If someone says they’re Jewish, what comes to mind? Do you think of a religion defined by rules and practices? Do you picture a family straight out of a cultural stereotype?
Being Jewish is unique in that it encompasses both a religion and an ethnic group. The Jews are not simply a race; otherwise, a person could not convert to Judaism and become a Jew. As a result, the Jews comprise numerous ethnicities and cultures.
Today many Jews identify themselves as secular—that is, they don’t actively subscribe to traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices. For them, being Jewish is primarily an expression of their identity, which can parallel other expressions of ethnic, cultural, or national interests.
But setting aside this secular Jewish segment for a moment, what are the defining beliefs and practices of Judaism as a religion?
Traditional Jewish Beliefs
Judaism is the world’s first recorded monotheistic faith. While most ancient peoples busied themselves with the worship of many gods, the Jews claimed that there is only one true God who created everything.1
Jews trace their roots to the patriarch Abraham, as documented in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The Hebrew Bible is virtually the same as the Old Testament included in Christian Bibles. The division, ordering, and numbering of books is slightly different, but the content is identical. Jews refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as the Torah, which means “teaching.”
Another significant Judaic text outside of the Hebrew Bible is the Babylonian Talmud, the collected sayings and wisdom of the rabbis from 200 BCE to 500 CE. The Talmud reflects the ways in which Judaism’s values and laws were applied to the issues of their day.
The Hebrew Bible and Talmud teach three core Jewish beliefs: There is only one God, who is the all-powerful Creator of the world. God demands that human beings, the crown of his creation, live morally and ethically. God graciously chose the nation of Israel to be his “treasured possession.”2
Some people think that the modern state of Israel continues to hold this place today. However, it is not the nation of Israel—understood as a state—that holds this distinction, but the people of Israel—regardless of where they live—who are considered God’s people.
Jews do not focus as much on heaven or the afterlife as Christians and Muslims. They are more concerned with how to live life according to God’s laws today, in this world. According to tradition, the Hebrew Bible contains 613 commandments that Jews are to observe. Living in accord with these commandments—first and foremost of which is worship of the one true God—is the desire and duty of God’s chosen people.
History of the Jews
There have been several major periods in Jewish history. Initially the Jews of the biblical period were called Hebrews. Their story began when God established a covenant with a man named Abraham and his children.3
For a time, the Hebrews settled in the land of Canaan. During a famine some years later, they migrated to Egypt, where they were enslaved. After hundreds of years of slavery, God delivered the Hebrews from bondage in what is called the Exodus.
After forty years in the desert under the leadership of Moses, they resettled in Canaan as twelve tribes and became known as the Israelites. They established a monarchy under Saul, set up their capital in Jerusalem under David, and built a great temple to the Lord under Solomon.
After this, the twelve tribes split into two kingdoms: Israel and Judah. Israel, the larger of the two, was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and exiled the people of Judah.
The second temple era began when some of the people—now known as the Jews— returned to Jerusalem and surrounding areas and rebuilt the temple. They lived as subjects to various foreign kings and empires. Eventually they came under the authority of the Roman Empire. Roman armies went to war with Jewish rebels in 66 CE and destroyed the second temple in 70 CE.
By this time, some Jews had begun to follow Jesus, believing he was the promised Messiah sent by God. He had been crucified forty years earlier, and his followers believed he had been resurrected. This Jewish sect welcomed non-Jews (known as Gentiles) and eventually became known as Christians. However, most Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah.
With the destruction of the first and second temples, the focus of Jewish life and faith began to shift away from Jerusalem toward the community synagogue, the teachings of local rabbis, and the observance of important holidays in the home.
In the centuries that followed, some Jews remained in the Near East while many flourished elsewhere. They created communities of faith in Europe, Africa, Asia, and eventually the United States.
In the 1800s, a movement called Zionism arose among some Jews who proposed creating a true Jewish homeland back in Palestine. The events of the twentieth century, including the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, led many in the international community to support this move.
After a large-scale immigration of Diaspora Jews to Palestine, where many other Jews still lived, conflict erupted with their Arab neighbors.4 When the modern state of Israel declared its independence in 1948, further conflicts and wars ensued. Competing claims to the land continue to be a source of tension in the Middle East.
Today several badges of identity mark “observant” Jews. Adherence to Jewish tradition and Jewish law remains central. Jews worship at local synagogues weekly on the Sabbath (Friday evening and Saturday). Though there is no longer a central temple in Jerusalem and animal sacrifices are no longer practiced, Jews still meet frequently at the synagogue to worship, pray, and learn the Jewish tradition.5
Special celebrations and holidays—such as Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Hanukkah—are significant. Finally, dietary rules and restrictions—often called “keeping kosher”—can play an important role in Jewish life. However, while some Jews follow these dietary restrictions, many do not.
With respect to beliefs and practices, Judaism in the United States has three major branches: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. On one end of the spectrum is Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Jews are more traditional and rigorous when it comes to prayer, dress, dietary restrictions, keeping the Sabbath, and observing the letter of the commandments. On the other end is the Reform movement, which modernizes Jewish beliefs and practices and is considered more theologically liberal. Conservative Judaism stands in the middle—less traditional than Orthodox Judaism but more so than the Reform movement.
In addition, there are some Jews who, like the early Christians, consider Jesus to be the Messiah. While they often refer to themselves as Messianic Jews, the larger Jewish community considers them simply Christians.
And, as noted earlier, many Jews are secular. They refer to their Jewishness in purely ethnic, cultural, or national terms. While they pass along Jewish traditions within their families, they do not engage many of the beliefs and religious practices described here.
There are over thirteen million Jews around the globe, and more than 80 percent live in two nations: the United States and Israel. Though the Jewish population is relatively small, the influence of Jews on world history and thought is far beyond their numbers.6
- See Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 181.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Exodus 19:5. For more about God’s reaching out to humanity in the people of Israel, see the classic work by Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976).
- See The Holy Bible, Genesis 15 for this story.
- The term “Diaspora Jews” refers to Jews living outside the ancestral lands of ancient Israel. So Jews living in New York, Poland, or China, for example, are Diaspora Jews.
- After the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, the vast majority of Jews worldwide no longer practiced animal sacrifices. While temple sacrifices resumed with the building of the second temple in 515 BCE, most Jews lived too far from the temple to participate in them in any way. It is during this time that pilgrimages to the temple and Jerusalem became part of Jewish practice.
- See Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998).
- Photo Credit: umbertoleporini / Shutterstock.com.