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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The Hebrew scriptures are called Tanakh. This is an acronym based on the three sections comprising the whole. Each section contains books written by many different authors over many centuries. So the Tanakh can probably best be thought of as a library or collection, rather than a single volume. But it tells a unified story, a history of the Jewish people from the beginning of creation until about 400 BCE.

The first part is called Torah and consists of five books. These are called the Pentateuch (from penta for "five") or the Books of Moses (because they were purportedly given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai). Torah relates the history of the Hebrew people from Creation ("In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth": Genesis 1:1) until the death of Moses ("Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face... For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel": Deuteronomy 34:10, 12).

The second part is called the Prophets (Nev-im). These books are said to be the work of men who were called by God over a period of centuries to speak the divine truth boldly and without equivocation. The prophets called for a return to the commandments through social change. They prophesied dire calamities, many of which later came to pass, if the people turned away from the guidelines set forth on Mount Sinai when Moses delivered the law. Many of them, Isaiah being the most prominent, foresaw the coming of a Messiah who would free the people from tyranny and usher in a day of peace and prosperity for the whole earth.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him... The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them... They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:1-9)

The third part is called the Writings (Kethuvim). It consists of a very diverse selection of "wisdom literature" ranging from the poetry of the Psalms to the tragic drama of Job.

Much of the material comprising Tanakh consists of oral tradition, eventually written and edited by many hands during the centuries before 400 BCE. The documents were finally standardized in written form and translated into Greek in a volume called the Septuagint (the "work of the seventy scholars") in 250 BCE. Finally, in the years between 90 and 98 CE, rabbis meeting in the town of Jamania established the criteria that became the standard against which the various books were to be judged. The "final cut" depended on whether or not each individual book met three obligations:

1. Antiquity (written before 400 BCE)

2. Language (Hebrew, except for a few that were written in Aramaic) 3. Moral Integrity The books that were rejected were Baruch, Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), 1 and 2 Macabees, Wisdom of Solomon, and additions to Daniel and Esther (see Apocrypha). The books that were accepted now make up the Hebrew scriptures, called Tanakh by Jews and Old Testament by Christians.

As the centuries passed, rabbis and scholars produced an immense library of interpretations and commentaries. These came to be known as Midrash. The earliest Midrash text is probably a version of the Haggadah, a ritual used at every Passover meal (see Passover). One of the most quoted concerns an incident involving the famous Rabbi Hillel, as related in Nahum Glatzer's Hammer on the Rock:

Once a heathen came before Shammai. He said to him: I will be converted, if you can teach me all the Torah while I stand on one leg. Shammai pushed him away with the builder's measure he had in his hand. The man came before Hillel. He converted him. He said to him: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is all the Torah. The rest is commentary—go and study."

The oral laws and rituals of Judaism, based on Tanakh, were eventually codified and became known as Mishna. These, too, developed their own commentaries, called Gemara. Together they comprise the great body of Jewish literature known as Talmud.

Some conclude that Tanakh, Midrash, and Talmud tie Judaism down to an ancient, out-of-date past; that they all seem to point to an old wisdom, out of touch with present-day reality. But Hebrew scripture takes the position that truth is an eternal reality. Michael Lerner, a philosopher and psychologist, is known as an advocate of Jewish liberation theology (see Liberation Theology). He writes eloquently of a reform movement within Judaism that is rooted in Torah. His language is modern and his ideas very contemporary. In his book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, he comes to this conclusion:

If ever there was a category that seemed scary, it's this one: getting real. The more asleep people are, the more they feel threatened by the concept, dismiss it as New Age or flakey or contentless. The more awake you are, the more you've had experiences in which you've moved from being more unconscious to more conscious, and hence the more you understand what is being talked about.

Rabbi Hillel wouldn't have put it that way. But he would have understood.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.