The Ancient Religion of Judaism
Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions. Its ancient followers lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Parts of the landscape look much the same as it did thousands of years ago, with thriving settlements cropping up around lakes and rivers, and temples carved into the stone hills or built with rock from the desert countryside.
In the twenty-first century, the holiday observances, traditional foods, and daily prayer rituals that symbolize the rich cultural heritage of Judaism bring the past vividly to life for the younger generation.
Traditions of Judaism
The source of the laws and traditions of Judaism is the Torah, which is also the Old Testament Bible of Christianity.
The Torah begins with the story of Creation and the Garden of Eden and continues with the events in the lives of the prophet Abraham and his descendants. Moses is believed to have written these works during his lifetime, from 1525-1645 BCE.
The books of the Torah acknowledge the one eternal and all-powerful God of Judaism, and the agreement between God and the Jewish people to observe the symbolic rituals of the Jewish faith in remembrance of the Israelite people as they fought for religious freedom thousands of years ago, traveling through the desert in search of the “promised land.”
The Story of Moses
The prophet Moses is said to have written the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. His place in history is a familiar narrative that began 3500 years ago and symbolizes the beginning of the relationship between God and the Israelite people.
In 1500 BCE, Egypt was ruled by a Pharaoh who had enslaved the Israelites, forcing them to build temples and monuments from stone that was transported miles across the desert landscape to settlements along the Nile River. To keep the Israelite population under control and prevent any future uprisings, the Pharaoh had ordered every newborn Hebrew male to be killed. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket afloat on the Nile River where he drifted downstream and was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses was raised as an Egyptian but sympathized with the Israelites and the cruel treatment they received from the Pharaoh. One day, when Moses witnessed an Egyptian soldier harshly beating one of the workers, he killed the soldier and then fled into the desert to escape the Pharaoh’s wrath. God spoke to Moses and instructed him to return to Egypt, free the Hebrew people and lead them to a new land. To help convince the Pharaoh to let the workers leave, God cursed the Egyptians with ten plagues that included swarms of flies and locusts, an outbreak of boils, and three days and nights of darkness.
Pharaoh relented and let the Israelites leave, then changed his mind and sent his men after them. As God parted the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites made it safely across just as the waters crashed down around the Egyptian soldiers.
Moses led the people through the mountainous desert, stopping at Mt. Sinai where God again spoke to Moses. This time God told Moses that he would lead them to a “promised land” where they could prosper and grow if they could agree to follow his laws. Moses received the Ten Commandments, carving them into two stone tablets.
God continued to test the people’s faith. After years of traveling through the desert, Moses passes away at age 120 just as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land.
Israel: Conflict in a Land of Peace
The 290 mile stretch of land on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea has been fought over for centuries. This historic conflict has it’s origins in the books of the Old Testament bible, involving a land known as “Caanan” that correlates with the modern-day regions of Israel and Palestine.
According to these writings, God promised these lands to Moses, instructing the prophet to lead the Hebrew people to a place where they could raise their families and follow the laws of Judaism. But Arabs had inhabited these lands for centuries, farmers and herdsmen living in relative peace with each other while practicing Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The cities, lakes, and ancient shrines within its borders were sacred to each of these religions.
Before Common Era (BCE)
The boundaries of the surrounding countries have shifted through the centuries, and from 900 – 570 BCE the region of Israel was part of the Assyrian Empire that included modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan. During this era, the prophet Muhammad was said to have ascended to heaven at the site of the Temple Mount. The Romans conquered these lands in the fifth century BCE, and in 160 BCE they met with a hostile rebellion led by the Maccabees, a Jewish militia that fought to regain control of the temple in Jerusalem.
The Romans were in control of the region when the events of the New Testament took place, as the Christian prophet Jesus was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and put to death in Jerusalem around the year 30 BCE. For the next thousand years, the lands sacred to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity were attacked and conquered by various Arabian empires.
Following the Ottoman rule lasting from 1500-1800 CE, the modern-day era of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began. The Zionist movement, led by Theodor Herzl in the late 1800’s, sought to establish a Jewish homeland in response to discrimination against the Jews in parts of Europe. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a pact by Great Britain, in control of the region during WWI, granting the Jewish people the right to create the state of Israel. During the years leading up to WWII, though, the British began to restrict migration to Israel at a dangerous time in history when the Jews living in Europe were being targeted by the Nazis.
In May 1947 the United Nations stepped in, creating a “Plan of Partition,” resulting in an Arab state and a Jewish state, each with approximately equal amounts of land. This agreement was readily accepted by Israel but not by the large Arab population who had been living in the region for generations and had begun to identify themselves as “Palestinians.”
The surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel a year later. Though Israel’s military was newly formed, they managed to fight off invading armies from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. After a year of fighting, more than 500,000 Palestinians were forced to leave as millions of Jews migrated into Israel’s expanded boundaries that now included 30% more land than was granted to them by the UN.
In 1967, Israel again fought the Arabs in the Six Day War, controlling the Sinai Peninsula to the south and the West Bank and Golan Heights to the north. During the 1970’s and 80’s, Israel retreated from these regions but continued to create Jewish settlements within Palestinian territories in defiance of the UN and international law.
The violence from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates into acts of terrorism in that region as well as in other parts of the world. Is a two-state solution possible? Could both sides agree to a nation with equal rights for each of its citizens … rights that include freedom of religion and shared access to the sacred cities and holy shrines that have been fought over for centuries?