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Judaism is the religion practiced by Jews. Some of the tenets and history of Judaism constitute the theological and historical foundation of many other religions including Christianity and Islam.


Most fundamentally, Judaism entails the belief in one, and only one God. Judaism affirms theism as the basis for religion, as does Islam and Christianity. God is conceived of as a creator and a source of morality, and has the power to intervene in the world in some fashion. The term God thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche. Maimonides describes God in this fashion: "There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on God and is derived from God."

Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, generally rejects deism, i.e. the belief that God only created the world, but then withdrew from it completely. In deism the world is said to run on its own, according to the natural laws made at creation; according to this view, there no miracles, there is no Revelation, and there is no divine providence. Deism further affirms that all truths about God and the universe are said to be knowable by man's ability to think and reason alone. Not surprisingly, the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible, what Christians refer to as The Old Testament) and the major classical rabbinic writings reject deism outright. However, in the writings of some medieval Jewish philosophers influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds deistic tendencies.

After the extreme horrors of the Holocaust raised again the issue of theodicy, many non-Orthodox Jews (such as Rabbi Harold Kushner began to affirm non-anthropomorphic views of God, in which it was said that by God's very nature, God does not (one could say, "can not") physically intervene in the world. Such semi-deistic views of God draw upon sources as diverse as the Jewish medieval theologians Gersonides and Abraham Ibn Daud as well as the Kabbalah, the tradition of Jewish mysticism and process theology.

Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish_Principles_of_Faith, but unlike Catholicism, the Jewish community has never developed any one fixed, binding catechism. A number of formualtions of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, but differ in certain details. A comparison of several such formulations demonstrates a remarkably wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives. Some of the general Jewish beliefs include:

  • A belief in God as described above. God is held to be a unity. The idea of God as a duality or trinity is considered akin to polytheism.
  • The belief that God is personal, i.e. that God not only exists, but also cares about humanity. Rabbi Harold Kushner has written that "God shows His love for us by reaching down to bridge the immense gap between Him and us. God shows His love for us by inviting us to enter into a Covenant (Brit) with Him, and by sharing with us His Torah". One of the ways that we relate to God is through the many names of God; In Judaism, each of the many divine names is indicative of a different aspect of God's presence in our world. On the other hand, note that the Maimonides and other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God in this sense.
  • The belief that God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. A corollary belief is that God is utterly unlike man, and can in no way be considered anthropomorphic. All statements in the Tanach and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be difficult to talk about God at all.
  • The belief that to God and to God alone may one offer prayer. Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, was traditionally considered heretical. Maimonides writes that "God is the only one we may serve and praise....We many not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements.....There are no intermediaries between us and God. All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered." However, since the 1800s some Hasidic Orthodox Jews have begun to teeach that their leaders, rebbes, are indeed an intermediary between man and God.
  • The Tanach (The Hebrew Bible), and much of beliefs described in the Mishnah, are are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine", has always been a matter of some dispute.
  • The belief that the words of the prophets in the Tanach are true. This belief does not mena that Jews are required to accept the books of the Bible literally; the tradition has always held that prophets used metaphors and analogies just like people today use them. As such, there is a wide degree of interpretation of many prophetic verses.
  • The belief that the prophecy of Moses was true, and that he was the chief of all prophets, both those before him and those after him. Maimonides writes that "Moses was superior to all prophets, whether they preceded him or arose afterwards. Moses attained the highest possible human level. He perceived God to a degree surpassing every human that ever existed....God spoke to all other prophets through an intermediary. Moses alone did not need this; this is what the Torah means when God says "Mouth to mouth, I will speak to him."
This principle is accepted by Orthodox and Conservative Jews. However, this does not imply that the text of the Torah should be understood literally. The rabbinic tradition maintains that God conveyed not only the words of the Torah, but the meaning of the Torah. God gave rules as to how the laws were to be understood and implemented, and these were passed down as an oral tradition. This oral law ultimately was written down almost 2,000 years later in the Mishna and the two Talmuds. The founders of Reform Judaism replaced this principle with the theory of Progressive Revelation. For Reform Jews, the prophecy of Moses was not the highest degree of prophecy; rather it was the first in a long chain of progressive revelations in which mankind gradually began to understand the will of God better and better. As such, the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and it is today's generation that must assess what God wants of them. (For examples see the works of Gunther Plaut or Eugene Borowitz). This principle is also rejected by most Reconstructionists, but for a different reason; most posit that God is not a being with a will; thus no will can be revealed.
  • The belief that the current text of the Torah is the same one that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Maimonides explains "We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses. But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation....[Thus] every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God's Torah, which is perfect, holy and true."
Today, no modern Jewish denomination totally accepts this principle. Orthodox Jews recognize that over the millennia, many scribal errors have crept into the Torah's text. The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text. Also, there are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen - part of the story in these places has been edited out. In general, though, Orthodox Jews view the Written and Oral Torah as virtually the same that Moses taught, for all practical purposes.
Due to advances in biblical scholarship, and archeological and linguistic research, all non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle outright. Instead, they accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah may come from the Moses, but that the document that we have today has been edited together from several documents. Conservative Jews tend to believe that much of the Oral law is divinely inspired, while Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend to view all of the Oral law as an entirely human creation. For more details see Richard Elliot Friedman's "Who Wrote the Bible?" and the entry on the documentary hypothesis.
  • The belief, based on a straightforward reading of the Torah and the Tanach that God will reward those who observe his commandments, and punishe those who violate His commandments. In stark contrast to this, Maimonides and other medieval neo-Aristotelian theologians claimed that only fools and children would believe that God rewarded or punished people, and that no such rewards or punishments exist. Maimonides believed that the only possible reward was that if a person perfected his intellect to the highest degree, then the part of his intellect that connected to God, the active intellect, would be immortalized. However, the common understanding of this principle is accepted by many Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews; it is generally rejected by Reconstructionists (whose views on this issue are more similar to Maimonides than those of the Orthodox.)
  • The belief that God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish people never simply say that "God chose the Jews." This claim exists nowhere in the Tanach (the Jewish Bible) or the Siddur (the Jewish prayerbook). Such a claim would imply that God loves only the Jewish people, that only Jews can be close to God, and that only Jews can have a heaavenly reward (if one exists at all.) The actual claim made is that the Jews were chosen for a specific mission; to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the ppTorah]].
Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, describes the mainstream Jewish view on this issue: "Yes, I do believe that the Chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its milennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people - and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual - is "chosen" or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parlimentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose."
  • The belief that there will be a moshiach (messiah), or perhaps a messianic era. Note that the Jewish belief regarding the messiah has little, if anything, to do with the Christian definition of this term. Jewish views of the messiah, the messianic era, and the afterlife are discusssed in the entry on Jewish eschatology.
  • The belief that humans are born morally pure; Jews have no concept of original sin. Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer ha'tov, a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer ha'ra, a tendency to do bad; human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. The Rabbis even recognize a positive value to the yetzer ha'ra: the rabbis explain that without the yetzer ha'ra there would be no cities or other fruits of human labor; the implication is that yetzer ha'tov and yetzer ha'ra are best understood not as moral categories of good and evil but as selfless versus selfish orientations.
Jews recognize two kinds of "sin," offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). In a post-Temple world, Jews believe that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins.
Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states "One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated 'I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice". Also, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]." (Tractate Berachot, 55a.) Similarly, the liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentence and tzedakah (charity) atone for sin.

The Torah and Jewish law

The basis of all Jewish law is the Torah, the five books of Moses (also known as the Pentateuch, or the Chumash.) According to some traditional counting methods, there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, all of which the Jewish people are bound to follow. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the priestly tribe), and many were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed. Some 300 or so of these commandments are still applicable today.

While there have been Jewish groups which were based on the written text of the Torah alone (the Sadducees, the Karaites), most Jews believe in oral traditions as well. These oral traditions originated in the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were latter recorded in written form and expanded upon by the Rabbis.

Rabinical Judaism has always held that the books of the Tanach (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. Rabbinical Jews point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; this they argue means that the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally trasmitted orally, and came to be known as the "the oral law". However, by the time Judah Ha-Nasi (200 CE) much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this law underwent discussion and debate in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylon), and the commentaries on the Mishna from both of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud.

Halakha, or Rabbinical Jewish practice, then, is not based on a literal reading of the Torah or the rest of the Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written tradition, which includes the Tanakh, Talmud Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) and Talmud Yerushalmi (the Talmud of Jerusalem--something of a misnomer, since it was edited north of Jerusalem--also known as the Talmud of the Land of Israel or the Palestinian Talmud.)

Jewish life is bound up with religious tradition. Yearly festivals celebrate the new year and God's faithfulness, the history of Judaism, and call for atonement. Rituals occur throughout a Jew's life that bind him to the community: daily prayer in a public quorum(emphasized on Shabbat); brit milah (circumcision), coming to adulthood (bar or bat mitzah), marriage, and communal mourning ceremonies relating to a person's death.

Tanach The Hebrew Bible
The name of God in Judaism
Kashrut - Jewish dietary laws. Concerns with what foods are and aren't Kosher
Jewish holidays
Shabbat (The Sabbath)
Role of women in Judaism
Jewish view of marriage
The Temple in Jerusalem
Jewish services - the daily prayer services and a guide for visitors to synagogues
Role of the cantor in Judaism - the role of the cantor (hazzan) as emissary of the congregation
Jewish eschatology - Jewish views of the messiah and the afterlife

Sects of Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism is closely related to Samaritanism, though it is normally counted as a separate religion. Around the first century A.D. there were several main Jewish sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes. Of these, only the Pharisees survived, and all Jewish groups today are descended from them. Christianity at one point was a Jewish messianic sect, but soon developed into a separate religion.

Some Jews in the 8th century rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees recorded in the Mishnah (and developed by latter Rabbis in the two Talmuds), intending to rely only upon the Tanach. (However, they later developed oral traditions of their own which differ from the Rabbinical ones.) These Jews formed the Karaite sect, which still exist to this day, though they are much smaller than the rest of Judaism.

Later Jews developed into a few distinct ethnic groups: the Ashkenazi Jews, the Sephardi Jews, and the Yemenite Jews. This split is cultural, and is not based on any doctrinal dispute.

Hasidism originated in Eastern Europe. It is a morally strict, mystical tradition based on Kabbalah and allegiance to a spiritual leader, or Rebbe. It was founded in the mid-1700s by a miracle worker named Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov.

Judaism after The_Enlightenment and emancipation: The development of denominations

In the late 18th century Europe, and then the rest of the world, was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements that taken together were referred to as The_Enlightenment. These movements promoted scientific thinking, freethought, and allowed people to question previously unshaken religious dogmas. Like Christianity, Judaism developed several responses to this unprecedented phenomenon. Intially, the European Jewish community began to develop into two separate worldviews; one of which saw the enlightenment as positive, and one of which saw it as negative. The enlightenment meant equality and freedom for many Jews in many countries, so it was felt that it should be warmly welcomes. Scientific study of religious texts would allow Jews to study the history of Judaism, and one could discover how it had developed over time.

Some Jews felt that these endeavours would bring much to Judaism. Others, however, noted that this same era allowed Jews, for the first time, the ability to easily assimilate into Christian society; this was a powerful attraction for many Jews, since only by becoming a Christian (at least nominally) would one be certain to have equal rights and civil liberties. Further, historical study of the development of the religion might call into question some previously held dogmas about Judaism; if a few beliefs were found to be incorrect, where would one draw the line? In response to these issues, Jews favouring the enlightenment developed into a community known as Reform Judaism, and Jews opposed to the enlightenment developed into a set of loosely linked communities known as Orthodox Judaism. This loose differentiation did not hold for long. The various groups in Orthodox Judaism had differing attitudes on how to respond, and they developed into a number of different groups.

A third of thought then developed which held that halakha (Jewish law and tradition) was not static, but rather had always developed in response to changing conditions. This approach, Positive-Historical Judaism, held that Jews should accept halakha as normative (i.e. binding) yet must also be open to developing the law in the same fashion that it had developed in the past. This school of thought gave birth to the communities now known as Masorti Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Traditional Judaism.

In recent years, smaller splinter movements have developed: Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism. In terms of their beliefs, Reconstructionist Judaism is now virtually identical to Reform Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism is now identical to secular humanism.

Jewish Diversity: A Chart illustrating the differing approaches to Judaism

The issue of Zionism was once heavily divisive in the Jewish community. Secular non-Zionists believed that Jews should integrate into the countries in which they lived, rather than moving to Israel; religious non-Zionists believed that the return to Israel could only happen with the coming of the Messiah, and that attempting to re-establish Israel earlier was disobeying God's plan. After the painful events of the twentieth century, such as World War II and the Holocaust, secular anti-Zionism has largely disappeared; however many Hasidim are still opposed to Zionism on religious grounds.

The state of Judaism in the U.S. today

Many secularized Jews have long since stopped participating in religious duties. Many of then recall having religious grand-parents, but grew up in homes where Jewish education and observance was no longer a priority. They have developed ambivalent feelings towards their religious duties. On the one hand they tend to cling to their traditions for identity reasons, on the other hand the influence of western mentality, daily life and peer-pressure tears them away from Judaism. Recent studies of American Jews indicate that nearly 50% of people who identify as being of Jewish heritage no longer identify as members of the religion known as Judaism. The various Jewish religious denominations in the USA and Canada perceive this as a crisis situation, and have grave concern over rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation in the Jewish community. Since American Jews are marrying at a later time in their life than they used to, and are having fewer children than they used, the birth rate for American Jews has dropped from over 2.0 down to 1.7 (the replacement rate, by definition, is 2.0). [Source: "This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate relations", p.27, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1996.]

In the last 50 years all of the major Jewish denominations have experienced a resurgence in popularity, with increasing numbers of younger Jews participating in Jewish education, joining synagogues, and becoming (to varying degrees) more observant. However, this gain has not yet offset the demographic loss due to intermarriage and assimilation.

Reccomended reading: "Conservative Judaism: The New Century" pb, Neil Gillman, Behrman House.

"American Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective" by Jeffrey S. Gurock pb, HC, 1996, Ktav.

"A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America" by Jack Wertheimer. Brandeis Univ. Press, 1997.

"Encyclopaedia Judaica", Keter Publishing, updated CD-ROM edition, 1997

See the article on "The American Jewish Identity Survey" by Egon Mayer, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar; a sub-set of The American Religious Identity Survey, from the City University of New York Gradute Center. An article on this survey is printed in "The New York Jewish Week", November 2, 2001.

See additional works by: Sylvia Barack Fishman, Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee's Departmen of Contempoary Jewish Life.

A summary of Jewish views on homosexuality can be found on the page specifically discussing Jewish views of homosexuality .

See also Khazars, Abrahamic religions, Israel


Frequently Asked Questons about Judaism

The Various Types of Orthodox Judaism

What is Orthodox Judaism? Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

The origin of Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism: Official website

The development of Conservative Judaism

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers about Conservative & Masorti Judaism

What is Reform Judaism? Frequently Asked Questions and Answers