Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide To Beliefs, Customs And Rituals

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9780671034818: Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide To Beliefs, Customs And Rituals

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Chapter 1: Service of the Heart: Prayer and Ritual

The Jewish Idea of Prayer

In the beginning, the Jews were a tribe, a band of nomads, probably shepherds. Had they remained merely shepherds, they would have eventually died out, one of many tiny "nations" to be found in the ancient Near East, forgotten by all but the archaeologists.

But the Jews became something more. They were the bearers of a radical new concept, ethical monotheism, and that concept became the basis for a new kind of religion, Judaism. The latter was a religion marked by a new relationship between people and Deity.

Some would say that it was the idea of ethical monotheism that allowed the Jewish people to survive long after more powerful empires had vanished. Perhaps.

Contemporary scholars suggest that -- at least at the start -- the Hebrews believed in their own god, acknowledging the existence of other people's gods, but they also believed that their god could beat up everyone else's gods. Scripture tends to confirm that view; in Exodus 12:12, Adonai tells Moses, "[A]gainst all the gods of Egypt I will exercise judgments."

Eventually that notion evolved into something quite different, indeed, different from any previous idea of a Supreme Being.

This much seems clear: the idea of a single, omnipotent, omniscient God is a Jewish invention, one that has changed the course of Western (and, therefore, world) history. Let's begin with that concept and the ways in which it marks the Jewish religion. The Jewish idea of the relationship between God and humanity is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Jewish prayer, so it is there that we turn.

In other early belief systems, the ones that we casually denote as "pagan," divine creatures predate the creation of the world and humanity; but these belief systems have creation myths that usually involve the creation of the gods themselves. The opening words of the Hebrew Bible -- Bereshit bara elohim.../In the beginning God created... -- offer a very different vision. God is a given, a Being who creates out of tohu v'bohu/the unformed and the void, chaos and nothingness, a Being who preexists Creation, who was, is, and always will be.

The traditional Jewish liturgy underlines that belief explicitly. Adon Olam, the poetic hymn that is part of the morning service and which observant Jews recite every night before sleep, opens with the words, Adon olam asher malakh beterem kol yitzer nivrah/Eternal Ruler who reigned before any creature had been created. A few lines later, God is described as ruling "after all is ended," an eternal verity.

At the heart of Jewish prayer is the idea that God listens to prayer, that prayer is part of a dialogue between man and Creator. This idea has its roots in the Hebrew Bible itself, implicit in the statement that man was created b'tzelem Elohim/in the image of God. Throughout the Bible, God engages in dialogue with the Forefathers and Foremothers, with the Prophets. The Forefathers and Foremothers of the Hebrew people beseech, praise, offer thanks to the Eternal. They even argue with God; Abraham negotiates over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, finally convincing God to spare the two cities if a mere ten righteous men can be found (Genesis 18).

The incredible variety of prayers in the Jewish liturgy suggests the multiplicitous nature of the relationship between God and humanity. In the course of a single service we may encounter God the Creator, the Redeemer, the Father, the Judge, Rock of Israel, Shield of Abraham, and many others. Each of these personifications of God implies a different relationship between the Deity and the person praying.

The Names of God

In his revision of Frazer's The Golden Bough, Theodor Gaster notes, "In primitive thought, the name of a person is not merely an appelation, but denotes what he is to the world outside of himself ? that is, his "outer" as distinguished from his inner being. Thus, the ?name of God' in the Bible is His outward manifestation in the world...." Not surprisingly, given the plethora of divine attributes, God has many Names in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish liturgy, and those Names are multiplied by the inexactitude of the translator's art.

The Holy One tells Moses, "I revealed Myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but My Name Adonai I did not make known to them (Exodus 6:3)." In the Bible and the Talmud, God has many more Names: El/The Strong One, El Shaddai/God Almighty, El Olom/God Everlasting, El Khai/The Living God, El Elyon/God Most High, Elohim/God, Adon/Lord, Adonai/Lord, Adonay Tzivaot/Lord of Hosts, Abir/The Strong, Kedosh Yisroel/Holy One of Israel, Melekh/The Ruler, Tzur Yisroel/Rock of Israel.

For non-Jews, the most familiar Name derived from the Hebrew Bible is probably Jehovah, a mistransliteration of the four-letter Name, Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay, the Tetragrammaton or, in Hebrew, the Shem Hameforash. This Name is actually never vocalized in Hebrew ? it is too sacred, too powerful. Reading the four-letter Name aloud, a Jew will say "Adonai." (As we will see in Chapter 7, the Jewish mystics believed that the Tetragrammaton had unusual significance attached to it.) The Tetragrammaton is frequently shortened to Yah (Yud-Hey), Yahu or Yeho (Yod-Heh-Vav), especially when used in combination within names or phrases, as in Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning "the Lord is my Salvation"), Eliyahu (Elijah, meaning "my God is the Lord"), and Halleluyah ("praise the Lord"). A traditionally observant Jew will not vocalize God's other Names outside the context of prayer. Thus, in an Orthodox prayer book or songbook, one will find Elokeinu for Eloheinu/Our God, Adoshem for Adonai or, most commonly, Hashem/The Name.

Progressive Jews have brought their own set of concerns and strictures to the naming of the Supreme Being. God has no gender in conventional human terms, but gendered God-talk has historically implied a valorization of God's masculine attributes. Reform, Reconstructionist, and some Conservative siddurim will avoid using gendered names for God, discarding Lord or King in favor of Adonai or Ruler.

Many traditionally observant Jews will not write the vernacular equivalent of the sacred names, preferring G-d or L-rd (although other no less traditional Jews deride this practice because these words are English and therefore not true names of God). This practiC.E., however, has different roots from the ban on uttering the Shem Hameforash, the proscribed sacred Name. Contrary to popular belief, this practice does not come from the commandment not to take God's Name in vain. In Jewish thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition against swearing by God's Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as "in vain" literally means "for falsehood"). Incidentally, this is why observant Jews serving on juries or testifying in court will affirm rather than swear.

Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se. But it does prohibit erasing or defacing a Name of God. Consequently, observant Jews avoid writing any Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be defaced, obliterated, or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know better. The commandment not to erase or deface the name of God is derived from Deuteronomy 12:3-4. In verse 3, the people are commanded that when they take over the promised land, they should destroy all things related to the idolatrous religions of that region, and should utterly destroy the names of the local deities. Immediately afterwards in verse 4, we are commanded not to do the same to our God. From this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface a Name of God. This prohibition applies only to Names that are written in some permanent form. Recent rabbinical decisions have held that typing on a computer is not a permanent form, thus it is not a violation to type God's Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God's Name in them. However, once you print the document out, it becomes "permanent."

In adddition, the prayers found in the siddur (prayerbook, derived from the Hebrew word seder, meaning "order") fall into several different genres, enriching the dialogue between God and each Jew. Prayers of blessing, supplication, thanksgiving and praise all may appear in the benedictions. In Hebrew liturgy, such a prayer, known as a b'rakhah/blessing or in plural form as b'rakhot, ends with the formula Barukh atah Adonai/Blessed are You, Adonai...begins with the same formula followed by words praising God appropriate to the occasion or need. For example, in the Amidah, the standing prayer that is at the center of the liturgy, we pray, Barukh atah Adonai mekhayei hakol/Blessed are You Lord, who gives life to all. This is the shortest version of the b'rakhah formula, a khatimah/seal (pl. khatimot) that closes off a section of prayer.

In b'rakhot that stand on their own, we add the words Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam/our God, Ruler of the Universe to the opening formula. For example, the following blessing occurs in the morning service:

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, she-asani b'tsalmo.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made me in your image.


In b'rakhot said before fulfilling a specific mitzvah/obligation (see Chapter 4), the formula is expanded further. For example, the blessing for the lighting of Sabbath candles reads:

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us by Your commandments and commands us to kindle the lights of the Sabbath.


In virtually all b'rakhot, there are two interesting paradoxes that reflect key elements in the relationship between God and Jew. First, there is a shift between the opening of the shorter form of the b'rakhah, which expresses an intimate personal relationship between God and the one who prays ("Blessed are You, Adonai, our God") and the second part, which bespeaks a cosmic relationship ("Ruler of the Universe").

Second, between the opening ("Blessed are You...") and the second part of the b'rakhah, the prayer shifts from the second person to the third person ("who sanctifies us...and commands us"). This change is not always apparent in the English translation of the blessings because many translators choose to smooth over this apparent "mistake" in grammar, but it is present in virtually all b'rakhot. Much has been written about this second shift, this peculiar change in person. Most commentators believe that, like the first change in tone in the formula, it reflects God's dual relationship between intimacy and distanC.E., affection and awe, moving from direct address, "You," to indirect address (implicitly, "the One who commands us").

Judaism has always placed great value on an individual's relationship with and reaction to God. The second-century sage Rabbi Yose says that when the Israelites were given the Law at Sinai, each of them heard a different voice of God, a splendid metaphor for the unique response of each Jew to the traditions of Judaism. Prayer, too, is an individual experience and, as we will see shortly, the state of mind that an individual brings to worship is of enormous importance in Jewish practice.

The relationship between God and man is not only a solitary relationship. Virtually all the b'rakhot are written in the first-person plural: "the one who commands us." Although it is possible for a Jew to pray alone, Judaism insists on the communal nature of worship, on prayer as an act most fittingly performed in a community. Certain key prayers may only be recited in the presence of a minyan/quorum of ten adult Jews. As Dr. Eugene Borowitz, a contemporary Reform theologian, writes:

Judaism does not think of man abstracted from his relation to mankind. It does appreciate the meaning of the individual in isolation, but holds him, the single one, in unremitting importanC.E., against a background of society and history. For the Jew, man is a social and historical creature. Hence his prayer should properly be a communal, comradely affair. Public worship is a universal human need and, also, a specifically Jewish requirement.

-- "The Individual and the Community in Jewish Prayer," Gates of Understanding (New York, 1977)

Praying in a community serves many functions. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a contemporary expert in liturgy, has said that communal worship represents mankind's attempt to impose meaning on a chaotic, arbitrary, and indecipherable universe. Certainly there is great comfort in being surrounded by like-minded worshippers during times of crisis.

Jewish prayer rituals are designed to reinforce that sense of community. Even if a Jew is unable to pray in Hebrew, she can still say "Amen" after hearing a b'rakhah. Rabbi Judah writes in a second-century midrash, a homiletic commentary, "He who answers Amen in this world is privileged to answer Amen in the World to Come." To answer "Amen" is to participate in prayer as part of klal Yisrael/the community of Israel.

For the individual Jew, communal worship provides the additional satisfaction of being tied into a historical continuity that began with a covenant between God and Abraham, and continues with the worldwide community of Jews. Sociologist William Helmreich, recalling his Orthodox upbringing in Brooklyn, writes:

Although I might be nothing more than a speck on the map of Jewish history, the shape and location of that map were clear in my mind. I belonged ? and every ceremony we performed, every prayer I said, strengthened that image. When I went to a friend's house for Shabbos [the Sabbath] and heard the same melodies, uttered the same benedictions and even ate the same foods, I felt a bond that tied me inseparably to my people.

-- Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator (New York, 1976)

There are more connections made when a Jew prays than even he may realize. Any time a Jew prays, he stands in a spiritual river made up of three tributaries of time.

First, an individual Jew brings a personal history to prayer. Does a certain musical setting of Adon Olam have a special meaning for her? Is he saying the Mourner's Kaddish for a recently deceased parent?...

Présentation de l'éditeur :

The Jews are known as the "People of the Book." Even though a library on Judaism would fill mnay miles of bookshelf space, there has been no single comprehensive, hands-on volume that provides an up-to-date overview of Jewish practices and beliefs. Until now. For the Jew and non-Jew alike, ESSENTIAL JUDAISM explains not only what Jews do and believe, but why.
In the process it answers such questions as; what happens at a synagogue service? What do the prayers and rituals mean? What is the Jewish calendar? And many more.
With insight and clarity, George Robinson illuminates the Jewish life cicle at every stage, from birth and circumcision, to bar/bat mitzvahs, to weddings and mourning. He places over four thousand years of learning and belief in a practical context for living a good Jewish life in today's world.

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