The Great Religions By Which Men Live
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
THE SEMITIC RELIGIONS
13. THE LORD IS ONE
The whole world knows the Jews. Their wanderings have carried them over the earth. With them they have taken their religion, to which most of them have remained intensely loyal. When the sun sets at the beginning of the Sabbath, many millions of Jews start their day of rest and worship. Their numbers are not large in comparison with the world’s total population. But the mark that the Jews have made in the world is large and significant indeed.
Judaism is the "mother religion" of both Christianity and Islam. These three have been the major religions of the Western parts of the world. From Judaism, Christianity and Islam "inherited" many religious ideas, morals, and practices. If a historian ignored the contribution of the Jews to the development of Western civilization, he could not write its past or understand its present.
Jews do not belong to one race of people. Their wanderings over the earth have made this impossible. Thousands of years ago, they were a group of tribes, then called the Hebrews. Now the term ‘Jew’ applies correctly to anyone who is a member of the Jewish faith. Nationally speaking, Jews are Germans, Arabian, American, and almost everything else.
Despite their widespread national homes, the Jews have retained throughout the ages a sense of closeness to one another. They have done this by following carefully their religious practices and laws. They have done it through a single-minded insistence on the truth of what they call the Shema: "Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." This is the heart of every Jewish religious service. More than this, it is the heart of Judaism.
THE ONE GOD
The Hebrews of ancient times sought to understand the meaning and purpose of life, just as did the ancient wise men of India and China. Out of that wondering, some Hebrew of long ago came to feel a special relationship to the heart of the universe. Jewish traditions say that this man was Abraham. Abraham believed in a personal god who took a special interest in his destiny and dreams. Jews still honor this legendary man as the father of their people. Others took up his beliefs and found in them answers to their own questions about the world.
Eventually there appeared another great personality, Moses. He sharpened and clarified the idea of a personal god. He believed that the god had made a special agreement with Abraham and with all his descendants. They had promised their loyalty and devotion. In turn, the god would make them a mighty nation.
Traditional Jews still believe that God revealed the laws of life to Moses on Mount Sinai. They call Moses the founder of their religion. To him they give the credit for their important collection of laws on religious practice, behavior, and diet. He was the leader chosen by God to deliver the Hebrews from slavery in a strange country into a land of their own.
Such beliefs are based on the old, old tales found in the books of Genesis and Exodus. As many Jewish scholars have always been ready to point out, they cannot be taken as literal history. They are legends that were finally put into writing after centuries of existence in the memories of the Hebrew people, who had told them aloud generation after generation. The legends show that the god was at first a tribal god, a protector and benefactor of the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham. He was known and worshiped by Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, who was later called Israel.
Gradually, the Hebrew-Jewish people became convinced that this tribal god was actually the one and only God of all creation. Of course, this process took time. It took century after century, through the periods of the great Hebrew leaders -- the tribal fathers, Moses, David and the other kings, Isaiah and the rest of the prophets. Slowly the people were gaining a worldview that could not have been theirs at their beginning as wandering nomad tribes.
But now, for 2500 years, the great affirmation of Judaism has been: "... the Lord our God, the Lord is One." The development of the Jewish worship of one God reflects the experiences and temperament unique to the Jews. In their own way, they early arrived at a conclusion shared by all major living religions today: underlying the endless variety we see in life is a single purpose, a single reality.
For a long time, Jews did not find it important to discuss the nature of God. God exists, he is one, and he is reality. Even today, there is not a creed describing the characteristics of God. The Shema is sufficient.
However, some rabbis and philosophers did become interested in describing God’s qualities, though no Jew is ever required to affirm the ideas. God is righteous. He is the Creator. He is Spirit. God is a sympathetic helper to man, providing the means whereby man may save himself from the limitations of ignorance and sinfulness. God has made men as his children; thus, they reflect his nature.
No Jew can be said to love God, unless he is also in loving relationship with his neighbor. ills neighbor includes the alien and stranger in his land, whom he is asked to treat as he treats his own people. Even more than this is a Jew asked to do: "... thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself."
Long after this was written, someone offered a challenge to the famous Rabbi Hillel, who lived and taught at about the same time as Jesus. The challenger asked the rabbi to tell everything important about Judaism in the space of time in which a man could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel declared: "That which is hurtful to thee do not to thy neighbor. This is the whole doctrine. The rest is commentary. Now go forth and learn."
Righteousness is so important to Jews that one might say there are twin Jewish concerns -- the oneness of God and the righteousness of man. It is not hard for men to follow the laws and will of God. Being made in God’s image, we have a natural capacity for goodness. Failure to do the right, say Jews, is a denial of our own nature.
Often Jews have known God as the Lawgiver for their people. The Law he gave is called the Torah, which means "Teaching." The Torah consists of five books, sometimes called the Pentateuch. The books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. All Jews are encouraged to study them. The complete Torah is regularly read each year in the synagogues, a portion on each Sabbath.
The Torah contains the legends of its own origin. According to these legends, God gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, while the Hebrews were camping in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. There the Hebrews renewed their agreement with God, promising to abide by his laws. Traditions further tell that their God spoke the Ten Commandments, which are found in the twentieth chapter of Exodus. There were more commandments than these, to be sure -- over six hundred in all. The commandments deal with a wealth of subjects: diet, crime and punishment, religious practices, holy days, and human relationships. Many Jews are among the first to insist that all these laws could not have been made in one time and one place. They are actually a collection of laws that the Hebrew-Jewish people formulated over a period of years of living together.
In the Jewish Bible, there is a second section known as "The Prophets." Many people believe that the height of Jewish thought and understanding was reached in the teachings of the prophets. The prophets did not foretell the future; they did "tell for" God. They were, first and foremost, spokesmen for God, who warned of dire consequences if God’s will were not followed.
It was the prophets who tried to show the people that devotion to God did not lie solely in following each law in smallest detail. Why should a man concern himself with the detailed observance of over six hundred laws? Devotion lay in keeping the spirit of the Law.
According to Isaiah, these are attributes of the man who has pondered the spirit of the law:
The prophet Micah reduced the important rules to only three, in his famous declaration of a man’s spiritual duty:
For Amos, this was the spirit of the Law: "Seek the Lord, that you may live."
Still a third section of the Jewish Bible is known as "The Writings." It includes books of history recounting the adventures of the Hebrew-Jewish people and their growing understanding of their world. It includes the Psalms and the other books of poetry. While these are not considered to be the basic Law, as the first five books are, they are still in the spirit of the Law.
Modern Jews do not rely only on these three sections of their sacred writing. There is another group of writings, not a part of their Bible, but revered just second to it. This is the Talmud. The Talmud is, in effect, an extension of the Torah down into the centuries, which followed the completion of the other writings. The Talmud arose to meet conditions that the Jews faced in later times. As their homes and surroundings changed, their religious and cultural needs changed. Additional laws grew out of the newer needs. These were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. From time to time, learned rabbis commented on these oral laws and on the earlier, written ones, seeking to reinterpret them for the changing times.
Through such continued commentary on past traditions and laws in the light of newer situations, the Law of Judaism has remained alive. Modern Jews are able to adjust themselves creatively to demands never dreamed of by Moses or other great teachers of long ago.
THE JEWISH TASK
The old tradition of the special agreement between God and the Hebrews convinced many Jews that God had chosen them as his favorites above all people on the earth. They felt that they were privileged, and some of them looked upon other peoples as inferior. However, later teachers interpreted the idea of "chosenness" in a different way. They said that the Jews had been chosen to serve the Lord, teaching others about the one God of all the world.
Still some Jews persisted in thinking in terms of exclusiveness. This caused the prophets much concern. Listen to an early prophet as he tries to correct their mistaken ideas:
An anonymous prophet shows that their God is the God of all people. He quotes God as saying: "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage." The whole book of Jonah is directed against narrow nationalism and the "chosen people" idea held by many Jews of that time.
There have always been many Jews who followed the emphasis of the prophets. These Jews have never believed themselves to be divinely chosen above all other peoples. Jews traditionally have been tolerant of believers in other faiths. Their patience and forbearance in matters of religion are close to the attitudes of sincere Hindus and Buddhists.
In their ideas of God and in their Law, the Jews find their dearest values. For these, they feel richly blessed. But most of them do not believe that the blessing is available only to them. Other people find values in their own ideas, too, and Jews accept such differences as enriching. For their part, Jews do not wish to persuade others to their religion. It is not a way of salvation. It is a way of life. And though there are numbers of converts to Judaism, Jews never work actively for the conversion of others.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Jews are always concerned about righteousness. They have never felt that governments or societies, as people have known them, are as good as they could be. So the Jews look for a future time when all men will be righteous and when their families and societies will reflect that righteousness. Traditionally the Jews have called this future time the "Kingdom of God." It would be a time when God’s righteous rule would extend over the whole earth.
Traditional and modem Jews disagree about how it will come and what it will be. Traditional Jews still refer to a Messiah, a person selected by God to bring in the Kingdom, since men have thus far been unable to do it alone. Liberal Jews prefer to think of every man as a messiah, who does whatever he can to advance the cause of righteousness. Gradually, then, the Kingdom will arrive.
The Jewish hope and the Christian hope for a righteous world order are very similar -- even though they have been expressed in differing terms. And Jews declare that it is to be universal, for they believe that the righteous of all nations will have a share in the world to come.
The Jews’ great interest in living rightly now and in improving the world has lessened their concern about life beyond the grave. Jews do not agree among themselves on this subject. Some traditional Jews have faith in a life beyond the grave that includes punishment and reward, a bodily resurrection, and eternity in Heaven or Hell. More liberal Jews consider none of these beliefs important. Though they believe that the quality of personality (or the soul) cannot die, they do not care to make theories about it. This life, for them, is the life that is important. Doing the right thing now is of more value than believing something. Many Jews feel that repentance and good deeds for one hour in this world are better than the whole life of the world to come.
THE PROMISED LAND
The Jews have been the world’s best-known displaced persons. More than two thousand years ago, world events left them without a permanent home and sent them forth to roam the earth. Wherever they settled, they kept alive their traditions and their worship of God. Often they stayed together in their own communities, in order that they might better keep their holy days and their dietary laws.
Other people found the Jewish ways different and sometimes difficult to understand. The differences caused some people to complain, and even to persecute the Jews. The Jews have suffered more severe treatment from their neighbors than any other single religious group. Christians particularly -- accusing the Jews of having killed Jesus -- have been guilty of such persecution. Even today, unscrupulous leaders can find a scapegoat in the Jews, inciting hatred against them, Why the Jews have been so treated is a serious problem that still concerns students of history, sociology, anthropology, and religion.
The isolation forced upon them and the persecution by many neighbors through many years made the Jews more dependent upon one another and upon their traditions than they might otherwise have been. For over two thousand years, they have recalled the ancient promise of God about a land that would be theirs. This was the legendary promised land sought by the Hebrews who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. This land they had for a time, but they were conquered by one nation after another, only to be driven out in the end.
Many Jews have kept alive the hope that once again the land of Palestine would be theirs. To help bring peace to a laud troubled by outbreaks of violence between the most ardent Jewish nationalists, called Zionists, and their ancient enemies, the Arabs, the United Nations in 1948 agreed to a partition of Palestine -- Israel for the Jews and Jordan for the Arabs. The arbitrary boundaries could not, of course, completely resolve the age-old hostilities, which were complicated by the fact that both states laid claim to Jerusalem, a city sacred to Islam as well is to Judaism and Christianity. The United Nations adopted a resolution to internationalize the city but could get support neither from Israel nor from Jordan. The city, then, like the land, remains divided. A further cause for bitterness is that many Jews had to leave their homes on the Jordan side of the border, just as many Arabs had to move from the Israel side when the country was partitioned. There is now between the states a kind of hostile peace; but the tensions go very deep.
Israel has opened its gates to Jews from all over the world. It is yet too early to see what effect this will have on the religion of Judaism, which for long centuries was without a country of its own. Many Jews do not consider the new nation really important to their religion, for they believe that their religious lives can be lived out wherever they now find themselves. Jewish worship does not depend on a national home.
THE CONGRAGATIONS OF JUDAISM
There is no central religious leader in Judaism. Each congregation governs itself. Rabbis are laymen -- not priests. They teach the people and try to clarify the Law. They do not speak to God for the people. The people are their own priests; they worship God for themselves.
For a long time, all Jews were "orthodox" -- that is, they all followed the laws as listed in their sacred books, to the best of their understanding and ability. But the pressures and changes of modern life made this increasingly difficult. Some came to believe that a modern worldview required changes in their personal expression of religious practices. So, in relatively modern times, many Jews have moved away from a strict interpretation of the faith, morality, and practices of their fathers.
Orthodox Judaism. Those who still try to be faithful to the ancient traditions interpreted very strictly are known as "Orthodox" Jews. They consider the whole Torah to have been divinely inspired and revealed by God to Moses. They keep all the Mosaic laws, including the dietary restrictions and the strict Sabbath limitations. They use Hebrew in all their synagogue services. Special schools, which they support, teach their children Jewish history and the beginnings of the Hebrew language. Many Orthodox Jews still look for the coming of the personal Messiah.
Conservative Judaism. "Conservative’ Jews are those who honor and respect the Torah, but who believe in interpreting it through modern Biblical scholarship in order to understand it better. They believe it is important to continue in the traditional forms of worship, with Hebrew used in their services. On the Sabbath they do only necessary work, and they try to make it a day of prayer.
Reform Judaism. A modern American movement has attracted many Jews in this country. It is Reform Judaism and it is a result of an effort to adapt Judaism to twentieth-century Western life. Reform Jews read the Torah with an eye to its truth as determined by its agreement with reason and experience. The whole tradition of their people is something they regard with respect. The worship is somewhat similar to that of Protestant Christian churches. Families sit together for services that include organ music and choirs, with the liturgy in Hebrew, but the sermon in English. Both boys and girls are confirmed.
LESSONS OF JUDAISM
The great teachers of Judaism have made a tremendous contribution to the religious thought of all men. They taught that love of God and have one s fellow man go hand in hand. Life is one, just as God is one. The freedom, dignity, and responsibility of every human being are rooted in the very nature of the universe. Thus it is inevitable, if my own life is to be fulfilled, that I love my neighbor as myself. This follows from loving God "with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might."
Jews agree that we cannot know the final answers to the mysteries of life and God. But Jews declare that in the goodness of lives lived righteously, the goodness of God is known:
- 0 Lord, how can we know Thee? Where can we find Thee? Thou art as close to us as breathing and yet art farther than the farthermost star. Thou art as mysterious as the vast solitudes of the night and yet art as familiar to us as the light of the sun. To the seer of old Thou didst say: Thou canst not see my face, but I will make all my goodness pass before thee. Even so does Thy goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives. When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow before the vision of Thy goodness? Thou livest within our hearts, as Thou dost pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Thy presence.
14. FESTIVALS AND HOLY DAYS
The Jews have always treasured their traditions. Many of their most meaningful religious and family customs center about their festivals and holy days.
THE SABBATH - At sunset on Friday evening, candles are lighted in millions of Jewish homes all over the world. This is a sign to the assembled family that the Sabbath has begun, bringing twenty-four hours of worship and rest. When the fathers and older sons return from the service at the synagogue, there are special family rites of blessing and prayer. Then all sit down to the best and happiest meal of the week, frequently sharing it with sonic visitor invited home after the synagogue service.
The next morning the whole family attends a worship service in the synagogue, the men and boys sitting in the assembly hail, and the women and girls going to the women’s gallery. The service itself varies with the congregation. Usually it includes the chanting of portions of the Torah and the Psalms led by the cantor, a Jewish layman who is skilled at this work. There are times for many prayers and readings from the Torah. There may also be a sermon given by the rabbi.
Upon returning home, Jews rest in the manner, which pleases each, although Orthodox Jews have many restrictions upon work, play, and travel. In the afternoon, some men and boys return to the synagogue for a period of reading and discussion. Orthodox Jews have planned for the day so carefully that the cooking and cleaning have been accomplished before the Sabbath. Conservative Jews do only necessary work, and Reform Jews observe the day as one of rest and worship, with no particular limitations on their activities. At nightfall, the family gathers again to note the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of a new week.
For countless years, the Sabbath has been the distinctive center of Jewish home lire. This age-old custom or observing one day out of seven for rest and formal worship was a great contribution that the Jews made to the world. It has for long been shared by Christians and Moslems -- though different days have been chosen for the purpose.
In the beginning, the Jewish Sabbath was a new ideal to masses of people who toiled long hour’s day after day, with no weekends or vacations. Jews are asked to "observe the Sabbath and keep it holy," for everyone needs such rest and change. It is probable that this regular weekly plan of alternation between rest and activity, between work and worship, contributed greatly to the success of Jews in many fields.
In the Ten Commandments, Jews are reminded of God’s example: "... in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, and the sea, together with all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day: that is how the Lord came to bless the seventh day and to hallow it." This adds the emphasis of religion to the need for rest. Wise rabbis have taught that the Sabbath must minister to man’s need as well as to God. For the Jews, human life has always been of greater concern than an abstract rule.
ROSH HASHONAH: THE NEW YEAR - In the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, Jews are called to a long period of thought and penitence. The beginning of the New Year is observed solemnly in the synagogues with the blowing of a ram’s horn, called the Shofar. This sound opens a ten-day season for Jews to take stock of their lives and seek forgiveness for their shortcomings.
Since the Jewish calendar is based on the cycle of the moon rather than the sun, the exact date varies from year to year. Rosh Hashonah may come early in September or early in October.
To most Jews, the ten-day period is a time of judgment. An ancient tradition states that during this period God determines who shall live and who shall die; who shall be at rest and who shall wander; who shall be tranquil and who shall be harassed; who shall become poor and who shall wax rich; who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted. The old traditions further say that Rosh Hashonab is the day on which God writes in the great Book of Judgment the record of everyone’s life.
The ten days that follow allow time for a person to think through his life and what he can do about it. They allow him time and opportunity to see his mistakes and try to correct them. They are solemn, holy days. Traditional Jews believe that a person may even have his record in the Book of Judgment changed, if he is sincere, kind, and penitent enough. They believe that the Book of Judgment is closed again at the end of the ten days.
The climax of the new year observance is Yoni Kippur, the tenth day of the new year. It begins at sundown (as do all Jewish holy days) and continues for twenty-four hours. Traditionally, adult Jews neither eat nor drink during this day. They spend their time in thought and prayer. There is a solemn service in the synagogue, which every Jew tries to attend. It opens with a haunting melody, the Kol Nidre chant. This is a plea for release from religious vows that could not be kept -- a reference to the persecutions, which Jews have suffered again and again at the hands of non-Jews. The close of the Yom Kippur service is again the sound of the ram’s horn. It signifies the closing of the Book of Judgment until the following year.
The ideas of the Book of Judgment and God as the Great Judge are found in other religions too. And Jews, like others, may interpret the traditions literally. Or they may interpret them in a profoundly personal and spiritual sense. These "Days of Awe," as they are sometimes called, are days for a Jew to ask important questions about life and to continue his spiritual growth. Judaism does not offer believers easy answers to their religious questions. Instead, it encourages them to search their hearts and lives for better ways of living.
Jews are not taught that mankind is basically sinful or that normal needs and interests are wrong. There are no monks or nuns in Judaism. Instead, Jews emphasize the great beauty of family life. During the new year observance, Jews are encouraged to think about their relationships with other people. Have they acted with true love and justice? Have they been humble, remembering their limitations? Are they in need of forgiveness for sins committed against their fellow men?
Acts of loving-kindness are the best means of making amends. As the rabbis have said: "Whoever has a sin to confess and is ashamed to do so, let him go and do a good deed and he will find forgiveness."
During the Yom Kippur service, some verses are read from the book of Isaiah. They point out to the worshiping Jew that the heart of religion is loving concern for others:
SUCCOS: THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES - One of the most joyful Jewish holy days is the celebration of Succos, which comes at the time of harvest, when the vines are heavy with grapes and the grain stands ripe in the fields. It is a festival of thanksgiving, lasting for nine days. It reminds Jews of the time of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, when they were forced to live in small shelters (called succos) along the way. Jews often make replicas of these shelters, which are also called tabernacles. They decorate them with flowers, fruits and branches as reminders of the generosity of God.
Modern Jews think of the often-sorrowful history of their fellow believers, as well as about other people. 0n the Sabbath during Succos, this prayer is recited:
We recall today with grateful hearts Thy loving providence, which guided our fathers in their wanderings through the barren desert and the trackless wilderness.
We thank Thee that the same unfailing mercies have guided and sheltered us, their children, in all the years of our pilgrimage... We pray Thee that the enjoyment of Thy blessings may awaken within us a spirit of contentment and fortitude that we may neither grow proud through success nor become embittered by failure.
May we sympathize with those whose hopes have been disappointed and whose labors have been unfruitful. May our hands be outstretched to those who suffer, and our hearts be open to those who are in need. Praised be Thou, 0 Lord, Giver of all good. Amen.
On the ninth day of the Succos celebration, there is a joyful ceremony in the synagogue, when the scrolls of the Torah are carried about in a gay procession. Sometimes there are dances and songs in which all join. This is one more way in which Jews show their love for the Torah. On this day, the last verses of the Torah (Deuteronomy 34) are read. Then the rabbi turns back to the first verse of Genesis: "In the beginning, God ..."This begins the annual reading of the whole Torah in each synagogue.
HANUKKAH: FEAST OF DEDICATION - The celebration of Hanukkah is a feast of dedication that usually comes in December. Jews observe it for eight days, during which there are special services in the synagogues, special holiday foods, and gifts. Hanukkah recalls to modern Jews a significant event in the past, when their ancestors fought for religious freedom.
In the second century B.C., the Syrians had gained control of Palestine, and they were trying to force the Jews to discontinue their religion. Some of the Jews did as they were commanded. Others refused, despite Syrian reprisals. An elderly priest, Mattathias, began a revolt. Later his son, Judah Maccabee, carried the revolt much farther and won final victory over the Syrian army. In celebration of their regained freedom, the Jews went to Jerusalem to cleanse the temple and renew Jewish worship there. They found a single unopened container of the oil used in their services. According to tradition it burned before the altar for eight days.
Now Jews burn eight candles during Hanukkah, often lighting one the first evening, two the second, and so on. They often call Hanukkah the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah is a time of great rejoicing and a time of solemn reminder of how precious liberty is. Jews especially are thankful at this time for the freedom to worship according to their own consciences. The struggle for freedom of thought and worship is never finished completely. It is an ongoing task. Jews recognize this as they pray a special Sabbath prayer during Hanukkah:
Bless, O God, the Chanukah (Hanukkah) lights, that they may shed their radiance into our homes and our lives. May they kindle within us the flame of faith and zeal that, like the Maccabecs of old, we battle bravely for Thy cause. Make us ever worthy of Thy love and Thy blessing, our Shield and Protector. Amen.
PURISM - In the early spring -- usually in March -- Jews celebrate a particularly joyful holy day. In the synagogues, the people assemble to hear the reading of the Megillah, the Book of Esther. In contrast to their usually serious attention in services, the Jews on this day distribute noisemakers among the children, for use at certain places in the reading. Later the children may dramatize the ancient story. Friends and relatives often exchange gifts, and many Jews enjoy a special cookie, called a Haman tart.
The story that they hear in the synagogue concerns a beautiful Jewish woman of long ago, Esther. the wife of the king of Persia. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai happened to arouse the hatred of a high court official named Haman. For revenge, Haman began a plan to exterminate all the Jews, accusing them unjustly of disloyalty to the king. When Esther learned of the plan, she risked death to expose Haman’s schemes, revealing her own Jewish ness to the king. As a result, the king honored Mordecai -- and Haman died on the gallows that he himself had prepared for Mordecai.
Jews enjoy hearing the annual reading of the story. They enjoy the carnival atmosphere that pervades the synagogue on this night, with the children vigorously using the noisemakers whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. They do not concern themselves very much with whether or not the story is true as it is read. Many Jewish scholars claim that it is simply an historical novel.
However, the meaning of the story is real and true. It is a tale of hatred directed at Jews simply because of their Jewishness. Haman’s chief charge against the Jews was that their ways were "different.’ This charge and others like it have been hurled against the Jews countless times in the past. It is no wonder that they have made an annual celebration of this story of the downfall of one anti-Jewish oppressor.
Jews celebrate Purim not only for this reason, but also in recognition of common brotherhood. Many rabbis say that the basic idea to this day is that differences among men do not need to cause dissension. Deeper than all differences is our humanity. In the story, the king’s acceptance of the people whose ways were different shows that he saw the shared humanity under the outward diversity.
THE PASSOVER - The Jews, like all people, have a celebration in the springtime. Long ago, people celebrated the renewed fertility of the earth, the newborn animals among their flocks, and the new growth of plant life. For many hundreds of years, Jews have held a spring festival to commemorate the legendary events described in the first chapters of the book of Exodus.
For many years the Jews had been held in what amounted to slavery in Egypt. Moses became their spokesman, and he sought their release from the Egyptian Pharaoh. But this ruler became quite stubborn, according to the legends, despite the several plagues that God had sent against the Egyptians. So God sent an angel of death to kill all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both of men and flocks. The Israelites, however, were spared. They had marked their houses with the blood of a lamb. So the angel of death "passed over" them. The Pharaoh relented, and the Israelites left in great haste. They did not even have time to leaven their bread. It had to be baked unleavened.
During the celebration of the Passover, all leaven is removed from the traditional Jewish home for eight days. The Jews eat matzos, an unleavened bread, to remind them of the sufferings of their ancestors. Sometimes they call the Passover the "Feast of Unleavened Bread." The special bread, certain bitter herbs, and other symbolic foods help them to celebrate the delivery of the Jewish people from bondage.
Many Jews have never taken the story of the plagues and miracles in the book of Exodus as being literally and historically true. This is a matter for personal or critical interpretation of the texts of their scriptures. Some of the rabbis have taught that the "plague of darkness," for example, was simply another name for superstition and spiritual blindness. Therefore, some Jews celebrate the Passover not only as freedom from an oppressive tyrant but also as freedom from bondage to evil habits or intentions.
Jewish holidays do not celebrate simply and solely things that are supposed to have happened in the past. The holidays always have a significant meaning for the present. This is because Jewish customs are inwardly experienced by Jews -- not garments put on for occasions. Just so, on the Passover, while Jews think about the bondage of long ago, they also pray for enslaved people of today:
God of freedom, Thy children still groan under the burden of cruel taskmasters. Slavery debases their bodies and minds, and robs them of the enjoyment of Thy bounties. The fear of cruelty and the peril of death blight the souls of men. O break Thou the irons that bind them. Teach men to understand that by forging chains for others they forge chains for themselves, that as long as some are in fetters no one is truly free. Help them to see that liberty is the very breath of life and that only in the atmosphere of freedom can truth, prosperity and peace flourish.
SHAVUOS - Ancient Jews celebrated this festival at the time of the barley harvest in Palestine. Later, Jews held the festival of Shavuos to commemorate God’s giving the Torah to Moses. Their keeping of this festival stresses their underlying religious faith that the universe has law, order, and purpose.
In synagogue services, the Book of Ruth is read to the congregation. In Reform and Conservative synagogues, this occasion includes the confirmation of children. Children who have completed a course of study under the rabbi’s instruction declare before the congregation their loyalty to God and their intention of living by his laws.
In these ways the Jews face life’s demands and mysteries, firm in their belief in God and proud of their traditions. For thousands of years, no matter what they have faced, Jews have gained assurance from the Law of the Lord. They have gained strength from their simple declaration:
"The Lord is One."
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004