From the Rabbi’s Desk June/July 2018
Rabbi Carla Freedman
For several months now, the class that meets on Thursday afternoons from 3:00 to 4:30 pm has been looking at the Bible from a non-traditional perspective. We read Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? and discussed the “documentary hypothesis”, which holds that the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is not the divinely revealed word of God, but rather, a composite work of human beings, written at various times and places by people with various agendas, all of which is discernable to the trained eye. While this theory, which has been around since the late 19th century, is widely accepted amongst Bible scholars of most religious backgrounds (but certainly not by Orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Christians), it is still only slowly making its way into the thinking of people outside the seminaries, in the pews and in the classes of liberal religious denominations.
Then we read Friedman’s The Exodus, which offers a different understanding of who left Egypt, and how that impacted Judaism as a result.
We are now ready to give our attention to Judaism as a religion. What are its hallmarks? What are its contributions to religious thinking and living? When and where did it begin? Who was the first Jew?
Christianity is a religion based upon theology; Judaism is a religion based on its adherents’ historical experiences. We do not have elaborate traditions about heaven and hell, about resurrection, about the role of the super-righteous (saints?), or even about the special powers and/or privileges of clergy. Rather, we have an elaborate tradition of marking the events that chronicle our evolving relationship with God, as expressed in our history.
Jewish religious practices all derive from that single notion: that the Jewish people have a particular relationship with God, which we cite repeatedly through the annual calendar and through our lives. Shabbat, for example, as Kiddush reminds us, is a “remembrance of the work of creation”, as well as a “reminder of the exodus from Egypt”. The dietary laws are intended to make us conscious all the time of being faithful to our God, by setting ourselves apart from others and their dietary practices. Sukkot teaches us to respect the part played in our harvests by forces entirely outside our control. We wear a kippah to remind us to live with humility in the presence of God.
So, the question arises: how did Judaism come into existence, and how has it evolved since then? That will be the subject of our next class, on Thursday afternoons from 3:00 to 4:30 pm, beginning on Thursday, May 31 (watch emails for details). This is not a history of the Jews, but rather, a history of Judaism. Of course the two are intertwined, but the emphasis will be on how Jewish religious thought evolved, how Jewish religious practices reflect that, and how we as American Jews of the 21st century live with that.
There will be no “text book”. I will present topics, engage with you in discussion, and we will work together to come to some understandings about Judaism. How long will this course go? As long as it takes. But as a guideline, I plan to offer a course late in the summer on “Preparing for the High Holy Days”… so it cannot go on indefinitely. I hope to see you in class!