Friday, September 15, 2023

For Rosh Hashanah 5784: An excerpt from "Israel - War and Peace," a work in progress for young people by Brian Henry


Chapter 3 – Jews, Christians, Muslims

3.1 Judaism – The religion of the Jews

Not all religions are the same. Judaism is the name of the religion of the Jewish people. Someone is born Jewish if their mother is Jewish. Whether their father is Jewish doesn’t matter. Only mothers count – that’s the rule. Or at least it’s been the rule for a couple thousand years and it’s the rule most Jews follow.

But Jews are famous for arguing with each other; indeed, arguing is a core Jewish value. So do all Jews say it doesn’t count if the father was Jewish? Of course not.

Besides being born Jewish, you can also become Jewish by converting. In that case, the new Jew, the convert, joins the Jewish people. In joining the Jewish people, the convert takes on the religion of the Jews.

The Jewish holy books known as the Torah, plus the books of the prophets and the writings {which Christians call the Old Testament} are mostly about the ups and downs of the relationship between the Jewish nation and God. The basic idea is that there’s a deal between God and the Jews called a covenant.

You may have heard of the 10 commandments. Jews traditionally count another 603 commandments in the Torah for a total of 613. These are the terms of the deal that God and the Jews made with each other. 

In the Torah, Jews are called the Chosen People.  Jews have been arguing about exactly what this means for a few thousand years, but the most basic meaning is that Jews have been chosen to follow those 613 commandments, and other people don’t have to.

This is not a list of 613 “thou shalt nots.” Many of the commandments are positive. For example, the first commandment in the Torah is “Go forth and multiply” – meaning, Go have kids!

So why did God decide Jews should observe these 613 commandments? Traditionally there are two answers to this:

(1) It’s a good way to live. Jews haven’t been chosen to uphold the Torah; rather the Torah is there to help Jews live good, meaningful lives.

(2) In observing all 613 commandments and more generally following Jewish values, Jews serve as “a light unto the nations” (which is a famous quote from the Jewish prophet Isaiah). That is, Jews are supposed to try to be a good example to the other nations of the world. This doesn’t mean Jews go around telling anyone else how to behave or how they ought to practice their religion. As far as Jews are concerned, that’s none of our business.

Jews who try to observe all 613 commandments are called Orthodox. But most Jews aren't Orthodox. Some aren't religious at all. Are they still Jews? Absolutely. 

What has Judaism given the world?

The Torah does have a lot of important stuff that other people and other religions have adopted, especially:

One God, creator of Heaven and Earth – not a whole sky full of squabbling gods and not a universe that’s all chaos, but an orderly universe that makes sense, and a world with moral values of right and wrong – not a world in which kings or other powerful people declare what’s right and wrong.


One humanity, made in the image of God, with every person in the world descended from the same original mother and father, Adam and Eve. All people, everywhere, are one family. And each and every person has something of God in them, which gives each person infinite worth, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, king or beggar. 

The ideal of equality, as in the words of the American constitution: “All men are created equal,” comes originally from Jewish beliefs.

The ideal of human rights also comes from Jewish values. There can’t be such a thing as human rights for everyone without the idea of there being one humanity and moral values that apply to everybody.

Of course, the ideas of equality and human rights don’t just come from the Jewish tradition – really big ideas always grow out of more than one place.


The Ten Commandments. If you haven’t heard of these, Google them.


A heroic origin story about escaping from slavery in Egypt – Jews retell this story every year in the Passover celebration. {Yay, Moses!} The story of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt has been made it into a couple big Hollywood movies. More importantly, the Passover story inspired both Black slaves escaping from slavery in the American south and the Civil Rights movement that created legal equality for Blacks throughout the US in the 1960s.

For Jews, freedom is a core value that, like equality, has been adapted by good people the world over.


Other core Jewish values

Besides a belief in freedom, we should add at least a couple more core Jewish values that much of the world has also come to value:

Literacy and study: Jews are known as the People of the Book, “the Book” being the Torah. But Jews don’t just read the Torah and our other holy books, we study them. And it’s not just rabbis or other religious leaders who study, but everyone. This weird habit of studying has long set Jews apart, because until modern times, most people in the world haven’t been able to read at all.


Argument for the sake of Heaven: People argue for two reasons: to get their own way or to get at the truth. Jews call argument to get at the truth, argument for the sake of heaven.

Besides the books of the Jewish bible, the other main Jewish text is The Talmud. This is a long collection of interpretations of the Torah and of Jewish law. Almost every page of the Talmud includes an argument among different rabbis about the correct interpretation – and all sides of the arguments are given.

That’s actually very weird. No one else has holy books that feature disagreements on every page. But it’s through arguing and testing ideas that we understand them. If all we have is a conclusion, we can’t really understand it.

Besides, as long as everyone is arguing for the sake of heaven, they're pursuing truth. And the pursuit of truth is sacred.

            This book you’re reading is meant as one long argument for the sake of heaven – me trying to explain a complicated history as best I can.

While the Jewish devotion to reading, studying, and the pursuit of truth come out of our religious practice, it has spilled over into Jewish culture in general. Traditionally, Jews study hard. These days, they go to university. They become writers, doctors and scientists. They also become comedians and accountants, artists and lawyers, diamond merchants and business people of all kinds – all sorts of things. As such, Jews keep giving to the world.

On our whole planet, there are just 16 million Jews. That’s .2% of the world’s population – just one out of every five hundred people is Jewish. Out of Nobel prize winners – that is people who have been recognized for making outstanding contributions to literature, medicine and science – more than 20% are Jewish, or one out of five. That’s one hundred times the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners you’d expect from the number of Jews in the world.

Why so many?

People give different answers to that question, but a big part of the answer is simply that reading, studying, and the pursuit of truth are core Jewish values.

Connection to the Land of Israel

One more core Jewish value that’s highly relevant here: A connection to the Land of Israel or in Hebrew to Eretz Yisrael. Today, about seven million Jews live in Israel, a bit less than half the world’s Jewish population. But Israel isn’t just important to the Jews who live there; it’s important to most Jews everywhere, and always has been.

Jews aren’t just a religion. We’re a nation. And we’re not just a wandering nation. We have a home – Eretz Yisrael. At the spiritual centre of Israel is Jerusalem, which is also known as Zion, the nation’s capital and the site of the ancient temple. This is where the Jewish heart lives.

High Holidays prayers at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

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