Judaism is one of the oldest and most important of the world religions, and is often seen as lying at the heart of much western history and culture. In order to understand the religion, it is necessary to understand both its unique features and the way in which these features may stand in comparison to other world religions, especially Christianity. While the two may appear similar in several ways, it is important to identify key philosophical distinctions between them. The essay will perform an exposition of a key area of Judaism: the Jewish relationship to history and eschatology. It will begin by defining key areas by which a religion may be analyzed and will then go on to discuss the way in which the Jewish relationship to history may be seen to separate it distinctly from Christianity. Once this has been done, the paper will discuss how this relation to history may be seen influence key elements of Jewish religious life.
According to Lester Kurtz there are three key “pillars” through which a religion may be understood. These pillars are identified as beliefs, rituals and institutions (2007, 24 ) These three features may be used to understand key elements of a religion, but they should be seen to stand in isolation from each other. Rather, they should be seen as intersecting and as influencing each other. Beliefs manifest themselves in rituals which are then in turn mediated and sanctioned by particular institutions. In order to understand any aspect of particular religion, it is necessary therefore to understand the way in which these three pillars may be seen to interact and influence each other. With regard to Judaism, it is possible to understand the nature of this relation by paying attention to one key aspect of belief: the Jewish relationship to history and to eschatology. To begin to do this, it is useful to compare the religion to Christianity.
When speaking of an essential difference between the nature of Jewish and Christian conceptions of this apocalypse, Gershom Scholem writes that the latter presents a situation in which redemption can be seen to take place within the actual unravelling of earthly history, whereas the former regards it as something which can only be seen to take place in a moment which fundamentally and visibly changes, destroys and liberates the very conception of such a history. Redemption, according to the writings of the Hebrew Bible is necessarily an event which “which takes place publicly, on the stage of history and within the community’ (1971, 26). In a direct contrast to this:
“Christianity conceives of redemption as an event in the spiritual and unseen realm, an event which is reflected in the soul, in the private world of each individual, which need not correspond to anything outside. Even the cicitas dei of Augustine…is a community of the mysteriously redeemed within an unredeemed word” (26).
The perspective of redemption and the final judgement of the world is something which, within a Christian context necessarily involves the relationship between the private individual and its relationship with the community of which it is a part. In contrast to this, the Jewish religion is, in many ways, founded on a community which is maintained according to a belief that the coming of the messiah will bring the end of the world, and that this will necessarily involve the entirety of the Jewish community. This community is therefore one which is intimately bound to its traditional history, forming a distinct contrast to Christianity which perceives the coming of the messiah in the death of Jesus Christ and is concerned relates to history as something which in some way always already over.
The specifically Jewish approach to history can be seen to posses its own hermeneutics which directly informs the way in which Jewish religious life is conducted, alongside determining its key elements.. Many Jewish rituals, such as the hugely important Passover festival, and the Yom Kipor, or Day of Atonement, festival can be seen to trace their history directly to the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible in which prescriptions are for behaviour and rituals are written. Orthodox Judaism sees no possibility for a change in the interpretation of this writing as it sees itself as essentially living in the same historical moment as when the texts such as Exodus and Leviticus were written. No historical shift, such as that which Christian religions identify in the death and purported resurrection of Jesus, has occurred. As such, Orthodox Jewish rituals draw their roots directly from the religion’s scripture, as this is mediated by the belief that these scriptures must continue to be interpreted literally and to be followed accordingly.
Ritual and institution can be seen to combine in key moments of Jewish religious life. They can also be seen to combine in the way in which practising Jewish individuals relate to the texts which form the basis for this life. Several commentators have noted that the act of reading aloud can be seen to form a key basis for Jewish religious life, and that this has been the case for over two thousand years. In Judaism, the possible distinction between the spoken and the written word is vital for any understanding of the act of interpretation, and therefore of the way in which texts may be seen to influence institutions and rituals. Indeed, in his work on the Hebrew Bible, Daniel Boyarin argues that the idea of silent and private reading was one which was entirely alien to the scribes of the Old Testament and that, as such, the act of reading allowed is not only a feature of many Jewish rituals, but that it is in itself entirely engrained within the Jewish world view and within a Jewish understanding of history and culture. Boyarin that, with regard to the reading of Jewish scripture: “The concept of a silent and private readings is simply excluded from possibility both by the semantic structure of the language and by the actually described practices of reading in the text” (2003, 68). Jewish rituals such as the Bar Mitzvah in which young Jewish men come of age through a public reading of the Torah, or the ritual of the Sabbath meal which takes place everyday Friday night in a Jewish home, may therefore be seen to ritual that express not only deeply felt beliefs, but entire hermeneutic systems with regard to the nature of understanding and the way in which to relate to spoken and written language. In this way, belief, ritual and institution may be seen to affect and mediate every aspect of Jewish religious life.
In conclusion, this paper has considered several key aspects of the Jewish Religion, focusing on its relation to history and to eschatology. It has shown how this relation may be seen to focus on the nature of history and a specifically Jewish approach to eschatology. This relation leads to a hermeneutics of history that may be seen to present throughout the Jewish religion, from its approach to language to its most clear common and intimate traditions. It is on these grounds that Judaism may be compared to religions such as Christianity, and it is on these grounds that it may be most clearly differentiated from them.
- Boyarin, Daniel. Sparks of the Logos: Essays in Rabbinic Hermeneutics. Boston: Brill, 2003.
- Kurtz, Lester R. Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective. New York: Pine Forge Press, 2007.
- Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. Translated by Michael A. Meyer. New York: Shocken, 1997.