Back to Home Page or Contents Page or Religions and Sects or Index


Judaism, the name emerged around the period of the opening of the Christian era (2 Maccabees 2: 21, 8: 1, 14: 38; Galatians 1: 13). Judaism, like other aggregating names of major religions, is ambiguous by implying that there is a uniformity of belief and practice among all Jewish people, which certainly is not true. However, the name draws attention to a shared genealogy; identified as having a Jewish mother; having a heritage extending back to "our fathers" Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and a sense of having been a chosen people to received God's guidance in the Torah. This latter condition of having been a people chosen of God has been questioned in the 20th century. Currently a more prominent distinction is made between the "secular" or "cultural" Judaism, which denote those who accept the history and values of Judaism, but who do not observe the details of the Torah, and "religious" Judaism, which implies the acceptance of the Torah. Even among those accepting the Torah there are major differences such as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Progressive, Reconstructionist, and Liberal Judaism. Attempts at finding a middle-ground between these divisions have not been too successful, but it is generally recognized that Judaism is inseparable from the idea of a people that descended from Israel; that adherence to another form of religion such as Christianity or Islam is incompatible with any form of Judaism; and those known as "Jewish Christians" having accepted Jesus, the Christ, as the messiah, and are definitely not accepted as Jews by Jews at all.

Historically, the origin of the Jewish people and of Judaism cannot be traced with any certainty. The major sources of information are contained in works that are believed to have come from the initiative and inspiration of God, and which became scripture such as the Torah, Nebi'im (Prophets), and Kethubim (Writings), hence the abbreviated name Tanach; this threefold division goes back to about the second century BC. It seems apparent from these works that a kinship group, the bene Jacob (descendants of Jacob) gradually ceased being nomadic and settled in areas of Canaan. Various parts of this group developed different histories, notably a dramatic part was the enslavement in Egypt and an escapement now commemorated by the Passover, and another was the covenant made with the god Yhwh (Yahweh) at Sinai. Gradually the tribes began settling, as such the formally united in defense, and later for conquest of territory, which led to a covenant not just among themselves, but also under the demand and protection of Yhwh. (The origin and original pronouncement of Yhwh is unknown, traditionally it is translated Yahweh, but Orthodox Jews will never pronounce it. It might be noted that from this sentiment, or fear, that the name of God should never be spoken, the term Yhwh, throughout the centuries, has become to be considered one of the most, if not the most, powerful magical words.) Originally Yhwh was a god in the council of the Canaanite supreme god El; but scripture reveals that Yhwh assumed the powers and attributes of El, thus becoming "that which God is": this extraordinary transformation is, more than anything else, the origin of Judaism.

This origin of Judaism is told in a more coherent version in the Old Testament of the Bible, starting with God's creative actions in Genesis; afterwards followed the succession of "covenants" which God made with particular people, or their ancestors, culminating, but not ending, with Moses. Within the covenants was the demand that Israel was to be as holy as God, and the people were to obey the command, Shema "…Hear, O Israel…" When the people kept the commands (especially according to Deuteronomy) all went well for them, but, if they did not, things went bad for them. Thus Israel became a prophetic community, established by God in the midst of time, to represent that harmony which God intended in creation, and which will in the end be the entire human case, "when the knowledge of God shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea." (Habakkuk 2, 14) Under David, Jerusalem was captured, and there the Lord's anointed (haMashiach = the Messiah) mediated between God and the people; there too the Temple was built where worship sacrifices surrounded the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary where only the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement (Yon Kippur). Yet ritual and kingly control were never self-sufficient: they were monitored by prophets who spoke directly from God, koh amar Adonai, "Thus says the Lord…" In this way the triple cord of Israel's religion, prophet, priest, and king, was woven together.

Even after experiencing traumatic events such as the exile in Babylon after suffering defeat, but the people's faith continued and deepened so much that in the time of Jesus Judaism became a successful missionary religion, winning many converts to monotheism. Although, even before and during the time, there circulated many confusing and contradictory interpretations as to the practice of Judaism, namely, what Jews must do to keep the covenant. Such interpretations were being espoused by the Sadduccees, Pharisees, and others. However, there was a consensus that the final control and outcome of history was in the hand of God, and that God would send a messiah to restore the independent kingdom of the Jews, or the heaven. Such a belief led to increasing restlessness under Roman occupation culminating in two revolts (66-70 and 132-135 AD), which caused the Jews to become a people without possession of their land or holy places.

The rebuilding and continuity of Judaism was left to rabbis beginning with Jabneh. They contined the practice of a religion which no longer possessed a Temple; changes included the transformation of the sabbath table into the alter; sacrifices became acts of charity; and locally the synagogue became the center of liturgy and education. In this period of Rabbinic Judaism there was a gathering together of various interpretations of the original written Torah, which thus came to form a "second" Torah, Torah she be'al per (oral Torah); this produced the halakhah, that by which Jews can walk in knowledge that this is the received application of Torah to life. This voluminous interpretation was gathered first in Mishnah and then in Talmuds, and eventually it was organized in Codes (codifications of Law), notablythe Codes of Maimonides and Joseph Caaro's Shulhan Arukh. Simultaneously, Judaism was graphically expressed and sustained through its stories, Aggadah, and its biblical exegesis midrash. However, by then, the Jews were dispersed all over the world (diaspora): the two major communities (between whom many differences especially customs persist) were the Sephardim (from Spain after the expulsion in 1492, and in the Mediterranean) and the Ashkenazim (originally in Europe but after many pogroms (attacks), culminating in the Holocaust, now scattered again, but numerous in the United States of America). Both communities and traditions are present in Israel.

To the outsider Judaism may appear to be occupied by law, but, in fact, it is not very legalistic. Throughout the centuries to the present unceasing work has been undertaken to define the meaning of the Torah and Talmud. Those Jews which keep the law, do so not to win the favor of God but because he asked them to do so: the Torah is a language of love, a way of saying "Yes" to God (throughout almost the entire biblical period there was no belief in a continuation of life with God after death, meaning there was no thought of reward for the faithful in an afterlife). Consequently the history of Judaism has thrown up two main explorations of this love for God which depend on the Torah, but are not preoccupied with the keeping of the law as the only Jewish obligation: the first is the Kabbalah, and the second is the Hasidism. Jewish philosophers made important connections between the inherited faith and seeking wisdom and truth. A.G.H.


Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 512-514