Background for Judaism

For all that information about Jews and Judaism isn't hard to find on the Internet—even accurate information—a lot of people out there don't really get some of the underpinnings which make the rest of it make sense. So at the cost of a redundant page on the Web (wouldn't that be horrible!), I'm going to try writing up my own explanation. I suppose, being about religion, that this page can't help but be controversial and raise many frothing dissenting opinions. Oh well.

Please Note: This page is at best a work in progress, and at worst just plain incomplete. Just that it was languishing on my hard drive for more than a year and I figure it might as well be read whether or not it's ready.

The Bible as a Law-book, and Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy

The basic concept that you have to remember is that in Judaism, the Bible, or specifically the Pentateuch, is called the Torah, and that means Law. Big sections of the Torah, if you'll notice, consist of God telling people that they must do this and that and never do something else. If you take the book as the word of God (which Judaism does), and you accept that God is someone worth listening to (which it also does), then it follows that all those commandments are just that: commandments to be obeyed. A lot of the bizarre things that Jews do, we do because it actually says, “thou shalt do these bizarre things.” It's just that Christianity, on the whole, glosses over these seemingly boring and unenlightening passages.

So, for example, Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says,

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.... You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

And so, Jews do exactly that: we have the words written in little scrolls, which we tie onto our hands and foreheads as part of everyday services (phylacteries, or Tefillin), and others which we place in covers and nail to the doorposts of our houses (mezuzah). Really. Is that ridiculous? Not if you consider the Torah a book of Laws. Viewed that way, it says to do it, so we do it. It doesn't make sense to us? That's not the point. It's what God said. (Notably, both the Samaritans and the medieval Karaites took these verses metaphorically, not as commandments actually to attach scrolls to people and doors. So never let it be said that the Karaites and Samaritans are overly literal-minded while the Pharasaic Rabbanite Jews have a more flexible understanding of the text! Who's being literal here?)

And so it goes, many of the weird things that people wonder why Jews do; a lot of them (not all) can be found in black and white in the text. For example, keeping kosher, not eating certain animals: Leviticus 11.

You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud.... Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales.... These are the birds you are to detest and not eat...

There you go: the most well-known prohibition against eating swine (given as a specific example in the text, as it has split hooves but doesn't chew its cud), and shellfish, and the concept of kosher poultry. People go quoting Bible verses to attack homosexuals on the grounds that they are violating the God-given rules of conduct, but where is the same outrage against seafood restaurants, brazenly serving up abominations? (See Deut. 14:3) If you're going to consider the Bible to be the words of God and therefore important, you don't get to choose which of his words aren't worth listening to.

So, to make a long story short, Judaism is an orthopraxy, not an orthodoxy. Orthodoxies are all about believing the “right” things (ortho-/right, dox related to “doctrine”). Orthopraxy is performance-based: doing the right things (praxy/practice). Christianity is very big on faith, and whether faith suffices on its own or whether some few practices are required is a question at the root of some of its greatest schisms. “Just have faith!” is a commonly heard Christian sentiment. Judaism does expect some faith too, but it's very definitely more concerned with practice: what exactly one has to do in order to be keeping the commandments of God.

There are other important and fundamental differences; we'll get to some of them later.

The (Devil? God?) is in the Details

This leads in to the obvious complications, and the obvious questions that make something like the Talmud inevitable. If it's important that we obey these commandments, and God says “thou shalt do no manner of work on the Sabbath day,” then obviously we have to clarify just what, exactly, qualifies as work. We can't leave this vague, this is law: if you're going to be hauled into court for breaking this law (and yes, that really could happen in the sort of society considered by the Talmud), you need to be able to defend yourself and show that you were not performing “work,” and on the other side the prosecution has to show that you were. You can't get far just saying vaguely, “well, it wasn't all that strenuous....” There have to be definitions and details, border-cases examined, etc. And when exactly does the Sabbath day start, and when does it end? Multiply this by all the commandments (which in Jewish tradition number 613), and you can see that there are a lot of fine points to work on! Even seemingly cut-and-dried commandments need to be detailed. Is it murder to kill someone who was about to die of another cause (and could not be saved) anyway? What does “about to die” mean in this context? Precisely which words do we stick to the doorposts, and where on the doorpost? Does it count if we put the scroll inside a reed which we later use to build the door out of? (Answer: no. It says to write them on your doorposts, so the doorpost has to be a doorpost already before you put the words on, not become a doorpost afterwards. Yes, someone actually discusses this case.)

So now we can appreciate why the Talmud is so long: the Babylonian Talmud alone, just the Gemara (not counting tractates on which there is no Gemara), is 2,711 double-sided folios, which would probably be about three times as many when translated into English. There is an awful lot to talk about (and don't think that it exhausts the subject; thousands and thousands more pages of Jewish religious literature have been written in the centuries since the Talmud was codified). And we can see that the rabbis must have been dealing with very fine points of law, and had to have very precise way of talking about them.