Judaism: not universal truth but God’s partner for a Messianic world [part 1]

Judaism is not a religion of eternal, universal, unchanging truth. Judaism is based on the meaning given to specific events in Jewish history, especially the covenant (a committed relationship) between God and the Jewish People which obligates Jews to establish a good and holy society, that will eventually become a blessing for all humanity in a future Messianic Age of prosperity and peace on planet Earth.

Thus, the meanings of specific events in Jewish history are important elements in Jewish thought. Since there is only one God, the God of Israel is also the God of all other peoples. God has inspired prophets of other nations (Noah, Melchizedik, Job and Balaam) and redeemed other peoples in other lands (Deuteronomy 2:9-23, Amos 9:7).

God has also made a covenant-a committed sacred relationship with one small people: the people of Israel. God and Israel are partners. Thus, the historical development of the Jewish people, its survival in spite of attempts by evil forces to destroy it, and its influence on the development of mankind, are a significant expression of God’s desire that humans create a just, holy, loving and peaceful society on earth.

This is why Jewish sacred scriptures include a great deal of history. Of the 39 books in what Christians call the Old Testament, 10 are history books (36% by number of pages). Of the 27 books of the New Testament only 1 is a history book (13% by number of pages). The Koran, Vedas and Sutras include even less historical material.

This is also why there are a number of Jewish holidays that commemorate events in Jewish history (from Passover-the 13th century B.C.E. exodus from Egyptian bondage, Purim-the 5th century B.C.E. avoidance of Persian anti-Semitism, and Hanukkah-the 2nd century B.C.E. victory in the fight against the Syrian Greeks for religious freedom, toYom Hashoah- the 20th century C.E. European Holocaust).

But there are no Jewish holidays that commemorate the birth, death, or enlightenment of any individual, human or divine.

Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible does not begin with the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, or with Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, but with Adam and Eve, who represent the whole of mankind. Judaism was always aware that it originated within, and in opposition to, long established pagan civilizations that worshipped many Gods who could be represented visually in man made art, and/or located specifically in natural objects i.e. sun, moon, mountain, river, tree, animal, or human being.

The one God of the Jews existed primarily in human history, both past and future. The coming Jewish new year (September 20 this year) begins the Jewish calendar year 5781; and is the sixth millennium of Biblical history. The year 1 is not the birth of Abraham or Moses, nor is it the revelation of Torah at Sinai, or even the beginning of a new cosmic world cycle.

The year one dates from the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil; which launched humanity on a path of moral and social development. It also approximates the beginning of cities, states and writing, the basis for all recorded history.

Since Judaism is a theology of history, we would expect to find that some events in the last thousand years have revealed new religious insights. One of them is the Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical tradition) understanding of the nature of evil, which was the result of two centuries of Christian anti-Semitism resulting in the expulsion of Jewish communities from most western European countries.

A millennium ago 60-70% of the world’s Jews lived in Muslim lands, from Spain and Morocco in the west to Persia in the east. Most of the rest lived in Christian countries north of the Mediterranean Sea. Smaller numbers lived in Ethiopia, India and China. There was also a Jewish community living among the pagans in the Ukraine who were the descendants of thousands of pagan Khazars who had converted to Judaism a century or two earlier.

Over the next 2-3 centuries the Jewish community in Muslim Spain grew in numbers and influence. Jewish scholarship of that period excelled in Hebrew poetry both religious and secular, Biblical commentary, and Jewish philosophy both rational and mystical.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides, born 1135 in Spain, who lived most of his life in Cairo, was the most influential rational philosopher in the last 1000 years. Rabbi Moses de Leon, 1240-1305, who lived in Spain, wrote and edited the most important single Kabbalistic text (Jewish mysticism).

In the 14th and 15th centuries, as the Christians reconquered more and more of Spain, the Jews were subjected to increasing efforts to convert them, sometimes forcibly, to Christianity. They resisted vigorously. Finally, in 1492, with the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, all the Jews in Spain who refused to become baptized were expelled from the country. A quarter million Jews became refugees.

Although this was the worst of the expulsions of Jews from Christian lands it was not the first. Jews had already been expelled from England (1290), France (1394), Austria (1421), and several German Dukedoms (1426-1461). But these were smaller Jewish communities and not a vibrant center of Jewish culture and life as was the Spanish Jewish community.

Also, in Spain, thousands of Jews had been forcibly baptized in previous generations and continued to practice Judaism in secret. The Spanish Inquisition vigorously pursued them and their children for many decades, adding to their tragedy, and their suffering.

Many of the Jews exiled from Spain ended up in the Ottoman Empire and some of them moved to the Land of Israel. Safed, a small town in northern Israel, became a major center for Kabbalistic studies. One of these sages, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) developed a radically new system for understanding the nature of evil and suffering in the world.

The Biblical and Talmudic rabbinic view of evil is that it is solely the result of immoral human decisions and activities. There is no source of evil outside of human beings. The natural world itself is good, not evil. Genesis 1 makes this clear by repeating again and again at each stage of the world’s creation that “God saw that it was good”.

Not only is the physical world in general good, but marital sex, which is considered inherently negative in some religious traditions, is considered holy in Judaism.

The Rabbis regard marital sex as a Mitsvah-a good deed/a sacred obligation. Sex was not a concession to human lust, justified by the need to procreate, and celibacy was not considered a higher spiritual state. Indeed, the Kabbalists maintained that God rejoiced when a man made love to his wife on the holy Sabbath day.

Finally, there is no evil power opposing God that can make people do evil. Satan in the Hebrew Bible is not the Devil. Satan is an angel of God whose job is to tempt people in order to find out how committed they are to being good. If evil is not attractive there is no challenge to resisting evil and therefore no virtue in avoiding it.

Satan is a personalized metaphor for temptation: Foods that are healthy are not as tasty as those that are bad for you. Short-term benefits seem more attractive than long term benefits. Forbidden fruits seem sweeter. Indulgence feels better than self-restraint. None of this makes us do evil but it does make it harder to do good. The decision is always ours.

This was the normative majority view within the Jewish tradition for almost three millennia. Until Rabbi Isaac Luria came into our world.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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