To be a Jew in the 21st century is to be the heir to one of the most ancient spiritual traditions in the world and the first monotheistic one; yet, through its continuing evolution over the centuries, it has become one of the most modern. It embodies: faith, history, culture and community in all their aspects. It originated over 4000 years ago when the Patriarch, Abraham, was inspired by God to reject the idol worship of Chaldea (now Iraq) and leave it to journey to what became the Land of Israel.
The Hebrew Bible (Torah – the five books of Moses, Prophets and Writings) tells the story of the Patriarchs, of Moses, and of the Prophets of Israel. The Torah includes the Ten Commandments and the Holiness Code with God’s demand – “You shall neither take vengeance nor bear a grudge, but you shall love your fellow being as yourself”. The Prophets taught God’s demand for Human Rights: social justice, peace, and care for the stranger, the poor and the hungry.
The later books tell of the destruction of the first Temple, when the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity and how, in the absence of the Temple and its priests during the exile, the spiritual and communal life was maintained by the creation of Synagogues. There, Rabbis (who were teachers as well as leaders of the people in prayer) replaced the old priesthood. Worship became truly participatory rather than the passive observation of ritual.
When the Persians conquered Babylon, they facilitated the return of the Jews to Israel and the restoration of the Temple, although many remained in Babylon. Later, the Rabbis in the two centres of Jewish spirituality, Jerusalem and Babylon, first set down in writing the Oral Torah tradition that had developed alongside the Biblical Torah to illuminate it, Rabbi Hillel was asked by a non-Jew to explain the Torah while he stood on one leg. The Rabbi replied; “What is hurtful to you, do it not to your fellow being.
The rest is commentary, go and learn”. The commentaries to which he referred, are embodied in the writings of the Rabbis known as the Talmud, which includes both Halachah, the fabric of the Law for ethical conduct in personal, social and commercial relations; together with Aggadah, the spirit of the Law which illuminates it and gives it life through its symbols, poetry, art and folklore. The Rabbis taught that the Torah had to be interpreted according to the understanding of its students. The spiritually immature could only understand the literal interpretation whilst those whose intellect had developed could understand it as allegorical or homiletical. Those with strong intuitive faculties could understand the mystical interpretations that inspired Kabbalah.
The evolution of modern Judaism
The Romans destroyed the second Temple and drove the Jews into an exile that lasted nearly 2000 years (although throughout all that time there remained a significant Jewish presence in the Holy Land). However, the institution of the Synagogues ensured both their physical and spiritual survival. The Jews were scattered to Eastern Europe, where they became known as Ashkenazim, to Southern Europe, in particular Spain and Portugal, where they became known as Sephardim, to the Middle East, even to India. The Jews of Spain and Portugal were driven from there in 1492 but were welcomed to Holland. The first settlement of Jews in England was at the time of the Normans, but the anti-Semitism that was whipped up during the Crusades led to the Jews being expelled by Edward I in 1290. Centuries later, in 1656, Oliver Cromwell invited the Sephardic Jews of Holland to return. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Ashkenazi Jews came from Eastern Europe and Germany, successfully integrating into British life and culture.
Judaism has evolved progressively, producing during the last 2000 years: philosophers, poets, mystics, historians as well as notable contributors to the secular humanities and the sciences and healing professions. Judaism is not only a living religion but also a religion for living. The ancient concept of a personal Messiah has given way to that of the Messianic responsibility of the whole community for ‘TIKKUN OLAM’ – ‘Repair of the World’ from all its imperfections.