Religion 101

As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about 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 students are quite surprised to discover that, as well-known major world religions go, Judaism is comparatively small — very small, in fact. A lot of people tend to assume that, since “Judaism” seems so familiar to them (at least as a term or category, even if they don’t really know very much about it), and given the major and profound impact that Judaism has had upon the global religious, cultural, and even political scenes throughout history, that Judaism must be of at least roughly similar magnitude, size-wise, as other similarly well-known and impactful major religions.

They are therefore sometimes somewhat startled to discover that, whereas other major religions count their populations in billions (or close fractions thereof), Judaism counts its population in just millions (and not very many millions, at that).

For instance, compared with the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, or its 1.6 billion Muslims, or its 1.1 billion religiously unaffiliated, or its 1 billion Hindus, or its half-billion Buddhists, or its nearly half-billion adherents of various indigenous religions, there are only a comparatively scant 14 million Jews in the world.

As I say, putting Judaism in perspective in this manner often comes as surprising news to a fair percentage of the general American public. (I have discussed Jewish demographics, both domestically within the U.S. as well as on the global scene, in a previous post, which also contains helpful visualizations of the data in colorful pie charts.)

Some newcomers to the study of the Jewish faith are also confused by the internal diversity which exists within modern Judaism. They often puzzle over the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, and may wonder why some Jews dress in certain characteristic ways (the distinctive garb of Hasidic Jews, for instance), while other Jews do not do so.

Basically, these internal divisions are relatively recent innovations within the millenniums-long history of Judaism. They arose essentially in the wake of, and as responses to, modernity.

For most of the last 2000 years or so, Judaism was just “Judaism” (more precisely, rabbinic Judaism, as opposed to “biblical” Judaism); there were no such subdivisions or additional labels as Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. And normative Judaism corresponded basically to what today we now commonly refer to as “Orthodox” Judaism (although at the time, that specific term did not exist; there was as yet no need for it).

However, when modernity arose in the Western world during the 18th century, it had an impact upon Judaism. Some Jews began to look upon Jewish tradition through liberal and progressive eyes, and they attempted to re-think, reinterpret, or “reform” Judaism in the light of the insights of modernity. Perhaps the Torah was not actually written by God (or by Moses), as Jewish tradition had long insisted; perhaps the values the Bible promotes are one thing, but at least some of its ritual practices and other commandments are just cultural artifacts of their own era, no longer relevant today. This modernizing reform movement led to the birth of Reform Judaism.

Of course, there were still plenty of traditionalists who disagreed with the reformers, choosing instead to reject this modernizing trend. Those who stuck to traditional or “orthodox” Judaism as it had been long been practiced, continuing to regard the Torah’s 613 commandments as coming directly from God and as still (and forever) binding upon Jews, came to be known as Orthodox Jews, in order to distinguish them from Reform Jews.

And if Orthodoxy represents one end of the Jewish spectrum, and Reform the other end end of that same spectrum, then of course there is room within that broad spectrum for midground positions. Conservative Judaism thus developed as recently as the late 19th/early 20th century, in the wake of this Orthodox/Reform split, and taking a stance somewhere in between those two poles.

Finally, Orthodox Judaism itself is internally diverse. There are those who manage to successfully observe Jewish law while also fully living within modern society; this segment is commonly referred to as “Modern Orthodox.” And then, on the other hand, there are those who prefer not to so fully integrate with the wider culture, maintaining their traditional ways of life — including, most obvious to outsiders, uniquely characteristic modes of dress –within distinctive communities of their own, which are geared to support that strongly traditionalist way of life. This includes the various Haredim (or so-called “ultra-Orthodox” groups, although that term is not always favorably used or received); perhaps the best-known among these Haredi groups in America today might be the Hasidic community.

(I have also discussed Jewish “denominations,” both domestically within the U.S. as well as on the global scene, in greater detail in a previous post, one which also contains helpful visualizations of the data in colorful pie charts.)

(To be continued, in Part Four.)





Tomorrow (Friday, June 21, 2013) is the date of the summer solstice within the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, by contrast, tomorrow will be the date of the winter solstice.

Solstices have long been observed as important seasonal festivals in many traditional cultures. Accordingly, June 21 being a solstice day, that date is also a significant holiday on the religious calendars of Wiccans and other contemporary Pagans.

However, which particular Wiccan or Neopagan holiday it happens to be will vary, depending upon which particular hemisphere of the world one happens to reside in.

In the Northern Hemisphere, tomorrow is Litha (or Midsummer), celebrating the summer solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, however, it will be Yule (or Midwinter), celebrating the winter solstice.

Since the season prevailing in one hemisphere is always the opposite of the season prevailing in the other hemisphere, seasonal holidays between the two hemispheres are staggered, or out of sync from each other, by some six months.

So, on June 21, the summer solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, while the winter solstice occurs simultaneously in the Southern Hemisphere.

* * *

Solstices have to do with the seasonal shifts in the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis relative to the Sun, the angle of which is responsible for our planet experiencing seasons at all. A hemisphere currently tilted toward the Sun receives more direct sunlight, and so experiences the warmth of summer; the other hemisphere, simultaneously tilted away from the Sun, receives less direct sunlight, and so experiences the coldness of winter.

Up until the summer solstice, as the tilt of the Earth’s axis slowly shifts, the days grow progressively longer, and the nights increasingly shorter. This slow shift peaks tomorrow, with the advent of the summer solstice itself, which will be the longest day (and the shortest night) of the year. After the summer solstice, the subsequent days will then begin to grow progressively shorter, and the nights increasingly longer — until this pattern also eventually peaks, and then reverses itself once again, with the advent of the winter solstice (the shortest day, and the longest night, of the year).

The summer solstice is technically regarded as being the actual start of summer, the first day of the official summer season. Being the longest day of the year, immediately after the summer solstice the days may begin to gradually grow slightly shorter, but they don’t begin to grow any cooler; weather-wise, at least, summer has really only just begun.

On the other hand, solstices also mark the midpoints of those long seasonal cycles during which the strength and presence of the sun in the sky is either at its greatest or at its weakest. A solstice marks the point at which long periods of steadily increasing hours of daylight “max out” before transitioning toward an equally steady decrease (or vice versa). In this particular sense, perhaps solstice festivals might indeed be rightfully regarded as “mid”-summer or “mid”-winter seasonal festivals.

* * *

As I write, Wiccans and other Neopagans in the Northern Hemisphere will tomorrow celebrate their midsummer festival, traditionally known as Litha. Meanwhile, their fellows in the Southern Hemisphere will simultaneously be celebrating the midwinter festival known as Yule.

Litha or Midsummer centers upon the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and the peak of the Sun’s light, warmth, and brilliance. In contrast with Yule or Midwinter, Litha or Midsummer also marks the inevitable transition of the Sun into its “annual retreat,” beginning a cycle involving an increasingly diminishing solar strength and presence in the sky.

Yule or Midwinter instead observes the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the transition of the Sun from a decreasing to an increasing presence in the sky. It marks the beginning of the annual period in which light, warmth, and brightness (and everything that those characteristics may suggest, or symbolically signify) are once again in their ascendancy.

So, to my Wiccan friends and readers in the Northern Hemisphere, may I today wish you all a “Blessed Litha!”

And to my Wiccan friends and readers in the Southern Hemisphere, may I in turn wish you all a “Blessed Yule!”





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.)