Judaism does not characterize itself as a religion. Rather, Jews have traditionally thought of Judaism as a culture with its own history, language (Hebrew), ancestral homeland, liturgy, philosophy, set of ethics, religious practices, and the like. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan has thus described Judaism as an evolving religious civilization.
Jewish law considers someone born of a Jewish mother, or converted in accord with Jewish Law, Jewish. (Recently, American Reform and Reconstructionist Jews have included those born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers if the children are raised as Jews.)
A Jew who ceases practicing Judaism and becomes a non-practicing Jew is still regarded as a Jew. A Jew who does not accept Jewish principles of faith and becomes an agnostic or an atheist is also still considered to be a Jew in good-standing in the Jewish community, albeit one who is in error. However, when a Jew converts to another religion, such as Buddhism or Christianity, that person loses standing as a member of the Jewish community and becomes known as an apostate. However, while the person is outside the Jewish community and has views that are considered non-Jewish, that person is still Jewish by ethnicity and is regarded as such by Jewish law.
Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish Principles of Faith, but unlike Roman Catholicism, has never developed a binding catechism. A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, yet they differ in certain details. A comparison of several such formulations demonstrates a remarkably wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives. Below is a summary of Jewish principles of faith. In a separate entry is a historical discussion of how these principles of faith originated and developed.
Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. The prayer par excellance in terms of defining God is the Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One", also translated as "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is unique/alone."
God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality. God has the power to intervene in the world. The term God thus corresponds to an actual ontological reality, and is not merely a projection of the human psyche. Maimonides describes God in this fashion: "There is a Being, perfect in every possible way, who is the ultimate cause of all existence. All existence depends on God and is derived from God."
The Hebrew Bible and classical rabbinic literature affirm theism and reject deism. However, in the writings of medieval Jewish philosophers, influenced by neo-Aristotelian philosophy, one finds what can be termed deistic tendencies. These views still exist in Judaism today.
The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical for Jews to hold; it is considered akin to polytheism. Interestingly, while Jews hold that such conceptions of God are incorrect, they hold that gentiles that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.
Most rabbinic works present God as having the properties of Omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence (being all good). This is still the primary ways that most Orthodox and many non-Orthodox Jews view God.
After the extreme horrors of the Holocaust raised again the issue of theodicy, there have been several theological responses. These are discussed in a separate entry on Holocaust theology. The central questions they address are whether and how God is all powerful and all good, given the existence of evil in the world, particularly the Holocaust.
Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, writes that "God shows His love for us by reaching down to bridge the immense gap between Him and us. God shows His love for us by inviting us to enter into a Covenant (Brit) with Him, and by sharing with us His Torah". Hasidism seems to endorse this view to some degree. On the other hand, Maimonides and most other medieval Jewish philosophers rejected the idea of a personal God.
The different names of God are ways to express different aspects of God's presence in the world. See the entry on The name of God in Judaism.
God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. A corollary belief is that God is utterly unlike man, and can in no way be considered anthropomorphic. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God at all.
Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical. Maimonides writes that "God is the only one we may serve and praise....We many not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements.....There are no intermediaries between us and God. All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered." However, since the 1800s some Hasidic Orthodox Jews have begun to teach that their leaders, called rebbes, are indeed a sort of intermediary between man and God.
The Tanach ( Hebrew Bible ), and much of beliefs described in the Mishnah and Talmud, are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine", has always been a matter of some dispute. Different understandings of this subject exist within the Jewish community. In pareticular, Reconstructinist Judaism rejects the idea that religious writings are inspired by God. Instead they represent the development of Judaism as a religious civilisation and are therefore valuable even though written only by humans.
This does not mean that Jews are required to read the books of the prophets literally. The Jewish tradition has always held that prophets used metaphors and analogies just like people today use them. As such, there is a wide degree of interpretation of many prophetic verses.
The Torah and Talmud teach that God took the descendants of Israel out of Egypt and spoke to them at Mount Sinai. It was here that God revealed the Torah to Moses. The Jewish tradition holds that the laws therein are binding on all of Israel.
Orthodox and Conservative Jews hold that the prophecy of Moses is held to be true; he is held to be the chief of all prophets, even of those who came before and after him. This belief was expressed by Maimonides, who wrote that "Moses was superior to all prophets, whether they preceded him or arose afterwards. Moses attained the highest possible human level. He perceived God to a degree surpassing every human that ever existed....God spoke to all other prophets through an intermediary. Moses alone did not need this; this is what the Torah means when God says "Mouth to mouth, I will speak to him."
However, this does not imply that the text of the Torah should be understood literally. The rabbinic tradition maintains that God conveyed not only the words of the Torah, but the meaning of the Torah. God gave rules as to how the laws were to be understood and implemented, and these were passed down as an oral tradition. This oral law ultimately was written down almost 2,000 years later in the Mishna and the two Talmuds. The founders of Reform Judaism replaced this principle with the theory of Progressive Revelation.
For Reform Jews, the prophecy of Moses was not the highest degree of prophecy; rather it was the first in a long chain of progressive revelations in which mankind gradually began to understand the will of God better and better. As such, the laws of Moses are no longer binding, and it is today's generation that must assess what God wants of them. (For examples see the works of Rabbis Gunther Plaut or Eugene Borowitz). This principle is also rejected by most Reconstructionist Jews, but for a different reason; most posit that God is not a being with a will; thus no will can be revealed.
The Written Torah is composed of 5 books known by their Greek names as - Genesis, Exodous, Leviticus, Numbers and Deutoronomy. They chronicle the history of the Hebrews and also contain the comandments that Jews are to follow.
Rabbinic Judaism holds that the Torah is the same one that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Maimonides explains: "We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses. But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation....[Thus] every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God's Torah, which is perfect, holy and true."
Today, only certain Orthodox Jewish denominations accept that the Torah was written by God and not the result of Revelation. Modern Orthodox Jews recognize that over the millennia, many scribal errors have crept into the Torah's text. The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text. Also, there are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen - part of the story in these places has been edited out. In general, though, Orthodox Jews view the Written and Oral Torah as the same as Moses taught, for all practical purposes.
Due to advances in biblical scholarship, and archeological and linguistic research, all non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle outright. Instead, they accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah may come from Moses, but that the document that we have today has been edited together from several documents.
Conservative Jews tend to believe that much of the Oral law is divinely inspired, while Reform and Reconstructionist Jews tend to view all of the Oral law as an entirely human creation. For more details see Richard Elliot Friedman[?]'s "Who Wrote the Bible?" and the entry on the documentary hypothesis.
Reform Jews tend to view all of the Torah as an entirely human creation. Traditionally, the Reform movement held that Jews were obliged to obey the ethical but not the ritual commandments of Scripture, although today many Reform Jews have adopted many traditional ritual practices.
The Tanach, the Talmud are the main holy books in Judaism. The Tanakh contians the Written Torah, the writings of the major prophets, and the writings of the minor prophets. The Talmud contains Judaism's oral law.
The mainstream Jewish view, clearly expressed in the Bible and rabbinic literature, is that God will reward those who observe His commandments, and punish those who violate them.
In stark contrast, Maimonides and other medieval neo-Aristotelian theologians claimed that only fools and children would believe that God rewarded or punished people; in fact, no such rewards or punishments exist. Maimonides believed that the only possible reward was that if a person perfected his intellect to the highest degree, then the part of his intellect that connected to God - the active intellect - would be immortalized and eternally enjoy the "Glory of the Presence."
The common understanding of this principle is accepted by most Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews; it is generally rejected by Reconstructionists.
According to the Kabbalah, G-d does judge who has followed His commandments and who doesn't and to what extent. Those who to not "pass the test" go to a reforming place (sometimes called Purgatory, sometimes called Hell)to "learn their lesson". There is , however, no eternal damnation. A soul can only go to that refoming place for a limited amount of time (less than 2 years).
God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish people do not simply say that "God chose the Jews." This claim, by itself, exists nowhere in the Tanach (the Jewish Bible) or the Siddur (the Jewish prayerbook). Such a claim could imply that God loves only the Jewish people, that only Jews can be close to God, and that only Jews can have a heavenly reward. The actual claim made is that the Jews were chosen for a specific mission; to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the Torah. Reconstructionist Judaism rejects also this variant of chosenness as morally defunct.
Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, describes the mainstream Jewish view on this issue: "Yes, I do believe that the Chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its milennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people - and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual - is "chosen" or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parlimentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose."
More on this topic is available in the entry on Jewish views of religious pluralism.
There will be a moshiach (messiah), or perhaps a messianic era. Note that the Jewish belief regarding the messiah has little to do with the Christian definition of this term. Jewish views of the messiah, the messianic era, and the afterlife are discusssed in the entry on Jewish eschatology.
Humans are born morally pure; Jews have no concept of Original sin. Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer ha'tov, a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer ha'ra, a tendency to do bad. Thus, human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. The Rabbis even recognize a positive value to the yetzer ha'ra: without the yetzer ha'ra there would be no civilisation or other fruits of human labor. The implication is that yetzer ha'tov and yetzer ha'ra are best understood not as moral categories of good and evil but as selfless versus selfish orientations.
Jews recognize two kinds of "sin," offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). In a post-Temple world, Jews believe that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins.
A classical rabbinic work, Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan, states: "One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. "Woe to us," cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated: 'I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). Also, the Babylonian Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]." (Tractate Berachot, 55a.) Similarly, the liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh HaShanah[?] and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (charity) atone for sin.
There is a separate article for Comparing and contrasting Judaism and Christianity, and on the idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
A distinct article exists on Christianity and anti-Semitism, which includes a study of the remarkable reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity that has taken place in the last century.
There is a separate article on the relationship between Islam and Judaism, and on Islam and anti-Semitism. There is an article on Projects working for peace among Israelis and Arabs.
The basis of Jewish law and tradition is the Torah, also known as: the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, or the Chumash. According to traditional counting methods, there are 613 mitzvot[?] (commandments) in the Torah. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the priestly tribe), some only to those who practice framing within the land of Israel, and many laws were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed. Less than 300 of these commandments are still applicable today.
While there have been Jewish groups which were based on the written text of the Torah alone (the Sadducees, the Karaites), most Jews believed in the oral law. These oral traditions originated in the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were latter recorded in written form and expanded upon by the Rabbis.
Rabbinic Judaism has always held that the books of the Tanach (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. They point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; this, they argue, means that the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally trasmitted orally, and came to be known as the "the oral law". Some of the methods by which it is derived can be found in halakhic Midrash. However, by the time of Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi[?] (200 CE) much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this law underwent discussion and debate in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylon), and the commentaries on the Mishnah from each of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the two Talmuds. These have been expounded by commentaries of various Torah scholars during the ages.
Halakha, the Rabbinic Jewish way of life, then, is not based on a literal reading of the Torah or Tanakh, but on the combined oral and written tradition, which includes the Tanakh, the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. These have been summarized into codes of Jewish law by various Torah scholars, such as Rabbis Alfasi, Maimonides, Ya'akov ben Asher, Karo etc.
Halakha is developed slowly, through a precedent based system. The literature of questions to rabbis, and their considered answers, is referred to as responsa (in Hebrew, '"Sheelot U-Teshuvot".) Over time, as practices develop, codes of Jewish law are written that are based on the responsa.
Jewish life is bound up with religious tradition, and is celebrated in an annual cycle of Jewish holidays.
Life-cycle events occur throughout a Jew's life that bind him/her to the entire community.
There is a separate entry which has Jewish history timeline.
Rabbinic Judaism at one time was related to Samaritanism; however Samaritans no longer refer to themselves as Jews, and both groups view themselves as separate religions.
Around the first century A.D. there were several large Jewish sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes. Of these, only the Pharisees survived; all Jewish groups today are descended from them. Christianity at one point was a Jewish messianic faction, but soon developed into a separate religion.
Some Jews in the 8th century adopted the Sadducees' rejection of the oral law of the Pharisees recorded in the Mishnah (and developed by later Rabbis in the two Talmuds), intending to rely only upon the Tanach. Interestingly, they soon developed oral traditions of their own which differ from the Rabbinic traditions. These Jews formed the Karaite sect, which still exist to this day, though they are much smaller than the rest of Judaism. Rabbinic Jews hold that Karaites are Jews, but that their religion is an incomplete and erroneous form of Judaism.
Over time Jews developed into distinct ethnic groups: the Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern Europe and Russia); the Sephardi Jews (of Spain, Portugal and North Africa) and the Yemenite Jews, from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. This split is cultural, and is not based on any doctrinal dispute.
Hasidic Judaism originated in Eastern Europe. It is a morally strict, mystical tradition based on Kabbalah and allegiance to a spiritual leader, or Rebbe. It was founded in the mid-1700s by a kabbalist and miracle worker named Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov.
In the late 18th century Europe, and then the rest of the world, was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements that taken together were referred to as the Enlightenment. These movements promoted scientific thinking, freethought, and allowed people to question previously unshaken religious dogmas. Like Christianity, Judaism developed several responses to this unprecedented phenomenon. Initially, the European Jewish community began to develop into two separate worldviews; one of which saw the enlightenment as positive, and one of which saw it as negative. The enlightenment meant equality and freedom for many Jews in many countries, so it was felt that it should be warmly welcome. Scientific study of religious texts would allow Jews to study the history of Judaism, and one could discover how it had developed over time.
Some Jews felt that these endeavours would bring much to Judaism. Others, however, noted that this same era allowed Jews, for the first time, the ability to easily assimilate into Christian society; this was a powerful attraction for many Jews, since only by becoming a Christian (at least nominally) would one be certain to have equal rights and civil liberties. Further, historical study of the development of the religion might call into question some previously held dogmas about Judaism; if a few beliefs were found to be incorrect, where would one draw the line? In response to these issues, Jews favouring the enlightenment developed into a community known as Reform Judaism, and Jews opposed to the enlightenment developed into a set of loosely linked communities known as Orthodox Judaism. This loose differentiation did not hold for long. The various groups in Orthodox Judaism had differing attitudes on how to respond, and they developed into a number of different groups, including Modern Orthodox Judaism and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism; the latter entry discusses how and why the enlightenment led to the development of the modern Jewish denominations.
A third school of thought then developed which held that halakha (Jewish law and tradition) was not static, but rather had always developed in response to changing conditions. This approach, Positive-Historical Judaism, held that Jews should accept halakha as normative (i.e. binding) yet must also be open to developing the law in the same fashion that it had developed in the past. This school of thought gave birth to the communities now known as Masorti Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Traditional Judaism.
In recent years, smaller splinter movements have developed: Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism[?]. In terms of their spectrum of beliefs and practices, Reconstructionist Judaism now overlaps with Reform Judaism, and Humanistic Judaism is now identical to secular humanism.
Jewish Diversity: A Chart illustrating the differing approaches to Judaism (http://www.hadassah.org/news/mar98/chart.htm)
The issue of Zionism was once heavily divisive in the Jewish community. Secular non-Zionists believed that Jews should integrate into the countries in which they lived, rather than moving to Israel; religious non-Zionists believed that the return to Israel could only happen with the coming of the Messiah, and that attempting to re-establish Israel earlier was disobeying God's plan. After the painful events of the twentieth century, such as World War II and the Holocaust, secular anti-Zionism has largely disappeared; however many Hasidim are still opposed to Zionism on religious grounds. One specific example is the Neturei Karta.
There is a separate article on the Baal teshuva movement, the movement of Jews returning to observant Judaism.
In most western nations, such as the USA, England, Israel and South Africa, many secularized Jews have long since stopped participating in religious duties. Many of them recall having religious grand-parents, but grew up in homes where Jewish education and observance was no longer a priority. They have developed ambivalent feelings towards their religious duties. On the one hand they tend to cling to their traditions for identity reasons; on the other hand the influences of western mentality, daily life and peer-pressure tears them away from Judaism. Recent studies of American Jews indicate that many people who identify as being of Jewish heritage no longer identify as members of the religion known as Judaism. The various Jewish religious denominations in the USA and Canada perceive this as a crisis situation, and have grave concern over rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation in the Jewish community. Since American Jews are marrying at a later time in their life than they used to, and are having fewer children than they used, the birth rate for American Jews has dropped from over 2.0 down to 1.7 (the replacement rate, by definition, is 2.0). (Source: "This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate relations", p.27, Elliot N. Dorff, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1996.)
In the last 50 years all of the major Jewish denominations have experienced a resurgence in popularity, with increasing numbers of younger Jews participating in Jewish education, joining synagogues, and becoming (to varying degrees) more observant. However, this gain has not yet offset the demographic loss due to intermarriage and acculturation.