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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
Who have been the key people in the development of the religion?
by Howard Greenstein

Most of the key people in Jewish biblical narrative are familiar to Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families founded and followed a faith rooted in covenant with an invisible God they believed to be more powerful than any other. The greatest of all prophets, Moses, supposedly elevated this belief into the concept of ethical monotheism, but more likely that ideal did not fully emerge until the period of the later prophets.

Saul is distinguished as the first king of Israel who achieved Jewish sovereignty over the land stipulated in Israel’s sacred covenant. King David established Jerusalem as the capital of the country, and Solomon, of course, built the Temple in Jerusalem as the central shrine for the entire nation.

During the Talmudic period, any number of heroes and sages could be cited for their lasting contribution to Jewish learning and history. The most notable were probably Judah the Prince, who in the third century CE edited the Mishnah, and later Rav Ashi and Ravina, who completed the Talmud about two hundred years later. Certainly the story of Chanukah, the first struggle for religious freedom against the Greek-Syrian Empire in 168 BCE could not be told without the legendary leadership of Mattathias the Maccabee and later his son Judah and his supporters.

Understanding medieval Jewry requires an awareness of the two major communities in the Jewish world at that time that were mentioned earlier Although Ashkenazim and Sephardim adhered to similar precepts of faith, they often differed sharply in their ritual and ceremonial observance and even in their particular priorities for study and learning. Ashkenazi Jews concentrated mostly on Talmudic discourse and its continuing application to Jewish life. Their scholars who were the major exponents of this discipline included the great commentator Rashi in the 11th century in France and Joseph Karo in the 16th century who was the author of the Shulchan Aruk, the most authoritative code of Jewish observance. Karo incidentally was actually by birth a Sephardic Jew, which originally evoked enormous opposition to his pronouncements among Ashkenazim until a Polish scholar named Moses Isserles later added footnotes reflecting the Ashkenazi interpretation of his work.

Meanwhile, among medieval Sephardic Jewry, learning was not limited to Jewish texts but extended into the larger world of Islamic culture. The Jews of Spain enjoyed much greater freedom and latitude than did their peers in Europe, who were confined to ghettos, deprived of dignity and subject to the whims of Christian rulers and clergy.

Jewish learning in Sephardic lands emphasized studies in philosophy, poetry, mathematics and astronomy. Its leading luminaries included Saadia Gaon in the 10th century, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi in the 11th, and perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of any generation, Moses Maimonides in the 12th century, whose major work, The Guide for the Perplexed, remains the crowning achievement of Jewish belief and thought. Jews under Islamic rule, in spite of certain forms of discrimination as a religious minority, clearly enjoyed much greater political, economic and social status than in Christian Europe.

Jewish life in the Ashkenazi world began its decline with the inception of the Crusades in 1096 CE. The status of Jews in Christian Europe, despite occasional brief periods of recovery, deteriorated steadily after that time with increasingly dire consequences. Among Sephardic Jews the “Golden Age” ended essentially in the 13th century and culminated in 1492 with their expulsion from Spain and later from Portugal in 1496. Most Sephardic Jews later migrated to Turkey, Holland, the New World and other non-Catholic countries.

In the late 18th century a movement of Jewish spiritual revival emerged in Eastern Europe founded by Israel of Moldavia, better known as the Baal Shem Tov. He was in the truest sense a religious revivalist, and the sect he founded, known as Hasidism (“the pious ones) depended as much upon his own radiant personality as upon his teachings. Hasidism substituted a warm mysticism for the arid scholasticism, which it attacked. It emphasized service to God through joy and celebration even more than learning and scholarship. Its basic concept was the omnipresence of God in all the universe, in mind and in matter, in every relationship, in evil as in good.

The modern world in Jewish terms opens most visibly with the period of Enlightenment in the 18th century and more specifically with the emancipation of European Jewry under Napoleon in the early 19th century. Jewish communities in Western Europe enjoyed, at least for a brief period, new-found political, economic and social equality under the banner of Napoleonic reform. Eventually, with the restoration of the former monarchies, those benefits gradually dissipated and dissolved.

Jews in Eastern Europe fared even worse until brutal Czarist pogroms sparked massive waves of emigration to America in the late 19th century.
In 1897 Dr. Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist and social critic, convened a gathering in Basle, Switzerland, called the Basle Conference that signaled the birth of modern Zionism, a movement of Jewish nationalism that would eventually culminate in the creation of Israel in 1948.

The two monumental events of the 20th century in Jewish life were not only the re-emergence of a Jewish state but the horrifying tragedy and agony of the Holocaust, the systematic attempt by Nazi Germany through genocide to annihilate the Jews of Europe from 1933-1945. Here in America, perhaps no one more than Rabbi Stephen Wise demanded a decisive response from Washington to this terrifying calamity. Others, to be sure, joined him in his protests, but to little avail.

More than six million Jews and an additional five million non-Jews perished in the death camps and crematoria. One out of every three Jews in the world was lost in this inferno, but those who survived have prospered and flourished mostly in America and Israel. They, their children and grandchildren all attest to a very promising new chapter in Jewish history. The past continues to inspire the future.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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