Voices from religion and worldviews – Judaism
Over the last few years we have collated responses to questions about religion and worldviews from different perspectives. This resource provides personal answers to questions from lived experience and were written directly by believers.
- What do you believe about God and the purpose of life?
- What is it like being a Jew in Britain today? Are there any difficulties of being a Jew in Britain?
- What would you like children in schools to be taught about your tradition?
- What is the most important festival and how do you celebrate it?
- What are the current issues for a Jewish person today?
- How might I understand the differences between orthodox and reform Judaism?
- What is a typical day like for a person of the Jewish faith?
- How does Judaism understand the promise of the Messiah?
- Why is Moses an inspiration to the Jewish people?
- Can you give me a brief overview of what happens at a Jewish burial/funeral, wedding and birth or birthday please?
1.What do you believe about God and the purpose of life?
We Jewish people believe there is one God who created the world and is always there. We have a special relationship with God, we say thank you to Him by following his rules and commandments and by trying to bring holiness into everything we do. This means treating people with loving kindness and doing good deeds, like giving charity and helping people. I think if you behave with ‘chesed’ – loving kindness – then you can make a Heaven on earth.
You can see how important God is by looking at our most special prayer, the Shema. It begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We don’t have pictures of God but know he is with us all the time. He is supporting us, judging us and forgiving us if we do wrong but are sorry. He rewards us if we do the right thing.
We think of God as our Father and our King. He has made us in his image. We call this ‘b’tselem Elohim’. We must try and be good and kind and live up to this responsibility. It tells us in the Torah, “Each person is created in the image of One God and no-one is less human than others.”
The comments about the afterlife in Judaism are correct – it is certainly not as central to us as Christians and one of our points of difference.
Most Jewish people would see how we lead our lives ethically and how we make a difference in the world, to be a key purpose of life. I suppose we are more concerned with building a heaven on earth.
Here are some key concepts that shape our righteous behaviour and responses to others during our lives. The concept of ‘repair of a damaged world’ (tikkun ha’olam) and helping others through social action, has become more central to Jewish thinking in recent years.
Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim (giving and doing)
Although tzedakah can be translated as charity, its root is ‘justice’. We have a word ‘tzedek’ which is social justice and ‘tzadak’ – righteous individual. It is different from the Christian idea of charity, which is coming from the idea of love (caritas) and being moved from the heart to give. It can be seen in charity boxes in homes, charity events in the Jewish community, bequests in synagogues.
It’s considered by some the highest of commandments. For example, at Yom Kippur, the three elements to enable us to gain forgiveness for our sins are tzedakah, tefilah (prayer) and teshuvah (repentence).
We have a religious obligation to do what is right and just. We are obligated to give tzedakah as a way of serving God. Religious Jews give 10% of their earnings to charity ‘ma’aser kesafim’.
There’s a teaching that says when a beggar is standing by you asking for alms, the holy presence of God is by his side. The beggar is doing us a favour by asking for charity.
The obligation to give tzedakah can be fulfilled in giving to charities, hospitals, educational institutions etc
Gemilut Hasadim means ‘giving of loving kindness’.
It’s a mitzvah – commandment, but also moral deed done as a religious duty.
Talmud supports this, stating that the reward for service is in this world, not in the world to come (Shabbat 127a).
More important than just giving money, you give kindness, time, attention, to the rich and poor, to the dead as well as alive.
Many Jewish people volunteer for charitable committees.
“Charity awaits the cry of distress. Benevolence anticipates the cry of distress.”
Jewish tradition singles out six particular acts as gemilut hasadim: providing clothes for the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, accompanying the dead to the grave, providing for brides, and offering hospitality to strangers.(Sotah 14a, Eruvin 18a, Shabbat 127a-b).
Bikur Cholim means ‘Visiting the Sick’.
It is considered an important mitzvah (commandment).
It is an aspect of gemilut chasadim.
It is the most basic way of showing chesed (loving kindness).
It is traditional to recite prayers for healing, such as the Mi Shebeirach prayer in the synagogue, and Psalms (especially Psalm 119) on behalf of the sick.
Linked with this is a wish for refua shlema – complete healing.
The mitzvah goes back to Genesis, when three angels visited Abraham, who was resting outside his tent after being circumcised at age 99 as part of the covenant with God. The rabbis regard the visit as the first known case of bikur cholim. The angels are messengers of God and appear on God’s behalf.
There are many guidelines about visiting – for example, how to make the patient feel less anxious, e.g., friends not suddenly visiting but waiting for family to attend first, so as not to make the patient’s condition seem more serious.
Tikkun Ha’Olam means ‘repair of the world’ and is synonymous with social action.
It’s not mentioned in the Torah but in the Mishnah (200CE) and in Jewish mysticism in the 16th century and teachings of Isaac Luria. Divine light was contained in vessels by God which became shattered and scattered. So our role is to gather the lost light. With each mitzvah, a divine spark is returned.
In the 1950s this term became used for social action work and the idea of human responsibility for fixing a damaged world. There is also another idea that carrying out ritual obligations (prayers / good deeds / commandments) will hasten the coming of the Messiah. For example, the idea that keeping Shabbat twice will encourage the Messianic age to come.
2.What is it like being a Jew in Britain today? Are there any difficulties of being a Jew in Britain?
There is a lot of diversity within the Jewish community. Although my own family in the past are from Russia, Poland and Lithuania, I do meet Jewish people who are originally from Spain, Egypt, India, the Yemen and Morocco. I also have friends from Israel. They have their own ways of practising their faith and their own traditions for the festivals. They also have their own special Jewish food, based on the countries they came from.
We also identify as Jewish in different ways. For example, I am from the Reform movement, but there are also Liberal, Progressive, Masorti, Orthodox and Charedi Jewish people. The big difference is how we respond to the Torah. Orthodox Jews see the Torah as coming directly from God and so cannot be changed. Reform Jewish people see the teachings as being inspired by God but we respond to the commandments in a modern way. For example, we are allowed to have female rabbis and women take an equal part in the synagogue services.
Our community is not growing a lot, due to more people marrying out of the faith and not raising their children as Jewish. It is also hard in my religion to convert into the faith, it takes a long time and you have to show real commitment, like learning Hebrew and living for a while with a Jewish family.
If there aren’t many Jewish people in a local area, then shops selling kosher food may have to close and it is harder to get the numbers to run a Sunday religion school for children. Synagogues have to join together. The majority of Jewish people in Britain are now based in and around London. https://www.bod.org.uk/jewish-facts-info/jews-in-numbers/
We do feel sad when there are anti-semitic incidents, for example, one of my local synagogues had its gravestones deliberately pushed over and smashed. We have to guard our synagogues whenever there is a service and patrol outside. Most Jewish people feel anti-semitism has got worse in the past few years, not just in this country but also around Europe and this makes them anxious.
3.What would you like children in schools to be taught about your tradition?
First of all, it’s important that Judaism is taught in school as a distinctive living religion, not as something just from Bible times or the roots of Christianity. As over 34,500 children attend Jewish faith schools, the opportunities for children in secular schools to learn naturally about Judaism from classmates may not be there. As well as learning key facts about Judaism, it would help if children learnt about the importance of keeping your Jewish identity, challenges about keeping food laws in modern times and how a day of rest (Shabbat) is so central.
Jewish values and mitzvot (commandments), such as tzedakah (charity/justice), gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness), tikkun ha’olam (repair of the world and social action) and bikur cholim (care of the sick) are very key in Jewish lives. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMnADItaL7D5YzydNbo7bzA Shaboom on Youtube have fun videos that communicate these important values to children.
It is also important to show the relationship between the monotheistic beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the role of Abraham. Schools sometimes focus on the Middle-East conflict but I would like it if peace initiatives, such as Neve Shalom, could also be used to give balance and hope. https://www.oasisofpeace.org.uk/
Schools teach about the Holocaust but there has to be a response to the serious rise in present anti-semitism and how it affects the community. As we lose our survivors of the Holocaust, schools have an important role in keeping the memory alive and trying to ensure a future free from prejudice and hate.
It is easy for pupils to have a stereotyped view of what a Jewish person looks like, but good teaching should reflect the diversity in the community, the range of denominations and also the different cultures. It should also reflect how the community responds to modern life, such as women’s roles, digital technology and influences from the world outside. For example, there is a growing interest in less conventional funerals. The Reform movement has a green burial site which can be chosen instead of a more traditional burial ground.
4.What is the most important festival and how do you celebrate it?
Firstly, there are no more and no less important festivals in Judaism. There are major and minor festivals, but all are important. Secondly, if I were to choose one it would be Yom Kippur as many Jews, even Jews who don’t believe there is a G-d, keep Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a ‘strange festival’. No one eats or drinks after they become an adult (girls at the age of 12 and boys at the age of 13) or washes, wears perfume or leather shoes and married couples don’t have intimate relations. The fast starts on the Eve of Yom Kippur (you can find the date on the internet for the next one) about 15 minutes before sunset. Members of the family would have had a bath / shower that afternoon, put on their best clothes and then had a festival meal. Unlike other festivals the candles are lit after the meal is finished. Usually a candle to remember the dead is also lit in the home. The family then walks to the synagogue and the first of seven services begin. It is called Kol Nidre and has beautiful traditional tunes to the songs sung. That night we go home to study and sleep – the service lasts about two hours. The next morning, we get up and dress and go back to the synagogue until nightfall. The services are long and there is a lot of repetition – a bit like watching the ocean. Sometimes a wave breaks but usually just little waves. Lots of people come and go but I like just being there. According to tradition on that day we become like the angels. I love the afternoon service with the reading of the Book of Jonah, but my favourite is Ne’ila – the closing of the gates. At the end there is the blowing of the shofar and everyone wishes everyone else Shana Tovah – a good year. We then break the fast with a meal of special foods. I love Yom Kippur because it is like standing still in time and I love the feeling at the end as I can start a new year without the burden of the last.
The festivals go like this: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most solemn days of the year as we ask forgiveness of sins and try to put our lives on the right track.
Sukkok, Pesach and Shavuot are all related to the harvest. Sukkot is the fruit and vine harvest, Pesach the early wheat and barley harvest and Shavuot the late wheat harvest. They also commemorate the life of the Israelites in the wilderness. Sukkot is the wandering, Pesach the liberation from Egypt and Shavuot the giving of the Torah.
Chanukah and Purim are minor festivals celebrating liberation from various enemies in Israel’s history. Both fun festivals they are loved by children.
We also have fasts but perhaps those come into festivals – although a fast often precedes a festival.
I suppose the special stages are birth, growing up, getting married and dying. We’ve dealt with most of them so let’s focus on growing up. In most communities, boys have a bar mitzvah at the age of 13. This is when a boy becomes a man and responsible for himself. Often, he is invited to observe the reading of the Torah and sometimes reads it for himself. In Reform and Liberal communities, girls have the same opportunity, but this would be called a Bat Mitzvah. In Orthodox communities some girls have a Bat Chayil others a Bat Mitzvah. This often involves preparing a project on Jewish life and understanding the duties of a Jewish wife.
Of course, this is only a start. I suggest you have a look at a website that can answer all your questions in greater detail. I hope this taste has given you enough to start with and that now you’ll be so excited that you’ll want to do even more. The website is: www.jewfaq.org/index.htm it is American and doesn’t always refer to British Jewish life but it is pretty good on the basics.
The most important and serious time is the festival is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We fast for 25 hours and think about how we have behaved during the year. We try to make things better if we have upset anyone and mend relationships that are broken. We say sorry to God for our behaviour and ask for forgiveness. We try to be better people and give more to charity.
The day is different from other days. Things like spending time making meals and going shopping stop for just over a day. It means we can focus on deeper things in life. You have some discomfort but in the long run it leads to much more happiness. God judges us and puts us in the Book of Life for the year to come.
5.What are the current issues for a Jewish person today?
I suppose that there are a number of issues facing Jews today – for me two would be key. Firstly, the issue of Jewish continuity. The Jewish community in the UK is getting smaller all the time, and older. Many communities are finding it difficult to survive as viable communities and in turn this brings the question: will there be Jews in the future? Linked to this are the issues of intermarriage and the general secularisation of society as a whole. I believe that a Britain without Jews would be a culturally and intellectually poorer place and that would be sad. Of course, Jews have been on the brink of disappearing before so I don’t get too pessimistic about this but it is an issue.
Secondly, the State of Israel. It concerns me that the dream of Zion has not been fulfilled in the modern State of Israel and that its continuity and security is not assured. I have mixed feelings about Israel, I believe in its right to exist and in many of its founding principles but sometimes the way it acts despite the Torah deeply saddens me. I think we need to support Israel but also to feel free to challenge what it does because it should exemplify the beauty of Jewish culture and tradition.
6.How might I understand the differences between orthodox and reform Judaism?
Both Orthodox and Reform would see the Torah as ‘a tree of life for all who grasp it’ and share a commitment to life-long learning into its riches. However, this article shows the key difference between Reform and Orthodox beliefs – Orthodox teaching has the concept of ‘Torah from Heaven’. https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/reform-judaism-1000-words-torah/ Because God chose to speak to us through the Torah, then it is all seen as the eternal truth and unchangeable. However, the Reform movement sees the Torah as divinely inspired, instead of divinely revealed. It is a product of people, sharing the story of their history.
This response to the Torah leads to more emphasis in Reform to social issues, interfaith dialogue and the concept of ‘tikkun ha’olam’ – repair of the damaged world. There is a focus on equality, men and women are given equal status in the service, they are not separated in seating areas and there are women rabbis.
Reform teachings on God would focus on a progressive revelation, which develops as humanity continues. Sad incidents in the world are not seen as God’s punishment, for example, but seen as God suffering by our side.
Jewish people do speak about the world to come and Orthodox tradition does mention the Messianic era, when there is a physical resurrection. However, these ideas are not fully worked through, unlike Christianity. Judaism is very much a religion of the here and now, with emphasis on leading a good life in this world. This is reflected in Deuteronomy where God tells the Israelites, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live” (30:19). You may find this interesting on the afterlife https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/reform-judaism-1000-words-death-afterlife/
The role of mitzvot is a very big and interesting area. For example, in Orthodox teachings, doing an act of charity because it is a mitzvah would be more important than doing it out of kindness and the goodness of your heart. This is because you would be following God’s commandment and would have the additional spiritual commitment. On the other hand, in Reform teachings, the act of charity would reflect Rabbi Morris Joseph’s statement that, “the divine test of a man’s worth is not his theology but his life” (1903).
This shows Reform teachings on mitzvot https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/reform-judaism-1000-words-halachah-progressive-integrity/ The whole Jewish community unites for Mitzvah Day each year, a celebration that also draws in members of other faiths. https://mitzvahday.org.uk/
7.What is a typical day like for a person of the Jewish faith?
Athough there are some things we share, there isn’t just one way of being Jewish. However here are some ideas:
Prayer – When religious Jewish people wake up, they say a prayer thanking God
I offer thanks to You,
living and eternal King,
for You have mercifully restored my soul within me;
Your faithfulness is great
There is also a promise before they say more morning prayers
I hereby take upon myself
to fulfil the commandment of
loving your fellow as yourself
When they wake up in the morning, Jewish people promise to be kind to others. If you are religious, you think of God all day long. There is a special blessing if you see a rainbow, go on a journey, or see lightning in a storm or do something for the first time.
Jewish people eat kosher food. That means ‘fit and proper’ or suitable for Jewish people to eat. So a breakfast would not include bacon or pork sausages. These would be ‘treif’ or not suitable for Jewish people to eat. You can find the food rules in the part of the Torah called Leviticus. When they have lunch or dinner, they wouldn’t mix milk and meat in the same meal – so no burger and milkshake together!
What to wear
This depends how religious you are, but observant men and women dress modestly. This is called tzniut. That means not wearing shorts in hot weather! Religious Jewish women wear sleeves to their elbows, long skirts and a headscarf or hat. They don’t wear trousers. Religious men wear a kippah (skullcap) or a hat.
You can buy football design kippot or ones for your best team.
A special time of the week
When you are Jewish you look forward each week to the celebration of Shabbat, the peaceful day of the week that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on Saturday nightfall. This is a day when no work is done, so you wouldn’t do homework if you were in secondary school. Children help make the house neat and tidy for Shabbat and look forward to the special Friday night Shabbat meal with the plaited bread called challah.
8.How does Judaism understand the promise of the Messiah?
Jewish people are aware that Jesus was born, lived and died as a Jew and was a teacher and rabbi. However, although a small sect of Jews at the time – the Nazarenes – believed Jesus was the Messiah as prophesised in the Jewish texts, the majority of Jewish people did not believe this.
This is because for us he did not fulfil the criteria. These call for a Jewish man descended from the house of King David (Jeremiah 23:5). We consider that as Joseph was not related to Jesus, Jesus was not descended from the house of David.
He was not an ordinary human being and, in our beliefs, did not bring peace to the world (Isaiah 2:4). He did not gather all Jews back into Israel (Isaiah 43:5-6 and rebuild the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 37:26-28). He did not unite humanity in the worship of the Jewish God and Torah observance (Zechariah 14:9). (Deut. 13:1-4).
We have a different understanding of ‘Messiah’ than Christians. The idea of a person who will sacrifice themselves to save us from our sins is not part of the Jewish belief system. The following passages in the Jewish scriptures are the ones that Jews consider to be messianic in nature or relating to the end of days. Isaiah 2, 11, 42; 59:20 – Jeremiah 23, 30, 33; 48:47; 49:39 – Ezekiel 38:16 – Hosea 3:4-3:5 – Micah 4 – Zephaniah 3:9 – Zechariah 14:9 – Daniel 10:14
Our key belief in Judaism – in the oneness of God – means that we cannot accept the idea of the holy trinity or God having a son. The 12th century influential philosopher, Maimonides, stated, ‘God is a unity unlike any other possible unity’.
We await the Messiah, who according to Jeremiah 33:18, will restore the religious way of justice in Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15). http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm. This is helpful in clarifying what Moshiach means to us. The word doesn’t mean ‘saviour’ for us, but the ‘anointed one’. On a personal level, as we look around at so much suffering and sadness, it is uplifting to feel that there could be hope, in a Messianic age, for peace and tranquillity to spread around the world. However, there is also a hope that we can, in our everyday acts of loving kindness (chesed) create a heaven on earth. It is sometimes said that if everyone observed a Shabbat (or two) properly, then this would hasten the coming of Moshiach.
9.Why is Moses an inspiration to the Jewish people?
We Jewish people call Moses ‘Moshe Rabbenu’ – Moses Our Teacher. Did you know that the Torah, our special book, says that Moses lived until he was 120? You can see his name in Hebrew here https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6e/Moses_name.jpg
Here are some things that make him a special person. I have chosen four human values that make an inspiring teacher.
Kindness: He showed kindness towards animals when he was a shepherd looking after sheep. A Bible story tells us that when he was looking after a flock of sheep, a little lamb escaped. When it got to a shady place, it started to drink from a pool of water. Moses didn’t get angry. He understood the lamb ran away because it was thirsty and was now tired. He picked it up and put it on his shoulders and carried it back. God liked this and said, “Because you have shown compassion to the flock, you must lead my flock, the people of Israel.”
Fairness: Moses cares about fairness and justice. When he sees unfair things happening, he tries to make a difference. When he sees a slave being hit by a cruel Egyptian master, he stops it. When he sees two slaves fighting each other, he tries to find out why they are fighting. He also stops some shepherds from pushing away the daughters of Jethro who are trying to get water for their sheep at a well. He then helps the girls look after their sheep. It is amazing when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments on the Mount Sinai. These rules are still important to us today and help us to lead a good life.
Honesty: When God asks Moses to lead the Children of Israel out of slavery, Moses says to God, “I am slow of speech and tongue.” Moses is very honest to admit to his problems with speaking. God understands this and makes his brother Aaron help him. It is very special that Moses has problems speaking but still becomes a wonderful leader, taking his people from slavery to freedom.
Curiosity: When Moses encounters the Burning Bush, he isn’t afraid but asks wondering questions – very much like we do in RE! He says, ““I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn.” When God asks him to lead the Israelites out of slavery, he again raises some questions, ““Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” This ability to think about problems means that he understands people and the concerns they have.
Finally, there is a sequence of lessons about Moses and the Exodus on RE:ONLINE: https://www.reonline.org.uk/resources/how-did-moses-inspire-the-exodus/ I think a Year 4 class would enjoy it!
10.Can you give me a brief overview of what happens at a Jewish burial/funeral, wedding and birth or birthday please?
Some basic information on Jewish births, weddings and funerals
Here are some facts. There is plenty online. I recommend this website http://www.smashingtheglass.com/chuppah/ for great pictures of wedding canopies. Remember there are some differences in customs between the different Jewish traditions (for example, Ashkenazi Jewish people name their children after relatives who have died, whereas Sephardi families name them after living relatives). However, you probably want to keep it simple for younger pupils and I haven’t gone into details about what circumcision means!
• A baby is Jewish if its mother is Jewish
• There is circumcision (brit milah) for baby boys at 8 days old
• We name babies after family members who have died
• We get a Hebrew name – boys are called, for example David Ben (son of) Ezra or Miriam Bat (daughter of) Avraham
• When we go to synagogue and the rabbi calls us out to read from the Torah or do a special duty, he or she uses our Hebrew name
• Sunday is a popular day for Jewish weddings, we don’t get married on Shabbat
• We are married under a special canopy called a chuppah
• It symbolises the home that the couple will share
• The ceremony ends with the groom breaking a glass (usually in a velvet bag) with his foot, to symbolise, so that we remember sad things that have happened to the Jewish people as well as happy things
• We have to sign a marriage document called a ketubah, this can be decorated very beautifully and be put on the wall afterwards
• We try to bury people as soon as possible, sometimes it is the next day after they die
• We use a plain wooden coffin, so everyone has the same burial, whoever they are
• The seven days after a funeral is when the close family ‘sits shiva’. They sit on hard low seats, there are prayers every evening and people come to visit them and wish them a long life
• We don’t give people flowers as we think of flowers as being for happy times
• When people visit the grave, they put a stone on top of the grave to show they have visited
• We remember the person who has died by lighting a candle every year on the day of their death.