Sunday, July 27, 2008

Another Good Book...

I just finished THE NINE QUESTIONS PEOPLE ASK ABOUT JUDAISM, by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin. What a book! I thought I knew quite a bit about Judaism as a religion and about the Jewish people as a "race"/nation -- I even came close to becoming Jewish as a teenager, because I felt such kinship. Now that I've read this book, I know why. (Or, I should say, I know the whys. Lots of reasons!)

When I was born again and began studying the Bible, I began a systematic study of the history of the Jewish people and nation, but even that seems superficial, after what I just learned in this book.

The "idea" of one God came from the Jews. Until God established them as His people and as a nation, most other cultures believed in multiple "gods" -- gods of territories, traits, and emotions, not a God who was Creator over all. Now, if you're not religious at all, this is probably no big thing, but if you are, more than likely you believe in one God. All three of the world's major religions do -- Judaism, Christian, Islam. And all three of these religions -- as well as other social movements -- owe their existence to the Jews. Abraham is considered the progenitor of all three world monotheistic religions.

Here's something from the book. Ponder it carefully:

"The enigma of Jewish survival [despite systematic efforts for well over 3,000 years to exterminate the culture] has perplexed nearly all world historians and social philosophers. Mark Twain expressed it most succinctly: 'The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dreamstuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew: all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?'" (Harper's Magazine, 1899)

For the Jew, of course, the secret of his immortality is God, the divine aspect in Jewish history. God chose them; God made promises to them; God vanquishes their enemies. God saves them -- again and again. Remnant after remnant moves forward, past the pogroms and the persecutions and the holocausts...

There really is no other explanation, is there? Not from where I sit. I see God in action when I consider the survival and the importance of Jewish thought and culture to the world.

Judaism was the first "morality-based"religion. The laws (Torah) were laid down to make the Hebrews a body of believers dedicated to treating others with compassion and concern.

In Judaism, it isn't enough to "have faith" and be a good person. It's only "enough" when a tenth of everything a Jew owns or earns goes to help someone else. In Judaism, acts of kindness, compassion and support (of the widowed, lame, blind, homeless, traveler, neighbor, etc.) are the by-products of feeling obligated to God for their own blessings -- for their existence and providence.

And the benevolence doesn't stop with their own.

And does a Jew actually have to feel, in his bones, that there's a God in order to be safe and saved? Not at all. He only has to ACT AS THOUGH God exists, and that He's taking note of the way Jews and Gentiles are treating each other. Because faith is a quavering, wavering commodity throughout a lifetime. A faith-filled person can feel less certain at times than he or she does at others. Imagine the "faith-buster" the Holocaust could have been (and likely was) to Jews during WW II! "Where is God?!" was likely a common cry, as it was in the days when David was being pursued by King Saul with such a vengeance. When God seems silent and inactive, it's not easy to believe He's doing anything at all. But of course he is -- the earth is still spinning, day and night are taking their turns, the tides are ebbing and flowing, the stars are in their firmament. God's still here, working. Always. Sometimes it's just hard to imagine a loving, interactive God when people are treating other people like refuse, or dumb animals, or sport... or targets of their prejudice and wrath.

Another aspect of Jewish law is the edict against killing, hunting and other forms of violence. It's unthinkable that a Jew would be found enjoying a cockfight or a bull- or bear--baiting during the times in our cultures when such "sport" was considered "riveting entertainment." Kosher laws prevented the inhumane slaughter of the very few food animals Jews are allowed to eat. Even the ritual sacrificing of animals during the time of the Temple was carried out in a way that the animals didn't experience any trepidation or pain during the process. (Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in many of today's packing houses, where "kosher" cattle are lifted by one hind leg using a mechanical lift and a chain, so the animals' throats can be slit and they won't fall to the ground and "contaminate" the meat.)

Here was a Middle Eastern culture as far removed from other cultures of that day and time as it could be. Here is a culture that continues to try to "tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the earth." And it seems that nearly everybody hates them!

Why? That, too, should be easy to figure out. They do, indeed, very much "seem" (even to the atheist and agnostic) to have a powerful God on their side -- a God who has intervened on their behalf for millennia and who they believe watches all of us and sees what we do to others (including what we do to His people, the Jews). The "eternal" presence of the Jew in the world, despite chronic all-out efforts to eradicate him, seems assured. Their survival always looks tenuous, always seems to be teetering, but... God is there and He will see them through... again... and again... and again. Because He promised He would and He doesn't lie!

There is so much more in the book. The nine questions asked and answered in the book are foundational to why the Jewish culture survives and thrives, and why it's so important that the Jewish people retain their unique identity in the world.

Q1: Can One Doubt the Existence of God and Still Be a Good Jew? (Read the entire explanation, not the wee bit I reported to you. It's fascinating!)

Q2: Why Do We Need Organized Religion or Jewish Laws -- Isn't It Enough to Be a Good Person?

Q3: If Judaism Is Supposed to Make People Better, How Do You Account for Unethical Religious Jews and for Ethical People Who Are Not Religious?

Q4: How Does Judaism Differ from Christianity, Marxism and Communism, and Humanism?

Q5: What Is the Jewish Role in the World?

Q6: Is There a Difference Between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism?

Q7: Why Are There So Many Young Jews Alienated from Judaism and the Jewish People?

Q8:Why Shouldn't I Intermarry -- Doesn't Judaism Believe in Universal Brotherhood?

Q9: How Do I Start Practicing Judaism?

Think you know the answers? You'll be surprised by many of them!

I now understand the Jewish people and nation far better than I ever have before, and I plan to study even further. (The bibliography and suggested further readings, alone, are worth the price of the book!)

If you have some time this summer, check out this book!

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