Merriam Webster online dictionary defines Judaism as a religion developed among
the ancient Hebrews and characterized by belief in one transcendent God who has
revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the Hebrew prophets and by a religious
life in accordance with Scriptures and rabbinic traditions. It would
also be correct to say that Judaism incorporated the cultural, social, and
religious beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.
According to the Jewish People Policy Planning
Institute, there were around 13.1 million Jewish people in the world in 2007;
most reside in the USA and Israel. Many of these people identify themselves as
Jews but do not believe in, nor follow any Jewish laws or rites. Judaism 101claims that more than half of the Jews in
Israel today call themselves “secular,” and do not believe in God and that half
of all Jews in the United States don’t belong to any synagogue.
Jews generally consider anyone born of a Jewish mother
to be a “Jew”. Some groups also accept children of Jewish fathers however that
is not the norm. Furthermore, a Jew does not lose the technical status of
being a Jew by adopting another faith; they do however choose to lose the
religious element of their Jewish identity. It is possible for a non Jew to “convert”
to Judaism but it is not a simple process. Jews do not try to convert people
to Judaism and in fact part of the conversion process requires a rabbi to make
three vigorous attempts to dissuade a person from converting.
Although many make contrary claims that Judaism is a
religion or a race, a culture, or an ethnic group, none of these descriptions
appear to be entirely adequate. For the purposes of this article we will
discuss Judaism, the religion.
Judaism (an organised religion) was, in its pristine
form, revealed to Prophet Moses; however Jews trace their ancestry back to
Prophet Abraham; so to do Christians and Muslims. Prophets Abraham, Isaac and
Jacob, known in Judaism as the Patriarchs, and known and accepted as Prophets
of God by Islam..
According to Jewish tradition Abraham was the son of an idol
merchant, but from his early childhood, he questioned the faith of his father
and sought the truth. He came to believe that the entire universe was the work
of a single Creator, and he began to teach this belief to others. This belief is
generally accepted as the world’s first monotheistic religion.
“Truly, my Lord has guided me to a Straight Path, a right religion, the
religion of Abraham, hanifa (i-e Monotheism - to believe in One God). And he
was not among those who associated others with God” (Quran 6:161)
Verily, Abraham was the leader of a nation, obedient to God,
hanifa (i.e. to worship none but God), and he was not of those who associate
others with God (polytheists, idolaters, disbelievers in the Oneness of God). (Quran
Judaism has no formal dogma or set of beliefs, actions are
considered far more important than beliefs. Jews believe that
there is one God, the Creator of the universe, with whom every Jew can have an
individual and personal relationship.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (a.k.a. Maimonides) put
together 13 Principles of Faith that are widely accepted amongst the different movements
of Judaism. More recently they have been called into question by more liberal schools
of thought; however for our purposes here they summarise the general precepts
of Judaism. Personal opinion on all of these precepts is acceptable, due to,
as already pointed out, the focus being more on actions rather than belief.
God is one and unique.
God is incorporeal.
God is eternal.
Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no
The words of the prophets are true.
Moses was the greatest of the prophets, and his
prophecies are true.
The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and
Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were
given to Moses.
There will be no other Torah.
God knows the thoughts and deeds of men.
God will reward the good and punish the wicked.
The Messiah will come.
The dead will be resurrected.
The website Judaism 101 describes the nature of the
relationship between God and humankind and God and Jews as it is understood by
the different Jewish schools of thought. “Our scriptures tell the story of the
development of these relationships”.
Jewish scriptures outline mutual obligations; however the various movements of
Jewish thought often disagree about the nature of these obligations. “Some say
they are absolute, unchanging laws from God (Orthodox); some say they are laws
from God that change and evolve over time (Conservative); some say that they
are guidelines that you can choose whether or not to follow (Reform).”
Judaism has a rich history of religious text, but the
central, most important religious document, is the Torah. The word Torah,
especially for non Jews, or Christians, most commonly refers to the first five
books of the Old Testament (Bible), what the Jews call the books of Moses, Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. When Muslims refer to the Torah,
they use the word Tawrat and mean the law as it was revealed to Prophet
When Jews use the word Torah, they usually mean the
entire body of Jewish scripture, known as the Tanakh. Tanakh is also an
acrostic term for Torah (the Law), Nevi’im
(the Prophets), and Ketuvim (the Writings), the three parts of Jewish
scripture, again, what Christians would call the Old testament. In
some circumstances Tanakh can refer to the whole body of Jewish law and
Next in importance and authority comes the Talmud; a
body of work that explains the scriptures and how to interpret and apply the
laws. This was compiled and written down in a body of work commonly referred
to as the Mishnah. Over the centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on
the Mishnah were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional
commentaries are known as the Gemara.
The body of work included in the Gemara is massive. It
includes comments from hundreds of Rabbis from 200 - 500 CE, explaining the
Mishnah with additional historical, religious, legal, and social comment. The
Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This was completed in
the 5th century C.E. There are two Talmuds, one compiled in Jerusalem and
another in Babylonia. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled later and is more
comprehensive, it is the one usually meant when someone refers to “the Talmud”.
In part 2 we will continue to explore the religion of
Judaism, discuss why Jews (or what we will come to learn are the Children of
Israel) are often referred to as the “Chosen people” both in Jewish and Islamic
literature and scripture.