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For a discussion of Jews as an ethnicity or ethnic group see the article on Jew.

The [[Star of DavidEnlarge

The [[Star of David

, a common symbol of Jews and Judaism]] Judaism is the religion and culture of the Jewish people and the first recorded monotheistic faith. The tenets and history of Judaism constitute the historical foundation of many other religions, including Christianity and Islam.


Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Jewish denominations
3 The traditional Jewish bookshelf
4 Principles of faith
5 What makes a person Jewish?
6 Jewish philosophy
7 The Torah and Jewish law
8 Daily prayer
9 Shabbat and holidays
10 Dietary laws: Kashrut
11 Life-cycle events
12 Clergy
13 Miscellaneous topics
14 History of denominations
15 Christianity and Judaism
16 Islam and Judaism
17 See also
18 References
19 External links


Judaism does not easily fit into common Western categories, such as religion, race, ethnicity, or culture. This is because Jews understand Judaism in terms of its 4,000 year history. During this stretch of time, Jews have experienced slavery, anarchic self-government, theocratic self-government, conquest, occupation, and exile; they have been in contact, and have been influenced by ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenic cultures, as well as modern movements such as the Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism. Thus, Daniel Boyarin has argued that "Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension."

The seven-branched [[Menorah
is an ancient symbol of Judaism.]] Two things distinguish Judaism from the other religions that existed when it first developed. First, it was monotheistic. The significance of this belief is not so much the denial of other gods. Although this element is fundamental to Rabbinic Judaism, according to most critical Bible scholars the Torah often implies that the early Israelites accepted the existence of other gods. Rather, the significance lies in that Judaism holds that God created and cares about people. In polythestic religions, humankind is often created by accident, and the gods are primarily concerned with their relations with other gods, not with people. Second, the Torah specifies a number of laws to be followed by the Children of Israel. Other religions at the time were characterized by temples in which priests would worship their gods through sacrifice. The Children of Israel similarly had a temple, priests, and made sacrifices -- but these were not the sole means of worshipping God. In comparison to other religions, Judaism elevates everyday life to the level of a temple, and worships God through everyday actions.

By the Hellenic period, most Jews had come to believe that their God is the only God (and thus, the God of everyone), and that the record of His revelation (the Torah) contains within it universal truths. This attitude may reflect growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a God that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which sought to establish universal truths. Jews began to grapple with the tension between the particularism of their claim that only Jews were required to obey the Torah, and the universalism of their claim that the Torah contained universal truths. The result is a set of beliefs and practices concerning both identity, ethics, one's relation to nature, and one's relation to God, that privilege "difference" -- the difference between Jews and non-Jews; the differences between locally variable ways of practicing Judaism; a close attention to different meanings of words when interpreting texts; attempts to encode different points of view within texts, and a relative indifference to creed and dogma.

The subject of the Hebrew Bible (similar to the Christian Old Testament) is an account of the Israelites' (also called Hebrews) relationship with God as reflected in their history from the beginning of time until the building of the Second Temple (approx. 350 BCE). This relationship is generally portrayed as contentious, as Jews struggle between their faith in God and their attraction for other gods, and as some Jews (most notably, Abraham, Jacob -- later known as Israel—and Moses) struggle with God. Modern scholars also suggest that the Torah consists of a variety of inconsistent texts that were edited together in a way that calls attention to divergent accounts (see Documentary hypothesis).

While Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish Principles of Faith, it has never developed a fully binding catechism. It is difficult to generalize about Jewish theology because Judaism is non-creedal; that is, there is no agreed-upon dogma (set of orthodox beliefs) that most Jews believed were required of Jews. While individual Jewish rabbis, or sometimes entire groups, at times agreed upon a firm dogma, other rabbis and groups disagreed. With no central agreed-upon authority, no one formulation of Jewish principles of faith could take precedent over any other.

The ancient historian Josephus emphasizes practices and traditions rather than beliefs when he describes the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherance to traditional customs). Despite the above, in Orthodox Judaism some principles (e.g. the Divine origin of the Torah) are considered important enough that public rebellion against them can put one in the category of "apikoros" (heretic).

Jewish denominations

In the last two centuries the Jewish community has divided into a number of Jewish denominations; each has a greatly different understanding of what principles of belief a Jew should hold, and how one should live as a Jew. Most of Orthodox Judaism holds to one particular form of Jewish theology, based on Maimonides' 13 principles of Jewish faith. Orthodox Jews hold that these principles are unchanging and mandatory; non-Orthodox forms of Judaism hold that these principles have evolved over time, and thus allow for more leeway in what individual adherents believe.

Diaspora Judaism

Diaspora Judaism in modern times is commonly divided into the following denominations:

Many religious Jews do not look at one's denomination as a valid way of designating Jews; instead, they label Jews on a graduated spectrum of religious observance. According to most Orthodox Jews, Jewish people who do not keep the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov (the holidays), Kashrut, and family purity (taharat ha-mishpacha), to at least a mimimal level, would be classed as non-religious or frei (free of the yoke of the Torah). Any Jew who keeps at least those laws would be considered frum (observant and religious), but their level of frumkeit (religiosity) would depend on how careful they are about the details and on how many stringencies they take it upon themselves to keep.

Jewish identity in modern Israel

Even though all of the Diaspora denominations exist in Israel, Israelis tend to classify Jewish identity in ways that are strikingly different than diaspora Jewry. Most Jewish Israelis classify themselves as "secular" (hiloni) or as "traditional" (masorti). "Secular" is more popular among Israeli families of western (European) origin, whose Jewish identity may be a very powerful force in their lives, but who see it as largely independant of traditional religious belief and practice. This portion of the population largely ignores organized religious life, be it of the official Israeli rabbinate (Orthodox) or of the liberal movements common to diaspora Judaism (Reform, Conservative).

The term "traditional" (masorti) is most common among Israeli families of "eastern" origin (i.e. Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa). This term, as commonly used, has nothing to do with the official "Masorti" (Conservative) movement in the State of Israel. There is a great deal of ambiguity in the ways "secular" and "traditional" are used in Israel. They often overlap, and they cover an extremely wide range in terms of ideology and religious observance.

The term "Orthodox" (Ortodoxi) is unpopular in Israeli discourse (among both "secular" and "religious" alike). Nevertheless, the spectrum covered by "Orthodox" in the diaspora exists in Israel, again with some important variations. The "Orthodox" spectrum in Israel is a far greater percentage of the Jewish population in Israel than in the diaspora, though how much greater is hotly debated. Various ways of measuring this percentage, each with its pros and cons, include the proportion of religiously observant Knesset members, the proportion of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools, and statistical studies on "identity".

What would be called "Orthodox" in the diaspora includes what is commonly called dati (religious) or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel. The former term includes what is called "Religious Zionism" or the "National Religious" community, as well as what has become known over the past decade or so as haredi-leumi (nationalist ultra-Orthodox), which combines a largely haredi lifestyle with nationist ideology.

Haredi applies to a populace that can be roughly divided into three separate groups along both ethnic and ideological lines: (1) "Lithuanian" (non-hasidic) haredim of Ashkenazic origin; (2) Hasidic haredim of Ashkenazic origin; and (3) Sephardic haredim. The third group is the largest, and has been the most politically active since the early 1990s.


Unlike the above denominations, which were ideological reactions that resulted from the exposure of traditional rabbinic Judaism to the radical changes of modern times, Karaite Judaism did not begin as a modern Jewish movement. The followers of Karaism believe they are the remnants of the non-Rabbinic Jewish sects of the Second Temple period, such as the Saducees, though others contend they are a sect started in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Karaites, or "Scripturalists," accept only the Hebrew bible according to what they view as the Peshat/"Plain or Simple Meaning", and do not accept non-biblical writings as authorative. Some European Karaites do not see themselves as part of the Jewish community, while most do.

The main article Jewish views of religious pluralism describes how Judaism views other religions; it also describes how members of each of the Jewish religious denomination view the other denominations.

The traditional Jewish bookshelf

Jews are often referred to as the "people of the book", and Judaism has a longstanding intellectual tradition that focuses on text-based Torah study. While this list is not exhaustive, it sums up the most important works of influence to Jewish practice and thought.

Related Topics

Principles of faith

Main article:
Jewish principles of faith

A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, yet they differ in certain details. A comparison of several such formulations demonstrates a wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives. Below is a summary of Jewish beliefs. A more detailed discussion of these beliefs, along with a discussion of how they developed, is found in the article on Jewish principles of faith.

What makes a person Jewish?

According to Jewish law, someone is considered to be a Jew if he or she was born of a Jewish mother or converted in accord with Jewish Law. (Recently, the American
Reform and Reconstructionist movements have included those born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers, if the children are raised practising Judaism only.)

A Jew who ceases to practice Judaism is still considered a Jew, as is a Jew who does not accept Jewish principles of faith and becomes an agnostic or an atheist; so to with a Jew who converts to another religion. However, in the latter case, the person loses standing as a member of the Jewish community and becomes known as an apostate. In the past, family and friends would often formally mourn for the person, though this is rarely done today.

The question of what determines Jewish identity was given new impetus when, in the 1950s, David ben Gurion requested opinions on mihu Yehudi ("who is a Jew") from Jewish religious authorities and intellectuals worldwide. The question is far from settled and occasionally resurfaces in Israeli politics.

Jewish philosophy

Main article: Jewish philosophy

Jewish philosophy refers to the conjunction between serious study of philosophy and Jewish theology. Early Jewish philosophy was influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and Islamic philosophy. Major Jewish philosophers include Solomon ibn Gabirol, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Gersonides. Major changes occurred in response to the enlightenment (late 1700s to early 1800s) leading to the post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers, and then the modern Jewish philosophers.

The Torah and Jewish law

Main article: Halakha

The basis of Jewish law and tradition ("halakha") is the Torah (the five books of Moses). According to rabbinic tradition there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the tribe of Levi), some only to those who practice farming within the land of Israel, and many laws were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed. Less than 300 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 believed in what they call the oral law. These oral traditions originated in the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were latter recorded in written form and expanded upon by the Rabbis.

Rabbinic Judaism has always held that the books of the Tanakh (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. They 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, i.e. oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as "the oral law". Some of the methods by which it is derived can be found in halakhic Midrash. However, by the time of Rabbi 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 Mishnah from each of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the two Talmuds. These have been expounded by commentaries of various Torah scholars during the ages.

Halakha, the rabbinic Jewish way of life, then, is based on a combined reading of the Torah, and the oral tradition - the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. The Halakha has developed slowly, through a precedent-based system. The literature of questions to rabbis, and their considered answers, is referred to as responsa (in Hebrew, '"Sheelot U-Teshuvot".) Over time, as practices develop, codes of Jewish law are written that are based on the responsa; the most important code, the Shulkhan Arukh, largely determines Jewish religious practice up till today.

Daily prayer

Religious Jews pray (daven) three times a day. The morning prayer is called Shacharis (or Shacharit), the afternoon prayer is called Mincha, and the night prayer is called Maariv.

The main component of each set of prayers is Shemonah Esrei, which, on weekdays, consists of nineteen blessings said quietly while standing at attention. On the Sabbath and Holidays, various other blessings are added to and deleted from the central part of the prayer.

During Shacharis and Maariv, Shemonah Esrei is preceded by the reading of Shema, and the blessings surrounding it.

The prayer Ashrei, is said twice during Shacharis and once during Mincha.

In addition, various versions of Kaddish are said. The whole Kaddish is said following Shemonah Esrei, and the "Orphaned" Kaddish is said by mourners as is the "Rabbi's" Kaddish. Half Kaddish is also said a number of times.

During Shacharis and Mincha after the congregation has said Shemonah Esrei quietly, the one leading the prayers (the Chazzan) repeats Shemonah Esrei aloud also reciting the Kedusha prayer.

Most of the prayers can be said in solitary prayer, but Kaddish and Kedusha require a minyan.

Shabbat and holidays

Main articles: Shabbat and Jewish holidays

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest; it plays an important role in Jewish practice and is the subject of a large body of religious law. Likewise, the annual cycle of Jewish holidays plays an important role in communal life.

Dietary laws: Kashrut

The laws of kashrut ("keeping kosher") are the Jewish dietary laws. Food in accord with Jewish law is termed kosher, and food not in accord with Jewish law is termed treifah or treif. From the context of the laws in the book of Leviticus, the purpose of kashrut is related to ritual purity and holiness. See the article on kashrut for more details.

Life-cycle events

Life-cycle events occur throughout a Jew's life that bind him/her to the entire community.


It should be noted that the following positions are not mutually exclusive. The same person is often qualified to fill more than one of the following positions, and often does.

Miscellaneous topics

History of denominations

See also:
Timeline of Jewish history

While the history of the Jews is a subject onto itself, this article will deal with the historical development of the branches of Judaism.

Historical Jewish sects (-1700)

Rabbinic Judaism at one time was related to Samaritanism; however Samaritans no longer refer to themselves as Jews, and both groups view themselves as separate religions.

Around the first century A.D there were several large sects of Jewish leadership, generally each differently seeking a messianic salvation as national autonomy from the Roman Empire: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and Christians. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., these sects vanished. Christianity survived, but by breaking with Judaism and becoming a separate religion; the Pharisees survived but in the form of Rabbinic Judaism (today, known simply as "Judaism").

Some Jews in the 8th and 9th centuries adopted the Sadducees' rejection of the oral law of the Pharisees / Rabbis recorded in the Mishnah (and developed by later Rabbis in the two Talmuds), intending to rely only upon the Tanakh. They soon developed oral traditions of their own which differed from the Rabbinic traditions, and eventually formed the Karaite sect, which exists in small numbers to this day. Rabbinic and Karaite Jews each hold that the others are Jews, but that their faiths are erroneous.

Over time Jews developed into distinct ethnic groups: the Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern Europe and Russia); the Sephardi Jews (of Spain, Portugal and North Africa) and the Yemenite Jews, from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. This split is cultural, and is not based on any doctrinal dispute.


Main article: Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (or Besht). His disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life for many Jews in Europe; it came to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

Early on, there was a serious schism between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as mitnagdim, (lit. "opponents"). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism were the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and alleged miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed into mainstream Orthodox Judaism, particulary Haredi Judaism.

The Enlightenment

Main article: Jewish denominations

In the late 18th century Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements known as the Enlightenment. Judaism developed into several distinct denominations in response to this unprecedented phenomenon: Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism, many forms of Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and a number of smaller groups as well.

The Holocaust

While the Holocaust did not immediately affect Jewish denominations, it led to a great loss of life caused a radical demographic shift towards other countries, ultimately affected the makeup of organised Judaism the way it is today.

The present situation

In most western nations, such as the USA, United Kingdom, Israel and South Africa, many secularized Jews have long since stopped participating in religious duties. Many of them 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 religious duties. On the one hand they tend to cling to their traditions for purposes of identity; on the other hand the influences of western mentality, daily life and peer-pressure tear them away from Judaism. Recent studies of American Jews indicate that many people who identify as being of Jewish heritage no longer identify as members of the religion known as Judaism.

Religious (and secular) Jewish movements 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 is 2.1). (This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate relations, p.27, 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. There is a separate article on the Baal teshuva movement, the movement of Jews returning to observant Judaism. However, this gain has not offset the demographic loss due to intermarriage and acculturation.

Christianity and Judaism

There are a number of articles on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. These articles include: Since the Holocaust, there has been much to note in the way of reconciliation between some Christians groups and the Jewish people; the article on Christian-Jewish reconciliation studies this issue.

Jews for Jesus is an evangelical Christian religious movement, self-identified as Jewish, that believes that Jesus is God, and the messiah. Some other Messianic Jews, though without any official organization, accept Jochanan ben Zakkari (John the Baptist) and Jesus as reformistic rabbis between the times of Hillel and Gamaliel, struck from the lists by traditionalists; not all of these groups conform to traditional Christian beliefs concerning God. Most, but not all, identify themselves as Christian churches. Even though many Messianic Jews are ethnically Jewish, they are naturally not considered part of the Jewish community by mainstream Judaic and other Jewish religious groups. As a result they tend to keep their beliefs quiet and interact as common Jews in whichever communities they belong to.

Some Jews have joined other faiths, such as Judeo-Paganism and neo-paganism. Some adherents to those movements identify themselves as Jews nonetheless.

Islam and Judaism

See also Islam and Judaism and Judeo-Islamic tradition

Judaism has been practiced under Islamic rule for almost 1500 years and flourished in Medieval Spain. This has led to an interplay between the religions which has been positive as well as negative at times. The animosity of Muslim leaders towards the state of Israel has led to a renewed interest in the relationship between Judaism and Islam.

Other relevant material:

See also


External links