Religion 101

Religion 101

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Two)

As I observed in my previous blog entry, a rather sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, when we take up the study of the Jewish faith, I often find that a fair number of students possess little to no previous background knowledge of this religion, and sometimes harbor a number of fairly common misunderstandings about it.

A few students are occasionally unaware even that Jews and Christians worship the same God (e.g., that the God of Jesus is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Quite a few others may be aware of that commonality, but are surprised to learn that the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible is essentially the same set of scriptures as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible (a point I have previously gone into some detail on elsewhere, in previous blog posts).


Still others sometimes simply assume that ancient Jewish worship, as depicted in the pages of scripture, corresponds with contemporary forms of Jewish worship, and so imagine that rabbis today perform animal sacrifices in neighborhood synagogues. (This, of course, is not the case.)

In my classes, I therefore emphasize that Judaism historically divides rather neatly into two obviously related yet fairly distinct forms, or “versions”: the form of Judaism practiced during the biblical era (which is the form depicted within the pages of scripture), and a subsequent form of Judaism which developed later, after the biblical era, and which is in some ways quite different.

The “biblical-era” form of Judaism focused quite heavily upon the practice of offering frequent sacrifices to God (which God himself had commanded). Jewish worship came to revolve around the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the only place on Earth where God had authorized the offering of such sacrifices. These ritual sacrifices could only be conducted by Jewish priests, and consisted of a variety of sorts of offerings — including, among other things, animal sacrifices. (This sometimes comes as a surprise to some of my students with little to no knowledge of the Bible, some of whom are at times rather scandalized by the idea of bloody sacrifices being performed in a religious context.)


However, all of this came to a rather abrupt end in 70 CE (or 70 AD — same year, different nomenclature). In that pivotal year, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, razing it to the ground; to this day, it has never been rebuilt. Without a unique Temple for centralized worship and the offering of ritual sacrifices, Judaism was forced to change course, altering itself in order to survive.

“Biblical Judaism” thus came to be replaced by a new form of Judaism, one dependent not upon a singular Temple and the ongoing offering of sacrifices therein by priests, but instead characterized by an emphasis upon learning and study of the scriptures, as explicated by rabbis or teachers who had mastered those texts, and upon faithful and quite scrupulous adherence to all of the various laws, instructions, rules, regulations, and directives contained within those scriptures (in other words, not just the Ten Commandments, but all 613 of the commandments which can be found within the pages of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible), as guided by developing rabbinic analysis and commentary.


Rabbis insightfully elaborated and expanded upon these commandments and other teachings, the better to clarify, correctly understand, and appropriately apply them, in a growing body of rabbinic literature (culminating in the vast and encyclopedic work known as the Talmud). Rabbis also came to replace priests (who, as experts in Temple sacrifices, were essentially out of a job when the Temple was destroyed and its sacrifices came to an end) as leaders of Jewish congregational worship, conducted now not in a singular centralized Temple but in the many local synagogues which sprang up in Jewish communities now increasingly scattered worldwide, and consisting now not of sacrificial offerings (remember, those could only be offered at the Temple, and the Temple no longer exists) but instead of prayers, sermons, and scriptural readings, all now commonly conducted by rabbis.


Given the central formative role rabbis played in shaping this new form of Judaism, and the central clerical role they continue to play within it today as its clergy, it is perhaps no surprise that this latter form of Judaism (the form of Judaism which still exists today) is typically referred to as “rabbinic Judaism,” in order to distinguish it from the Temple-centered, sacrifice-offering “biblical Judaism” of the biblical era (which no longer exists, having been replaced by rabbinical Judaism).

This distinction, and all of the underlying history and other reasons behind it, does not exactly seem to be common knowledge among a significant portion of the American public. As I mentioned in my very first-ever blog post (nearly a year ago now), it is notably ironic that although the U.S. is one of the most staunchly and overtly religious places on earth, as well as one of the most religiously diverse places on earth, it also seems to suffer from a remarkably deep and pervasive case of basic “religious illiteracy.”

(To be continued, in Part Three.)






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