20th Century Jewish Religious Thought
Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Jewish Publication Society
Preface to the Paperback Edition
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Arthur A. Cohen died on the 31st of October 1986. Although severely enfeebled by disease for nine months - a period coinciding with the last stage of this volume's preparation - he diligently saw the manuscript to press. A former publisher and a master editor, he attended to every detail with consummate care. A bound copy of the volume reached Arthur less than a...
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Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought was conceived during the summer of 1982 while the editors, in defiance of the thunders of the north, strolled through the charmed gardens of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Our convivial but random conversation eventually focused upon the subject of the alleged Jewish disinclination to engage in theology. We...
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At first consideration the notion of Jewish aesthetics seems ludicrous. If something is beautiful, what does its putative Jewishness have to do with its beauty? Furthermore, what would make an art object Jewish: its so-called subject matter? But, if that is the case, what about a menorah made by a gentile craftsman? Or the religion...
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Aggadah, or haggadah, is the generic title for the entire body of rabbinic tradition that falls outside the perimeters of the halakhah, the legal teachings of the rabbis. The term aggadah (pI., aggadot) , literally "that which is told," tells us more about the manner of its transmission than about the content of what was transmitted...
Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism
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It is generally agreed that the term anti-Semitism should be used not in its purported sense of "antagonism to Semites" but as the equivalent to "Judaeophobia" or "Jew hatred." The term anti-Semitism was coined in the nineteenth century as a would-be scientific attempt to give a rational justification for Jew hatred when theological...
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Apocalypse (from the Greek apokalypsis, literally, to uncover, reveal) refers to divine revelation, especially with regard to the future of Israel and the world. The literature of the apocalyptic visions originated with the cessation of biblical prophecy and is in many respects its continuation. Vision may start with an interpretation of past events (which the visionary knew) in order then to turn to the future, offering the visionary's own peculiar interpretation. In...
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Atheism is an intellectual position derivative of and parasitic upon theism. Its exponents hold that the thesis "God exists" is false. Thus the varieties of atheism largely correspond to the kinds of theism professed and these, significantly, include the varieties of religions. The character of any version of atheism essentially depends on the kind of answer that its theistic rival gives to the question, What is meant by God? or put differently, Under what description is the...
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The question of religious authority divides into two parts: first, Who possesses religious authority? and second, What is the source of its power to obligate? Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, answers unambiguously that the rabbinic High Court in the Temple in Jerusalem possesses the ultimate religious authority in Judaism...
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Critical questions concerning the composition of biblical literary creations, and especially the Pentateuch, were raised as early as medieval times. Joseph Ibn Kaspi, the fourteenth-century Provencial Jewish philosopher and exegete, paid special attention to the differentiation of divine names in the Torah: Tetragrammaton on the one hand and Elohim (God) on the other. It is true that Ibn Kaspi never entertained the idea that because of the interchange of divine...
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Catastrophe may be defined as a national calamity that undermines the received paradigms of meaning concerning the relationship between God and Israel. The national, collective nature of catastrophe distinguishes it from the related but separate problem of evil, the theme of Job and the Wisdom Literature, which pertains to the justification of individual suffering detached from historical events. The catastrophic potential in historical events can be gauged...
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The concept of zedakah (charity), a wore that is etymologically related to zedek (justice), involves a person's response to the needs of other human beings. According to the Talmud and Maimonides, the disposition to be responsive to human beings in need is a conditio sine qua non of membership in the covenantal community of...
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The prime source of the biblical concept of a chosen people is Exodus 19:5, where the God of Israel refers to the children of Israel as "my treasured possession among all the peoples [li segulah mihol ha-amim]" (cf. Deut. 7:6). Employing the verbal meaning of the root of the term segulah as elaborated in medieval, postrabbinic literature...
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One of the principal tenets of the Jewish religion, together with its universalistic and monotheistic outlook, is the concept of the election of Israel by God. Christianity accepted monotheism; its God is identical with the God in whom Jews believe. The election of Israel, however, remains problematic. While some Christians today no longer hold that the election of Israel was abolished by...
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The mizvot, or ritual commandments, enjoined by the Torah are to be regarded first and foremost as religious praxis. As such the mizvot are the ground of the living religious reality known as Judaism. The mizvot are thus to be understood not in terms of their so-called philosophical "reasons" but rather as the matrix of Judaism as one lives it and is capable of living it in the here and now, in the everyday...
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Kehillah (community) refers to the organized communal units of Jewish existence. Widely used in the Bible, its root designates the act of convoking an assembly. Such an assembly might be especially summoned for a specific purpose: for religious matters such as fasting, feasting, worshiping, or hearing the words of the Torah, or for civic matters such as rebellion or war. Such an assembly...
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Human beings generally insist on some morality. The question immediately arises: Whence do we obtain it? One initial and plausible source is pre-existing human ideas of morality and their institutionalizations. But it is simultaneously clear that there are many human notions of morality that are invidious: "The heart is more perverse than anything else, because it is human; who can fully...
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Conservative Judaism, the largest of the three major Jewish religious classifications in the United States and Canada, is most accurately described as a number of organizational affiliations of rabbis and congregations as well as laity who identify themselves and who are identified by others as Conservative. While the name embraces a variety of theological orientations and norms of religious...
Convert and Conversion
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Hebrew scriptures use the concept of conversion to denote the fundamental decision by which the total human being responds to God's call. It is the human attitude that corresponds to the divine action of election. Election calls for conversion, and conversion is experienced as an election. The radical change, or conversion, of one's inner orientation has been described as a true enlightenment, as a...
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By appropriating the political lexicon of the ancient Near East to describe an unprecedented relation between a people and its God, the Bible accomplished far more than the awesomely significant "transference of suzerainty from a flesh and blood emperor to a supreme and unique ...
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Revelation begins with creation, and its position at the outset of the biblical narrative may be taken to indicate that all that follows-history, law, and religious experience derives its meaning from a thought-pattern arrived at by pondering the fact and story of creation. When we speak of creation, we are not, essentially, in the realm of physics, ancient or modern. We are making a statement of...
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" Peoples of the past," Franz Rosenzweig once whimsically remarked, "did not know whether they were living in the fifth or fourth century B.C. "
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Jewish attitudes toward death are paradoxical. On the one hand, there is a profound acceptance of the fact of mortality: death as part of a natural process marks the inevitable end to life in this world and is a fate common to all God's creatures. On the other hand, death is seen as punishment for sin, as expressed in the rabbinic phrase, "there is no death without sin." This theologizing of death...
Destiny and Fate
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Destiny and fate are best understood as existential self expressions of a particular religious tradition and a particular people. In Judaism, they are the internal structure of a people bound by revelation and by its own capacities and needs to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). Such an internal structure leads Israel to the obligation of concrete action to which no...
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If we understand dogma to mean selected beliefs or teachings set down by competent authority as the sine qua non of Jewish faith and thereby distinguished from and valued as more important than other beliefs and teachings of Judaism, it must be concluded that biblical and talmudic Judaism, with the possible exception of Sanhedrin 10:1, have no dogmas. Indeed, according to this definition it may be...
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Whereas the revision of Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism dates back only to the end of World War II, the Jews' reconsideration of Christianity has been proceeding for two centuries, sparked by the emancipation, when Jews for the first time could examine Christianity in an atmosphere of free inquiry unimpeded by the artificial external pressures previously exerted. To be...
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In his seminal work on the history of Greek culture and education, Werner Jaeger stated that "since the basis of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern human life, its history is affected by changes current within the community. When these are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes...
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Emancipation was a political event with far-reaching theological implications for modern Judaism. In its narrowest definition, emancipation simply brought Jews into the body politic by proclaiming them citizens of their native lands. However, the political act of emancipation was grounded in the expectation of profound transformations in the culture, socioeconomic behavior, and mentality of...
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In recent Jewish history Haskalah designates the movement that appeared in central and eastern Europe from the 1780s to the 1880s advocating rapid and deliberate Jewish cultural modernization. The Haskalah movement, in its first (Berlin or Mendelssohnian) phase, was primarily influenced by the French and German Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, so that Haskalah in this' context is usually...
Eros: Sex and Body
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Jewish thought unreservedly accepts sexuality as a necessary part of procreation and continuation of the species. Even if eroticism is typically associated with the evil impulse (yezer hara), its role is considered dialectically justified, as the midrash asserts: "Were it not for the evil impulse, no man would build a house, take a wife, beget a child, or engage in business" (Gen. R. 9:9). Where eros...
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Eschatology signifies the doctrine of the last and final events that will consummate the life of man and the cosmos and usher in the "day of the Lord." Such a definition, broad and general as it is, encompasses a considerable variety of classic Jewish belief and undergirds the language of the prayer book insofar as these convey teachings regarding the life that succeeds death, the coming of the...
Eternity and Time
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Reflecting on the attempt to define the relationship between the eternal and the time bound, T. S. Eliot observed, "To apprehend/The point of intersection of the timeless/With time is an occupation for the saint."
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My purpose is to attempt to apply certain modern categories to the study of classical Jewish ethics. This is a dangerous enterprise, because we are entering the minefield of anachronism. Nevertheless, I think it can produce fruitful results. I would like to show first of all that in classical Jewish philosophy there are several different ethical theories, four of which will be discussed...
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The term evil (in Hebrew, ra) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the most comprehensive-adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement." As such, the term means the opposite of good. There is no significant difference between the English and the Hebrew usage of the term to denote a negative state, condition, or phenomenon. There are, however, differences...
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Jewish exegesis works with a canon, or a set of inspired books, subject to the following conditions: (1) the number and the text of these books are fixed and may not be added to or brought up to date; (2) the books are authoritative-that is, they bind the Jews to a certain worldview and way of life; (3) they are perceived as a harmonious whole, conveying a coherent divine message for the guidance...
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The banishment of Adam and Eve at the very beginning of Genesis introduces a theme that stamps all the Five Books of Moses. From Abraham's departures for Canaan and beyond, through the Israelites' extended wanderings in the wilderness, to the marvelous promise of home conveyed near the end of Deuteronomy and promptly overwhelmed by the threat of renewed homelessness, the Torah...
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Etymologically, the term existence derives from the Latin verb ex(s)istere, "to stand out," that is, to be perceptible and hence to have a place in the domain of reality. The related term being has as its principal meaning "existence, the fact of belonging to the universe of things material or immaterial. "
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Atheological discussion of faith should begin with a brief account of its history in Judaism. When the Bible and rabbinic literature use the word emunah (faith) for man's relationship to God, it always denotes not belief but trust in God. It never signifies belief that God exists. It is an emotional and responsive term rather than a cognitive one. Faith is synonymous with bittahon (trust), rather than...
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The family is one of the main pillars of Jewish life, not only historically and sociologically but also religiously. The opening chapters of Genesis culminate with the creation of the first family and thus propose a myth of marriage and procreation that gives divine sanction to family life. Indeed, the rabbis understood the fertility blessing of Genesis 1:28 ("be fertile and increase, fill the earth and...
Fear of God
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The Torah is of no use to an individual but for yirat shamayim (lit., fear or awe of heaven, that is, of God), for it [yirat shamayim] is the very peg upon which everything hangs. "
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Jewish feminism focuses on three issues: attaining complete religious involvement for Jewish women; giving Jewish expression to women's experiences and self-understanding; and highlighting the imagery, language, and rituals already present within Jewish tradition that center around the feminine and women. These efforts involve changing or eliminating aspects of Jewish law, customs, and...
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The Bible contains little direct reference to freedom. The fewer than two dozen direct references in it mainly concern the release of a slave or otherwise legally encumbered person. National freedom receives scant mention. By contrast, much of the Bible's legislation and literary allusion speak of slavery, personal and ethnic. While no sure inferences can be drawn from...
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Biblical monotheism, which tended to subordinate the entire natural world to the sovereign power of YHWH, was ineluctably driven to attribute even the human psychological sphere to the all-determining divine action. "There was no other way of expressing the uncanny, overpowering, 'demonic' character of the power of sin, than by seeing this too as a work of Yahweh, even if one executed in...
Gesture and Symbol
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Gestures-a term that can be used for both nonverbal objects and bodily movements-are among the most distinctive elements of Jewish ritual. Only a few have a practical purpose, for example, covering the eyes with the hand in order to concentrate while reciting the first verse of the Shema. Most are said to symbolize themes or feelings or to refer to historical events or eschatological...
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Since the nineteenth century, a great deal has been written on the relationships between Gnosticism and Judaism, and in particular on the existence and nature of Jewish Gnosticism. Due to the lack of sources, however, much remains speculation. It is only in recent years that the publication of the Coptic Gnostic texts found at Nag-Hammadi (Upper Egypt) in 1945 has enabled scholars to map more...
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Whether belief in God erupted spontaneously in ancient Israel or whether there can be traced in the biblical record a gradual evolution from polytheism through henotheism to pure monotheism, it is certain that, from the sixth century B.C.E. at the latest, God was conceived of as the One Supreme Being, Creator and Controller of heaven and earth. Maimonides opens his great digest...
Grace or Loving-Kindness
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"The world," said the Psalmist, "is built on hesed" (Ps. 89:3). According to a Mishnaic teaching, gemilut hasadim-doing acts of hesed-is (together with the Torah and the Temple service) one of the three things by which the world is sustained (M. Avot 1:2). The Hebrew hesed (plural: hasadim) is usually translated as "grace" or "loving-kindness," but sometimes also as...
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Guilt is an unpleasant affective state in which a person condemns himself or is dissatisfied with himself for having done wrong or for having failed to live up to certain standards or ideals. The commitment to do right and to conform to ideals develops primarily from childhood experiences, from wanting to be sure of parental love and protection and to avoid parental displeasure and...
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Halakhic Judaism is often characterized as an extensive . and detailed code of norms. As the name of the celebrated codification of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh (Set Table) suggests, Judaism is seen as a way of life that is completely worked out and prepared. All that is required of a person is the willingness to sit at the table and to partake of the meal, that is, to follow the prescribed rules...
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Hasidism, the mystical revival movement that swept through eastern Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century, is a major and largely untapped source of theological language and ideas. While there are many presentations of Hasidism for the modern reader, most such treatments avoid the intricacies of Hasidic theology. The few historians who have examined these matters have not...
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Hebrew lies at the heart of traditional Judaism, its principal medium and in some ways an actual mode of behavior. That the written law, the study of which stands out among other personal responsibilities, was revealed in Hebrew (Gen. R. 31:8) self-evidently makes Hebrew pivotal: no language is an adequate translation of another, and although the law was to be "explained" to...
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A constant feature of the Jewish intellectual tradition is the attempt to draw boundaries, to distinguish between that wisdom which is essential to the nation and that which remains "foreign." Already in the book of Deuteronomy (4:6) we find an attempt to define that knowledge which sets Israel apart from her neighbors" Observe them [the statutes and ordinances] faithfully, for that will...
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There are three commonly used terms for heresy in Jewish literature: minut, kefirah ba-ikkar, and epikorsut. Moreover, the word heresy itself, which comes from the Greek hairesis, made its way into Hebrew literature in the Middle Ages through conflation with the Hebrew word harisah, which has a similar sound and whose root, h-r-s, in biblical usage already included the realm of meaning attached to...
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Hermeneutics refers to the principles, the presuppositions, and, in some cases, also to the rules that govern or condition the act of interpretation. As a philosophical area of inquiry, it is focused largely on texts; but in modern discussions the term hermeneutics is also used more broadly in connection with art, music, and even existence itself. When applied to texts, a distinction may be made...
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The first words of the Shulhan Arukh (OH 1:1) are: "One should pull oneself together" (lit., "overcome oneself," lehitgaber, from the root g-b-r). Heroism (geburah, from the same root) is one of the most significant terms relating to man's consciousness, will, and behavior. It is very difficult to define formally. We may say, though, that conceptually heroism is always linked with the struggle...
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The eve of the concluding day of the Passover feast is marked by an ancient custom. The community gathers in the synagogue and chants the hymn of thanksgiving-shirat hayam-sung by Moses and the Israelites upon the miraculous crossing of the Red...
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Holiness, in Hebrew, kodesh, indicates the highest value, or -more precisely-what can be said by men (or . angels) when God comes immediately to mind, as in Isaiah 6:3: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts." Holiness is the word by which men describe God and therefore the ultimate doxological predicate, because it is the word by which God describes himself. "You shall be...
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Holocaust is the term currently most widely employed for the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, first in Germany itself and subsequently in Nazi-occupied Europe, culminating in "extermination" camps and resulting in the murder of nearly six million Jews. However, the Hebrew term Shoah (total destruction) would be more fitting, since...
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The holy spirit is the conventional translation of the Hebrew term ruah ha-kodesh. Since this rendering has obfuscated the divergent development of the concept in rabbinic and Christian theology, the Hebrew designation has been retained in the present discussion of the rabbinic concept...
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Hope as a Judaic spiritual attitude has its basis in the covenant relation between God and Israel. The covenant originates as a reciprocal bond between God and Abraham directed toward the shared goal of producing a people dedicated to the divine service. What binds this original covenant of coresponsibility for the future is the faithful performance of actions-God's faithful...
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Religious humanism comprises the boundless fullness of human life; as such, it is grounded in the freedom of man. Furthermore, like its secular analogue, religious humanism seeks to cultivate interhuman relations in the spirit of tolerance among individuals as well as between nations. Yet as religious humanism it judges the fullness of human life and deeds by the supreme criteria of moral good and...
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To contemporary ears, the term humility strikes a discordant note. To minds shaped by the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, or Friedrich Schleiermacher, humility connotes social paralysis, infantile dependency, and obsequious obedience. Educated within a tradition of humanist, liberal thought, the modern Jew may regard humility as a threat to some of his most cherished values: the...
I and Thou
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l and Thou is the title of the English translation of Martin Buber's classic religio-philosophical work Ich und Du. It is also a pointer to that relationship of openness, presentness, immediacy, and mutuality that Martin Buber called the "I-Thou relationship" (Ich-Du BeZiehung) as opposed to the "I-It relation" (Ich-Es Verhaltnis)...
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Although one who repudiates idolatry may not yet have acknowledged the Torah, in a way he has already done so. While his subjective acknowledgment of the Torah may have still to crystallize, he is regarded by the rabbinic sages as though he had already fully affirmed the God of Israel: "Anyone who repudiates idolatry is viewed as though he had acknowledged the entire Torah...
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There is no imagination without distrust of imagination. This interdependence is especially obvious when a powerful religion attempts to subsume imaginative activity. The relation between religion and fantasy must be intimate, even complicit, since religion is orbic as well as orphic, wishing to embrace the totality of human...
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"And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ... )" (Gen. 1: 26). This verse is one of the most perplexing in the Hebrew Bible; Jewish commentators, from ancient times to the present, did their best to resolve the theological problems it presented. At the same time, it is difficult to find in the Bible a verse more pregnant with profound meaning, serving...
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The doctrine of immortality normally refers to the immortality of the soul-in contrast to the mortality of the body. This doctrine, as has often been pointed out, is not Jewish in origin but Greek. Judaism at first conceived of the life after death not as a liberation of the soul from the body, but as the "reunion of soul and body to live again in the completeness of man's...
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The concept of individuality refers to an event and a movement rather than to some enduring thing in the world. For Israel's sages, God alone endures, while the things of this world pass away, acquiring individuality only as instruments of God's purposes. Only idol-worshipers place their trust in mere things. For those not sharing the perspective of Israel's sages, however, concern to overcome...
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Islam, a monotheistic religion founded by Muhammad in the seventh century, is the system of beliefs and rituals based on the Koran. The term Islam is derived from the Arabic verb aslama (submit), denoting the attitude of the Muslim to God. Although the creed in its barest outline consists of the declaration "There is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is his prophet," Islam is a religion of both faith...
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In Hebrew Scripture the very name Jerusalem indicates that the city was built as a "foundation [for the deity] Salem," who can be identified with Shalmon or Shulmanu, a deity known to us from Assyrian sources. In view of the theophoric character of the name Jerusalem, that is, its being based on the divine appellation of Salem, it may be considered as highly probable that the nomen locus Salem mentioned in...
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Judaism cannot be defined according to its essence, since it has no essence. Judaism cannot therefore be regarded as a closed historical phenomenon whose development and essence came into focus by a finite sequence of historical, philosophical, doctrinal, or dogmatic judgments and statements. Judaism is rather a living entity which for some reason has survived as the religion of a chosen...
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Jurisprudence is the delineation of the governing principles and methods of positive law, that is, the law established by political authority. This discussion will undertake to identify Jewish jurisprudence not only in terms of Judaism's formal legal system but also with respect to other normative aspects of Jewish...
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Justice, the attribute of an omnipotent God, was "first of all man's assurance that God will not use His almighty power over His creatures without regard to right. "
Kingdom of God
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While God's kingship is a basic concept in the Bible, the usual Hebrew term for the "kingdom of God"-malkhut shamayim (lit., kingdom of heaven)-is first found in rabbinic literature. The kingdom of God, in Jewish thought, has two distinct yet intertwined meanings: one literal and political, the other metaphoric and...
Kingdom of Priests
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Kingdom of priests, a phrase borrowed from Exodus 19:6, is typically taken as the slogan of the ideal variously summarized as universal priesthood, egalitarian access to the sacred, or the like. It is, in brief, seen as contradicting the usual biblical norm of priesthood limited to those of a particular (Aaronite) descent. This article will discuss both the biblical passage whence the idea is derived and...
Land of Israel
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The land of Israel, as national heritage and holy land, has played a singular and central role in the history of the Jewish people and in the formation of its culture and religion. The special relationship to the land expressed in the covenant between God and his people, the unique interrelationship between national and religious elements, and the peculiar destiny of a nation that for most of its history...
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Language, as it first appears in Genesis, is divine. The first spoken words-"Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3)-are God's, and they not only announce the creation of light, but literally bring it into existence. Extending this role of language to all of creation, Rabbi Johanan states, "With ten utterances the world was created" (BT RH 32a), and the rabbis describe God as "He who spoke and the world...
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Not unlike the Hebrew Bible before its rescension, the Jewish liturgy-Israel's millennial creation of the spirit-mirrors the people's evolving self-conception in relation to God, humankind, and the world. As in the formation of Scripture and its canonization by stages, so in the crystallization of the Jewish "Book\of Common Prayer," the siddur, steady accumulation is counterpoised by constant...
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Judaism commands love (ahavah). The Torah contains three distinct positive commandments to love: to love God, to love our neighbor, and to love the stranger.
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Meaning is the central problem of human existence. Does life make sense? Does it amount to anything? Is there any purpose or value in the human enterprise or in the individual's personal quest? Many writers answer these questions in the negative. Koheleth, the elderly sage who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes, considered everything vanity. He concluded that life is nothing more than...
Medieval Jewish Philosophy
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Medieval Jewish philosophy reflects the entire gamut of speculative religious thought in the West. It falls into one of three categories-rationalistic, romantic, or mystical. We should bear in mind, however, that great thinkers rarely fall into distinct categories. There are romantic and mystical elements in the thought of Maimonides and a reverence for the dictates of reason in the work of...
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In Judaism, memory is a collective mandate, both in terms of what is recalled and how it is recalled. From the Deuteronomic injunctions to "remember the days of old" (32:7) and to " remember what Amalek did to you" (25: 17) to the persistent theme of remembering "that you were slaves in Egypt," the content of Jewish memory has been the collective saga as first recorded in Scripture and as later...
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Two folk witticisms exemplify the dual dimensionality of the word mentsh in Yiddish usage. The first, mentsh trakht un got lakht (man proposes and God disposes), aside from employing rhyme to achieve humorous effect,
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The Hebrew language is rich in words describing mercy. A large number of roots (rahem, hus, hamol, hitrazeh, hitpayyes, hanon, hesed, erekh apayim) occur in many forms-as beseeching verbs, as evocative adjectives, and as powerful nouns-in the Bible as well as in the liturgy. These roots imply others (hoshi'a, hazel, ga'al, azor, zakhor) that mean, respectively, to save, to rescue, to redeem, to...
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The notion of Jewish messianism is in itself far from simple or monolithic. In fact, it is a motley coat of many colors, and its historical evolution is complex. Its specific position on the diachronic scale of Jewish history, in both its ancient, medieval, and premodern and modern and secularized phases, is partly the result of immanent dynamisms and pressures and partly the result of the messianic...
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The question of metaphysics, which is in actuality the question of philosophy itself, shares the origins of the latter as well as its fate. Of its origins, Diogenes reminds us that "it was from the Greeks that philosophy took its rise: its very name refuses to be translated into foreign speech. "
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Midrash is the name for the activity of biblical interpretation as it was developed and practiced by the rabbis in Palestine during the first centuries of the Common Era. The word derives from the Hebrew root d-r-sh, "to inquire" or "to seek after," a root whose verbal form is often used in the Bible to refer to the act of seeking out God's will (Ex. 18:15; II Chron. 30:19). The locus for that...
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The Bible reports the wondrous ways in which God redeemed Israel from slavery, gave it a law and a land, and guided its subsequent life as a nation. It tells us, on occasion, how the Israelites reacted when God performed signs and wonders for their sake. Observing the Egyptians dead upon the seashore, for instance, "Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the...
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Max Weinreich, the preeminent historian of Yiddish, explained that a distinctive process of language "fusion provided Yiddish with a wealth of new synonyms that offer the opportunity of nuancing."
Modern Jewish Philosophy
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The very notion of Jewish philosophy (even leaving aside the notion of modernity) has been much debated. Isaac Husik, the standard historian of medieval Jewish philosophy, held that starting with the Renaissance there could no more be Jewish (or any other religionist) philosophy than there could be such a thing as Canadian mathematics. Julius Guttmann, the standard historian of the full sweep of...
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A Jewish theological conception of music truly crystallized only during the Middle Ages. In this period the arts were construed as intended to serve religious objectives, so it is not surprising that the finest artistic expressions of the epoch were essentially religious. This is particularly true with respect to music, to which medieval thinkers, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, assigned various...
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Insight into the spiritual universe of the millennial Jewish mystical tradition may be obtained by a phenomenological explication of two fundamental yet contrasting attitudes found throughout the course of its development, which can be called the moderate and the intensive modes of mystical concern or experience. The difference between these attitudes has been manifest since the very beginnings of...
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"Myth and Judaism" is deemed by many to be an impossible combination of words. Both Jewish and Christian scholars, regardless of whether their point of departure has been theological or secular, have been loath to attribute the concept of myth to Jewish religious literature. Accordingly, in this essay the specific literary character of the relevant texts will first have...
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The term natural law has been used to describe various doctrines that, while differing in detail, present a relatively consistent outlook regarding the existence of some natural standard that is or should be the standard for law and human action. There are at least two common elements that can be found in the various doctrines of natural law: (1) the existence of a general or universal...
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The myth that when God gave the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai he gave it in two parts, one in writing, the other not in writing but formulated for memorization and then handed on orally, comprises the theory of revelation represented by the oral Law, the Torah-that-is-memorized. The power of the myth lies in its capacity to account for those beliefs, and the books that contain them, which...
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Orthodox Judaism is the Judaism of those Jews who are committed to the doctrine that the Pentateuch, the written Law, is the word of God, which was given to Moses together with oral interpretations and a method of exegesis called the oral Law. Together, the written Law and the oral Law constitute the principal sources of the halakhah, by whose mandates Orthodox Jews feel...
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The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is derived from a root denoting wholeness or completeness, and its frame of reference throughout Jewish literature is bound up with the notion of shelemut, perfection. Its significance is thus not limited to the political domain-to the absence of war and enmity-or to the social-to the absence of quarrel and strife. It ranges over several spheres and can...
People of Israel
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The patriarch Jacob, after his struggle with the angel, was the first to receive the name Israel. This name then became the name of a people known as the people of Israel (am Yisrael). The name Israel refers, however, not only to the historical people present upon earth, but also to a soul-to an ongoing spiritual work of the people that takes place on planes beyond the visible, mundane order. The work of...
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Approaches to the concept of politics have evolved considerably. For certain authors the narrow definition, inherited from Greek antiquity, remains the only useful one: Politics (from the Greek polis techne) includes only that which concerns the state and its institutions, excluding all other forms of social organization. This perspective, which views the state as fundamentally distinct because it...
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Prayer is at the heart of Judaism and its spiritual life, tied intimately as it is to its daily rituals and to its modes and possibilities of contact with God. "Prayer is greater than good deeds," according to an early rabbinic saying; another saying calls it "more precious than sacrifices" (BT Ber. 32a). With the assurance of mystical insight, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, in a comment on Deuteronomy...
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Jewish theology cannot be said to share the preoccupation of contemporary biblical criticism with the Hebrew prophets. Nonetheless, a consideration of the prophetic phenomenon, of its message, and, indeed, of its decline from primary consideration in Jewish thought, can provide a useful perspective from which to view Jewish theology, especially in the connections it makes between...
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The term providence derives from the Greek root meaning "to perceive beforehand." While it first appears in the fifth century B.C.E., only in the later books of biblical literature, under Hellenistic influences, does the term leave any traces. In medieval Jewish thought, under combined Greek and Islamic influences, providence was designated by terms such as hanhagah (governance)...
Rabbi and Teacher
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The title rabbi (lit., my master) first appeared in ancient Palestine around the first century of the Common Era to designate an individual of exceptional learning and expertise in Jewish law. The term rav (lit., master) emerged several centuries later in Babylonia to distinguish a learned sage consecrated by his mastery of the Torah. The professional rabbinate, however, became visible only in...
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For Greek philosophers, reason itself authoritatively explained reality and mandated action. In that sovereign role (one that much of Western civilization accepted) reason has been both a problem and an opportunity for believing, thoughtful Jews. The biblical authors knew God had spoken to them and to their people. Having that certain source of knowledge, they acknowledged no other...
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Reconstructionism is the only Jewish spiritual, sectarian movement indigenous to the American environment. Its ideology remains the creation of its founder and theoretician, Mordecai Menahem Kaplan (1881-1983). His major work, Judaism as a Civilization, first published in 1934, laid the architectural basis of Reconstructionist thinking. In 1959 Rabbi Ira Eisenstein assumed the leadership...
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A characteristic signature of the classical rabbinic style is its interweaving of various theological motifs and preoccupations, its refusal to separate out high argument from examples drawn from the most mundane events of life, its continuous care for using simple fidelities and loyalty to the halakhah as occasions for promising large redemptions. It is consequently extremely difficult to set forth a...
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Reform Judaism is both an organized branch of religious Judaism, which today numbers some 1.2 million adherents, mainly in North America, and a religious philosophy that attempts to harmonize Jewish tradition with modern culture. It began as a movement for religious change within central European Jewish communities, especially in Germany, at the end of the eighteenth and in the first half...
Religion and State
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The problematic character of the relation between religion and state is no historical accident. It is rather a natural result of the coexistence of two distinct orders within any given society-indeed, within the structure of human life generally. A polity that acknowledges the existence and significance of religion at all must inevitably come to grips, theoretically and practically, with the' formulation...
Remnant of Israel
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The remnant of Israel (she'erit Yisrael) denotes the concept, especially cultivated by the biblical prophets, that a defeat of Israel will never be total and irreversible; a remnant will remain and allow a new epoch to unfold. This concept mediated between the prophecies of doom and the promises of redemption. The clearest expression of the idea of the remnant is to be found in Isaiah's call to...
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The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, has two distinct meanings. The first derives from the verb "to return"; when used in this sense, it signifies going back to one's point of origin, returning to the straight path, coming back home after a period of absence. The second derives from the verb "to reply," and denotes...
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In the biblical traditions of the people Israel, there seem to be two strands of thought regarding shabbat-rest from work-in the sense not only of the seventh day, but also of social repose and renewal in the seventh month and the seventh year. One of these strands sees shabbat as a reflection and expression of cosmic rhythms of time embedded in creation. The other sees shabbat as an affirmation of...
Resurrection of the Dead
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Belief in the resurrection of the dead (tehiyyat ha-metim) is an explicit dogma of classical Judaism, reaffirmed and elaborated by Moses Maimonides, treated by Hasdai Crescas as a "true belief" (rather than as a fundamental principle of Judaism), retracted to a more debatable level of deduction by Joseph Albo, and all but lost as a central teaching ever since the close of the medieval...
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The term revelation has a twofold meaning in English as well as in other languages-like, for example, Offenbarung in German. The first meaning denotes the hidden God's revelation of himself; the second denotes the God who reveals not himself but rather "the Torah from heaven" (Torah min ha-shamayim)-the God who communicates information or commands. Revelation in this second sense...
Reward and Punishment
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Belief in retribution is an essential doctrine of every religion. It serves as an incentive to the worship and service of God. In Judaism, a religion of laws, instructions, and commandments given by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God, this doctrine assumes even greater importance. The word of God, vouchsafed in Torah and reiterated through his prophetic messengers, cannot be...
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The meaning of righteousness is best expressed by the Hebrew word zedek which, in time, absorbed the connotations of mishpat (justice), hesed (fidelity to covenant), and emet (truth), as well as the adjectives yashar (straight, of integrity) and tamim (whole, without blemish). Righteousness, as illustrated in biblical and rabbinic usage, is morality in its totality or the moral ideal in all...
Sacred Text and Canon
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The Jewish concept of a sacred text derives directly from the Bible's description of the origins of its own laws. In the famous passages in Exodus 19 and 24 narrating the Sinaitic revelation, the sacrality of the laws revealed there is set forth as a function of both their divine origins and their authority for all time. Repeated in the book of Deuteronomy (cf. 31:9-13), these functions were eventually...
Sanctification of the Name
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In popular parlance, hiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of the Name) has come to mean mainly one thing: martyrdom for Judaism. The antonymic phrase, hillul ha-Shem (profanation of the Name) has also come to mean mainly one thing: behavior that brings discredit on Judaism in the eyes of non-Jews. This narrowing of the meaning of the two terms has taken place for good historical reasons, but it has...
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Beyond providing techniques for coping with life, science also constitutes a means of conceiving of life. As such, it can be part and parcel of the efforts of the religious man to make the cosmos meaningful in human terms. Until the modern period, in method and in substance science was not wholly differentiated from other modes of knowing and explaining such as philosophy, mysticism, and...
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In modern jewish history, the idea of secularism is a recent one, discontinuous with the past. Traditional vocabulary does not have terms distinguishing secular specifically from sacral. The terms kodesh (the holy) and hol (the profane) refer to a dichotomy both of whose parts are immediately subject to religious law. The only areas of Jewish life in principle outside the exclusive religious jurisdiction of Judaism were those upon which a...
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The written records of Jewish preaching in the Middle Ages and early modern period provide important and insufficiently utilized source material for the study of Jewish theology. While it is unlikely that truly original theological ideas are often articulated in sermons, their value is of a different nature. Unlike the more technical, original, and profound books of theological content, which were...
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Silence forms an integral part of the Jewish theology of the covenant. Indeed, in the dialogue between God and man established by the covenant, silence is more than simply a pause, a hiatus without significance or content. It is as essential to the understanding of the revealed message as is a musical pause to the understanding of a piece of music. Silence is not an interruption of the word: it...
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The Hebrew language, in both biblical and postbiblical literature, has numerous names for the concept of sin, each with its own unique sense and shade of meaning. Moreover, from the books of the Bible-especially the prophets-to the latterday homiletic writings, Jewish literature is filled with reproachful discourses inveighing against all manner of...
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The development of the Jewish conception of the soul has been determined by two basic, contradictory attitudes regarding the soul's nature and its relationship to the world. The one views man as a psychophysical unity, while the other claims a separate metaphysical existence for the soul. The former conception, founded on the biblical worldview, has little religious significance; it considers the...
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Although the term soul searching (heshbon nefesh) is relatively new in the lexicon of Jewish thought-its use dates only from the Middle Ages-the concept of a spiritual reckoning is as old as Jewish culture itself. The forms of this reckoning and the issues it encompasses may have changed from generation to generation, but it has remained a principal element in the Jewish life and thought of all...
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Spirituality as an essential value of the Jewish tradition is a striving for the presence of God and the fashioning of a life of holiness appropriate to such striving. As such, the spiritual life that stands at the center of Judaism is the shared goal of biblical priest and prophet, of Pharisee and Essene sectarian, of Hellenistic contemplative and law-centered rabbi, of philosopher, halakhist, kabbalist, and...
State of Israel
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A consideration of the State of Israel in theological terms may, to historians of Zionism and observers of contemporary Israel, appear contrived, or at least paradoxical. Israel was envisioned, molded, and established by the Zionist movement, and although this movement could point to pious precursors and adherents, it was in many respects a rebellion against religious tradition. Most of its...
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From biblical times to the present, the concept of the ger toshav, the resident alien, in its various senses, has served to shape the attitudes of Jewish thought and legislation in relation to the non-Jew who has to a certain extent drawn close to the basic principles of Judaism. His relationship to and observance of several fundamental universal principles of Judaism entitled the ger toshav, by...
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In Jewish thought and experience, few values are as cherished as talmud Torah, the study of Torah; and few cultures, if any, have assigned to learning of any kind-let alone the mastery of scriptural and legal texts-the status it enjoys within Judaism. That priority is not the result of much-vaunted Jewish intellectualism. Quite the contrary; it is, if anything, the latter's cause rather than its effect. Its true source...
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A Jew loyal to the covenant perceives every aspect of reality as expressive of the personal will of God. Schematically speaking, we may say that the covenantal community experiences God as an active personal will in its consciousness of its physical existence, its sociopolitical existence, and its normative daily life. First, the creation of the physical world and the human species is not perceived...
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To effect this universalist vision, the Jewish people was, paradoxically, set apart-as a testing ground for the possibility of redemptive interaction between-humanity and God. For, as a people, the Jews are a random crosssection of humanity. And if this people could be transformed into an instrument for divine intimacy, then the hope of a realized transcendence could...
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The Talmud is the main (though not the only) work of the oral Torah (Torah she-be-al peh). It is second only to the written Torah, that is, the Bible, in its sanctity, and its impact upon the life of the Jewish people throughout the centuries has been no less than that of the Bible-if not...
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Theodicy is a term generally attributed to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In his treatise Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (1710), Leibniz attempts to reconcile his well-known claim that ours is "the best of all possible worlds" with the observation that evil is a feature of human experience. Leibniz derives the term theodicy from the Greek...
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Theology in Judaism is an intellectual discipline with a continuous history but a discontinuous tradition. Despite the unbroken production of works either partly or wholly concerned with the asking of theological questions, the issues they have raised have not always been considered central or even germane to the conduct...
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Judaism is a religion of time, a religion of history. "It was the glory of Greece to have discovered the idea of cosmos, the world of space; it was the achievement of Israel to have experienced history, the world of time."
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The concept of tolerance, when sounded as a theme in Jewish thought, is gravely resonant. It recalls the civil and religious disabilities that virtually every Jewish community has endured in the course of the Diaspora, that is, it brings first to mind Jewish suffering. Historically, the association is understandable: Arguments in favor of tolerance originate in the conviction of the need for tolerance, a...
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If one were to seek a single term that might summon up the very essence of Judaism it would certainly be torah, a concept whose centrality has endured from the biblical period to the present day. As such, it is an idea that defies easy summary. Indeed, the very word torah underwent a complicated evolution from its earliest attested usages in the Bible until its definitive formulation in classical...
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Tradition is essentially a mode of generational relation, whose structure and meaning are inherently historical (history understood here as a succession of events that affect and relate people living at different times). Tradition implies, therefore, a reality transmitted from past to present that demands of each succeeding generation that its formulated past be accepted by the generation that...
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In Hebrew Scripture, in rabbinic literature, and for most Jewish thinkers, truth is a characteristic of personal relationships. Truth is fidelity to one's word, keeping promises, saying with the lips what one says in one's heart, bearing witness to what one has seen. Truth is the bond of trust between persons and between God and humanity. In the Western philosophical tradition, truth is a characteristic of the claims...
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Recognition of Judaic unity may originally have emerged some four millennia ago. Around the era usually assigned to Abraham, Mesopotamians had begun to conceptualize justice as an autonomous principle and had started to insist upon it by right rather than divine whim. The textual evidence for this demand intimates the birth of yearning for rectification of the...
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In the strict meaning of the term-no place-the concept of utopia has no application in Judaism. The characteristic feature of the customary utopia is its remoteness in time and space. It will be inaccessible or perhaps exist in no recognizable area of the world. It may even be located on the moon. It is also frequently set at some future date, or is perhaps a purely intellectual construction. In this sense no Jewish...
Women and Judaism
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At the risk of frustrating reader and writer alike, I should like to explore the subject at hand exclusively through questions, the first of which is: Why questions? One answer is, quite Simply, that the questions present themselves, almost endlessly. At every turn, paradoxes and inner contradictions virtually leap off the hallowed page. These very contradictions highlight a central fact: no...
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The biblical expressions referring to labor (avodah and melakhah) imply a power to make and create, be it divine or human. God is depicted in the creation story in Genesis as a creative artisan. The identification of God's role as shaper (yozer) with his role as creator (bore) of all appears a number of other times in the Bible: " ... whom I have created [berativ], formed [yezartiv], and made for My...
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Zionism is a nationalist movement differing from others because it reflects the history of a people uniquely identified with a world religion. Its purpose was to restore the dispersed, stateless Jews to sovereign independence in the land from which tradition taught they had been exiled by God's will as a punishment for their sins. Hence, Zionism was challenged to define itself either as a rebellion...
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List of Abbreviations
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List of Contributors
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Publication Year: 2009