Judaism is the world’s fourteenth largest religion with 14 million people who identify as Jewish. It is the oldest of the three Abrahamic faiths, which include Christianity and Islam.
Normally, religions are defined by adherents having shared beliefs about God or a deity and/or race. Judaism is unique in that, to be a Jew, one does not have to believe anything that Judaism teaches. The only requirement is that one is born of a Jewish mother, or converts into the religion.
Religious Jews primarily believe that their performance in this life will change and save them from eternal damnation and simultaneously change and save the world. In simplistic terms, one’s good deeds are weighed in a balance against one’s bad deeds. Nonetheless, God, Yahweh, is filled with loving kindness and is eager to forgive transgressions as long as the believer is heartily repentant of bad behavior. Unlike the Christian, who believes that even repentance is impossible without intervention or grace from God, the Jew takes responsibility for their actions upon themself.
In Judaism, Yahweh is completely different from the world and from human beings. Therefore, Yahweh could not become a person, such as Jesus. The Jesus of the New Testament died on a cross and thus did not meet the Jewish criteria for being the warrior Messiah who defeats evil.
Christians argue that there are two messianic “sons” presented in Scripture. The first is “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” upon whom the Father would lay the sins of the world. The second comports with Judaism in that the world still awaits a messianic king who will crush evil with an iron rod.
Terms used primarily in the United States, Judeo-Christianity and Judeo-Christian ethics or morality, recognize widespread agreement on the ethical teachings of the two religions. In spite of deep division about the meaning of messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible, devout believers in both camps are in large agreement about the rest of the Old Testament.
The Hebrew Bible is an account of the Israelites’ relationship with Yahweh, as reflected in their history from the beginning of time until the Second Temple Period (around 350 BC). This relationship is often portrayed as contentious, with Hebrews struggling between their faith in Yahweh and their attraction to other gods. Individual struggles with belief also abound, first and most directly, with Jacob, whose original name meant “usurper” because he had tricked his older brother out of his birthright. Later, Jacob became known as “Israel,” the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and thereby all Israelites.
The term “Hebrew” pre-existed the term “Israelite.” According to Orthodox Judaism and most religious Jews, the biblical patriarch Abraham was the first Hebrew. The book of Genesis records that Abraham was the first human since Noah to publicly reject idolatry and preach monotheism. As a result, Yahweh promised Abraham he would have children: “Look now toward heaven and count the stars, so shall be your progeny.”
Abraham’s first child was Ishmael, and his second son was Isaac, who Yahweh said would continue Abraham’s work and inherit the Land of Israel (then called Canaan).
Yahweh sent the patriarch Jacob and his children to Egypt where, after many generations, they became enslaved, a state of servitude that lasted 400 years. Then Yahweh sent Moses to lead the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian bondage. Forced to wander for a generation in the desert before entering the promised land of Israel, the Israelites supposedly shook off the habits of slavery. Early in this wandering period, Yahweh led the Israelites to Mount Sinai where he gave Moses The Ten Commandments and then the Torah.
Yahweh designated the descendants of Aaron, Moses’s brother, to be a priestly class within the Israelite community. They first officiated in the Tabernacle, a portable house of worship, and later were in charge of worship in the temple in Jerusalem.
Once the Israelites had settled in the land of Israel, the tabernacle was placed in the city of Shiloh for over 300 years, during which time Yahweh provided great men, and occasionally great women, to rally the nation against attacking enemies, some of which were sent by Yahweh as a punishment for the sins of the people. This is described in the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges. As time went on, the spiritual health of the nation declined to the point that Yahweh allowed the Philistines to capture the tabernacle in Shiloh.
The people of Israel then told the prophet Samuel that they wanted to be governed by a permanent king, as were other peoples. Samuel grudgingly acceded and appointed Saul, a great but prideful man, to be their king. When the people pressured Saul into going against a command conveyed to him by the Yahweh, Yahweh told Samuel to appoint David in his stead.
From humble origins as a shepherd boy to an outlaw hunted by the jealous Saul, David proved his bravery and cunning, finally becoming not only a great king but also, after his death, an archetype of a warrior messiah. The biblical account of his reign does not conceal David’s flaws. He was a murderer as well as an adulterer, but as the Bible puts it, he had “a heart after God” and was willing to admit wrongdoing, to accept consequences, and to seek mercy.
Once David was established as king, he told the prophet Nathan that he wanted to build a permanent temple to honor Yahweh, who had bestowed so much upon David and his nation. Because David had been involved in many wars, it was judged inappropriate for him to build an edifice representing peace, but Yahweh promised that David’s son, Solomon, would be allowed to fulfill David’s desire.
Solomon did construct a permanent temple in Jerusalem, but after his death the permanence of the domain was split. Two kingdoms emerged, Israel to the north, and Judah with Jerusalem as its capital to the south. Rampant idolatry in Israel followed for several hundred years until Yahweh allowed Assyria to conquer Israel and exile its people. The southern Kingdom of Judah remained under the rule of the House of David; however, as in the north, idolatry increased to the point that Yahweh allowed Babylonia to conquer the kingdom, destroy the temple that had stood for 410 years, and exile many of the people to Babylon. These events are described in the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Jeremiah, along with the promise that those in exile would be returned to their homeland after seventy years.
After seventy years, the exiles were allowed back into Judea under the leadership of Ezra, and the temple was rebuilt. The Second Temple stood for 420 years before it was destroyed by the Roman general (and later emperor), Titus, in 70 AD. According to the Old Testament, the temple is to remain in ruins until a descendant of David arises to restore the glory of Israel.
From 587 BC until 1948 AD, such glory remained in the shadows of larger, dominating empires—Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Christian, Turkish, and British.
After the forced exile by the Romans in what is known as the Diaspora, the majority of Jews migrated to Europe and North Africa, but they continually prayed to return to Israel where there always remained a remnant of the Jewish community. Those prayers became a reality in the first half of the twentieth century AD when the Zionist movement inspired and financed waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine from Europe and Arab countries.
At that time, “Palestine” referred to an area of land controlled first by the Turks before World War I and then by the British. The occupants of Palestine were either Arab, Jewish, or foreign conquerors. The term “Palestinian” originally referred to Jordanian refugees after the Six Day War of 1967.
The extermination of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany touched off a massive return of Jews to Israel, inflamed Arab resentment, and over-taxed the British colonial government. This matter was referred to the newly formed United Nations, which quickly recognized Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence. The declaration also ignited an attack by five surrounding Arab countries.
Wars and terrorism in Israel continue to the present day, and 14 Islamic nations around the world have called for the extermination of the State of Israel.
In The Weekly Standard of May 11, 1998, Charles Krauthammer wrote of Israel’s uniqueness: “Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity: It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago. You dig the soil and you find pottery from Davidic times, coins from Bar Kokhba, and 2,000-year-old scrolls written in a script remarkably like the one that today advertises ice cream at the corner candy store.”
The Hebrew Bible has three parts: The Torah (Five Books of Moses), the Prophets, and the Writings, such as Esther and the Psalms. The Torah contains laws, doctrine, and guidance on way of life, as well as accounts of the early history of the Jewish people and their relationship with Yahweh.
The Hebrew Bible begins with the Torah or Pentateuch. It has also been called the Chumash, or the Five Books of Moses. The Torah covers history from the time of creation to the time of Abraham to the end of Jewish Exodus from Egypt and entry into the promised land of Canaan, which occurred roughly around 1200 BC.
Probably edited and transliterated around the time of King David (1000 BC), the Pentateuch consists of five books.
Genesis includes the creation narratives of Adam and Eve and the stories of others characters, including Noah, Joseph, and his brothers.
Exodus chronicles the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt by Yahweh through Moses. It also records the years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert.
Leviticus and Numbers include fewer stories than the other books and detail laws for sacrificial offerings, the rituals of Jewish priesthood, and the conduct of the people.
Deuteronomy picks up the narrative again, repeats the Ten Commandments and several laws, and describes the final entry into the Land of Canaan and the death of Moses. Compared to other prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Moses stands alone as one to whom Yahweh spoke directly, not through visions or dreams.
The second part of the Hebrew Bible is called Nevi’im, or Prophets. This section includes the historical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. For the most part, the books are named for the prophets who wrote them.
Jeremiah preached that divine justice is inescapable and warned Jews against rejecting Yahweh.
Isaiah believed that the covenant between Israel and Yahweh was contingent on the peoples’ conduct. He chastised the Israelites for their misbehavior that had broken the covenant, assured them of coming wrath, and re-assured them that Yahweh was still merciful and would deliver them.
Ezekiel warned of the destruction of Judah. His later statements foretold of a new covenant that Yahweh would make with the restored house of Israel.
The text then turns to the Minor Prophets, who also have biblical books named for them:
Hosea was the last king of Israel.
Amos prophesizes doom.
Jonah attempted to avoid his prophetic call only to be swallowed by a giant fish.
Zephaniah proclaimed the approach of divine judgment.
Zechariah urged the Jews to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem.
Joel called people to repent.
Obadiah foretold of the destruction of the Edomites.
Micah predicted the fall of Samaria and the destruction of Judah.
Nahum predicted the fall of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire.
Habakkuk warned of the coming Babylonian invasion.
Haggai encouraged exiles to return to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem.
Malachi warned people to turn back to Yahweh.
The third part of the Hebrew Bible is called Ketuvim (Writings), and it includes a variety of books:
Psalms, making up the largest section of Ketuvim, are songs or poems of praise, thanksgiving, pleading, and lamentation. This book compiles 150 psalms of varying length.
Proverbs contains sayings attributed to Solomon and others.
Job tells the story of a man who Yahweh allows Satan to tempt. Job undergoes tremendous suffering, has his strong faith eventually shaken, and is then restored. None of Job’s questions about why Yahweh allows evil are answered.
Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon) is an erotic love poem sometimes attributed as a symbolic representation of Yahweh’s love for his chosen people.
Ruth tells the story of a widow devoted to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi advises Ruth about successfully remarrying, and Ruth eventually becomes the grandmother of King David.
Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, agonizes about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem.
Ecclesiastes is a book of teachings and sometimes-cynical observations, attributed to Solomon in his later years.
Esther shows how a committed woman can save an entire nation from extermination. It is the one book of the Bible that never mentions Yahweh.
Daniel is a collection of stories and end-time prophesies from the Hebrew prophet in exile. Daniel’s faith saves him from the devouring lions and his diligence makes him an indispensable aid to a wildly erratic foreign king.
Ezra is the autobiography and teachings of a prophet and religious reformer.
Nehemiah recounts the work of Nehemiah, a Hebrew leader during the fifth century BC.
I and II Chronicles are books of history revolving mostly around the reign of King David.
Bereshit (Book of Genesis)
IN THE beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said: “Let there be light.” And there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
And God said: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
And God said: “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas; and God saw that it was good.
And God said: “Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.” And it was so.
And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
And God said: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
And God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
And God said: “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.” And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creepeth, wherewith the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”
And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
And God said: “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind.” And it was so.
And God made the beast of the earth after its kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
And God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them; and God said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, I have given every green herb for food.” And it was so.
And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it he rested from all his work which God in creating had made...
Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD your God commanded to teach you, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it,
that thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged.
Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath promised unto thee – a land flowing with milk and honey.
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart;
and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes.
And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates.
And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land which He swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee – great and goodly cities, which thou didst not build, and houses full of all good things, which thou didst not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which thou didst not hew, vineyards and olive-trees, which thou didst not plant, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied – then beware lest thou forget the LORD, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; and Him shalt thou serve, and by His name shalt thou swear.
Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the peoples that are round about you;
for a jealous God, even the LORD thy God, is in the midst of thee; lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and He destroy thee from off the face of the earth.
Ye shall not try the LORD your God, as ye tried Him in Massah.
Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and His testimonies, and His statutes, which He hath commanded thee.
And thou shalt do that which is right and good in the sight of the LORD; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest go in and possess the good land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers,
to thrust out all thine enemies from before thee, as the LORD hath spoken.
When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: “What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the LORD our God hath commanded you? “
then thou shalt say unto thy son: “We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our eyes.
And He brought us out from thence, that He might bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.
And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day.
And it shall be righteousness unto us, if we observe to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He hath commanded us.”
Yahweh was not created. Yahweh transcends time and history.
Life begins with the one identified in Hebrew as Elohim. A plural noun, Elohim is understood to have a singular referent, the one true and sovereign God. This is seen clearly in the fact that the verb “created” is singular in Hebrew: one God and only one God created everything, both spiritual and material. The Hebrew monotheistic view diverged starkly from the ancient world in which polytheism was the norm.
After establishing that he is Elohim, God revealed his name to Moses as Yahweh, which is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” It is made up of four Hebrew letters (YHWH) and is unpronounceable. Some scholars translate the name as Yahweh, although no ancient Jew would use that word. The word was so sacred that early scribes had to cleanse themselves ritually before writing an indication of it.
The Hebrew Bible uses some names for Yahweh that could be pronounced, such as Adoni, which means my Lord, and El Shaddai. Jewish mystics called God Hamakom, the place of the endless one.
Judaism teaches that Yahweh is the source of everything, including all goodness and all evil but has given people free will. Yahweh offers the choice of life and goodness over death and sin, but he does not compel one to choose. Yahweh revealed the Torah, a code of law and spiritually enlightening stories, which people should follow to show love and obedience to Yahweh.
Judaism believes that Yahweh chose the Jewish people as vessels of his covenant and as witnesses of his love. Being chosen as part of his covenant does not make the Jewish people better than other peoples. The covenant relationship with Yahweh makes Jews only a carrier of God’s words and will.
Judaism has a long tradition of arguing with Yahweh. In the Hebrew Bible, For example, Abraham contends with Yahweh to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. To question Yahweh is not a sin; such questioning is encouraged as a way of coming to understand the sacred texts and the ways of Yahweh in the world.
Yahweh demands justice in this world. In daily lives and businesses, he commands honesty and integrity. God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible is a cornerstone of Western morality and jurisprudence.
Jews believe that Yahweh is the creator of the world and, because of this, he owns everything. He will one day send a messiah to redeem the world from evil and usher in an age of peace and tranquility and then resurrect the dead, bringing them back to life. Because he is the God of all people, he grants the blessings of heaven to the righteous of all peoples.
BRANCHES OF JUDAISM
Modern Judaism is divided into four movements: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
Orthodox Jews are the most traditionally observant Jews and follow the conduct codes of the Hebrew Bible. Men always wear a head covering when going out, and women dress modestly. Men and women are separated during prayer services. All Orthodox Jews keep kosher (follow strict dietary laws) all the time, both at home and out of the home. No women can be rabbis or cantors. Orthodox Jews do not allow their children to marry unconverted non-Jews.
Orthodox Judaism has two main divisions:
Hasidic Judaism. Hasidic Jews do not generally send their children to any secular schools or universities. In social settings, men and women sit and dance separately. Hasidic Jews follow the teaching of a rebbe, a mystical wonder-working rabbi who is descended from a line of other Hasidic rebbes.
Modern Orthodox Judaism. Unlike the Hasidic rebbe, a Modern Orthodox rabbi need not be the heir to a rabbinic dynasty. Men and women are separated in prayer but not always in social settings. Many Modern Orthodox Jews send their children to secular universities after they have received teaching in Jewish parochial schools.
Conservative Jews follow a less strict interpretation of Jewish law than Orthodox Jews do. All Conservative Jewish men wear head coverings in prayer, and many wear them all the time. Men and women are not separated in prayer. Most Conservative Jews keep kosher at home, but some eat in non-kosher restaurants. Conservative Judaism opposes inter-marriage to non-Jews. Conservative Jews sometimes send their children to parochial schools. Women can become Conservative rabbis and cantors.
The Reform movement in Judaism represents a more liberal interpretation of Jewish law than Conservative Judaism. Some reform Jews and rabbis wear head coverings in prayer, but very few wear them all the time. Very few Reform Jews keep kosher at home or outside the home. Reform Jews rarely send their children to Jewish parochial schools. Women can be rabbis and cantors in the Reform Movement.
Reconstructionist Jews are theologically similar to Reform Jews, but they practice Jewish traditional historical customs like keeping kosher. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and he focused more on the Jewish traditions than on Yahweh as the commander of and revealer of Jewish law.
JUDAISM IN THE MARKETPLACE
Jewish ethics can be summed up in the Ten Commandments and in the philosophy of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The latter sounds harsh in a modern context, but it was an enormous advance on the take-no-prisoners ethics of the societies that surrounded the Jewish people in the days of Moses. The non-Jewish principle of the time was a life for an eye; if murderous retribution was not directly possible, a family member would be killed. This principle was the whole basis of feuding.
The Jewish Golden Rule is contained in Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In the Hebrew Bible, Job serves as a prime example of patience as a virtue. Job was an innocent man who refused to curse Yahweh despite his sufferings. Rabbinic teachings about patience are reflected by a famous passage from Avot 2:16 of the Talmud: “You are not required to finish the work, but you are also not free to refrain from doing the work.”
Proverbs 22 states, “A good name is to be more desired than great riches.” The same chapter gives one aspect of a good name: “Work hard and stick to it, do not let laziness or sleep rob you of success.” Proverbs 12:11 reiterates, “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.” Proverbs 12:27 emphasizes, “A slothful man does not roast his prey, but the precious possession of a man is diligence.”
According to Jewish law, deceptions makes one guilty of violating the commandment against stealing, because deception involves stealing knowledge.
The Hebrew Bible insists that one maintains honest weights and measures in business. The rabbinic tradition continues the demand for honesty. According to the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, when a person appears before the throne of judgment, the first question asked is not, “Have you believed in God?” or, “Have you prayed or performed your ritual acts?” but rather, “Have you dealt honorably, faithfully in all your dealings with your fellowmen?”
Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin, better known as Rav Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the nineteenth century Mussar movement in Eastern Europe, taught that just as one checks carefully to make sure food is kosher, so too should one check to see if money is earned in a kosher fashion.
While the teaching about honesty in business dealings leaves little room for misconduct in the marketplace, not all Jews adhere to their faith equally. Moreover, religious law does not cover everything, and some Jews have found a number of loopholes. Practitioners of Judaism who are dishonest in business dealings can offer justification (at least to their own consciences) as to why they did not keep to the spirit of Jewish law.