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Each of the great world religions was formed under the influence of cultural, economic and historical circumstances, which dominated the scene at the time. Just like every epoch and nation needs its own heroes, it needs those spiritual values that would be most relevant to their reality. Judaism and Buddhism are good illustration to this statement, each of them being a guide of dealing with major challenges that life imposed on their followers. In this context, these two religions are strikingly different in their concepts of the divine and the doctrines addressed to the believers. Having emerged about 900 B.C.E. and later established as a national religion of Jews, Judaism rests on the concept of covenant between God and people, thus offering a personalized connection between God and an individual. In contrast, Buddhism, which was founded about 500 B.C.E. does not offer a personalized image of God but rather gives a path of personal perfection. Besides, while spiritual way in Judaism is based on compliance of God’s subscriptions named mitzvoth, Buddhism offers placing responsibility on a human for his or her decisions although it gives some general guidelines how to achieve enlightenment.
Speaking about Judaism, it is worth saying that it focuses mostly on building a relationship between God and a person, and on a larger scale between God and Israeli nation. Thus, unlike Buddhism, which is more universal and does not refer to particular ethnic groups, the privileged and chosen ones, Judaism states that it is a religion of Jews in the first place. Even though outsiders can practice it too, they do not have to follow such a broad set of rules and prescriptions from God. Thus, the major trait of Judaism is the concept that the closer a person is to God, the more rules he or she should follow and the more obligations he or she should have. In other words, the notion of Covenant that Judaism offers as one of the main parts of its doctrine, suggests that being religious means ultimately following the prescribed rules with minimal personal decision making outside these rules. In fact, there are almost no spheres of everyday life in Judaism, for which a believer does not have an instruction how to act properly. Thus, Judaism is a religion that is highly based on tradition and certain patterns of behavior, which are kept from generation to generation. In this sense, it rests on the utter trust to God and his laws, thus simply living a prescribed life without hesitation or rebellion for a pious Judaist believer.
In contrast, Buddhism is quite impersonal and impartial in this sense. Its guidelines are quite general and do not refer to particular situations, which might occur in everyday life. First of all, it does not offer God to worship, although it gives human illustration of a worthy life in the face of Siddhartha Gautama. However, he is not God but a person who found truth about life and the way to escape from the conventional cycle of suffering and desires. He can be an example to Buddhists but he does not provide ready-made solutions for all minor situations of everyday life, like it happens in Judaism. So, Buddhism is not based on agreements and laws but on utterly personal choice guided by some philosophy on human existence. In this sense, without any God to have directions from and without any system of set laws, Buddhism is a religion of individuality. It is based on personal responsibility and a high degree of freedom, offering no extra encouragement or punishment except the ones, which a person can get as a result of a personal choice. Besides, while Judaism focuses on the earthly living and proper conduct while living this life, Buddhism promotes an idea that one has to realize the illusionary nature of this life accompanied by dissatisfaction, so that one can escape it in future incarnations.
Considering the doctrine of Judaism more detailed, the following important aspects should be covered. Mitzvoth are a key notion of this religion, as they determine the right from the wrong in everyday life. They instruct a believer how to act properly, and overall contain 613 guidelines. Thus, every Judaist has a set of traditions and rituals to follow starting from his or her birth. This makes life meaningful and understandable, and places a human into a system of relationships with the external world and God. There is a certain hierarchy in a community and in a family, which creates order and harmony. Besides, it is worth saying that these rules are also used to emphasize the identity of a person as a member of Jewish community. Life is organized in the way to constantly remind a person about his or her belonging and faith. Speaking about the beliefs that are the most important to Judaists, belief in the one God and prophets should be mentioned, as well as the law, which God gave to Jews through Moses. Besides, the coming of Messiah is expected according to the scriptures, which will signify the end of the old era and the beginning of a new one, when all virtuous people will resurrect for a new blessed life (Molloy, 322). However, afterlife is not an ultimate goal in Judaism and no guaranteed eternity is promised, except of living in direct descendants. For this reason, unlike Buddhism and other religions, where serving to God as a monk is promoted, Judaism claims that having no family is a sin, because it means that one does not perform his or her major duty in the face of God by continuing life on earth. So, to a large extent, the sense of being virtuous is not in the prize for good conduct but in staying in touch with God while keeping his commandments. The Ten Commandments can be considered the key elements of Judaist morality, and they include avoiding murder, stealing, adultery, false evidence, creating idols, pronouncing God’s name in vain, respect for property, parents and ancestors, restraint of work on Saturday (Sabbath).
In contrast, Buddhist doctrine is not so much a code of moral laws as philosophy that explains how human life works and why people are unhappy. In fact, everyone can make their own conclusions based on these assumptions on how they concern their individual lives. Buddhist doctrine focuses on informing humans about the laws of samsara that makes them unhappy. Thus, the ultimate goal of these instructions is to open people’s eyes to reality, which they prefer not to see because it is comfortable to live in illusion. So, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are meant to wake people up from their eternal dream. They have the following concepts explained. The First Noble truth says that human life is suffering.
“By suffering, not ultimately negative emotions or physical perceptions are meant but life in general. Having a body means that we can be tired and sick. Having a mind means that we can be troubled and discouraged…To live means to experience anxiety, loss, and sometimes even anguish” (Molloy, 134). Thus, Buddhism states that people are blind to the fact that their life is nothing but suffering, which cannot be finally resolved in an earthly living. As a paradox, facing the truth can bring relieve because illusion about happiness and pleasure disappears. The Second Noble Truth explains the roots of suffering. It reveals an idea that it originates from desires that people have, and which are impossible to satisfy. When one desire is fulfilled, hundreds of others emerge, so a person is never happy and content. Some desires can be never satisfied, which leaves people desolated no matter how many other desires come true. So, human life is permanent contrast between short moments of pleasure and longer moments of suffering; they are in fact the two sides of the same medal. Without desire, suffering would be impossible, so this is why it is so important for Buddhists to strive for elimination of desires. So, the Third Noble Truth instructs that ending desires is a way to extinguish suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth says that in order to make this plan come true, it is worth following the Noble Eightfold Path, which will eventually lead to nirvana. “The term nirvana suggests ….end of suffering, inner peace, and liberation from the limitations of the world. The word nirvana seems to mean “blown out,” or “cool,” suggesting that the fires of desire have been extinguished” (Molloy, 136). Speaking about the Noble Eightfold Path, it includes such elements as the right understanding, intention, speech, action, work, effort, meditation and contemplation. Non-violence in Buddhism includes animals as well, while Judaism approves killing of animals according to Kashrut, as well as killing people in a war. Thus, the distinction between killing and murdering is significant in Judaism, while it does not exist in Buddhism.
As can be seen from the above facts, Buddhism gives general ideas how to improve spiritual life, while it does not give such concrete recommendations as Judaism does. Judaism is deeply rooted in material world and its traditions, like cooking food or bringing up children. It gives people a sense of belonging to the group, to God’s people. Thus, initiations of children in different ages, starting from circumcision (Bris) and including Bar Mitzvah that takes place when children reach the age of thirteen, are all aimed to marking them as a part of larger community. In contrast, Buddhism is a much more individualistic religion, and does not put such an emphasis on being one of the many. It promotes an idea that people are related to each other through numerous births, but at the same time each spiritual path is individual. The Buddha demonstrates an example of possible way out of samsara, but he does not call on worshiping him or seeing his path as a set of rules.
All in all, there are several major differences between Buddhism and Judaism. First of all, Judaism is a monotheistic religion that is based on believing and worshiping a single God, while Buddhism does not offer God, as its leader is a human. Secondly, Judaism is a collective religion that is meant mostly for Jews without broadening its influence on other nations. In contrast, Buddhism does not focus on nationality, and it has a more individualistic bias. Judaism doctrine has a set code of behavior for all situations of everyday life, while Buddhism has only general philosophical recommendations. Judaism means obeying prescribed laws, while Buddhism is based on taking individual responsibility. Buddhism denies killing of all leaving creatures in all forms, while Judaism has allowance for killing in wars and for killing and eating animals in certain kosher ways. Finally, while Judaism focuses on virtuous earthly living without making afterlife a major benefit, Buddhism implies that the ultimate purpose is to break the chain of rebirths and achieve nirvana.