefer to call God "She" or "Her". I believe that God created this universe, and created a great plan. We are all part of that plan. God is our creator, so we owe God our obedience. God is like a parent, always looking out for us, and guiding us down the right path. Judaismís concept of God is simply that God is, and God is all powerful. I find this compatible with all the other religions. I believe that there is only one God, one divine power. All the other religions worship this same power. Polytheistic religions, too. They find it more suitable to divide God up into separate deities. This suits their culture more, and makes the concept of God more acceptable. Sometimes the idea of one single all powerful being is too awesome to comprehend. But all religions believe in the same God. There is only one God.
The next thing is practise. I believe, like Steinbergís modernists, that Judaism isnít meant to be taken as a strict code of life. I believe that prayer is the most important of all the practises. Prayer in all forms, such as talking to God out loud or silently; reading from sacred texts; formal prayer before meals and on holidays, and at religious services; and meditation. I believe it is also important to celebrate the holiday. But not only the Jewish holidays. Other holidays are important too. However, there is a lot more to practice than just this. Practise, I believe, is actively doing what I know is right, what God wants me to do, to help the world be a better place.
Now, to talk about the "world to come". I am a poet, so I enjoy the ideas of blissful paradise and raging flames. My ideas about this "world to come" have changed quite a bit over time, and I donít think I have a really concrete belief yet. But I do, of course, believe that there is such a "world to come". I believe that death is not the end of existence. The spirit, or soul, leaves the body behind. I believe in reincarnation. But there are other alternatives, too. If a person has done evil things during their life, I donít believe that they are punished afterwards. That idea just doesnít make sense to me. I believe that the people get whatever punishment they deserve while they are still living. I used to believe in a Hell, but not as a terrible place of torture. Rather, and endless expanse of flames, where the soul goes, and all sensual and physical restrictions are scorched away, until nothing is left but the pure soul. Then it is free, and freedom is endless. Freedom is being part of God instead of separated from Her by the barriers of physical reality. Now, I think maybe that idea was a little too idealistic. It seems to be similar to the Catholic idea of Purgatory, but thatís not where I got it from. I believe that there is a lot Beyond, a lot after Death, but I donít know just what it is. Maybe Iím not supposed to know yet.
But, being a Jew, what are my responsibilities? What am I supposed to do in this world? The Jews have a covenant with God, we are the Chosen People. But I believe that all people are equal. Everyone else is equally as important to God. We are the Chosen People, but that doesnít mean we are "better" or more special. It means that God has chosen us to be the leaders, to set an example for all the other peoples of the world. Jews have always stressed education and knowledge. Our role is to be the teachers, and to help guide the other people. They all have their own roles too, and I have my ideas of what those are, but I donít think I need to go into that now. Jews are part of the whole picture, itís very important for us to obey God and bring positive things into this world. Personally, I believe that my duty is to write. I have the ability to feel what it means to be human, really feel it. I need to share this with the rest of the world to help reawaken the other people, who have forgotten what it means to be human. Jews have always been scholars and teachers, we donít have a reputation as imperialists or industrialists. We have a special understanding of the deeper things, we need to help other people return to that.
So, what exactly does it mean to be a Jew? The world is like a tapestry with a beautiful picture on it. Jews and Judaism are only a small part of the big picture. Everyone and everything is connected. Judaism fits in with all the other religions, as far as I can see, it doesnít seem to discredit or denounce them. I believe that to get the whole picture, every religion is just as important as every other. To be a Jew is to believe in God and believe in goodness, and to help bring goodness into the world.