The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion

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An important part of Jewish Scripture was the Torah , or Pentateuch, comprising five books Genesis , Exodus , Leviticus , Numbers , and Deuteronomy that were believed to have been given to Moses by God. The laws governing worship sacrifice, purification, admission to the Temple, and the like were similar to the religious laws of other people in the ancient world. Judaism was different because in most other cultures divine law covered only such topics, but in Judaism it regulated not only worship but also daily life and made every aspect of life a matter of divine concern.

Since both faith and practice were based firmly on the five books of Moses modified slightly over time, they were shared by Jews all over the world, from Mesopotamia to Italy and beyond.

The Jewish Spelling of "God" as "G-d"

The common features of Jewish faith and practice are reflected in the decrees from various parts of the ancient world that allowed Jews to preserve their own traditions, including monotheism , rest and assembly on the Sabbath , support of the Temple, and dietary laws. There were, naturally, variations on each main theme. A largely lay group that had the reputation of being the most-precise interpreters of the law, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead. The Essenes were a more-radical sect, with extremely strict rules. At some point in their history the Essenes were probably a priestly sect the Zadokite priests are major figures in some of the documents from Qumran ; however, the composition of their membership at the time of Jesus is unclear.

Many aristocratic priests, as well as some prominent laymen, were Sadducees. Most famously, they denied resurrection, which had recently entered Jewish thought from Persia and which was accepted by most Jews in the 1st century. Most Jews based their faith and practice on the five books of Moses slightly modified by the passage of time and rejected the extreme positions of the three parties.

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The Pharisees were respected for their piety and learning, and they may have exercised substantial influence on belief and practice. The Essenes were a fringe group, and those who lived at Qumran had dropped out of mainstream Judaism. Their interpretation of the Bible led them to reject the priests and the Temple as they existed in Jerusalem, and they looked forward to the time when they could seize control of the Holy City.

To the degree that any of these parties had power, however, it belonged to the Sadducees.

More precisely, the aristocratic priests and a few prominent laymen had power and authority in Jerusalem; of the aristocrats who belonged to one of the parties, most were Sadducees. According to the Acts of the Apostles , those who were around the high priest Caiaphas were Sadducees, which recalls the evidence of the Jewish priestly aristocrat, historian, and Pharisee Josephus.

Kaplan and the Meaning of Ritual: Reconciling the Mind and the Heart

Although the vast majority of Jews did not belong to a party, the study of these parties reveals the substantial variety within the general framework of Judaism. Another indicator of this variety was the diversity of Jewish leaders. Among them were charismatic healers and miracle workers, such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa; hermitlike sages, such as Bannus; eschatological prophets, such as John the Baptist; would-be messianic prophets, such as Theudas and the Egyptian; and apocalyptic visionaries, represented by the pseudepigraphal First Book of Enoch.

Most Jews had some form of future hope. In general, they expected God to intervene in history and to restore Israel to a state of peace, freedom, and prosperity. Not all Jews expected God to send a son of David as messiah to overthrow the Romans, though some did.


The Qumran sect believed that there would be a great war against Rome, that the sect would emerge victorious, and that the main blows would be struck by the angel Michael and finally by God himself. Notably, a messiah plays no role in this war of liberation.

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Some Jews were ready at any moment to take up arms against Rome, thinking that if they started the fight, God would intervene on their side. Others were quietists, hoping for divine deliverance without having a more-specific vision of the future but entirely unwilling to fight. Whatever their specific expectations, very few Palestinian Jews were completely satisfied with the governments of Antipas , Pilate, and Caiaphas.

Jews agreed on many basic aspects of their religion and way of life, and they agreed that they did not want to surrender their covenant with God to accept the lure of pagan culture , but, when it came to details, they could disagree with one another violently. Since God cared about every aspect of life, competing groups and leaders often saw themselves as representing the side of God against his adversaries. The only substantial sources for the life and message of Jesus are the Gospels of the New Testament , the earliest of which was Mark written ad 60—80 , followed by Matthew , Luke , and John ad 75— Some additional evidence can be found in the letters of Paul , which were written beginning in ad 50 and are the earliest surviving Christian texts.

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There are, however, other sources that may have further information. Another important text, the mid-2nd-century- ad Gospel of Thomas , has attracted much attention. For Thomas, salvation consists of self-knowledge, and baptism results in restoration to the primordial state—man and woman in one person, like Adam before the creation of Eve saying Spiritual reversion to that state meant that nakedness need not result in shame.

One passage saying 37 allows it to be suspected that the early Christian followers of the Gospel of Thomas took off their garments and trampled on them as part of their baptismal initiation. There are a few connections between this worldview and that of Paul and the Gospel According to John , but the overall theology of the Gospel of Thomas is so far removed from the teaching of Jesus as found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke—in which Jewish eschatology is central—that it is not considered a major source for the study of Jesus. It is, of course, possible or even likely that individual sayings in Thomas or other apocryphal gospels originated with Jesus, but it is unlikely that noncanonical sources can contribute much to the portrait of the historical Jesus. As in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the traditions found in other apocryphal gospels are often completely unlike the evidence of the canonical gospels and are embedded in documents that are generally believed to be unreliable. There are a few references to Jesus in 1st-century Roman and Jewish sources.

Sources for the life of Jesus

Twenty years later, according to Tacitus , Christians in Rome were prominent enough to be persecuted by Nero , and it was known that they were devoted to Christus, whom Pilate had executed Annals This knowledge of Jesus, however, was dependent on familiarity with early Christianity and does not provide independent evidence about Jesus. Josephus wrote a paragraph about Jesus The Antiquities of the Jews The letters of Paul contain reliable but meagre evidence. The Crucifixion and Resurrection were accepted by all first-generation Christians.

Fuller information about Jesus is found in the Gospels of the New Testament, though those are not of equal value in reconstructing his life and teaching. The Gospels of Matthew , Mark , and Luke agree so closely with one another that they can be studied together in parallel columns in a work called a synopsis and are hence called the Synoptic Gospels.

John , however, is so different that it cannot be reconciled with the Synoptics except in very general ways e. In all four Gospels Jesus performs miracles, especially healings, but, while exorcisms are prevalent in the Synoptics, there are none in John. In the Synoptic Gospels he speaks about the kingdom of God in short aphorisms and parables, making use of similes and figures of speech, many drawn from agricultural and village life. In John, on the other hand, Jesus employs long metaphorical discourses, in which he himself is the main subject.

The verdict on the miracles is the same, though less firmly held: in all probability Jesus was known as an exorcist, which resulted in the charge that he cast out demons by the prince of demons Mark — The choice between the narrative outline of the Synoptics and that of John is less clear. Besides presenting a longer ministry than do the other Gospels, John also describes several trips to Jerusalem.

Only one is mentioned in the Synoptics. Both outlines are plausible, but a ministry of more than two years leaves more questions unanswered than does one of a few months. It is generally accepted that Jesus and his disciples were itinerant, that they traveled around Galilee and its immediate environs and that Jesus taught and healed in various towns and villages as well as in the countryside and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

After graduating from Columbia University in , he was ordained a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he taught for the next 50 years. His attempts to adapt Judaism to the modern world, particularly to the American situation, led to the establishment of a new movement, Reconstructionism.

He saw Judaism as representing, first and foremost, a religious civilization and proposed a Jewish theology shaped by Jewish experience and Jewish ethics. A classic in modern Jewish thought It continues to function as a central text for the Reconstructionist movement, whose influence continues to grow in American Jewry. Without a doubt the second most important book Kaplan wrote after Judaism as a Civilization, and no less relevant than that book to present concerns.

Here Kaplan enlarges on his notion of functional reinterpretation and then actually applies it to the entire ritual cycle of the Jewish year-a rarity in modern Jewish thought. Skip to main content.