A Discussion of Religion
To visit Israel is to enter a spiritual climate so complex it almost defies understanding. And yet, if understanding is something you value, the journey will be more rewarding than you can possibly imagine. One of the most valuable fruits of this effort will be knowing that you are helping build a bridge between two peoples who have misunderstood one another for a very long time.
Few people care why others believe what they do. This is true of both Jews and Christians. Both have their own preconceived notions of what the other believes and, for the most part, both are wrong.
Judaism in not merely a religion; it is also a people-group, all of whom are descended from a common ancestor (Abraham). That is why one may be Jewish (by ancestry) and yet be a non-religious Jew, rejecting a belief in the God of the Jews.
Within Israel, Jews classify themselves as either religious or non-religious. Although the non-religious make up by far the largest percentage of the population of the country, most remain respectful of the religious among their fellow citizens. A small percentage of the non-religious, mostly in the media and the judiciary, are outspokenly opposed to the religious, blaming the religious for stubbornly dividing their new nation and drawing Israel into religious conflicts which hinder Israel from being taken seriously among the nations of the world.
The following is a somewhat simplistic overview of the various expressions of Judaism:
Orthodox Judaism: This is an umbrella term for what Christians would call Jewish religious fundamentalism. Orthodox Jews believe the Bible is God’s word in outline form only. Because Jewish belief states that a Jew is in right relationship with God only when obeying God’s laws, the Jew must understand how to obey God’s laws. Since most of God’s laws are not detailed enough to explain what obedience means in every situation a Jew may encounter, Jews believe God gave Moses a second set of laws called the Oral Law. This set of laws explained, in detail, how a Jew is to obey the original 613 laws as outlined in the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible). From this explanation, one can see how valuable to the Jew is the Oral Law and why it is considered equal to (if not more valuable then) what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament”. The Oral Law was written down around 200 AD when Jewish dispersion among the nations raised the possibility that this all-important part of Jewish law might become lost to successive generations. The written Oral Law was called Mishnah which means “repetition”. Jews believe that principles of Law are eternal, but means of obedience change over time; therefore, rabbis must continue providing details of how Jews obey the Law as times change. The most comprehensive of these rabbinic rulings appear in the multi-volume Talmud which seeks to explain how a Jew is to respond in every possible situation.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (pl. Haredim): Haredi means “one who trembles” (at God’s word). This movement, originally from Eastern Europe, was a reaction to modern Jewish movements which were seeking to liberalize the meaning of Jewish existence. There are many different sects of Haredim and they can usually be distinguished by differences in dress which defines the rabbi whose teachings they follow. Some do not speak Hebrew in the belief that Hebrew is sacred and not to be used in common speech; others (even those living in Israel) do not accept Israel’s existence because the nation was not founded by religious Jews; yet they seemed to have accepted their homeland for practical reasons.
Hasidic Orthodox Judaism: Hasidic means “piety” or “loving-kindness” and has been described by Christians as the Jewish charismatic movement. Hasidism grew out of a reaction to what was considered dry obedience to law and introduced the idea of God’s presence into all aspects of one’s life which would inevitably lead to a more expressive, emotional relationship of worship.
Kabbalistic Orthodox Judaism: Kabbalah means “receiving/tradition” and is the most esoteric form of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Jews believe the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) was written before God created the world and, then, He created the world from the words written in the Torah. Therefore, it is believed by many Jews that everything past, present, and future is already contained in the Torah and specific individuals, given enough time and enlightenment, can uncover any secret, or reveal anything unknown, about an individual’s life. Some famous people, like Madonna, have caused Kabbalah to gain current popularity as “Jewish mysticism”; however, true believers do not consider Kabbalah to be mysticism, but the path to unravel truth. Therefore, entry into the study of Kabbalah should be restricted to those who have gained a certain amount of life experiences and who have already become deeply familiar with all aspects of Torah study.
Conservative Judaism: The Conservative movement grew out of a strong desire for Jews to maintain a continuity with, and respect for, past traditions while relaxing absolute adherence to the Law. Conservative Judaism is not very popular among Israeli Jews.
Reform Judaism: Reform Judaism grew out of the idea that the Bible is not the literal word of God, but rather is divinely inspired. A faithful Jew need not live within the entirety of the law as revealed in the scriptures and interpreted in rabbinic tradition but is permitted to make concessions to the contemporary settings in which they live. Reform Judaism is rare among the Jews of Israel.
Role of the Rabbi in Jewish life: What happens when an individual doesn’t want to violate the Law but can’t figure out what the Law requires in a specific situation? He turns to his Rabbi. Every Jew has a Rabbi. Every Rabbi, being a Jew, himself, also has a Rabbi. Your chosen Rabbi is the final “word” on specific interpretations of the Law for you. If you don’t like the way a certain Rabbi interprets the Law (you believe him too liberal or too strict—or you don’t trust him or like his personality), you will turn to a different Rabbi for decisions. However, once you have decided upon “your Rabbi”, his decisions are final for you. And, once you ask a Rabbi for an opinion, you are declaring that you will abide by his decision, whatever that is. You may ask him to appeal to his own Rabbi for a clarification or a change of opinion; however, you are expected to follow the dictates of the final decision. “Rabbinic Judaism” is the term used of those following all three forms of Law: The written laws given to Moses, the oral laws given to Moses, and the further declarations of the Rabbis, especially as they are expressed in the Talmud. Much of Rabbinic Judaism Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”.
Do Rabbis disagree with one another? In points of law, rabbis often disagree and will attempt to use both scripture and previous rabbinical judgments to convince one another of their argument. A majority rules in matters of law.
This way of life may seem highly restrictive; however, Jews consider this one of the main reasons their society and culture has held together (while being scattered through the world) for as long as it has.
The reason the above is important is that Christians tend to think that all Jews are Orthodox and Jews tend to think that all Christians are Catholic. This is ignorance that is not meant to be unkind but is simply ill-informed. Unfortunately, our treatment of one another usually arises from attitudes gained by believing something that is either wrong or partly wrong. And, when interfacing with one another, Christians and Jews must realize wrong ideas can cause unfortunate and unnecessary conflict.
For instance, when listening to a tour guide who happens to be well versed in the both Torah (what Christians refer to as the first 5 books of the Bible) as well as the Talmud (what Jews refer to as written Oral Law), a Protestant Christian might wonder where the guide is getting his information. The Christian might think, “That’s not in the Bible!” What is or is not “in the Bible” is an important theological distinction to the Christian, and he might feel the need to take the guide to task for sharing false information (which of course a tour guide should never do).
On the other hand, from the guide’s perspective, his stories from the Talmud are really clarifications of the biblical record which God originally gave, but in abbreviated form in the Torah.
Our tour guide during the Christian parts of our Experience will be a Christian and we will read from both the Old and New Testaments. However, our tour guide during the Jewish portions of the trip may be an Orthodox Jew who is expert in both Torah and Talmud. Therefore, he will present what an Orthodox Jew considers the “full account” of the stories of each place we visit. The majority of those who have traveled with us have greatly appreciated both perspectives.