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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

God’s Chosen: The Jewish Character

God’s Chosen: The Jewish Character

We live in a world that worships the new. How is it that such a world would still manage to contain adherents to ancient traditions and beliefs? Beliefs that label some foods as unclean, separate men and women, and declare one group as chosen by a very concerned, emotional god? Judaism has influenced law, history, the idea of family, and even other religions and theology for over five-thousand years. Amazingly, the flame shows no signs of dying out, particularly in the United States, where more Jews reside than anywhere else in the world (“Judaism”, MSN Encarta). This is due to the Jew’s strong sense of identity: as a religion, as a race, and as God’s chosen people.

Judaism, like the rest of Western Civilization, actually began in the Middle East. Abraham, the great patriarch of Judaism, was born in Ur of the Chaldees, or modern day Tall al Muqayyar, Iraq (“Ur”, MSN Encarta). Abraham (also known as Abram, or, in Muslim tradition, Ibrahim) eventually left Ur with his family and eventually made his way to modern-day Israel, where he lived as a nomad. He also spent time in Egypt (“Abraham”, MSN Encarta). According to the Bible, a god named YHWH (called Yahweh, or Latinized as Jehovah) promised to give unto [Abraham], and to [his children], the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession;” and that through his descendants YHWH would “make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (Genesis 17:6-11). In return, Abraham and his children would worship YHWH, recognizing him as the one true god. As a sign of this promise, or covenant, all males who entered into it would be circumcised. This is arguably the single most important event in the development of the Jewish identity. All Jews are accepted as descendants of Abraham, and therefore have the privileges and responsibilities this dialogue implies. This shows the Jewish relationship with deity, a special, familial relationship others do not have.

Jews also believe that YHWH continued to reveal his will and laws to the leaders of the church, prophets. This adds to the special relationship they have with deity. In church services, two and one half of three hours consist of readings and prayers directly from the scriptures, particularly the Torah, or Revealed Instruction. Whilst reading from the scrolls, the spiritual leader or rabbi covers his head with a prayer shawl. The scrolls are wrapped in beautiful blue cloth, and worshippers touch the Torah as the rabbi brings it around. They also kiss their personal copies of Torah before replacing them on the shelf. These scriptures and rabbinical writings are the precious relics of Judaism. Nevertheless, is it hard for Jews to live with 500 centuries of laws in a culture that emphasizes a large dose of rebellion? As one young orthodox Jew told me, it can be. Jeff Richens says particularly in adolescence, it was hard for him to “keep kosher”, or follow the dietary guidelines found throughout Mosaic Law (Richens). “Everyone is searching for themselves, for individuality. You kind of just want to do whatever the hell you want.” Once again, the identity as the chosen people helped him stay true. “I just tell myself this is what I’m supposed to do. I hold myself to a higher standard.”

This blend of piety and confidence differentiates the Jewish character. At the church service I attended, the rabbi seemed to be training his son. This boy, only nine or ten years old, was heard praying with fervor. He was enthusiastic, something rare in generally apathetic or nervous pre-teens. He was not garish or inappropriate either. Richens assures that Jews are not superior to other people, but have entered into a covenant and therefore have an “incentive” to be better people.

This leads to a question in the history of Judaism-if Jews are the chosen people of God, why have they suffered so much persecution and hate, even to the point of genocide? Richens says succinctly, “Jews are treated like shit.” He cites current examples in pop culture. However, perhaps because Yahweh has agreed to pay special concern to the Jews, he tests them more, like an exacting professor. Richens seems to think this is the case. It is simply part of the higher standard believers hold themselves to.

One struggle the Judaists have had is the struggle for a geographic place of reckoning. Because the Jews are also the race descended from Abraham, it is possible to be a Jewish Christian or a Japanese Jew. Zionism is a philosophy held by those who believe that Jews and Hebrews should reclaim Israel/Palestine as their national homeland. The Jewish languages of Hebrew and Yiddish would be spoken, and even Jews who do not practice Judaism would be able to have a living heritage. In fact, it was (and is) mostly “secularized” Jews who advocate Zionism. At the synagogue I attended, a special prayer was said for Israel, including an invocation to stop those who fight against her. While Genesis seems to explicitly state that Yahweh intends for the Abram’s seed to have Israel, who that is and under what circumstances are hotly debated. Muslims also claim to be the children of Abraham (though through a different line), Jesus Christ was a Jew, and Christians could reasonably lay religious claim to it as well. One could also ask whether if Yahweh meant only one particular line of Abraham’s descendants, or even if he meant for these groups to be the only groups in the area.. Of course then we would have to decide whether to speak the Hebrew of the Torah, Arabic of the Koran, or Greek of the New Testament. As overwhelming as this is for an objective gentile to figure out, it is easy to see why Jews would have such strong feelings and confusion. Many Jews sit on both sides of the fence. Richens, for one, seems to think there are more important things to worry about. He compares the groups to kids who find it “hard to share”.

These struggles will, however, eventually be ended with the coming of a Savior. Some even believe that by being faithful and righteous enough, they can bring this salvation sooner. This gives the disciple of Judaism an even greater diligence and motivation in worship. It is with this hope that Jews can weather their many struggles and stay so strong.

In studying the Jewish religion and its struggles, when set against the sweetness of its people, one is easily able to see why they need a Messiah. A belief system that embraces piety and confidence, community and individuality, faith and education, hope and long suffering, Judaism’s doctrine and people impressed me greatly. In the Jewish character, we find one so great, who has suffered so much. If Jewish thought and creativity had not been suppressed, as it so often has throughout history, who knows what new developments we would have had. Perhaps when their Messiah comes, they will receive their vindication.

"Judaism”, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Ur”, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Abraham”, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Holy Bible: King James Version. Pennsylvania: The National Bible Press, 1958.

Richens, Jeffrey. Personal interview. 11 Nov. 2008.


Jak said...

Oops, I thought I commented on this yesterday- must have been interupted.
I really enjoyed reading this and learning from you. I love knowing that there are people out there who hold to traditions and values and beliefs. I think I kind of grew up in a culture that thought we're the only ones and the rest of the world was "evil" or at best "lost." I LOVE meeting people of other faiths who have just as much, if not more, conviction and faith as I try to have. It gives me hope that the world's not such a bad place. And I really believe that God loves ALL his children.

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