Prothero's clear descriptions of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, et.al. are helping me to better understand what turns me on, and off, about them. There's something to like in every religion, even if only a little (so far, Islam is my least favorite).
This morning I finished the chapter on Judaism. I've always been intrigued by this religion, in large part because, as Prothero points out, Jews are exceedingly brilliant and creative, yet orthodox Judaism has some of the most nonsensical ritual practices.
On the brilliant side:
There are only about 14 million Jews worldwide, not much more than the population of Mumbai, India... Fourteen of Time magazine's one hundred most important people of the twentieth century were Jewish, including film director Steven Spielberg, author Anne Frank, and person of the century Albert Einstein.
Jews have done even better with the Nobel Prize, claiming one quarter of these honors since they were first awarded in 1901. Whenever anyone anywhere puts on a pair of Levi's, sips a cappuccino from Starbucks, spends a night in a Hyatt, powers up a Dell computer, or performs a Google search, they have a Jewish entrepreneur to thank.... Jews, who make us less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, account for the vast majority of America's working comics.
On the nonsensical side:
Jewish law can seem irrational to outsiders, and the way some Jews follow the law can seem obsessive and hypocritical at the same time. For example, though it is not permitted to press an elevator button on the Sabbath (since the button operates an electrical switch and is therefore considered work), some buildings with Jewish residents have Sabbath elevators that stop automatically on every floor.
A more widely publicized example is the eruv. Jewish law forbids carrying objects outside the home on the Sabbath. So it is impermissible to carry an infant to a neighbor's house or to push your wheelchair-bound grandfather there. In order to allow infants and infirm grandparents alike to enjoy the gift of Shabbat, Jews devised a creative solution to this problem: "a magic schlepping circle" called an eruv, which via wires between adjacent homes creates a symbolic fence, turning what had been a public space into a private one.
Since 2007, an eruv has covered most of Manhattan. An "eruvitect" makes sure it remains in good working order, and updates on its status appear regularly online.
Indeed, that's true.
This page of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue web site describes which side of various streets observant Jews can carry objects down on the Sabbath. Fascinating. (I also was fascinated by our oven's Sabbath Feature.)
Now, I hasten to add that in my true believing past I've followed some pretty darn weird ritualistic practices myself. So I can understand why some Jews do strange stuff, as most adherents of any religion do.
And Prothero describes the wide variety of ways Jews follow their faith, from very strict to loosey-goosey. He says, "Judaism has no real creed." More than anything else, Jews love to argue about Judaism. This openness is one of the religion's coolest characteristics.
Most human beings find ambiguity intolerable. Chasing after certainty and running away from contradictions, we squint when testing our eyes, determined to bring what is blurry into focus, as if our determination could make it so. Jews are trained not just to abide ambiguity but to glory in it. If, as Oscar Wilde wrote, "The well-bred contradict other people" while "the wise contradict themselves," the Jewish scriptures are wisdom personified.
I also like the Jewish focus on this life, not a hypothetical afterlife. When I went to India in 1998, on the flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong I was seated next to a Jewish couple who were headed to China to adopt a baby.
Since I was on a pilgrimage of sorts to see the guru of the spiritual group I was involved with at the time, and to work on a volunteer book project about karma and vegetarianism, I was in the mood for some deep metaphysical discussions.
When I asked the couple what they thought would happen after death, they said, "We have no idea." Even more, they couldn't care less. What they loved about being Jews were the connections with other people via ritual celebrations: Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and such.
Much of Judaism doesn't make sense to me. But the Jewish approach to living life fully, rather than anticipating an afterlife, does.
Jewish thought has long downplayed the world to come. While many Reform Jews deny the bodily resurrection and many Orthodox Jews affirm it, almost all Jews agree that our focus should be on this life. Even among the Orthodox there is less talk of the world to come than there is among most Muslims and Christians.
A saying in the Mishnah takes jabs at all sorts of theological speculation, concluding with a broadside at speculation about the afterlife: "Whoever reflects upon four things would have been better off had he not been born: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is beyond."