Many people think that Judaism has been the same since it began more than 5,000 years ago and, therefore, it should not change now. They are very wrong. Let me give some examples:
Judaism began as a family religion, starting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Joseph was in Egypt, his brothers came to live there because there was a famine where they were living. They stayed in Egypt 400 years, going from invited guests to total slavery. When Moses led them out of Egypt, they had become separate tribes, descending primarily from the 12 sons of Jacob and Joseph. During their wanderings in the desert, and then the settling of the Promised Land, it was clear there was as much loyalty, or more, to their tribes than to the nation as a whole. So Judaism had gone from a family religion to a tribal religion. Read more »
A big change happened to the Israelites when they went from a society run by wise men (known as Judges, like Deborah and Samuel) to a society with a King. They wanted to be like the other nations of the world and the people asked Samuel to appoint them a King. The first King was King Saul. He was killed in battle, and the next two Kings were more famous, King David and his son King Solomon. King David was a warrior who united the country like no one had before. You might compare his role as similar to the United States adopting the Constitution and becoming one country.
A huge change came when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Holy Temple was considered the home of God. It was very sacred and only Priests were allowed into it. Everyone else stood on the outside and watched. Read more »
After being marched into exile in Babylonia, the Judaeans (we can call them Jews now) were deprived of the Holy Temple and their King. But unlike the people of the Kingdom of Israel, the Jews in Babylon did not become Lost. What they did was two things. They resumed local sacrificing like they had before the Holy Temple was built, and they began to write the Talmud.
The Talmud was created by putting the oral law into written form for the first time (it had been passed on orally from generation to generation since the time of Moses), so it wouldn’t be lost. And the wisest and most learned of their people began to meet in groups to discuss and analyze and interpret the Torah in combination with the oral law. Their discussions were recorded, and that is what became the Talmud of today. The people continued to lead a Jewish life, and that is what saved them. Read more »
When Napoleon conquered most of Europe in the early 1800′s, he freed the Jews from many forms of discrimination and in some countries like France, England, and Germany, Jews were allowed to participate in general society.
In Germany, the Reform Movement was started, in protest against the strict orthodoxy of traditional Judaism. The Reform Movement allowed Jews to continue to be Jewish while they integrated (and in many cases assimilated) into general society. The rebellion against traditional Orthodox Judaism was so great that some Reform synagogues didn’t allow the wearing of yarmulkas or tallises, they drove on the Sabbath, didn’t keep kosher, and they used organ music to supplement their prayer services. Read more »
Quoting from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the first paragraph of his famous book God in Search of Man:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”
For most Jews, that is the state of Judaism today, and we have to find a way to make it relevant and meaningful to us or consign Judaism to the province of the Orthodox, whose effect on society will become more like the Amish than anything else.
A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in February and March 2012 found the following breakdown of the American Jewish community: 35% Reform, 26% Conservative, 8% Orthodox, 1% Reconstructionist, and 29% who said they were “just Jewish.” Regarding the latter category, the survey findings were in line with other surveys — that younger Americans of all faiths are likely to be less religiously affiliated than their elders.
The survey found that 59% of American Jews said religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, with women at 66% and men at 50%. Younger Jews are twice as likely as older Jews to say they do not believe in God (27% to 13%), with only 35% of American Jews belonging to a synagogue. Read more »