What is Judaism?
An Article in the Series:
The Ten Tribes and the Jews.

6 November 2011, 9 Cheshvan 5772

What is Judaism?

The Bible and the Law.
The first five books of the Bible were given by Moses. This is the Chumash (Five), pronounced something like "K-h-oo-mash". The Chumash strictly speaking is what is also known as the Torah. The expression "Torah" literally connotes Instruction and  may also be used for all (or any) religious instruction.
The Chumash is considered the main part of the Bible. All the other books are recognized as inspired but to a lesser degree. The other books derive their sanctity from the Chumash and must be understood as consistent with it. The Chumash contains the Law. Judaism is the Law given to the Children of Israel through Moses in its practical application.
Moses received the commandments. There were very many of them. Some are quite detailed while others are only briefly referred to.
Most of the commandments were to be carried out almost immediately while some were deferred until they entered the Land of Canaan (e.g. circumcision see Joshuah  5:7).
These commandments can be quite complicated. At times they appear to contradict each other. Questions will also arise as what happens in exceptional circumstances.
Since the commandments were performed it stands to reason that directions concerning their performance must have existed.  This was known as the Oral Law. The existence of the Oral Law is indicated in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 17:11).
In addition Moses was commanded to appoint seventy elders to help him judge the people and instruct them as to how the Law was to be fulfilled [Numbers 11:16-17].
One of the commandments is that in case of doubt recourse should be had to a central body of elders who would explain how the Law was to be kept (Deuteronomy 17:8-12). Even if one disagreed with their decision (and thought them to be mistaken) there was still an obligation to obey them. Those who disobeyed could in extreme cases incur the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:13).
This Oral Law in time grew greatly. At first it was transmitted through memory. At a later stage, here and there in a private capacity  notes were kept by some as memory aids.
The Romans scattered the Jewish People and systematically attempted to erase the Jewish religion. There was a struggle for survival and a danger that knowledge of the Law would be lost.
The existing traditions were therefore gathered together and presented in systematized form. This became the Mishnah. Later the Mishnah itself was not always clear or not sufficient in itself so additional material was added. This is know as the Gemara and together with the Mishnah it comprises the Talmud. A large corpus of Rabbinical Literature was added to the Talmud and out of the whole emerges Jewish Law.
In order to reach decisions recourse was had to existing traditions alongside a rigorous analysis of the Hebrew Text of the Bible.
Rules of Logic were also derived from Biblical Texts. These logical rules applied to apparently contradictory or obscure Biblical verses enabled the Sages to understand what the Law should be.
Nowadays Rabbinical Students study this whole process and re-enact the evolution of decisions seeing how they all relate back to the Will of the Almighty as revealed in Biblical Texts.
When new questions arise precedents are searched for, and decisions reached.
Despite an argumentive nature, great dispersal, and otherwise overwhelming difficulties, Orthodox Jews throughout the world have maintained a remarkably unified consensus of opinion as to how the Law should be carried out.

Intellectual Spiritualism.
It is accepted that someone who wishes to reach spiritual heights will pray, do good deeds, study holy works, elevate their personal qualities, and otherwise endeavor to purify themself.
This can lead to spiritual elevation but it is dependent on psychological effort. Not everyone can do this and even if they can any heights reached may be difficult to maintain. Not only that but the results differ from one individual to another.
Judaism has developed another way which the Torah itself enveloped.
In addition to the above there is the pathway of intellect which is to be adopted as part of the spiritual experience. By learning the Torah and delving into the process of deduction and induction etc concerning the Law the mind changes and the inner psychology of the student develops. A spiritual process takes place. The Divine Presence makes itself felt. This is Judaism.

See Also:
Are The Ten Tribes the Same as Gentiles?

The Approach of Maimonides.
We have explained the basis of Judaism above from the point of view of those who learn and learning Torah is of the upmost importance. Maimonides however, though he may have been one of the most learned of all time, would not necessarily have taken this position. Maimonides (1135-1204) was born in Spain but spent his later life in Egypt as physician to King Saladin. [Remember Robin Hood, King John and his brother King Richard? Saladin was the one Richard fought against.] Maimonides wrote a major encyclopedical legal work ("Mishneh Torah"), as well as Responsa on major questions, and his Guide to the Perplexed on philosophy. For Maimonides the intellectual process of reaching the decisions was much less important than the decisions themselves. These decisions became Laws and it is these that should be learnt. Each and every law in its practical sense and the learning of it is a stepping stone towards worship of the Almighty. The attitude of Maimonides permeates, and may also be a reflection of, the Sephardic (Eastern Jewish) approach. Differences between the Ashkenazim (Jews whose forefathers sojourned in Europe) and Sephardim exist. These however are not significant and leading authorities on both sides tend to borrow from and agree with each other.

In general Jewish Understanding on the historical-philisophical level is that in Bible Times and the Temple Era the emphasis was on spiritual inspiration and guided intuition. Times changed and it was necessary to rely more on the intellect and ordered understanding of obligations.
In the future matters will return to as they were in Biblical Times BUT what was acheived and understood in the itermediate "intellectual" state will be incorporated.

See Also:
The Ten Tribes and the Jews.

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