Judaism and the Jewish People (19697-1)

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Judaism and the Jewish People

THE JEWISH PEOPLE descend from nomadic tribes in the Middle East. In the 13th century BCE they establish towns and villages in the present-day area of Israel. Jewish kingdoms and states are centered around Jerusalem, the site of the Temple. Judaism, the religion that evolves in this period, demands ethical behavior, individual responsibility, tolerance and social justice.

Jews believe in a single god, prohibit human sacrifice and practice communal worship. Many of the teachings of Judaism enter into Christianity and Islam and influence other religions and cultures. Judaism does not encourage conversions but has always accepted converts from other religions.

In the Diaspora, the two thousand years of Jewish life in dispersion, Judaism develops into many different trends: mystical movements like the Kabbalah that search for hidden meanings and mysteries in the Biblical texts; pietistic movements like Hassidism that hold simple faith and intensity of religious experience higher than scholarship; and rationalistic schools of theology that explain the scriptures by the logic of reason and history.

Communities in the Diaspora provide the framework for Jewish life: synagogues, schools, bathhouses and kosher food. Communities are often isolated, having little or no contact with groups in other countries. But Jews continue to use the same Biblical texts and prayers and adhere to the same religious laws.

When Jews are granted equal rights and begin to live outside of Jewish communities, Judaism loses its unifying force. Modern religious movements develop, abandoning the common bases of traditional Judaism. In countries where no legal or social barriers exist, Jews begin to assimilate, and many embrace a secular identity. After the Holocaust, the idea of a common history and fate again gains strength among Jews.

The Jewish Diaspora and Israel

THE FIRST JEWISH communities outside of Israel are established during the Babylonian Exile (700 BCE). Jews also settle on the Arabian Peninsula and in Egypt. After the Jewish revolts against the Roman occupation (66-135 CE), Jews are banned from living in Jerusalem and Judea. Under Byzantine rule (324-640 CE), Christianity is introduced in Israel and many anti-Jewish laws are enacted. By the 6th century, Jews have become a minority in their own land. After the Arab conquest, the Jewish population declines further. At the time of the first crusades (11th century), only a few thousand Jews remain in Israel.

Jews for many centuries form the only religious and ethnic minority in the countries they settled in. They live in their own communities separate from the general population under special laws and restrictions. They use the Hebrew language or dialects that combined Hebrew with the language of the country: Yiddish among Ashkenasim, Jews who originally settled in Germany; Ladino among Sephardim, Jews who have migrated to Spain, and Judeo-Arabic among Jews in North Africa.

Despite their enforced separateness, Jewish communities in the Diaspora adopt many customs of the surrounding cultures. Integrating non-Jews into the community through marriage is common practice. Many also convert to Christianity or Islam. As a result, Jews in the Diaspora usually are members of two cultures (Jewish and Arabic, for example) and also resemble outwardly the surrounding population.

Jewish communities in Moslem countries, in Spain and Portugal, prosper culturally and economically, despite some restrictions. Jews in Christian Europe are subject to oppression, persecution and sporadic expulsions alternating with periods of relative peace and prosperity. Sephardim and Ashkenasim develop different customs and religious practices over the centuries.

With emancipation, the granting of equal rights, and the diminishing role of religion, Jews begin to integrate fully into the societies they have lived in for hundreds of years. For many, Jewishness becomes a secular and national identity. In the 19th century, Zionism, a Jewish national movement, proposes a return to Israel and the re-establishment of a Jewish state. In 1948 this new state is founded. Millions of Jews emigrate to Israel, but a majority of the Jewish population continues to live in the Diaspora.

The First Crusade

DURING THE FIRST 700 years of Christendom, Jewish communities in Europe are rarely placed in direct physical danger. But the situation changes when, in 1095, Pope Urbanus calls for a crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the hands of the Muslims.

On their way to Jerusalem, the crusaders leave a track of death and destruction behind in the Jewish communities along the Rhine and Danube. "Because," as they exclaim, "why should we attack the unbelievers in the Holy Land, and leave the infidels in our midst undisturbed ?"

On May 25, 1096, about 800 Jews are murdered in Worms, Germany, while many others choose suicide. In Regensburg, the Jews are thrown into the Danube to be "baptized." In Mainz, Cologne, Prague and many other cities, thousands of Jews are killed and their possessions plundered. During the following hundred years, new crusades are accompanied by massacres and pillage among the Jewish population.

With the crusades, the status of the Jews as second class citizens becomes entrenched in Church dogma and state laws throughout Christian Europe. A period of oppression and insecurity follows that ends only in the 18th century.

Anti-Jewish Myths

IN THE MIDDLE AGES, belief in miracles and legends is common. Two myths with an anti-Jewish character appear throughout Europe: Jews desecrating the Host; and Jews committing ritual murder. Both myths survive into the 20th century. Other popular beliefs during the Middle Ages have Jews grow hems and tails - attributes of the devil.

After the Church in 1215 establishes the doctrine that the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ is contained in the consecrated Host and wine, stories begin to surface that Jews steal, mutilate or burn the Host in order to kill Jesus once more. Miracles form an elementary part of this myth: the mutilated Host starts to bleed - thus proving the doctrine and the truth of the Christian faith.

According to the "blood libels," Jews are killing Christian children in order to satisfy their supposed need for "Christian blood" in making Passover bread or in other religious rituals. While higher authorities of the Church and state often oppose the stories, the myth lives on in popular belief, supported and encouraged by local clergy who launch profitable pilgrimages to the sites of the alleged murders.

The Blood Libels are the most influential and cruel legends in the arsenal of anti-Jewish beliefs, perpetuating the myth of the evil and inhuman nature of the Jews and inciting the Christian population to take bloody revenge. Allegations of ritual murder will surface in the 20th century, in Russia and in the propaganda spread by the Nazis.

Patterns of Discrimination

IN 1215, THE POPE issues a decree that Jews must wear special marks on their dress to distinguish them more clearly from Christians. The Church wants to prevent Christians from unknowingly associating with Jews. These discriminating dress marks differ from place to place: sometimes Jews have to wear a yellow or red badge on their dress, sometimes a pointed hat, the so-called "Jew hat."

Not only dress marks are used to separate Jews from Christians. More and more, Jews are forced to live together in isolation, in ghettos closed off by walls. As ghettos are usually not allowed to extend, they become increasingly crowded

The most far-reaching act of discrimination concerns an even more basic right: Jews do not receive permission for permanent residence in towns and villages. As they have been forced more and more into trade, peddling and money lending, Jews are admitted to towns for limited periods only when economic development demands more trade and credit. They have to pay extra taxes. When the economic situation changes or local merchants have fallen too deeply into debts, the permits are not extended. Often, Jews are simply expelled.

Many communities have to pay taxes to the king or prince in return for their protection. In the German states, Jews are considered property of the emperor who sells the right to tax them to local princes and bishops. Often, Jewish communities are caught between the rival economic interests of townspeople and the local princes who "own" the Jews.

"Usury"

DURING THE SECOND HALF of the Middle Ages, towns grow and trade expands. Many economic functions the Jews had fulfilled in the past are taken over by other groups. More and more professions and crafts are organized in guilds. As only guild members are allowed to practice in these professions, and new members have to pledge an oath on the Bible, Jews are effectively excluded from membership.

In Western and Central Europe, Jews are driven from one occupation after another. Only trade and money-lending remains open to them. Many Jewish communities sink into poverty, and only a few continue to prosper. As the Church forbids Christians to lend money against interest, but the need for credit in the expanding economy increases, Jews are often the only ones to provide loans. Interest on loans is high because of the risks involved and the lack of capital.

Jews become identified with "usury," the lending of money against excessive interest. Another stereotype of "the Jew" is created against the background of the same economic circumstances: the Jews as poor peddlers of second-hand articles. These two contradictory images of the Jews, the harsh and unfair moneylender and the poor and untrustworthy peddler, survive into the 20th century - long after their origins in religious intolerance and economic marginalization have disappeared


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