Religion 101

As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about many of the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real knowledge of the Jewish faith, and may even harbor some fairly common misunderstandings about it.

Many newcomers to Judaism (or to the Bible, for that matter) are frankly startled to learn that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) prescribes not just the familiar Ten Commandments, but in fact a far more extensive total of some 613 commandments. These commandments cover everything from pious religious observances and ritual practices, to moral rules and ethical requirements, to what we today might label as family, civil, and criminal law. They extend even to matters of agriculture, modes of dress, and rules regarding diet (the well-known kosher food laws).

Collectively, these 613 commandments comprise “Mosaic Law” (e.g., the Law of Moses, to whom Jews traditionally believe they were revealed), or simply “the Law” (the term Torah literally meaning “Law,” “Instruction,” “Teaching”). Generally speaking, the traditional view is that these commandments still apply; they remain incumbent upon Jews to abide by, even today.

Of course, it is impossible now to keep some of them. For instance, many commandments relate to the sacrificial practices conducted at the Temple in Jerusalem during the biblical era, and since the Temple no longer exists (it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE), those particular commandments no longer apply (or at least are on hold; if the Temple is ever rebuilt, they may well once again apply).

That problematic sort of thing aside, however, the traditional view remains that those commandments which have not been rendered impossible to observe by “an act of God,” as it were (such as the loss of the Temple), remain incumbent upon Jews to abide by.

But then, not all Jews today necessarily fully accept that traditional view; there is a spectrum of opinion within contemporary Judaism upon such matters, which is one of the things which has led to the current division into its Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches.

Jews at the more liberal or progressive ends of this spectrum may regard some of the commandments more as optional cultural artifacts of a bygone era. Jews at the more conservative end of this spectrum, on the other hand, may believe that all of these commandments are timeless and therefore mandatory directives straight from God, and as such surely apply just as much as they ever did.

Such Jews may go to great lengths to abide by all of the applicable commandments as possible, even if it means not wearing garments that blend wool and linen, not having sex until the woman has been ritually purified in a mikvah (ritual bath) following menstruation or childbirth, living close enough to a synagogue so that one may walk rather than drive there on the Sabbath (since starting a car’s engine is like building a fire, which is expressly forbidden on the Sabbath), and keeping so kosher that separate sets of kitchen utensils — one set for meat products on the one hand, a separate set for dairy products on the other (sometimes also separate sinks and refrigerators, too) — are utilized in food preparation.

In addition to all of this business regarding commandments — which Jews take so seriously that Judaism’s traditional coming-of-age “rite of passage” is known as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah (literally “son of the commandment” or “daughter of the commandment,” a rite signifying the age at which a Jewish son or daughter is deemed old enough to be held responsible for obeying the mitzvot or commandments) — a fair number of Christian newcomers to the study of Judaism also remain deeply and sincerely puzzled as to just exactly why “Jews don’t believe in Jesus” (as such Christian newcomers themselves often phrase it).

(To be continued, in Part Five.)






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