The monotheistic faith of the Jews. The word itself (Yahadut) does not appear in the Bible. It is first found in II Maccabees and in Esther Rabbah (7:11). It appears to have been coined by Hellenized Jews (using the Greek word Judaismos) and denotes both a religious and a national concept. The question of whether the Jews constitute a religion, a nation, or both, has been discussed for centuries, especially since the EMANCIPATION (see JEW). In English, it is possible to differentiate between “Judaism” and “Jewishness,” the former including what are termed the “religious” elements. In fact, “Judaism” is an all-embracing concept incorporating not only the ritual aspects, and has been described as an entire “way of life,” or “civilization.” Judaism sanctifies all aspects of life, even including what is today called “secular.” It is concerned with every detail of life.
Judaism traces its origins to ABRAHAM, according to Jewish tradition the first individual to have arrived independently at the idea of MONOTHEISM: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment” (Gen. 18:19). From Abraham, the history of the Jewish people can be traced through the PATRIARCHS to the exile in Egypt, the subsequent EXODUS and the giving of the TORAH and fulfillment of the COVENANT, the conquest of CANAAN, the Judges, the monarchy and the later division into two kingdoms, the Babyloniam EXILE and the return under EZRA and NEHEMIAH, the HASMONEANS, the subsequent loss of independence and destruction of the TEMPLE by the Romans, the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world for centuries (see GALUT), the record of persecution and pogroms culminating in the HOLOCAUST, the creation of flourishing communities in the West, and the reestablishment of a Jewish state.
In the 3,800 years since the birth of Abraham, two events shaped Jewish history and the Jewish people beyond all the rest: the Exodus from Egypt, in which the people gained their physical freedom and became a nation; and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, where, according to tradition, the laws which guide the Jewish people were received.
Judaism was the first purely monotheistic religion, where belief in the one GOD replaced the pantheon of gods believed in by the peoples of the ancient world, up to and including the Greeks and the Romans. Judaism is also the “mother” of two other world religions, CHRISTIANITY and ISLAM.
Judaism regards itself as a universal religion, in that it sees its legislation as applicable to all mankind. It differentiates, however, between Jews and non-Jews, with traditional Judaism obligating Jews to observe the biblical COMMANDMENTS (eventually determined by the rabbis to number 613), whereas non-Jews are required to observe only the seven “NOACHIDE LAWS” ordained after the FLOOD. These seven laws require belief in the One God, forbid blasphemy, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and the eating of the limb of a living creature, and mandate the establishment of courts of law. A non-Jew who observes all of these laws is considered to be righteous, just like the Jew who observes all the laws incumbent upon him.
Judaism's fundamental orientation is practical and this-worldly. There is no officially recognized body of dogma (although certain beliefs are clearly essential). The Jewish Weltanschauung is discerned in Jewish law rather than in a systematic THEOLOGY. Concern with REWARD AND PUNISHMENT in an AFTERLIFE is a relatively late development in Jewish literature. ASCETICISM and preoccupation with the afterlife are discouraged. REDEMPTION is earned through right conduct rather than FAITH, and man is believed to have an active role in the perfection of this world.
The practice of Judaism has never been confined to born members of the Jewish people. Although attitudes toward CONVERSION have varied in different periods and localities, it was always possible for non-Jews to be accepted into Judaism, and according to tradition some of Judaism's greatest individuals have been converts or descendants of converts. King DAVID, progenitor of the ultimate MESSIAH, was a descendant of Ruth the Moabite. Since religion and people-hood are inseparable in Judaism, acceptance of the precepts always entailed becoming a member of the Jewish people.
Since Judaism sees itself as universal, the TEMPLE that was built by SOLOMON in JERUSALEM was naturally open to SACRIFICES by members of all nations, as seen in Solomon's remarks at its dedication: “Concerning a stranger, that is not of your people Israel… when he shall come and pray toward this house… hear You in heaven Your dwelling place” (I Kings 8:41–43).
Within the overall scheme of things, Israel has a defined role to play, as a “light unto the nations” (Isa. 49:6). It is in this sense that the Jews regarded themselves as the CHOSEN PEOPLE, i.e., chosen for their mission. Some see Israel as having been instrumental in fulfilling this role to a certain extent in that its two “daughter religions,” Christianity and Islam, have spread the idea of the One God to all corners of the globe. Ultimately, as the prophets see the millennium, all the world will come to appreciate Israel and its God, so that “in the last days, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it” (Isa. 2:2) (see ESCHATOLOGY). The Bible is based on a discernible but not systematized theology (systematization came only in the Middle Ages). Similarly, its distinctive ETHICS is laid down primarily as case examples. The Bible is replete with demands to tend to the needs of the stranger, the WIDOW AND ORPHAN, all of whom, because of their condition, are naturally at a disadvantage. Biblical legislation also makes numerous provisions for the poor (see POVERTY), including leaving the gleanings and the corner of each field to them. The institution of the JUBILEE year, in which all land is returned to its original owner every 50 years, was also a means to insure that no family would be reduced to perpetual poverty.
Jewish doctrine stresses that “all Jews are responsible for one another,” and this led to the development of a strong sense of COMMUNITY. No single Jew has the right to look nonchalantly on at the suffering of his fellow, but must make every attempt to alleviate the situation. Hebrew has no word for CHARITY as such. The word that is used, tsedakah, is derived from a root meaning JUSTICE, implying that it is only just and proper for those who have to share with those less fortunate. The mutual responsibility of Jews for one another also extends to cases of violation of the law: a Jew who sees another violating the law is required to rebuke the wrongdoer.
Judaism lays great stress on elevating the profane to a state of HOLINESS. Thus, much of what would otherwise be considered mundane involves ritual elements meant to sanctify. Eating, for example, requires BENEDICTIONS both before and after the consumption of food, making, as the sages put it, “the table equivalent to the altar.” Judaism has numerous laws which regulate the minutiae of daily life, the object of which is to transform man's actions into the service of God.
Along these same lines, Judaism regards the Torah's myriad restrictions upon the Jew's conduct as serving to elevate him. It sees the unbridled expression of man's appetites as animal-like and the restraints imposed upon him as serving to raise him to a higher level. Thus, the Jew must first consider whether the particular food he wishes to eat has met the requirements of the DIETARY LAWS, TITHES, etc.
At the same time, Judaism does not regard ASCETICISM as a virtue. The Midrash states that when each person accounts for himself after his death, he must also account for those permitted pleasures on earth which he refrained from enjoying.
Jewish law encompasses all aspects of life. A concept such as “rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's” would thus be alien to the Jewish view of the world. Conduct toward one's fellow man is governed by the same Jewish law that requires the observance of the Sabbath and the keeping of the dietary laws. Judaism actually considers a violation of the law against one's fellow man as worse than a violation of ritual law.
Except for the hereditary monarchy and priesthood (see PRIESTS), the former having lapsed and the latter having been reduced to a mere token of its former place in Jewish life with the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism is very much a meritocracy, based on scholarship in Jewish law. The dominant role is played by the RABBI. Originally an honorary title, since the Middle Ages the rabbi's position has been that of the salaried leader of the congregation, who educates the congregants, decides issues of Jewish law, and guides it in matters of morality.
Various attempts have been made at categorizing Jewish law and belief (see CODIFICATION). One of the earliest of these is the talmudic statement that the Pentateuch contains 613 commandments, 248 positive and 365 negative (Mak. 24a). The Talmud then goes on to say that David condensed all the demands made on the Jew into 11 principles, ISAIAH into six, MICAH into three (“to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God,” Mic. 6:8), and AMOS and HABAKKUK into one (“Seek me and live,” Amos 5:4; “The righteous shall live by his faith,” Hab. 2:4). The medieval scholar Moses MAIMONIDES enumerated 13 PRINCIPLES OF FAITH in which the Jew must believe or be considered a heretic, which include the belief in the One God and in the coming of the Messiah.
Rabbinic Judaism, of which modern-day Orthodox Judaism is the direct lineal heir, takes as a fundamental principle that, alongside the Torah which was given at Sinai an ORAL LAW was given to MOSES, to be passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. This Oral Law was eventually transcribed in the MISHNAH and expounded in the TALMUD and in later TALMUDIC COMMENTARIES.
It was this principle of the Oral Law as accompanying the WRITTEN LAW that marked the great divide between Judaism and various sects which broke off from the mainstream, including the SAMARITANS, the SADDUCEES, and later the Karaites. All three of these groups denied the authority of the Oral Law, relying purely on the Written Law, with their own interpretations of it.
Mainstream Judaism, which developed from the PHARISEES, has also had various movements, but until modern times all began with an acceptance of the fundamental belief in the Divine origin of both the written and the oral laws. Thus, in the Middle Ages, in Europe, and especially later in Safed in Erets Israel, a school of MYSTICISM developed, based on an earlier mystical tradition, which was preoccupied with the study of the Kabbalah; in the 18th century, ḤASIDISM emerged to extend the concept of the truly righteous man from the learned to the less lettered individual who achieves religious heights through prayer and purity of intention.
With Jewish EMANCIPATION from the late 18th century on, various Jewish movements arose, some along religious lines, others along national or political lines (for it was now possible for Jews to express their Jewish identity without accepting religious beliefs). Among the religious movements that arose, REFORM JUDAISM, which began in Germany in the 18th century, spread to other countries, eventually taking firm root in the United States.
Reform Judaism does not recognize the absolute and literal Divine origin of either the written or the oral law. Rather, it views them both as a composite of Divinely inspired eternal values and ephemeral human elements.
Reform Judaism emphasizes the ethical and moral teachings of the prophets and the rabbis as taking precedence over many ritual practices. Reform liturgy, which is largely in the vernacular, has excluded traditional prayers for the restoration of the sacrificial cult and modified references to resurrection of the dead, a personal Messiah, and the chosenness of Israel. Reform Judaism has instituted full equality of the sexes in religious life. It encourages conversion to Judaism (though it does not “missionize”); and many Reform leaders recognize as Jewish the children of mixed marriages, provided they are raised as Jews and continue to identify with the Jewish people after achieving adulthood.
Whereas Reform Judaism views the totality of Jewish tradition as the heritage of the Jewish people, when applying it to contemporary Jewish life it scrutinizes the tradition in a critical-historical way, measuring particular beliefs and rituals against modern universal values. It rejects any fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible or of any other classical Jewish source.
The Reform movement believes in individual responsibility and autonomy, and as such delegates to each rabbi and community the right to determine which practices it regards as worthwhile and as enhancing Jewish life.
CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM, which began as a movement in America at the beginning of the 20th century, is sometimes known as historical Judaism because its founders and leaders wished to underscore the character of Judaism as a civilization which has developed as a result of historical factors. The philosophy of the movement maintains therefore, firstly, that the halakhah of Judaism is dynamic: it grows, it changes, since life itself, which is dynamic, demands that the halakhah be made relevant. Secondly, Conservative Judaism emphasizes the ethical dimension of Judaism above all other values. Thirdly, its leaders have taught that reason is an important and even central feature of Jewish philosophy, so that there is little or no place for any practice regarded as anti-rational. Conservative Judaism became the largest Jewish religious group in the United States.
The RECONSTRUCTIONIST movement applies naturalism to Judaism, seeing it as an evolving religious civilization and spiritual nationalism, and believes the basis of Judaism to be the life of the group rather than a God-given set of doctrines and practices. The recent and small movement for HUMANISTIC JUDAISM has developed a non-theistic Judaism.
The most prominent example of a Jewish movement along national lines was the Zionist movement (see ZIONISM), which regarded the conversion of the Land of Israel into a Jewish state as the solution to what was then known throughout the world as “the Jewish problem.” Other movements sought other solutions to the “Jewish problem.” Thus, for example, the pre-war BUND in Eastern Europe was a socialist party that maintained that Jews should remain in their countries of residence and be granted autonomy.
The main institutions within Jewish life have developed over the ages. At first, worship consisted of offering sacrifices at various HIGH PLACES. Later, such worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, its place was taken by the SYNAGOGUE (which had emerged as an institution a couple of centuries earlier), which served as the focus for Jewish PRAYER. In addition to the synagogue, the BET MIDRASH (the study hall for Torah studies) has been a staple in Jewish communities throughout the world, where EDUCATION has always played a prime role. Advanced rabbinic studies were carried out in the YESHIVAH, the successor of the ACADEMIES of Erets Israel and Babylonia. In order to fulfill the laws of ritual purity, the ritual bath (the MIKVEH) was considered an essential facility in the traditional Jewish community, its construction taking precedence over that of a synagogue.
Just as certain elements of space (the Temple, Jerusalem, the Land of Israel, the synagogue) were considered as endowed with special holiness, so elements of time were consecrated. First and foremost was the SABBATH, in commemoration of God's day of rest after creating the world. In the annual cycle of the Jewish year, the three PILGRIM FESTIVALS of PASSOVER, SHAVU'OT, and SUKKOT, as well as the penitential season centering around ROSH HA-SHANAH and the DAY OF ATONEMENT were regarded as holy days. In the course of time, further FESTIVALS and FASTS were added to the Jewish CALENDAR.
The commandments prescribed to the Jew had to be observed in every situation, but their main focus was in the synagogue and in the home. The Jewish HOME and FAMILY life have been fundamentally integrated into Jewish practice and have constituted a basic Jewish value.
The basic religious statement in Judaism, known from its first Hebrew word as the SHEMA, is the verse from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (6:4).
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