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6.5: Defining Character and Principles of Faith

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    Defining Character and Principles of Faith

    Defining Character

    Unlike other ancient Near Eastern gods, the Hebrew God is portrayed as unitary and solitary; consequently, the Hebrew God’s principal relationships are not with other gods, but with the world, and more specifically, with the people He created.

    Judaism thus begins with an ethical monotheism the belief that God is one, and concerned with the actions of humankind .

    According to the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), God promised Abraham to make of his offspring a great nation. Many generations later, he commanded the nation of Israel to love and worship only one God; that is, the Jewish nation is to reciprocate God’s concern for the world. He also commanded the Jewish people to love one another; that is, Jews are to imitate God’s love for people. These commandments are but two of a large corpus of commandments and laws that constitute this covenant, which is the substance of Judaism.

    Moreover, as a non-creedal religion, some have argued that Judaism does not require one to believe in God. For some, observance of Jewish law is more important than belief in God per se. In modern times, some liberal Jewish movements do not accept the existence of a personified deity active in history.

    Core Tenets

    Scholars throughout Jewish history have proposed numerous formulations of Judaism’s core tenets, all of which have met with criticism. The most popular formulation is Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, developed in the 12th century. Even his list did not go without criticism, however. Along these lines, the ancient historian Josephus emphasized practices and observances rather than religious beliefs, associating apostasy with a failure to observe Jewish law and maintaining that the requirements for conversion to Judaism included circumcision and adherence to traditional customs.

    In modern times, Judaism lacks a centralized authority that would dictate an exact religious dogma. Because of this, many different variations on the basic beliefs are considered within the scope of Judaism. Even so, all Jewish religious movements are, to a greater or lesser extent, based on the principles of the Hebrew Bible and various commentaries such as the Talmud and Midrash.

    Judaism also universally recognizes the Biblical Covenant between God and the Patriarch Abraham, as well as the additional aspects of the Covenant revealed to Moses, who is considered Judaism’s greatest prophet. In the Mishnah, a core text of Rabbinic Judaism, acceptance of the Divine origins of this covenant is considered an essential aspect of Judaism and those who reject the Covenant forfeit their share in the World to Come. (35)

    Jewish Bible

    The Jewish Bible is an anthology of Judean texts written, composed, and compiled between the 8th century BCE and 2nd century BCE. Thus, the Hebrew Bible did not begin as a single book; rather, it developed over time through the compilation of many Judean texts. The texts, though, were not always understood as divinely inspired, authoritative, holy texts; the role of Judean texts in religious expression developed between the 6th century BCE and 1st century CE. (38)

    The Jewish Bible includes the same thirty-nine books that comprise the Christian Old Testament. Jews, of course do not refer to these texts as the Old Testament, as the title suggests that these scriptures are in some way obsolete. Fittingly, the Jewish Bible is sometimes referred to as the Hebrew Bible as all but two of its thirty-nine books—Daniel and Ezra—were composed entirely in Hebrew. More commonly, Jews refer to their Bible as the Tanakh.

    The term Tanakh is actually an acronym that stands for the three sections of the Hebrew Bible:


    The section includes the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Pentateuch . They are referred to as the Torah, orLaw , because they are comprised largely of legal materials, including the Ten Commandments.


    The term is the pluralized form of a Hebrew word that means prophet . This section includes the historical books in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings) along with the major prophetic books (e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) and minor prophetic books (e.g. Amos, Habakkuk, Joel, Obadiah, etc.).


    The term is the pluralized form of a Hebrew word that means writing . This section is more or less a catch all for various literary genres including petitionary literature (Psalms and Lamentations), wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes), and one apocalyptic text (Daniel). (35)

    Jewish Legal Literature

    The basis of Jewish law and tradition ( halakha ) is the Torah (also known as the “Pentateuch” or the ” Five Books of Moses “). According to rabbinic tradition there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to the ancient priestly groups, the Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the tribe of Levi), some only to farmers within the Land of Israel. Many laws were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed, and fewer than 300 of these commandments are still applicable today.

    While there have been Jewish groups whose beliefs were claimed to be based on the written text of the Torah alone (e.g., the Sadducees, and the Karaites), most Jews believed in what they call the oral law. These oral traditions were transmitted by the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were later recorded in written form and expanded upon by the rabbis.

    Rabbinic Judaism (which derives from the Pharisees) has always held that the books of the Torah (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. To justify this viewpoint, Jews point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; this, they argue, means that the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, i.e., oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as “the oral law.”

    By the time of Rabbi Judah haNasi (200 CE), after the destruction of Jerusalem, much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this law underwent discussion and debate in both of the world’s major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylonia), and the commentaries on the Mishnah from each of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the two Talmuds. These have been expounded by commentaries of various Torah scholars during the ages.

    Halakha , the rabbinic Jewish way of life, then, is based on a combined reading of the Torah, and the oral tradition — the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. The Halakha has developed slowly, through a precedent-based system. (35)

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