II. Basic Doctrines and Sources
As a rich and complex religious tradition, Judaism has never been monolithic. Its various historical forms nonetheless have shared certain characteristic features. The most essential of these is a radical monotheism, that is, the belief that a single, transcendent God created the universe and continues providentially to govern it. Undergirding this monotheism is the teleological conviction that the world is both intelligible and purposive, because a single divine intelligence stands behind it. Nothing that humanity experiences is capricious; everything ultimately has meaning. The mind of God is manifest to the traditional Jew in both the natural order, through creation, and the social-historical order, through revelation. The same God who created the world revealed himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The content of that revelation is the Torah(“revealed instruction”), God’s will for humankind expressed in commandments (mizvoth) by which individuals are to regulate their lives in interacting with one another and with God. By living in accordance with God’s laws and submitting to the divine will, humanity can become a harmonious part of the cosmos.
A second major concept in Judaism is that of the covenant (berith), or contractual agreement, between God and the Jewish people. According to tradition, the God of creation entered into a special relationship with the Jewish people at Sinai. They would acknowledge God as their sole ultimate king and legislator, agreeing to obey his laws; God, in turn, would acknowledge Israel as his particular people and be especially mindful of them. Both biblical authors and later Jewish tradition view this covenant in a universal context. Only after successive failures to establish a covenant with rebellious humanity did God turn to a particular segment of it. Israel is to be a “kingdom of priests,” and the ideal social order that it establishes in accordance with the divine laws is to be a model for the human race. Israel thus stands between God and humanity, representing each to the other.
The idea of the covenant also determines the way in which both nature and history traditionally have been viewed in Judaism. Israel’s well-being is seen to depend on obedience to God’s commandments. Both natural and historical events that befall Israel are interpreted as emanating from God and as influenced by Israel’s religious behavior. A direct causal connection is thus made between human behavior and human destiny. This perspective intensifies the problem of theodicy (God’s justice) in Judaism, because the historical experience of both individuals and the Jewish people has frequently been one of suffering. Much Jewish religious thought, from the biblical Book of Job onward, has been preoccupied with the problem of affirming justice and meaning in the face of apparent injustice. In time, the problem was mitigated by the belief that virtue and obedience ultimately would be rewarded and sin punished by divine judgment after death, thereby redressing inequities in this world. The indignities of foreign domination and forced exile from the land of Israel suffered by the Jewish people also would be redressed at the end of time, when God would send his Messiah (mashiah, “one anointed” with oil as a king), a scion of the royal house of David, to redeem the Jews and restore them to sovereignty in their land. Messianism, from early on, has been a significant strand of Jewish thought. Yearning for the Messiah’s coming was particularly intense in periods of calamity. Ultimately, a connection was drawn between the messianic idea and the concept of Torah: The individual Jew, through proper study and observance of God’s commandments, could hasten the Messiah’s arrival. Each individual’s action thus assumed a cosmic importance.
B. The Rabbinic Tradition
Although all forms of Judaism have been rooted in the Hebrew Bible (referred to by Jews as the Tanach, an acronym for its three sections: Torah, the Pentateuch; Nebiim, the prophetic literature; and Ketubim, the other writings), it would be an error to think of Judaism as simply the “religion of the Old Testament.” Contemporary Judaism is ultimately derived from the rabbinic movement of the first centuries of the Christian era in Palestine and Babylonia and is therefore called rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi, in Aramaic and Hebrew, means “my teacher.” The rabbis, Jewish sages adept in studying the Scriptures and their own traditions, maintained that God had revealed to Moses on Sinai a twofold Torah. In addition to the written Torah (Scripture), God revealed an oral Torah, faithfully transmitted by word of mouth in an unbroken chain from master to disciple, and preserved now among the rabbis themselves. For the rabbis, the oral Torah was encapsulated in the Mishnah (“that which is learned or memorized”), the earliest document of rabbinic literature, edited in Palestine at the turn of the 3rd century. Subsequent rabbinic study of the Mishnah in Palestine and Babylonia generated two Talmuds (“that which is studied”; also called Gemera, an Aramaic term with the same meaning; see Talmud), wide-ranging commentaries on the Mishnah. The Babylonian Talmud, edited about the 6th century, became the foundation document of rabbinic Judaism.
Early rabbinic writings also include exegetical and homiletical commentaries on Scripture (the Midrashim; see Midrash) and several Aramaic translations of the Pentateuch and other scriptural books (the see Targums). Medieval rabbinic writings include codifications of talmudic law, the most authoritative of which is the 16th-century Shulhan Arukh(Set Table) by Joseph ben Ephraim Caro. In Judaism, the study of Torah refers to the study of all this literature, not simply of the Pentateuch (“the Torah,” in the narrow sense).