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Judaism

The term "G-d" is used in this essay to respect the Jewish prohibition against spelling the name or title of the deity in full. Dates listed which are prior to the 4th century BCE are approximate.

Early History of Judaism
Circa 2000 BCE, the G-d of the ancient Israelites established a divine covenant with Abraham, making him the patriarch of many nations. The term Abramic Religions is derived from his name. These are the four religions which trace their roots back to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i World Faith. The book of Genesis describes the events surrounding the lives of the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Joseph, who is recognized as a fourth patriarch by Christians is not considered one by Jews). Moses was the next leader of the ancient Israelites. He led his people out of captivity in Egypt, and received the Law from G-d. After decades of wandering through wilderness, Joshua led the tribes into the promised land, driving out the Canaanites through a series of military battles.

The original tribal organization was converted into a kingdom by Samuel; its first king was Saul. The second king, David, established Jerusalem as the religious and political center. The third king, Solomon built the first temple there.

Division into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah occurred shortly after the death of Solomon in 922 BCE. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BCE; Judah fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The temple was destroyed. Some Jews returned from captivity under the Babylonians and started to restore the temple in 536 BCE. (Orthodox Jews date the Babylonian exile from 422 to 352 BCE). Alexander the Great invaded the area in 332 BCE. From circa 300 to 63 BCE, Greek became the language of commerce, and Greek culture had a major influence on Judaism. In 63 BCE, the Roman Empire took control of Palestine.

Four major (and some minor) religious sects had formed by the 1st century AD: the Basusim, Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. Many anticipated the arrival of the Messiah who would drive the Roman invaders out and restore independence. Christianity was established initially as a Jewish sect, centered in Jerusalem. Paul broke with this tradition and spread the religion to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Many mini-revolts led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. The Jewish Christians were wiped out or scattered at this time. The movement started by Paul flourished and quickly evolved into the religion of Christianity. Jews were scattered throughout the known world. Their religion was no longer centered in Jerusalem; Jews were prohibited from setting foot there. Judaism became decentralized and stopped seeking converts. The local synagogue became the new center of Jewish life, and authority shifted from the centralized priesthood to local scholars and teachers, giving rise to Rabbinic Judaism.

The period from the destruction of the temple onward give rise to heavy persecution by Christians throughout Europe and Russia. Many groundless stories were spread, accusing Jews of ritual murder, the desecration of the Catholic host and continuing responsibility for the execution of Jesus . Unsubstantiated rumors continue to be circulated today. In the 1930s and 1940s, Adolph Hitler and the German Nazi party drew on centuries of anti-Semitism, and upon their own psychotic beliefs in racial purity. They organized the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of all Jews in Europe. About 6 million were killed in one of the world's greatest examples of religious and racial intolerance.

The Zionist movement was a response within all Jewish traditions to centuries of Christian persecution. Their initial goal was create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The state of Israel was formed on 1948-MAY-18.

There are currently about 18 million Jews throughout the world. They are mainly concentrated in North America (about 7 million) and Israel (about 4.5 million).

Jewish Texts
The Tanakh corresponds to the Jewish Scriptures, (often referred to as the Old Testament by Christians). It is composed of three groups of books:

the Torah (aka Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
the Nevi'im: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (2), Kings (2), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, MalachiIsaiah, Amos.
the Ketuvim, the "Writings" including Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles (2).

The Talmud contains stories, laws, medical knowledge, debates about moral choices, etc. It is composed of material which comes mainly from two sources:

the Mishnah, 6 "orders" containing hundreds of chapters, including series of laws from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was compiled about 200 CE.
the Gemara (one Babylonian and one Palestinian) is encyclopedic in scope. It includes comments from hundreds of Rabbis from 200 - 500 CE, explaining the Mishnah with additional historical, religious, legal, sociological, etc. material. It often records many different opinions on a topic without giving a definitive answer.

Traditional Jewish Beliefs
They include:

  • G-d is the creator of all that exists; he is one, incorporeal (without a body), and he alone is to be worshipped as absolute ruler of the universe.
  • The first five books of the Hebrew Bible were revealed to Moses by G-d. It will not be changed or augmented in the future.
  • G-d has communicated to the Jewish people through prophets.
  • G-d monitors the activities of humans; he rewards individuals for good deeds and punishes evil
  • Although Christians base much of their faith on the same Hebrew Scriptures as Jews, there are major differences in belief: Jews generally consider actions and behavior to be of primary importance; beliefs come out of actions. This conflicts with conservative Christians for whom belief is of primary importance and actions tend to be secondary.
  • Jewish belief does not accept the Christian concept of original sin (the belief that all people have inherited Adam and Eve's sin when they disobeyed G-d's instructions in the Garden of Eden).
  • Judaism affirms the inherent goodness of the world and its people as creations of G-d.
  • Believers are able to sanctify their lives and draw closer to G-d by performing fulfilling mitzvot (divine commandments)
  • No savior is needed or is available as an intermediary.
  • Beliefs about Jesus vary considerably. Some view him as a great moral teacher. Others see him as a false prophet or as an idol of Christianity. Some sects of Judaism will not even say his name due to the prohibition against saying an idol's name.

    The Jews are often referred to as G-d's chosen people. This does not mean that they are in any way to be considered superior to other groups. Biblical verses such as Exodus 19:5 simply imply that G-d has selected Israel to receive and study the Torah, to worship G-d only, to rest on the Sabbath, and to celebrate the festivals. Jews were not chosen to be better that others; they were simply selected to receive more difficult responsibilities, and more onerous punishment if they fail.
  • The 613 commandments found in Leviticus and other books regulate all aspects of Jewish life
  • The Ten commandments, as delineated in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, form a brief synopsis of the Law
    The Messiah (anointed one of G-d) will arrive in the future and gather Jews once more into the land of Israel. There will be a general resurrection of the dead at that time. The Jerusalem Temple, destroyed in 70 CE, will be rebuilt.
    Boys reach the status of Bar Mitzvah on their 13th birthday; girls reach Bat Mitzvah on their 12th birthday. This means that they are recognized as adults and are personally responsible to follow the Jewish commandments and laws; they are allowed to lead a religious service; they are counted in a "minyan" (a quota of men necessary to perform certain parts of religious services); they can sign contracts; they can testify in religious courts; theoretically, they can marry, although the Talmud recommends 18 to 24 as the proper age for marriage.

The more liberal movements within Judaism differ from some of the above beliefs concerning the source of the Torah, the concept of direct reward and punishment according to one's behavior, etc.

Jewish Practices
They include:

  • Observation of the Sabbath as a day of rest, starting at sundown on Friday evening.
  • Strict discipline, according to the Law, which governs all areas of life
  • Regular attendance by Jewish males at Synagogue
  • Celebration of the annual festivals including: Passover, or Pesach is held each Spring to recall the Jews' deliverance out of slavery in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. A ritual Seder meal is eaten in each observing Jewish home at this time. Six different foods are placed on the seder plate in the order in which they area eaten: Karpas (vegetables dipped in salt water) recalls the bitter tears shed during slavery
  • Maror (bitter herbs) to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
  • Chazeret (bitter vegetables) also to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
  • Choroset (apple, nuts & spices with wine) represents the mortar used by Hebrew slaves.
  • Also placed on the seder plate, but uneaten during the Seder meal: Zeroa (lamb shankbone) to recall the Passover sacrifice in the ancient temple.
  • Beitzah (roasted egg) symbolizes mourning, sacrifice, spring, and renewal.
  • Not placed on the Seder plate, but often eaten, is a boiled egg.


Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and is the anniversary of the completion of creation, about 5760 years ago. It is held in the fall.
The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are days of fasting and penitence.
Sukkoth or the Feast of Booths is an 8 day harvest festival; a time of thanksgiving.
Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights is an 8 day feast of dedication. It recalls the war fought by the Maccabees in the cause of religious freedom. It is typically observed in December. Originally a minor Jewish holy day, it has become more important in recent years.
Purim, the Feast of Lots recalls the defeat by Queen Esther of the plan to slaughter all of the Persian Jews, circa 400 BCE.

Shavout, the Feast of Weeks recalls G-d's revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people. It is held in late May or early June.

Rules for calculating Rosh Hashanah and Passover are available online at: http://quasar.as.utexas.edu/BillInfo/ReligiousCalendars.html

The local synagogue is governed by the congregation and is normally led by a rabbi who has been chosen by the congregation. A rabbi is a teacher who has been well educated in Jewish law and tradition.
Any adult male with sufficient knowledge can lead religious services. In reform and some conservative congregations, a woman can also preside. This is often done in those Jewish communities who lack a rabbi.
The Chief Rabbis in France and Great Britain have authority only by the agreement of those who accept it. Two Chief Rabbis in Israel have civil authority in areas of family law.

Jewish Movements:
There are five main forms of Judaism in the world today:

Conservative* Judaism: This began in the mid-nineteenth century as a reaction against the Reform movement. It is a main-line movement midway between Reform and Orthodox.
Humanistic Judaism: This is a very small group, mainly composed of atheists and agnostics, who regard mankind as the measure of all things.
Orthodox* Judaism: This the oldest, most conservative, and most diverse form of Judaism. Modern Orthodox, Chasidim and Ultra Orthodox share a basic belief in the derivation of Jewish law, even as they hold very different outlooks on life. They attempt to follow the original form of Judaism as they view it to be. They look upon every word in their sacred texts as being divinely inspired.
Reconstructionist Judaism: This is a new, small, liberal movement started by Mordecai Kaplan as an attempt to unify and revitalize the religion. They reject the concept that Jews are a uniquely favored and chosen people. They have no connection at all with Christian Reconstructionism, which is an ultra-conservative form of Christianity.
Reform* Judaism: They are a liberal group, followed by many North American Jews. The movement started in the 1790's in Germany. They follow the ethical laws of Judaism, but leave up to the individual the decision whether to follow or ignore the dietary and other traditional laws. They use modern forms of worship. There are many female rabbis in reform congregations.

* These are the largest forms of Judaism

Jewish-Christian Relations:
The faith of Israel, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, had divided into a number of Jewish Sects (the Basusim, Pharisees, Essenes, Saducees, Zealots and others) by the early first century CE. Subsequently, a number of events of momentous importance occurred:

30 CE: Some Jews, following the teachings of Jeshua (known by Christians as Jesus Christ), formed a Jewish Christian reform movement within Judaism under the leadership of James, an apostle of Jeshua.
circa 55 CE: Paul, a Jewish persecutor of Christians, became converted to Christianity and started to organize Pauline Christian churches throughout much of the Roman empire in conflict with the Jewish Christians.
70 CE: The Roman army destroyed the Temple and the rest of Jerusalem.
132 CE: Many Jews accepted Bar Kochba as the Messiah. This led to a hopeless three-year revolt against the Roman Empire. About a half-million Jews were killed; thousands were sold into slavery or taken into captivity. The rest were exiled from Palestine and scattered throughout the known world in what is called the "Diaspora."

Out of these events came two major world religions:

Judaism in its Rabbinical form, centered in local synagogues, scattered throughout the known world, and
Pauline Christianity which later became centered in Rome.

Relations between the two religions became strained. The Christian Scriptures include many examples of anti-Judaism. One of the gospels, written during the last third of the 1st century CE, included the accusation that all Jews, (past, present, and future), are responsible for deicide: the killing of G-d. This form of religious propaganda was serious enough in its original setting, as long as Christianity remained a small reform movement within Judaism. There are many examples of inter-religious friction throughout literature of that era; indeed, it is prevalent today. But when the Christian religion became the official religion of Rome in the late 4th century CE, Christianity became sufficiently powerful to actively oppress and persecute Jews. This led to numerous exterminations of groups of Jews during the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the modern era. Ancient Christian teachings and practices paved the way for the Nazi holocaust during World War II.

Today, only a few fringe Christian groups still teach that Jews are responsible for Christ's death. Many Christian denominations teach that the promises that G-d made to the Jewish people have been withdrawn and transferred to the Christian Church. This teaching has led to conflicts over attempts to evangelize Jews. Although anti-Semitism has been abandoned by most in North America, the relationships between Christians and Jews have much room for improvement.

References
A page of links to Jewish web sites is at: http://www.shamash.org
An index of class notes for a University of Alberta course called "Judaism in the Modern Age" is at: http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/363_list.html
Judaism 101 is an "online encyclopedia of Judaism, covering Jewish beliefs, people, places, things, language, scripture, holidays, practices and customs." See: http://www.jewfaq.org
The official FAQ of the Soc.Culture.Jewish newsgroup is at: http://www.shamash.org/lists/scj-faq/HTML/faq/hl-index.html This extensive list of questions and answers was developed by a committee of Jews from all denominations.
Robert Kaiser, Frequently Asked Questions about Judaism at:
http://communities.msn.com/judaismfaqs Topics covered are: Jewish principles of faith, The Jewish denominations, and revelation and Torah
Zipple.com bill themselves as "The Jewish MEGA-Site" with considerable justification. It is a wide-ranging Jewish web site with a broad list of topics. See: http://www.zipple.com/
Click on Judaism is a project of the Reform Movement Commission on Synagogue Affiliation. It invites Jews in their 20s and 30s to explore liberal Judaism. See http://www.clickonjudaism.com/

Copyright © 1995 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

Author: B.A. Robinson

Other Readings:

What Is Judaism?

The Religion of Ethical Monotheism

Judaism 101

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