University Congregational Church
June 2, 2019
“World Religions: Judaism”
II Chronicles 6:1-11
When my brother Matt went to law school in California, he was invited to a holiday dinner with a classmate and his family since my brother couldn’t travel back to Kansas for the holiday. It so happened that his classmate was Jewish and had a younger brother at home. During their dinner, the younger brother regularly referred to my brother, Matt, as “the Gentile” instead of his name. “Gentile, would you pass the gravy?” he might ask. Or, “Why is the Gentile eating with us this weekend instead of his own family?” or “Does the Gentile go to school at Pepperdine?” When Matt came home to Kansas and told us about his weekend, he had us rolling on the floor with Gentile stories! As his older sister, I considered it my responsibility to refer to him as The Gentile for a good two years after that!
Today we are embarking on a new sermon series about World Religions during the month of June. Each week, we will explore a different religion – from Judaism to Islam; from Hindi to Buddhism – and learn what we have in common and how we are different as people of faith. Today we are talking about Judaism.
I want to state upfront that I start with the presupposition that there is no particular faith that is superior or truer than another. We are all finding our way in the world to know what is divine and holy. We all want to make sense of life and goodness. Another thing I want to be clear about is that not all adherents of a faith believe the same thing. Not all Christians believe the same things or worship in the same manner. This is true of every other tradition. As I explain various faith traditions, I will be explaining the general truths and beliefs… but these will not be absolutes for every person who claims that faith tradition.
Abraham and Sarah are considered the parents of Judaism (as well as Christianity and Islam). Judaism is a monotheistic belief system – a belief in one God. To a Jew, however, God’s name is so sacred that it is not spoken or written.
There are 3 sects of Judaism:
• Orthodox (the most fundamentalist)
• Reform (the most progressive)
Jewish people worship at synagogues and any member of the congregation can lead a service. However, a rabbi or a cantor (or a liturgical singer) usually leads the services. Rabbis are Jewish spiritual authorities who have been educated at seminaries. For most of the 1st millennium of Judaism, there was a Temple where animal sacrifices were brought and the people came to worship at least 3 times a year. After the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century, Jewish life shifted to the synagogues, where they now gather for regular prayer and services. Our traditional word from Chronicles is an instruction to the people about the temple in Jerusalem:
Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would reside in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to reside in forever.”
Then the king turned around and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who with his hand has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David, saying, ‘Since the day that I brought my people out of the land of Egypt, I have not chosen a city from any of the tribes of Israel in which to build a house, so that my name might be there, and I chose no one as ruler over my people Israel; but I have chosen Jerusalem in order that my name may be there, and I have chosen David to be over my people Israel.’
My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. But the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to consider building a house for my name; nevertheless, you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.’ Now the Lord has fulfilled his promise that he made; for I have succeeded my father David, and sit on the throne of Israel, as the Lord promised, and have built the house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. There I have set the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord that he made with the people of Israel.”
This is why the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is such a holy site for the Hebrew people, along with the Western Wall, where Jews and people of many faiths pray and place prayers in the ancient wall all year long. This is one of the holiest sites around the whole globe. A group of 13 from UCC traveled there together 5 years ago and spent time on Solomon’s steps, at the Temple Mount, and at the Temple Mount. It was a surreal experience.
You probably know that when Jewish children turn 12 or 13, they stand before the congregation and read a section of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) in a ceremony called a bar mitzvah for boys; or a bat mitzvah for girls. This is a big celebration and it means they can participate fully in adult traditions like fasting and Yom Kippur.
The Sabbath day begins on Friday night and lasts until sundown on Saturday. This is the holy day of the Jewish people and the most conservative of Jews do not work on these days.
Judaism was established about 2000 BCE but uprisings against the Romans during the 1st and 2nd centuries of the CE led to the Jews being spread around the world into various communities, called the diaspora. Those who practiced Judaism were kept marginalized from society and many were persecuted. This culminated in WWII with the genocide of more than 6 million Jews. In 1948, the state of Israel was formed to bring Jews back together into one place. This is the best statistical data I could find about the current Jewish population:
14.5 million – world
6 million – Israel
5.7 million – US
456,000 – France
393,000 – West Bank
390,000 – Canada
289,500 – United Kingdom
When Eric and I attended a Passover meal at Temple Emanu-El several years ago, I was fascinated as the children were invited to participate in a game during the meal. They were excused from the Passover table to go in search of items hidden throughout the area – a hide-and-seek game per se – and then returned to the table. It was a game designed to demonstrate that Jews are spread throughout the world and have not been fully gathered back into one community. That some Jews are still part of the diaspora and still are marginalized and persecuted. They had prayers for the reunification of all Hebrew people and for a day when the community could celebrate as a whole. It was a powerful expression of community.
Many Christians think of the 10 commandments being the laws of Moses and assume that the Jews follow these as well. But in the Torah, God tells the Jewish people to follow the commandments and there are 613 of them! These are not suggestions or good things to do, but they are life-giving ways – like eating and drinking – they connect people to God. So, Jews see these things as normative.
The Hebrew people understand at a very deep level that knowledge is power and that the best way to connect to all that is holy is to study. That’s why they invest hours, days and years learning Torah and studying the faith. They dig deep and hold many seminars to learn and grow as individuals – education is a lifelong endeavor as they delve deeper and deeper into knowing God. In fact, Jewish beliefs have a rational basis. The Torah commands us to build a rational basis of belief. Believe in God because you have enough compelling arguments that lead you to conclude that God actually exists. Use your mind – not your heart! Confront your questions, gain clarity and strengthen your basis of belief by getting more information and facts.
Something that I think is very formative for the Jewish people (and I think many Christians have forgotten about our own history) is that we all began as slaves in Egypt before being freed by God. This formative experience has given the Jewish people great empathy for others who are less fortunate and it has conditioned them to accept the Torah’s communal ethic where charity and kindness to the stranger are central tenets. Each year, they retell the story of their slavery in Egypt and how God – through Moses – brought them out of the land of Egypt. When the Jews have feast days, they tell the ancient stories of the past, but the focus is not on what happened to the people of yesteryear – it is interpreted as “this is what happens to us now”. I believe Christians have much to learn in this regard!
Something that is unique to Judaism is that they do not believe in proselytizing to non-Jews or in encouraging others to become Jewish. They believe that every single creature has a part in the grand chorus of life and that we are to live morally. But we do not need to follow Judaism to do so or to be rewarded in the world to come. In fact, they believe that human nature is naturally good; that we are created good and that our purpose in life is to be obedient to God.
Another thing that I think is unique is that Judaism has no dogma, no formal set of beliefs that you must hold to be a Jew. Actions are far more important than beliefs. And relationships are central. A Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism according to Jewish law. The Jewish woman is the artery through which Judaism is transmitted, according to history and law.
The final thought I want to share today is from Elie Wiesel “In Jewish history, there are no coincidences.” Consider what you know about Jewish history and think on that for a moment. It actually expresses a belief of the Hebrew people that life is God-given and to be celebrated and enjoyed. As Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote, “The seemingly haphazard, random, and arbitrary events that comprise the story of our lives begin to form a coherent and purposeful narrative when we view them from a divine perspective. With the wisdom of retrospective insight I have countless times learned to acknowledge that coincidence is but God’s way of choosing to remain anonymous.”
www.religionfacts.com/judaism/fastfacts/overview.htm Overview of Judaism January 22, 2010
Posner, Menachem. 14 Facts about Jews and Judaism That Every Person Should Know – Essentials www.chabad.org May 29, 2019.
www.becomingjewish.org/basics.hrtml Judaism 101 January 22, 2010.
Coopersmith, Rabbi Nechemia 5 Surprising Facts about Judaism www.aish.com July 15, 2014
www.cnn.com Judaism Fast Facts August 16, 2018