Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Jewish People:
Our Ancestors in Faith
Recent world events call renewed attention to the religions of
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These three faiths are connected in numerous
ways, but it is their differences that spark the most heated
discussions. Youth Update has treated Islam in another issue. Judaism,
addressed here, is the earliest of the faith traditions to honor one God alone.
What is Judaism? It is a religion, a tradition, a history and a
Judaism can be seen as the religion of a people united by their
belief that God spoke to their father Abraham declaring his descendents as
God's chosen people. Judaism is a tradition of beliefs, religious practices and moral living that expresses the
fidelity of the Jewish people in responding to God's call. Judaism is the
history of a people who attempt to follow the will of God through exile,
persecution and the establishment of a homeland. Judaism is a story of a people
formed and guided in life by their relationship to their God.
This issue of Youth Update focuses on Judaism, the
religious predecessor of Christianity. As Catholic Christians, what can the
story of Abraham and his descendants teach us about our faith and our religious
and Sarah Say Yes
The story begins with the attention one man and his
wife gave to the signs God placed within their lives. They heard
God's word and believed it. God promised that they would have a
child from whom a great people would develop. In the dialogue between
this man and woman with God began the story of the Jewish people.
Others followed the example of Abraham and Sarah. These were
the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Jewish people.
A long procession of prophets and priests, peasants and kings, heroines
and warriors followed.
In the stories of these women and men, the stories of Judaism
and Catholicism coincide. Both religions embrace these ancestors
and share one path to God until the birth of Christ. In an age when
some people misuse religion as division, knowledge of shared traditions
can lead to peace.
Peoples of the Book
Judaism discovers the stories that reveal God's presence in the
Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. You know it as the
Old Testament. Although there are some differences in these two texts (as read
by Christians and Jews), much is held in common by people of both religions.
Because Catholics—like Jews—rely on Holy Scripture as one source of their
knowledge about God, we are both known as "people of the book."
Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is a primary meeting place between Christians
and Jews. Jews do not accept the Christian Scriptures as part of
their faith. These, as you know, tell the story of Jesus, the Son
of God, his life, death and resurrection.
But both Catholics and Jews revere the Hebrew Bible. Stories
of creation, the call of Moses and the Exodus, the story of Ruth
and Esther, the challenge of the prophets and the power and beauty
of the psalms inspire people of both religions.
Revelation is God's gradual uncovering of what God's will is
for us and what kind of a God it is who calls to us. The great Jewish
thinker Martin Buber said their common Scripture was the place where
Christian and Jew could listen together to the voice that speaks
Like a song lyric repeated for its importance to a musical piece,
monotheism or belief in one God is a primary theme of Judaism. This
belief is sacred to all Jews. The statement of monotheism is called
the Shema. It is found in the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4. It
reads, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord alone!"
Often stories include promises or agreements that people make
with one another. Judaism emerged from the covenant or agreement
the Jewish people made with God through Abraham and renewed with
Moses. The people expressed their faithfulness to God by keeping
the commandments that made God's will known to them.
The Ten Commandments are the best known of the 613
commandments given by God to Moses as a sign of the covenant. These
commands are found in the Torah, the first five books of
the Bible. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch.
Whenever stories are told, many versions develop.
We may need to look to others for clarification in order to grasp
the truth of the story. The richness and beauty of the Torah are
made visible through the interpretations of the rabbis. These religious
leaders are experts in Jewish law and have written down their understandings
of the Torah and the ways Jews should practice their religion.
This can be compared to the way your teacher interprets
a difficult passage of literature. Your parents often interpret
their expectations of you—especially ones that you don't understand.
The Mishnah and the Talmud are a collection
of these interpretations of the Torah by the rabbis. These guide
the Jewish people in following God's will. Christians share belief
in the Ten Commandments as one way to follow the will of God.
Jewish history, which records their tradition
and their experience, is often called salvation history.
It records both God's presence in the story of the Jewish people
and the attempt of the people to follow God's commands.
This view of history is a revolutionary insight of
the Jews. They recognized God's presence and action in history,
in the course of human events. To live an ethical life, to do the
right thing, is seen by Judaism not as an option for humans but
as the will of God.
Other peoples, like the American Indians, located
God first of all in nature. Place was sacred. Mountains, trees and
rivers were part of the web that joined all of life. In Judaism,
history—human activity—is ripe with the presence of God. Obedience
to the Torah, celebration of the rites of passage and holy days
and keeping of the Sabbath are human actions with divine dimensions.
This can be seen in the story of the Exodus, which
celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.
Through the leadership of Moses, God led the Jewish people out of
slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. This event of liberation
is celebrated in the great holy day of Pesach or Passover.
The Seder meal is still the center of the celebration.
This story of freedom from slavery connects Jews
and Christians. We know that Jesus celebrated the Passover. The
Christian Passover or Paschal Mystery is celebrated on Easter. On
this day, Christians celebrate the victory of Jesus over sin and
death through the power of his resurrection.
Through Baptism, Catholics believe they are united
with Christ in his victory over death and in his promise of lasting
life. In the eucharistic celebration, a thanksgiving feast, Christians
are fed with the new Lamb of God, Jesus the Christ.
In Judaism, the holy presence of God is accompanied
by awe and wonder on the part of the people. You may have heard
the statement, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
Fear is the human response to being in the holy presence of God.
Awe, wonder and astonishment may be closer to the reality described.
The Jewish people are so awestruck by God's presence,
so full of reverence for God that they will not even say the divine
name and will only write it in an abbreviated manner. This sense
of awe and wonder is the result of paying attention to the world
and God's action in it.
Prejudice and Persecution
Although freed from slavery at the time of Moses,
the Jewish people were not to remain free. They were captured and
exiled from their homeland many times. The history of the Jewish
people is one of exile, persecution and liberation. The attitude
of hatred toward the Jews, which motivated persecution, is called
In 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem
and the second Jewish temple. The Jewish people were exiled from
Jerusalem from this time until the middle of the 20th century. The
remains of the temple destroyed by the Romans are called the Western
Wall (sometimes called the Wailing Wall by others). It is the
most sacred site for prayer or pilgrimage for Jews throughout the
world and is pictured on the front of this Youth Update.
From the time of the exile by the Romans until 1948,
Jewish people were forced to live as guests in places claimed by
others as their home. Sometimes they were treated well. In Muslim
Spain, for instance, Jewish poets, philosophers and scientists flourished.
At about the same time Columbus journeyed to this
land, however, tens of thousands of Jews were forced to leave Spain.
They were later forced to live together in ghettoes in Italy and
Germany. Still more were killed in the pogroms of Russia during
the 19th century.
The greatest persecution took place in what those
who are not Jewish call the Holocaust. Six million Jews were killed,
one third of the Jewish population. Jews call this mass murder of
innocent people the Shoah, or the catastrophe.
Such an unimaginable tragedy has placed challenges
before Jewish people and all who believe in a loving and all-powerful
God. Shoah survivor Elie Wiesel argues that the horrors of the past
must not be forgotten but must be studied to help us judge well
at the present time.
The Catholic Church too has added to the persecution
of Jews. The Crusades and the Inquisition are but two examples.
Pope John Paul II has asked the Jewish people for forgiveness for
the sins of the Catholic Church in persecuting Jews.
After World War II, Jews fled from Europe to the
Middle East to claim a homeland. The land that became the State
of Israel was the place where God's revelation came to the chosen
people. It was the land of Exodus, the place where King David established
the capital, the site of the two great temples.
Because of this, as well as the Shoah and other complex
reasons, the State of Israel became a reality.
In 1948, the United Nations created the State of Israel from
land claimed by Palestinians. Since that time, the Israeli people
and the Palestinians have been in conflict. The journey of the Jewish
people continues in the challenge of claiming a homeland yet living
in peace with their Palestinian neighbors.
You may ask how the Jewish people held together
as a people while scattered in so many diverse places on the earth.
Some of you may have family members who are separated from you by
many, many miles. You keep family bonds healthy by celebrating— traditions,
coming together for— holidays and trying to keep in touch with members
of the family. The Jewish people did a similar thing.
Because their traditions flowed from religion, the
practice of their religion was the way to keep alive their shared
identity. Prayer in homes, fidelity to the Torah and Talmud, holding
Sabbath day services at the synagogue and celebrating rites of passage
and holy days are among the ways that the people remained of one
heart despite their separation.
The home is the center of Jewish family life and
the first school of Jewish religious life. Just as a crucifix or
picture of Mary may be found in a Catholic home, a mezuzah
may be found at the entrance to a Jewish home. This small container
holds within a scroll on which is written the Shema.
The religious practices of blessing food, singing
songs of thanks and praise to God, lighting ceremonial candles and
wearing prayer shawls or head coverings (yarmulkes) bring
family activities into the joyful light of honoring God's holy presence.
Incidentally, the food eaten at meals must be kosher or prepared
in accordance with rules found in the Torah.
The practice of honoring God in the home extends
on the Sabbath (Shabbat) to the synagogue. The Sabbath begins
at sundown on Friday with the blessing of the Sabbath candles. Someone
at the table will hold up a cup of wine and chant the Kiddush
or blessing of sanctification.
On Saturday there is a service at the synagogue and
Torah study. There may also be a festive meal, prepared before the
Sabbath. As God rested on the seventh day of creation, so the people
rest and reflect on wonderful deeds God has accomplished in their
lives. It is a time to enjoy the company of family and to experience
freedom from the responsibilities and concerns that occupy the work
of the week.
Catholics are invited to rest and pray and attend
the celebration of Eucharist on Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection.
It too is to be a Sabbath, a day of rest, reflection and spiritual
renewal. Catholicism, like Judaism, celebrates key events in the
life of its members. These celebrations might be called rites of
passage. Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders are sacraments
in the Catholic Church which celebrate the particular way Christ
is present in the passage from one stage of life to another. Circumcision,
Bar or Bat Mitzvah (son or daughter of the commandment), marriage,
death and grieving are rites of transition for the Jewish people.
Believers at Heart
You now recognize some elements of the story of
those who are your ancestors in the faith. It is faith that led Abraham
and Sarah to follow God's lead, as it is faith that leads you to follow
the way of Jesus. As God's will has directed the journey of the Jewish
people, so may it set our hearts on fire for love of our God.
A final story recalls how the people of Judaism are
guided on their journey. Once there was a very old traveler on the
way to a holy site high in the Himalayan Mountains. An innkeeper
remarked, "How will you ever reach your destination in these mountains
in this terrible weather?"
With a look of confidence and a voice full of wisdom
the traveler replied, "My heart is already there, so it is easy
for the rest of me to follow."
The story of the Jewish people is one of a people
whose heart is centered in doing God's will. They follow their God
with hearts aflame with the fire of God's love.
You say that Catholics call it the Old Testament, but
Jews do not. Why?
Jewish people, what we call the Old Testament is the only Testament. It
is Christians who use the word old to distinguish the two parts of their
sacred text or Bible: the Old and the New. The terms Hebrew Scriptures
and Christian Scriptures are preferred in interfaith
conversations, because they do not infer a relationship that isn't recognized
in the Jewish faith.
In an earlier version of this issue, you used the abbreviations
C.E. and B.C.E. What do they mean?
C.E. stands for the "common era"
that Judaism and Christianity share. B.C.E. means "before the common era." Jews
adopted the terms as alternatives to the widely used terms B.C. (before Christ)
and A.D. (Anno Domini, or Year of the Lord), which both assume that
Christ's birth is the central event of history. Since this publication is
directed to Catholics, B.C. and A.D. are preferred.
Why don't Jewish people like the word Holocaust
to describe what happened to them?
The word holocaust is used in the Hebrew Scriptures
to describe a burnt offering to God. They see no holy motives such as that in
the horrors of the Shoah.
Catholic youth who had
participated in a teen interfaith dialogue in the Milwaukee Archdiocese reviewed this issue: Ryan Foti (17), Tom Jensen (17), David Dean Osburn (17), and Jonathan Roberts (16). Leah Fiasca (16), from Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid, and Sam Levine (16), from Congregation Beth Israel, both in Milwaukee, also assisted.