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“How Judaism Became a Religion”

Over the years Jews have had many different views about God. In the Torah, God is a family God to Abraham and his descendants. He is portrayed as a warlike, jealous, punishing and angry God. He destroyed the world with the Great Flood, with the exception of Noah’s ark. He punished the Egyptians with plagues and then hardened Pharoah’s heart so more plagues would be necessary. In the desert, he told the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites and all they owned, and then punished Moses for an indiscretion and didn’t let him enter the Promised Land.

In later Biblical books, God was constantly punishing the Jews for idol worship and destroyed the First and Second Temples for reasons that are not clear. Then He let the Romans disperse the Jews to the Diaspora for almost 2,000 years. This culminated in the Holocaust, which Orthodox Jews blame on many Jews leading secular lives.

Maimonides taught of a God who could be partially understood through reason although he concluded that God is beyond all human understanding. The Kabbalists taught about a God who created the world and then removed  Himself from it, leaving it up to the Jews to literally pick up the pieces and put the world back together again. Spinoza taught that God could only be found in nature and got excommunicated for his beliefs.

Today, some rabbis teach that God answers prayers and others teach that God has withdrawn Himself from the world and leaves it up to man to solve his own problems. Others think that everything happens for a reason and others think that everything is random. In short, there is no uniform Jewish belief about God, and it is  just as common to find Jewish atheists and agnostics as it is to find Jews who follow the dictates of the Torah, purportedly given to the Jews by God at Mount Sinai.

Leora Batnitzky, a professor of religion at Princeton, argues in her book “How Judaism Became a Religion” that the idea of Judaism as a religion, rather than a culture, is actually a modern one. During most the Diaspora, Jews lived for the most part in autonomous communities where all aspects of life were regulated by rabbis. Judaism was a culture unto itself and the nature of who God is wasn’t that important. Judaism didn’t become viewed as a religion, like Christianity or Islam or Hinduism, until Jews entered the secular world beginning in the late 18th Century.

Prof. Batnitzky thinks that belief in God will be more important in the future than in the past. She thinks that a more traditional Jewish identity, one centered on religious practices and belief in God, will become very important. She doesn’t believe that religious rituals without having a firm belief in God as their foundation will hold up. And a Judaism without a God, and with meaningless rituals and traditions, will probably not be able to survive.

The Shalomist believes Jews need to come together to agree on the nature of the Jewish God and to develop rituals and traditions that speak to the Jews of today. If we can’t do this, we won’t be able to fulfill our role as a “light to the nations” and a partner in God’s creation, and our purpose for existing will leave us.

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