Origins of Judaism
- The historical roots of Judaism are traced by Jews to a Brit, or covenant, through which God is believed to have formed a permanent relationship with the community.
- This was first of all through Abraham, who is seen as the patriarch of the Jewish people, and then through the giving at Mount Sinai of the Torah, or law, to Moses.
- The Exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt is seen as constituitive of the Jewish people who, following this and the receipt of the Torah, conquered the land of Canaan which they believed was a land promised to them by God.
- Following their establishment in the Promised Land and the building of a Temple as a focus of worship in Jerusalem, the Jewish experience became one of exile.
- Initially, there was the 586BCE Babylonian conquest and exile and later, after the restoration of a Jewish kingdom and the rebuilding of the Temple, the destruction of the Temple by the Roman Empire in 70 CE, leading to a further diaspora or dispersion of the people.
- By the twentieth century there were Jewish communities in many countries throughout the world. But in 1948, following the Holocaust of European Jewry, the modern State of Israel was founded and once more became a central focus of Jewish life.
Central Aspects of Judaism
Torah and Halakah
- Judaism is rooted in the Torah which contains 613 commandments or mitzvot which are seen as the revelation of God and the basis of the covenantal relationship between God and the people, leading to a community life centred upon the interpretation and practice of the Halakhah (Jewish law).
- For male Jewish babies, this covenantal relationship is initially signified by the rite of circumcision. At the age of thirteen there is the Barmitzvah (son of commandment) ceremony in which a young adult becomes a fully responsible member of the community.
- In Progressive Judaism this has been paralleled by the introduction of Batmitzvah (daughter of commandment ceremony) ceremony for females.
- To remind Jews of the centrality of the Torah, Jewish homes have on their doorframes a mezuzah or parchment scroll in a small hollow box, which contains the first paragraphs of the Shema, or basic prayer of Jewish belief.
- The Torah consists of the five books of Moses:
- The Jewish scriptures also include the books, known as the Nevi’im, of the prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others; historical books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings; other texts like Ruth and Esther, known as the Ketuvim; and also the Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Songs.
- The tradition is seen as a living one, the interpretation and application of which is collected in the Talmud, which is organised into two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara and Orthodox Jews believe this tradition which includes oral material originally also revealed at Sinai.
- The Mishnah comprises six sedarim, or orders:
- zera’im, which contains prayers and agricultural laws
- mo’ed, which treats matters concerned with the Shabbat and festivals
- nashim, which covers marital and divorce laws
- nezikin, which is a book of civil and criminal law
- kodashim, which contains the laws of sacrifice and Temple ritual
- tohorot, which contains laws on personal and religious purity.
- The Gemara comments on, and discusses, the Mishnah. The legal material in the Talmud is known as Halakhah, whilst the non-legal materials are known as the Aggadah.
- Following the destruction of the Temple in 70CE, a rabbinic form of Judaim developed. Midrash is rabbinic teaching on the Bible, some of which may date from 400-500CE, but which in later collections reflects considerable development of the tradition.
- Judaism is a monotheistic religion in which the oneness and righteousness of God is proclaimed.
- As a consequence, the tradition has a strong emphasis on peace and justice and Jews have looked forwards to the promise of God’s kingdom being established on earth, a conviction that has traditionally been conneced with belief in a coming Mashiach or Messiah.
- There has always been a strong connection between Judaism and the Land of Israel. Even when much of the physicality of that connection was broken by exile, it remained a focus of hope and longing.
- For many Jewish people this is expressed today in some form of Zionism, which is understood within the Jewish community as a movement to end centuries of exile.
- However, some Haredim (or Ultra-Orthodox) distinguish between the state of Israel and the Land on the basis that a secular state cannot be religiously significant.
Shabbat and Kashrut
- The weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, is at the heart of Jewish individual and corporate life. In its abstainance from work, it reflects the seventh day of creation in which God is said to have rested from creating the world.
- The interpretation of what work entails varies within Judaism, but among all it is intended to be a time of shared joy.
- Another permeative dimension of Jewish life is its food regulations, in terms of what is kosher (permitted) or treif (forbidden).
Diversity within Judaism
- Communal belonging is an important part of Jewish identity and anyone born of a Jewsh mother, or anyone who has converted to Judaism, is traditionally understood to be Jewish. Nevertheless, there are diversities within the religious traditions of the Jewish community.
- The Orthodox see the Torah and the Talmud as containing God’s literal words which must be applied equally in all times and place. Orthodoxy includes:
- Hasidim, who originated with followers of the teachings of Israel ben Eliezer
- Haredim, sometimes refered to by others as Ultra-Orthodox
- Progressive Jews believe in the divine inspiration of the Torah but also, since it was recorded by human beings in a particular time and space, that it is necessary to reinterpret it in changing times and conditions.
- Progressive Judaism includes
- Reform Judaism, established in early nineteenth century.
- Liberal Judaism, originally an historical offshoot of the Reform movement
- Conservative Jews wish to remain strongly committed to the Halakhah whilst accepting the inevitability of its contextualised application.
Written by Professor Paul Weller