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Jewish Religious Life

Statedly simply, Judaism's solution to the human problem is to live a life that pursues holiness. This has taken different forms over the three millenia and more of Jewish history. This long time period, however, falls into two divisions with regard to the central activities of the religious life: the 1000-year period of the Temple Period and the nearly 2000 years of the Classical Judaism (into the Contemporary Period) formulated by the rabbis.

Holiness in the Temple Period

The main vehicle for maintaining holiness in ancient Israel was sacrifice. As early as the Patriarch Abraham, sacrifice provided the most powerful means of worshipping God and strengthening the link to him. From that point onwards, through Moses and the tribal period into the monarchy of David and his successors, sacrifice paved the way for smooth interaction between humanity (usually Israel) and God.

From the time of Solomon onwards, sacrifice officially takes place in the Jerusalem Temple, the only place where sacrifice is supposed to be offered (although this rule was not always followed). The Temple provided a stable, holy place for God to be present and thus for sacrifices and offerings to be brought to him. But even before the Temple's building, the people Israel had a portable temple, called the "Tabernacle" or "Tent of Meeting." According to the Exodus story, they carried the Tabernacle with them for the 40 years of their wandering alone with God in the wilderness and for the time between their entering the Land of Canaan and the establishment of the Nation of Israel under David and Solomon.

Sacrifices were offered on regular cycles, (1) different times during the day, everyday, (2) additional sacrifices on the Sabbath every week, (3) extra sacrifices at the start of the month, and (4) special sacrifices on all the annual holidays. These offerings were not only a way of worshipping God, but they atoned for the sins of the people Israel. In addition, individuals could bring occasional sacrifices, to atone for a personal sin or just as a gift.

The principal practice within the home that maintained Israel's holiness was the observance of the Sabbath. On this day, the last day of the seven-day week, the Israelites were supposed to cease all work and for twenty-four hours observe a day of rest in honor and worship of God.

Being Holy: Replacing the Temple

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce brought about a major crisis for Judaism. How could they worship God and maintain their holiness without the Temple at which to offer sacrifices? Indeed, the Torah made it clear that God would accept only the sacrifices offered in Jerusalem. Further defeats during the Bar Kokhba revolt that led to banishment from Jerusalem and Judea only added to the crisis.

The rabbis stepped into this void and over the next few centuries reformulated Judaism in a way that gave new life and energy to its followers. This remarkable feat makes Judaism unique in the Mediterranean world; it is the only religion that existed in 100 bce that was still flourishing in 500 ce. The key to the rabbis' success--recorded in the Talmud, the Mishnah, the midrashim, and other documents--lay in their ability to distill the essence of sacrifice and to place it into other forms of worship. There were three components which together replaced Temple worship: prayer, Torah and its study, and "acts of loving kindness" (gemilut hesed).

Judaism developed two kinds of prayer: fixed and free-form. While free-form prayer provides a way for an individual to convey specific requests and concerns to God, fixed prayer became an important way to replace sacrifice as a means of sanctification. Prayers and blessings were developed and offered at the times that the sacrifices had once been offered. In this way, prayer replaced sacrifice, being offered in daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cycles. On a daily basis, prayer was offered three times a day, with additional prayers said on Sabbaths and religious festivals.

Two central prayers were developed that are said, along with several blessings, at nearly every time of prayer. These are the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions. The Shema derives from the Torah and consists of the recitation of three passages: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. The Eighteen Benedictions are a series of blessings that helps that worshipper contemplate and thank God for the different ways in which he has extended his hand to Israel. All the prayers, both the everyday prayers and the special ones said only are particular holidays, are contained in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book.

Torah and its study became a second way to sanctify Israel. All adult males who are able are expected to learn how to read Hebrew and to understand the written text of the Tanak. Those who can find spare time are expected to study the Torah, understand it, and to contemplate its messages. Although most Jews are able to do this only within their home, or in weekly study meetings, some Jews leave home for several years (usually during their teenage years) to study full time in a Yeshiva (a Jewish religious school). If they show promise, talent and aptitude, they may pursue their studies further and become a rabbi.

As discussed elsewhere, the central concept of the Torah refers to the first five books of the Tanak: Genesis through Deuteronomy. These contain details about the role of sacrifice, ethics and the expectations of the moral life, and of course, numerous stories about the Patriarchs, Moses and the formation of the people Israel. By studying the descriptions of sacrifice, the worshipper imagines how the acts would be carried out in worship of God, and the study thereby substitutes for the actual practice. Over the centuries, idea of Torah has expanded, and along with it the concept of study. Torah has come to mean the rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, which diligently explain the meaning of its passages. The Torah concept has also expanded to include the Talmud, the rules and regulations of which are understood as deriving from the Tanak, and ultimately from Genesis through Deuteronomy.

Acts of loving kindness, or charity, was developed as the third way that replacing Temple sacrifice. This derives from the biblical prophets who, during the monarchy, frequently argued that sacrifice without acts of kindness to one's neighbors and fellow Israelites fell short of what God desired from Israel (and thus detracted from Israel's holiness before God). Building on this concept, rabbinic Judaism made charity into one of the key pillars of worship. By medieval times, charity focused on the giving of money to the poor and needy. Societies were organized to collect money and to identify those who truly needed it. In the Contemporary World, this activity has taken on the modern trappings of charity fund-raising, with annual campaigns and fund drives to collect monies for specific purposes, such as building hospitals in Israel, helping Russian Jews escape persecution by emigrating to Israel, and so on.

The synagogue can be seen as the religious institution in which these three aspects come together. First, it is the place where Jews regularly gather for prayer. In a large city, in fact, a significant number of people will show up to pray together at all three times of the day. On the Sabbath especially, large groups of Jews will gather to pray and worship. Certain prayers can only be said by a communal group of ten men (called a minyan); and the synagogue provides a regular gathering place for such groups. Second, twice a week--most prominently on the Sabbath--the Torah Scrolls are brought out and read to the congregation. They are always read in Hebrew and it is considered an honor (and a recognition of one's skill) for a person to be asked to read the Torah. Sometimes the reading is translated into the language of worshippers. The reading is organized so that the whole Torah will be covered in one year. In addition, selections from the Prophets and the Writings will also be read; these are called haftorahs. Third, the synagogue, as a center of Jewish community, has always been the locus for charity. Needy Jews come to the synagogue to make their needs known and money is collected and given through synagogue's auspices--sometimes officially and publicly, other times informally and privately.

Of course, reading and studying the Torah will accomplish little if the commandments and rules contained within it are not followed. To ensure that the Torah will be practiced, Judaism has over the centuries worked how just how these rules and regulations will be carried out. The body of rules, discussion and interpretation of proper religious behavior is called the halakhah. Although halakhah has often be translated into English as "Jewish Law," it literally means "the Way," as in the way to walk or to follow in one's life. Based primarily on the Torah, and its interpretation in the Talmud and later codifications in works like the Shulhan Aruk, the halakhah provides Jews with guidance for behavior and religious observance in numerous situations, but primarily in ritual, ethical, and civil matters.

The amount of writing and thought that has gone into halakhah is too massive for any but the most learned scholar to study more than a small amount. So the essence of the halakhah has been distilled into what Mainmonides called the 613 Mitzvot. "Mitzvot" is a plural noun (sg. mitzvah) that means "commandments." But commandments should be understood in two ways. First, as God's commands and rules for how he wishes them to behave. And do not forget that proper behavior is part of how Israel keeps itself holy for God's presence among them. Second, a mitzvah is also seen as a good deed, as something one should do, but is not necessarily commanded at any particular time and place. For example, giving a poor person charity, going to comfort a mourner, and praising the happy couple at a wedding are all considered mitzvot. A person who performs many mitzvot gains the reputation as a good or righteous individual.

The Synagogue

After the Temple's destruction in 70 ce, the synagogue came to replace the Temple as the main Jewish institution. The word "synagogue," comes from Greek and literally means "coming together"; the Hebrew term, "bet kneset," carries a similar meaning, namely, "house of gathering." In its earliest manifestations , the synagogue functioned primarily as a public gathering place. Synagogues are known in Egypt as early as the third century bce, but they do not appear in Palestine, according to the archaeological record, until the first century ce. In this early period, they seem to serve primarily as Jewish centers for people who did not live near Jerusalem and its Temple. After 70, the synagogue rapidly stepped into the void left by the Temple.

In the early centuries of its development, the synagogue played many different roles. In addition to serving as a meeting place, it also functioned as a hostel for travelers, a treasury for safekeeping money, the headquarters of Jewish political and religious officials, and so on. However, it gradually focused its activities primarily on the three activities discussed above. It became the main place for group prayer (although prayer can be said anywhere). It became a place of Torah, both for reading in worship, and for study. Often the school (bet talmud and bet midrash) met in the synagogue. And, as discussed above, it became the center for charitable acts.

In contemporary America, the synagogue has once again expanded its activities, by developing, supporting, and in some cases spinning off, Jewish community centers. These centers once again serve as gathering places, for Jewish officials, financial institutions, and as locations for other activities, including recreation.

Life in the Home

Much of Jewish religious life takes place within the home. For it is here that a person lives most of their life. And so it is in the home that sanctification takes place on a regular basis. Rather than describe everything that a Jew does within the home, however, let us use food as a focus and discuss the ways in which it becomes a means for creating and maintaining holiness.

In a traditional Jewish home, food serves as a magnet for holiness and for acts of holiness. In fact, many of the rules governing what food Jews may eat stem from the injunctions in the Torah concerning diet and for preparing and eating parts of Temple sacrifices.

The dietary regulations in Judaism are called kashrut; following them is usually referred to as "keeping kosher." To the outsider, the central distinction of kashrut is the differentiation between meat and milk. That is to say, meat products and dairy products should not be mixed. This means, at the very least, that they are not to be eaten in the same meal. If one eats a hamburger, it may not have cheese on it, nor can there be cream in the after-dinner cup of coffee. Furthermore, in a kosher household, steps are taken to ensure that mixing does not happen even accidentally. Two sets of dishes, silverware and pots are kept; one for meat and the other for milk. Food that has neither meat nor milk in it (like vegetables, fruits, popsicles, and sugar) is called "parve" and may be eaten with either milk or meat. In addition, there are a number of foods that may not be eaten at all; many of these taboos stem from biblical regulations. For example, shellfish, pork, and snakes are forbidden meats; these are called "traif."

In many ways, keeping kosher creates a sanctified space within the home. And sanctification is what is necessary to enable God to be present. By following this system of diet and food preparation, Jews are imitating Temple practice. Just as the priests once followed strict guidelines in the preparing and slaughtering of sacrificial animals, so the Jewish cook now follows the kashrut regulations in preparing and cooking meals. The Temple altar becomes transformed into the home's kitchen table. And, just as God was once present at the sacrifice, now he is present at the meal.

The importance of the meal and God's presence there is not limited to aspects of food. It extends also to prayer. Meals are the locus for many blessings of God in thanks for the agricultural gifts of food and drink that he has given. Blessings are said over many parts of the meal. Over the breaking of a loaf of bread, for example, one recites the blessing, "Blessed are You, O Lord, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth." Similar blessings are recited over wine and other parts of the meal. Following the meal, Jews will recite Birkat HaMazon (The Grace after Meals), a series of blessings thanking God for his goodness.