Introduction to Judaism

Course No. 6423
Professor Shai Cherry, Ph.D.
Congregation Adath Jeshurun
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Course No. 6423
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Course Overview

What could be simpler than a single people worshiping a single God for more than 3,000 years? But Judaism is far from simple, and as a religion, culture, and civilization, it has evolved in surprising ways during its lengthy and remarkable history. Consider the following:

  • Although Judaism is defined by its worship of one God, it was not always a pure monotheism. In I Kings 8, King Solomon addresses the Lord by saying, "There is no God like You," suggesting that the Israelites recognized the existence of other gods.
  • The practice of Judaism was focused on animal sacrifice until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the 1st century, which forced a radically new approach to worship.
  • The political emancipation of the Jews in 18th-century Europe transformed a 1,000-year-old style of Jewish life. "You can’t find an expression of Judaism today that is just like [the way] Jews lived 300 years ago," says Professor Shai Cherry.

Yet for all it has changed, Judaism has maintained unbroken ties to a foundation text, an ethnicity, a set of rituals and holidays, and a land.

A Journey of Religious Discovery

In these 24 lectures, Professor Cherry explores the rich religious heritage of Judaism from biblical times to today.

He introduces you to the written Torah, and you learn about the oral Torah, called the Mishnah (which was also later written down), and its commentary, the Gemara. And you discover how the Mishnah and Gemara comprise the Talmud, and how they differ from another form of commentary called Midrash.

He teaches you about the three pillars of the world defined more than 2,000 years ago by Shimon the Righteous: Torah, worship, and deeds of loving kindness.

He takes you through the calendar of Jewish holidays, from the most important, the Sabbath, to the key holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and Pentecost (Shavuot); and to historically minor celebrations such as Channukah, which is now a more visible holiday.

You also learn about the origins and attributes of the different Jewish movements that formed in the wake of Emancipation in the late 1700s and the resulting full emergence of Judaism into Western society. These include the Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements.

"Although Jewish history is not one long tale of travails," says Professor Cherry, "there have been several catastrophes that powerfully shaped the Jewish consciousness." He includes discussions of the impact on Jewish thought of the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the Second Temple in antiquity, and the Holocaust in the 20th century.

"We will see that for every topic that we cover we have a multiplicity of responses and a multiplicity of answers," says Professor Cherry, noting that this course could just as easily be called "An Introduction to Judaisms."

What’s in a Name?

Judaism’s sacred text is the Bible, also called the TaNaKH, the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and, by Christians, the Old Testament. As Professor Cherry points out, these terms have different implications:

  • TaNaKH: This is the Hebrew acronym for the three sections of the Bible—the Torah (the first five books, known as the Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).
  • Torah: The word torah means "a teaching," and it can refer to the Pentateuch, the entire TaNaKH, or even the whole corpus of Jewish thought.
  • Hebrew Bible: This is a religiously neutral term used by scholars for the TaNaKH. Professor Cherry notes that his expertise is in the TaNaKH, not the Hebrew Bible, since he approaches the text from the Jewish interpretive tradition.
  • Old Testament: Christians refer to the TaNaKH as the Old Testament, since in their eyes it has been superseded by the New Testament. For Catholics, the Old Testament has a number of books that are not included in the TaNaKH.

Interpreting the Scriptures

Jews and Christians not only have different names for the Bible, they understand it very differently. For example, Christianity takes an episode that is relatively minor in Jewish tradition—the temptation of Adam and Eve—and extracts from it the doctrine of original sin.

Similarly, early rabbis took the repeated phrase, "And there was evening and there was morning," in the enumeration of the six days of creation and concluded that the day begins in the evening, which is why Jews start the celebration of their holidays at sundown.

As a case study in interpretation, Professor Cherry delves deeply into the prohibition against seething (boiling) a kid in its mother’s milk, mentioned in Exodus and Deuteronomy, which led to the kosher practice of strict separation of meat and milk products. Recently, a scholar pointed out that the original Hebrew could be interpreted to mean fat instead of milk.

A prohibition against seething a kid in its mother’s fat makes more sense, because it is another way of saying that the mother and offspring should not be slaughtered on the same day, in accord with the biblical injunction against killing two generations of the same species on the same day.

But the rabbis had very good reasons to read the passage as they did, says Professor Cherry, who shows the theological logic that has resulted in the dietary separation of meat and milk, a practice observed by traditional Jews today.

Unlocking Mysteries of Jewish Thought and Ritual

"Let’s unpack this," Professor Cherry says often during these lectures, as he takes a concept, a biblical passage, or an episode from history and explores its meaning in Jewish thought and ritual.

In doing so, he is following the footsteps of the acknowledged master of this form of analysis, the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who figures prominently throughout the course and is treated in depth in Lecture 14.

There, Professor Cherry focuses on Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed and its discussion of creation, prayer, and the reasons for the commandments. Maimonides is filled with insights into how Judaism evolved as it did, noting, for example, that the practice of ritual animal sacrifice in early Judaism was God’s way of taking a pagan rite that the Israelites had learned from the Egyptians and redirecting it.

In a subsequent lecture, Professor Cherry shows how Maimonides’s success at putting Judaism on a logical footing set the stage for a reaction that produced the Jewish mystical system called the Kabbalah.

Professor Cherry unlocks other mysteries, such as why the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) is the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah). It seems likely, he says, that "this was the time of the Babylonian New Year. So when the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, they saw that the Babylonians celebrated their New Year on that day, and said, ‘We’ve got some sacred occasion where we blow the trumpets, so let’s make that our New Year, too.’"

He also explores different concepts of the Messiah, profiling two controversial candidates. The first is Shabbatai Tzvi, who was proclaimed Messiah by followers in 1665, and whose travels across Eastern Europe eventually landed him in Turkey, where he converted to Islam to avoid execution by the authorities.

The other candidate is Rebbe Menachem Mendel Scheersohn, a charismatic leader of the Lubavitch Chassidim in Brooklyn, who died in 1994. Rebbe Scheersohn’s widely touted messianic credentials created intense debate and division in the Ultra-Orthodox community.

From the Decalogue to Fiddler on the Roof

From the first lecture on the Torah to the last on the Jews as the Chosen People, this course is packed with fascinating information, including:

  • Jews use the term Decalogue, instead of Ten Commandments because there are actually more than 10 commandments in the Decalogue. For instance, "On six days you shall work and the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to you." Usually that counts as one: that you should have a Sabbath on the seventh day. But there is also, "On six days you shall work."
  • The prophets in the biblical period served the same function as today’s free press. They tell the king what he doesn’t want to hear.
  • When people die in the TaNaKH, everyone goes to the same place, Sheol—a shadowy underworld that is neither heaven nor hell.
  • After crushing the Bar Kochvah revolt of the Jews in the 2nd century, the Romans changed the name of the land of Israel and Judaea to echo the Israelites’ ancient enemies, the Philistines. This is how the region came to be called Palestine.
  • Today, the designation "Temple" on a Jewish house of worship is usually a sign that it is a Reform congregation because Reform Jews no longer look toward the dream of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple.
  • Orthodox Judaism is just as much a product of modernity as is Reform because several varieties of Orthodoxy emerged in the 19th century as a response to Emancipation, the Enlightenment, and the founding of the Reform movement.

In addition, Professor Cherry devotes several lectures to complex issues such as the problem of evil and suffering, the Zionist movement, the place of women in the Jewish world, and how Judaism understands Christianity.

Throughout, Professor Cherry is articulate, engaging, and passionate, with a gift for making a point by means of a memorable cultural reference. He calls attention to an echo of Jewish mystic Rav Kook in a Joni Mitchell song; to the Kabbalistic nature of "the force" and "the dark side" in George Lucas’s Star Wars; and to the Sabbath lesson given by Gene Wilder as an Old West rabbi in The Frisco Kid, when he dutifully dismounts his horse at sundown, risking capture by bandits.

Professor Cherry notes that when he teaches introductory Judaism at Vanderbilt University, he asks his students to see two films: Fiddler on the Roof, for its picture of the breakdown of tradition as Jews confront modernity; and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, for its treatment of secular Jews grappling with contemporary issues of faith and ethics. Both films repay viewing in light of the lessons you’ll learn in this course.

In his final lecture, Professor Cherry sums up: "The Judaisms we’ve examined in this course reflect the ongoing struggles of the Jewish people from their ancient life as a sovereign nation, to the travails of exile, to the opportunities of acculturation in modernity, and finally to the re-establishment of the state of Israel. Hearing God’s words anew—receiving Torah every day—has meant reinterpreting the tradition, creatively rereading the words of the past, whether they relate to core ideas like the notion of evil and the notion of the Chosen People, or mitzvot such as the prohibition of idolatry, or the laws of marriage and divorce. Even the basis for reinterpreting the tradition, the claim that God’s words do not cease, is itself a rereading of Torah."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Torah, Old Testament, and Hebrew Bible
    Professor Cherry introduces the themes of the course and examines the relationship between the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the TaNaKH, and the Old Testament—and these are not simply different terms for the same text. x
  • 2
    From Israelite to Jew
    This lecture surveys ancient Jewish history from the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and other Jewish sects of the period are also covered. x
  • 3
    Teshuvah, or sincere repentance, became the central concept of Rabbinic Jews—the successors to the Pharisees—after the destruction of the Second Temple. This lecture examines the growth and elaboration of this powerful religious idea. x
  • 4
    The ancient High Priest Shimon the Righteous said that the world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on deeds of loving kindness. This lecture covers the first of these and introduces Rabbinic texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud, and Gemara, as well as Midrash. x
  • 5
    The second of Shimon the Righteous's pillars of the world is prayer. Professor Cherry traces the development of prayer from the biblical period to the 20th century, and discusses the rise of the "prayer house," or synagogue. x
  • 6
    Deeds of Loving Kindness
    The third of Shimon the Righteous's pillars of the world—deeds of loving kindness—is an outgrowth of the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself." This lecture traces the Jewish struggle to live up to this duty. x
  • 7
    Professor Cherry examines the different concepts of the Messiah within the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, and profiles a 17th-century false Messiah and the most recent candidate, a Chassidic leader in New York who died in 1994. x
  • 8
    The Coming World
    The Hebrew Bible says surprisingly little about what happens after we die. This lecture explores concepts of the afterlife, resurrection, and the immortality of the soul that developed in post-biblical Judaism. x
  • 9
    Professor Cherry introduces the notion of holiness in time by examining the weekly Sabbath, arguably the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Commemorating God's day of rest after the six days of creation, the Sabbath has evolved a complex system of rituals. x
  • 10
    Law and Spirit
    This lecture probes deeper into the connection between law and spirit exemplified by the Sabbath by exploring different kinds of laws within the Torah, and by tracing their development in the Talmud and the writings of medieval commentators. x
  • 11
    Fall Holidays
    Continuing the study of holiness in time, Professor Cherry looks at the fall cycle of holidays, beginning with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and continuing with Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. x
  • 12
    Spring Holidays
    The exodus from Egypt is the paradigm of Jewish existence, celebrated in the most important spring holiday, Passover. Seven weeks later comes Pentecost (Shavuot), commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. x
  • 13
    Minor Holidays—Then and Now
    Though not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Channukah and Purim have become two of the most celebrated days in the Jewish year. This lecture suggests reasons for their popularity and looks at several other historically minor holidays. x
  • 14
    Medieval Jewish Philosophy—Maimonides
    This lecture examines the ideas of the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, focusing on his Guide of the Perplexed, which deals with such issues as the creation of the world, prayer, and the commandments. x
  • 15
    Medieval Jewish Mysticism—Kabbalah
    The same issues addressed by Maimonides received very different responses from the Jewish mystics who produced the Kabbalah, which combines Neo-Platonic philosophy with ancient Near Eastern mythology. x
  • 16
    Evil and Suffering—Biblical and Rabbinic
    Why do the innocent suffer? And why do the guilty go unpunished? This is known as the problem of theodicy, which received haunting expression in biblical texts such as Job and searching analysis by Rabbinic commentators. x
  • 17
    Evil and Suffering—Medieval and Modern
    Continuing the study of evil, Professor Cherry examines different explanations for evil by Jewish thinkers from the Middle Ages to the present, concluding with a discussion of the Holocaust, which Jews call the Shoah (catastrophe). x
  • 18
    Emancipation, Enlightenment, and Reform
    Traditional Jewish life began to break down in Western Europe at the end of the 18th century with Emancipation, the movement to assimilate Jews by granting them fuller political rights and educational opportunities. Reform Judaism was one response to this liberalized climate. x
  • 19
    Orthodox Judaisms
    In the 19th century, several varieties of Orthodox Judaism emerged as a response to Emancipation and Reform Judaism. While Modern Orthodoxy struggled to balance traditional Judaism and an open posture toward Western European culture, Ultra-Orthodoxy rejected secular studies, Western dress, and European languages. x
  • 20
    Israel and Zionism
    The longing to return to the land of Israel goes back to the Babylonian exile in antiquity and achieved its modern fulfillment in Zionism, which saw the establishment of a Jewish state in the 20th century. x
  • 21
    American Judaisms
    America's appeal to rugged individualism attracted Reform-minded Jews, mostly from Germany, in the pre-Civil War waves of Jewish migration. Later immigrants came from a range of countries and tended to be more traditional, seeding America with a diversity of Jewish beliefs and practices. x
  • 22
    Women and Jewish Law
    This lecture highlights three Jewish legal issues of particular concern to women: the laws of marriage and divorce, the plight of the agunah (a woman bound to a husband who is either missing or refuses to divorce her), and the question of abortion, which in Jewish law defies categorization as either pro-life or pro-choice. x
  • 23
    Judaism and the Other
    Like most ancient law codes, the Hebrew Bible distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. This lecture looks at the Jewish struggle with interreligious accommodation, especially as it relates to Christianity. The talk concludes with recent developments in Jewish-Christian relations. x
  • 24
    The Chosen People?
    The claim of being chosen by God has been both a source of pride and puzzlement to Jews. This final lecture examines the origin of this claim, its mixed blessings throughout history, and the surprising nuances of its interpretation by Jewish thinkers. x

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Your professor

Shai Cherry

About Your Professor

Shai Cherry, Ph.D.
Congregation Adath Jeshurun
Rabbi Shai Cherry, PhD, is currently affiliated with Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Elkins Park, PA. Previously he was the Executive Director of Shaar Hamayim: A Jewish Learning Center in Solana Beach, CA. He earned his B.A. (magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Claremont McKenna College, and his Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Brandeis University. Professor Cherry has received several...
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Introduction to Judaism is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 67.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course...negative reviews unfounded! I read the reviews prior to ordering these courses. The negative reviews on this course gave me some concerns about the content and delivery, but I gave it a try. Yes, it was a more ecumenical approach to the subject, but my wife and I gained helpful insights that we will take to the next level in our education. Refreshingly approachable.
Date published: 2020-09-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from For the Scholar I am finding the presentation very interesting and enlightening. It has been giving me a very much more indepth understanding of not only Judaism but also Christianity by revealing the instruction and training process which Jesus would have exprienced. I can see how much Judaism influenced His thinking and how much He expanded these ideas to a new and larger 'congregation.' I have always said to my classes that the Jewish nation has failed to realize the immensity and goals of their mission as a chosen people - Tell the World about God
Date published: 2020-03-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very disappointing Just not up to the intellectual rigor of the other religion courses offered. Annoyingly cutesy, and wholly inadequate in its narrative. I'm Jewish (not highly observant), and very interested in the subject. This was a complete waste of time.
Date published: 2019-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great instructor! I’ve always been interested in what Judaism is, what the core beliefs are and how it compares to Christianity. I haven’t completed this course yet but I think it’s wonderfully presented and Mr Cherry is probably the best instructor I’ve come across in the six or so Great Courses that I’ve taken. Lots of information but he’s a very good speaker and keeps it interesting.
Date published: 2019-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rich content, well delivered. I was surprised by the historical depth and many different points of view explained throughout this course. The speaker is enthusiastic yet objective, with just the right amount of humour. There is an annoying issue with the sound engineering which, combined with the speaker's cadence, makes it seem as though my listening device abruptly stops working every now and then, but the depth and quality of the content more than makes up for it.
Date published: 2018-10-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Take “Beginnings of Judaism” First And if you don’t know much about this topic, Professor Gafni’s brief 12-lecture survey course on Judaism that is part of the “Great World Religions” is also a place to start. In "Introduction to Judaism" the early history of the Jews is only covered enough to set a bit of a platform (1 ½ to 2 lectures). This is why Professor Gafni’s courses can be used to set a solid platform for this course. The point in this course is not really history nor bible study nor analysis, but going from the time of the Israel of the Temple to the Jews and Judaism of today (with the final focus mostly on Judaism in America). There have been criticisms centering on the course organization, especially within single lectures, that has some merit, but I thought that each topic covered in a single lecture worked well. For example the three lectures covering holidays went from early Rabbinic Judaism to contemporary times, something that I thought held the topics together. The same approach worked well for lecture 7 on Messianism where we jump around in time, but stay on the single topic. But I digress… There is much to like and learn in this course. Aside from rounding out my holiday knowledge, I realized that I knew nothing about the subject of abortion (from a Judaic perspective) and here Dr. provides a great deal of detail, which appears to be fully supported by Rabbinic analysis of Torah. The two lectures on theodicy are absolutely fascinating, at least for me as this always seems to generate deep thought, consideration and controversy in almost any religion. And on a very minor note, that at least one major player in 19th century American Judaism considered merging with the Unitarians was interesting. Who knew? Finally the last two lectures bring this course to a fine (and for me, a somewhat unexpected conclusion). Beginning with a discussion of the classic “insider v outsider” issue and concluding with Jews being the “chosen” people—or not. As usual in this course, the views are not necessarily those of the professor, but of current Jewish thinkers.
Date published: 2018-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Remarkable Course on Judaism While I'm very familiar with Biblical Judaism, I purchased this course because I was interested in learning more about early Rabbinic Judaism and the various sects of Judaism in the world today (I thought the "Beginnings of Judaism" course had some good info on the formation of Rabbinic Judaism but of course it centers on a very specific period of time and did not take the evolution of the religion into modernity). Mission accomplished. Professor Shai Cherry delivered exactly what I was interested in: overviews of all of the aspects of Judaism and did not get bogged down in details or complex theological discussions. He marvelously covers all aspects of Judaism: from history to religious law/ritual to tenants of the faith to holidays to prophecy to the differences in the various sects of Judaism today. And all in a very easy way to understand. He is a great presenter. He made the Talmud more accessible and comprehensible by providing many examples of law debate and interpretations from the Mishnah and Gomorrah. Highlights for me included Lectures 8 (Afterlife) and 20 (Zionism). Riveting discussions! The only real negative that comes to mind is that there didn't seem to be alot said about the common rituals in the life of a Jewish man or woman. For example, I don’t recall any mention of Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But that hardly swayed me away from an excellent rating. If you are on the fence like I was on whether to buy this course (worrying if my interest level would hold up for 24 lectures), then I would highly recommend you going for it. When I can't stop listening from one lecture to the next then I know I've purchased a quality product. I don't know if a course on an introduction to Judaism could've been done any better.
Date published: 2018-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting I'm about half way through the course and finding it fascinating. I guess I am very surprised about how complicated Judaism is.
Date published: 2018-10-01
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