Judaism 101

Chapters 8-10

chapter VIII / captivity, study, hope

The animal world has its life cycles where big predators consume smaller animals and sit on top...until a bigger predator comes along. Kingdoms are similar. Babylon ruled the people of the (former) Kingdom of Judah for about 50 years until Persia came along.

The Persians were pretty cool cats under kindly and very smart King Cyrus, relatively speaking, because they were kind (relatively) to the Jews and let them return home and rebuild their Temple.

A brief etymology of the word “Jew”

Thank you, Persians.

They called the people of Judah Jehudis, which is where we get “Jews” from.

And the religion of Jews came to be known as Judaism.

When someone is nice to you, it makes you more inclined to listen and pay attention to what’s important to them. Because the Persians were nice to the Israelites, the Israelites learned some things from them. Yes, there’s a lesson to be learned there about the Golden Rule. *Spoiler alert: the G.R. from the New Testament, which is not canonical literature or history for the Jewish religion.

The Persians were Zoroastrians. This is a story of the Jewish people, not a story of the followers of the prophet Zoroaster, so we will spend little time learning of them, except for a few concepts that gave the Israelites pause to ponder.

The Jews, post-Babylon and Persia, continued to refine their core beliefs that the Creator was:

  1. Everywhere

  2. A single God responsible for creating light and darkness

  3. The only God

  4. The God of the universe who had chosen them as His people

Zoroastrians believed that the world was ruled by two forces: Good and Evil. Jews absorbed some of their ideas, particularly two:

  1. Belief in a life after death and the concepts of heaven and hell

  2. Coming of the Messiah

The second is especially important to understanding what has motivated and kept hope alive throughout the Jewish peoples’ struggles.

From the time the Jewish Kingdom collapsed, the Jewish people hoped for a hero to restore the Hebrew Kingdom to its glory days under David and Solomon.

Under the Persians, the Jews began to think of a hero - a messiah - who would rescue not just themselves, but redeem the world from evil. They started to shift from thinking of a Messiah as a nationalist hero who would restore the Jewish Kingdom to thinking of a King David-descendant Messiah who would do two things:

  1. Return the Jews to the Promised Land

  2. Bring happiness and peace to the world

To recap, King Cyrus has let the Jews return to and rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Under their quasi-friendly captivity, they have absorbed some of the Persian Zoroastrianism ideas about cosmic conflict, life after death, and the global nature of a messiah who will bring peace to the world and a homeland for themselves again.

Around this time, a scribe named Ezra begins collecting the many Jewish stories and laws into books. These collected books came to be known as The Book. You may also have heard it referred to as The Bible. These early collections became sacred scriptures to the Jewish people. Throughout history, there have been many Jewish prophets who stood up to remind and warn people to follow God’s laws. Many of those teachings to follow good and fight evil were also gathered together and became part of the sacred scriptures.

So they’re happy-ish again. If you don’t like happy endings, then good news, you’re in luck. There’s bad news coming up.

Remember the whole life cycle food chain thing? Well, the Persians couldn’t stay on top of the world forever. Their power began to wane and a young fellow by the name of Alexander the Great came along and toppled them. And then Macedonia/Greece was toppled by Rome. And the kindly-ish days of King Cyrus and Persia were no more.

Recap I.

Israelites leave Egypt for the Promised Land

600-700 years later : Israel is destroyed and disappears. Judah is destroyed by Babylon and people taken into captivity.

50 years later : Persians take over Babylon. And therefore the Israelites.

Alexander the Great and the Macedonians/Greeks conquer Persia. And therefore the Israelites.

100-200ish B.C. Rome conquers the Greeks. And therefore the Israelites. 1.5 million - million - are killed on their own soil. Jerusalem’s walls are torn down and the Temple is destroyed for a second time.

26 A.D. Romans establish direct rule over Jews.

70 A.D. Last days in their own land

The worse things - and they got bad - the more hope they had that a hero would come soon and save them from suffering.

Remember:

Babylon, Persia, Zoroastrianism, King Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Messiah, Ezra, prophets

Chapter IX / What makes Judaism unique?

Over 2000+ years, Judaism has changed, but its core beliefs have stayed the same. There are several things that make Judaism unique among today’s religions.

How Judaism is unique

  1. It was the first religion to teach there was only one God

  2. Emphasizes the importance of learning in a community and of how a person’s life affects others

  3. Its important teachings were not founded by a single person. It does not have a single founder. Abraham laid the cornerstone of Judaism when he stated that ‘idols should not be worshiped,’ and led his family to Canaan. Moses added the Ten Commandments and a belief that they were God’s Chosen People. Ideas continued to grow and evolve in Palestine, Persia (Zoroastrianism) and throughout captivity as they absorbed different ideas, hardships, and experiences.

  4. It is a mix of being a faith, a religion, a law for living, and a government.

  5. It believes in one God, but it is not a universal religion in the sense that a primary focus is still the belief that Israel is the Jewish homeland and Jerusalem is their holy city. This portion specifically is the root of great disagreement and conflict.

Remember:

Chapter X / Modern Times

The Great Jewish War ended when Rome’s Titus Caesar destroyed Jerusalem and killed 1.5 million Jews in their homeland. That marked the beginning of the Great Jewish Exile. Since then, Jews have been spread all over the world. If only there was a word to describe that scattering of people. Wait...there is: diaspora.

And all throughout those troubles and exile, they kept hope alive. Hope in the coming of a Messiah to return (literally) the Jews to their homeland and (literally and figuratively) peace and happiness to the world. Along the way, during the reign of Augustus Caesar and Roman rule, Jesus was born and became a defining figure in history and the catalyst for the founding of Christianity. But he was not the Jewish messiah.

Judaism’s teachings focused on the Law.

Jesus’s teachings focused on Love.

The Jewish leaders of this time were Pharisees, and their focus was on getting people to return to the religion as taught before the Exile to Babylon. They were opposed to any teachings that seemed contrary to Mosaic Law or the early prophets’ teachings. They did not believe in heaven or hell, in life after death and they argued with Jesus over the importance of adhering to the letter of the Law. His popularity and teachings led them to believe he was not the Messiah they had hoped for.

So they waited, and suffered, and stayed scattered throughout the world for centuries. Always hoping. Over time their hope to return to Jerusalem changed from being hope for a miracle to pragmatic strategizing.

They dreamed and hoped, and toward the end of the 19th century, hope began to take form in the shape of a book, The Jewish State, by Dr. Theodor Herzl. Their plan to return the Land of Israel became known as Zionism.

Dr. Herzl convened a World Congress of Zionism and predicted that within 50 years Israel would be restored and the Jewish people would have a homeland again.

Recap II (70 AD - present).

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One of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century took place as the end of that 50 years approached. Millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust; a dark period for the Jewish people and for humanity.

On May 14, 1948, fifty years after the first Zionist Congress, a new Jewish state was established.

Israel.

Across the world, Jews knew that they had a homeland to return to and a place for their faith to grow.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, Judaism has continued to thrive and flourish amidst ongoing troubles and conflicts. But the fact that it has survived, has thrived, and has rebuilt a national homeland speaks to the resilience of the Jewish people and the undying hope and pragmatism they possess. As the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, its influence and importance continues to be felt throughout the world. And it is a reminder of the ways in which laws, traditions, and stories shape every culture and religion and help to meld the past with the present.

Remember:

Great Jewish Exile, diaspora, Pharisees, Zionism, Holocaust,