Judaism and its fundamental beliefs:
Judaism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. Its followers are known as Jews, and they believe in one God with whom one can create a personal relationship. Jews think that He created this whole universe, and whatever He does affects their everyday life.
According to the Jews, God appointed them to establish an instance of sacredness and ethical behavior in the world. The Torah was revealed which was considered to be God’s divine work and given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. This event took place in front of six hundred thousand Jewish men. Judaism is a way of life consisting of theology, law, and countless cultural traditions.
I visited the Jewish Synagogue “Temple Israel of Greater Miami” which is located at 137 NE 19th St, Miami, FL 33132. It is an effervescent, caring and inclusive Reform congregation redefining the Jewish way of life through a distinctively liberal attitude to lifelong learning, social justice, and spirituality.
I had an opportunity to celebrate their weekly festival known as Shabbat (Chilton 12). Along with the annual festivals, Jews have a holy day each week, namely the Sabbath or Shabbat, which takes place on Saturday. Work is forbidden on the Sabbath as well as on some Jewish holidays.
According to the Jewish community, Shabbat is the jewel of their week. It brings heaven and earth closer. Shabbat nurtures every one of them, and it also gives them a chance to deepen their relationships by being together in their homes and communities in a peaceful way. Shabbat is the day on which they restrict their outside activities so that they can refresh their inner lives. Shabbat, comprising of 25 hours of reflection, holy moments, joy and meditation is one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world.
An essential aspect of Shabbat that I observed there is the community. The whole community gathered for worship to reaffirm their covenantal tie to God and one another. The worship consisted of sermons, talks, prayers, and Torah readings in English and Hebrew language. After the worship, an Oneg Shabbat (joy of the Sabbath) was held at which refreshments were served, and it was a moment to socialize and greet each other. One of the things that makes this day so unique for them is that they eat well. They have a unique meal before the sunset (Robinson 35).
From their readings, I came to know a lot about the religion’s history, its teachings, and practices, different sects, etc.
Torah emphasizes the Matriarchs and the Patriarchs. The matriarch is a term representing the founding mothers while the Patriarchs are the founding fathers of the Jewish community. Prophet Abraham was considered to be the first Patriarch who made a direct covenant with God which extended to all of his descendants. Jewish prayers invoke the names of Patriarchs like Prophet Abraham, Prophet Isaac, and Prophet Jacob, and Matriarchs such as Rachel, Sarah, Leah, and Rebecca. This holy family was established in Canaan, which is the same place known as Israel today, also known as the ‘promised land.’
Following are the major sects of Judaism, having differences in beliefs and practices.
Orthodox Judaism observes strict religious codes of behavior; the Conservative group focuses on the historical developments of the religion. Reform Judaism takes Torah more as guidance rather than divine revelation and has a belief that the doctrine is still evolving. Reconstructionist is more like the Conservative group as far as the practices are concerned and emphasize more on human values.
Synagogues are considered to be the holy spaces in the Jewish religion, places where all the Jewish people worship. Religious services are held there on a weekly basis and are also a place of education and community. Jewish children have their religious education by attending school there and learning about their origin (Davis 25).
Among all Jewish writings, Torah is the vital one which consists of the initial five volumes of the Hebrew Bible. It contains the fundamental commandments of Judaism and tells the history of the Jews until the death of the Prophet Moses. According to the Jewish tradition, God communicated with Prophet Moses and told him everything that was there to be written, which is also known as the Five Books of Moses. It was believed that Prophet Moses brought the Ten Commandments, and the Torah down from Mount Sinai (Boston 20). The Ten Commandments are significant and unique because they were heard by all of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
Signs and Symbols:
The Magen David, meaning the Shield of David is the symbol most frequently related to the Jewish religion presently. It is also called the Star of David. It represents the shape of King David’s shield. Jews also associate this logo with the “Seal of Solomon.” It represents the ring owned by King Solomon who used to control demons and spirits.
One of the ancient signs of Jewish belief is the menorah. It is a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple. It is lit every evening, wicks are replaced, and fresh olive oil is put into the cups, and cleaned in the morning.
It is said that the menorah represents the mission of the Jewish community to serve as a light unto the nations.
The concept of Axis Mundi:
The axis Mundi, also known as the center of the world is any sign or a symbol that represents the meeting point of heaven and the earth. Various cultures around the globe represent the axis Mundi by several symbols such as any natural or ordinary object like a mountain, or any human-made thing. Its closeness to heaven may carry implications that are primarily religious, or secular (Green 334). Judaism has Mount Sinai and Mount Zion as its Axis Mundi. Jacob’s ladder is also taken as the axis Mundi image.
The history of Jews in South Florida:
According to the general history of Judaism in Florida (Leibman 250), the first known Jewish people came to Pensacola city in 1763. More of them moved towards the North during the following years. By this time, the population of Jewish people was only a dozen or so. By 1821, the number of Jews living in the northern parts of the state reached 30-40. When Florida became a state, the Jewish community had a populace of 66,500, and this did not refrain them from attaining noticeable space in society.
The community’s flourishing period then started. The first Jewish institution in Florida, Jacksonville Hebrew Cemetery was established in 1857. Six congregations had been recognized by 1900. Beth El, the first gathering, was formed in 1876.
By the time Miami Beach was known for its great nightlife and economic prosperity, more Jews began to move to the city with the aim to gain success economically. Around five thousand Jews were in the city in the 1940s. South Florida is known to have approximately 13 percent of the total population of Jews outside Israel. The first synagogue Bnai Zion was established in Miami in 1912.
Inside the Temple of Israel:
Since the Temple of Israel is a Reform synagogue, it isn’t obligatory to cover the heads. Out of respect, even non-Jewish guests have to abide by all the customs and rules of the synagogue and have to wear a kippah.
There are some rules one has to follow while being in the temple such as cell phones must be turned off before entering, smoking is prohibited, and applause is not considered appropriate.
My visit there convinced me of the vibrant multicultural nature of Miami. The Temple of Israel lies at the core of the city and serves as the pulse of Jewish life. Creatively designed apartments and buildings have been built nearby. In 2002, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz became the temple’s spiritual leader, conveying a new, vibrant spirituality to the temple.
Besides all this impressive knowledge about the city and the religious beliefs, the thing which grabbed my attention was how the community celebrated their holy festivals, no matter how busy their routines are, they continue to attend these celebrations with the same eagerness. And when you get a chance to worship with such a community, it leaves a positive impact on you making you feel fresh and at peace. My mind and soul were in harmony, and I felt God closer to me than before. The place, undoubtedly, was worth visiting.
Boustan, Raanan Shaul, Alex P. Janssen, and Calvin J. Roetzel, eds. Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practices in Early Judaism and Christianity. Brill, 2010.
Chilton, Bruce, and Jacob Neusner. Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and beliefs. Psychology Press, 1995.
Davis, Avram, ed. Meditation from the Heart of Judaism: Today’s Teachers Share Their Practices, Techniques, and Faith. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999.
Green, Arthur. “The Żaddiq as Axis Mundi in Later Judaism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45.3 (1977): 327-347.
Liebman, Seymour B. “Cuban Jewish community in south Florida.” The American Jewish Year Book (1969): 238-246.
Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: Updated Edition: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. Simon and Schuster, 2016.