Judaism is the religion of the Jews. It is the complex expression of a religious and ethnic community, a way of life as well as a set of basic beliefs and values, which are discerned in patterns of action, social order, and culture, as well as in religious statements and concepts.
The History of Judaism
Most scholars agree that although the biblical (Old Testament) tales report contemporary events and activities, they do so for essentially theological reasons. It was primarily within history that the divine presence was encountered. God’s presence was also experienced within the natural realm, but the more immediate, or intimate disclosure, occurred in human actions. It is this particular claim -to have experienced God’s presence in human events- and its subsequent development that is the differentiating factor in Jewish thought. Through its history ancient Israel believed to be standing in a unique relationship to the divine. Furthermore God, as a person, had revealed in a particular encounter the pattern and structure of communal and individual life that his people should follow. Claiming sovereignty over his people because of his continuing action in history on their behalf, he had established a berit (“covenant”) with them, and required obedience to his teaching (Torah).
Judaism in World Perspective
The biblical tradition out of which Judaism emerged was predominantly exclusive (“no other Gods”). The gods of the other nations were regarded as “no gods” and their worshippers as deluded, while the God of Israel was acclaimed as the sole lord of history, and the Creator of heaven and earth.
Relation to Christianity
Judaism’s relation to Christianity is complicated because of the close historical interconnections between the two. From a Judaic standpoint, Christianity is, or was, a Jewish “heresy” and, as such, may be judged somewhat differently than other religions. During the Middle Ages Jewish thinkers attempted to avoid designating Christianity as idolatry. They even argued that, in a special way, being derived from Judaism, Christianity was fulfilling the divine purpose. In modern times the relation has undergone changes necessitated by the newer situations into which the Jewish community has moved.
Relations with Other Religions
In the Hellenistic world, Judaism confronted and rejected the varieties of syncretistic cults that grew up at that time. Within the Sasanian Empire it was forced to deal with Zoroastrianism. In the modern world, particularly in the most recent period, it has come face to face with the religions of the Middle and Far East.
In nearly 4,000 years of historical development, the Jewish people and their religion have displayed both a remarkable adaptability and continuity. In their encounter with the great civilisations, from ancient Babylonia and Egypt down to Western Christendom and modern secular culture, they have assimilated foreign elements and integrated them into their own socio-religious system, thus maintaining an unbroken line of ethnic and religious tradition. Professing Jews of all ages and all shades of sectarian opinion have always believed in the one and only God of Israel. By its very nature, monotheism ultimately postulated religious universalism. Law became the major instrument by which Judaism was to bring about the reign of God on earth. The ideal as expressed in the Ten Commandments, was a religious-ethical conduct that involved ritualistic observance as well as individual and social ethics, and a liturgical-ethical way constantly reconfirmed by the prophets and priests, rabbinic sages, and philosophers. According to Judaic belief, it is through the historical evolution of man, and particularly of the Jewish people, that the divine guidance of history constantly manifests itself, and will ultimately culminate in the messianic age
Basic Beliefs and Doctrines
Judaism affirms divine sovereignty disclosed in creation (nature) and in history, without necessarily insisting upon metaphysical speculation about the divine. It insists that the community has been confronted by the divine, not as abstraction, but as person with whom the community and its members enter into relationship. Jewish worship is communal celebration of the meetings with God in history and in nature.
If mysticism is defined as the search for direct contact with the divine, it seems to be incompatible with Judaism. Judaism is a faith in a sole God who created the universe, and who chose to reveal himself to a selected group of people by means of a rule of life he imposed on them. The earthly destiny of the chosen nation, as well as the eternal salvation of the individual in traditional Judaic beliefs, depends upon the observance of this rule of life through which any relationship to God must take place.
KABALA (Hebrew for “Tradition”) is an esoteric Jewish mysticism that is more than 2000 years old. Kabala has always been essentially an oral tradition in the sense that initiation into its doctrines and practices is conducted by a personal guide to avoid the dangers inherent in mystical experiences. Esoteric Kabala is also “tradition” inasmuch as it lays claim to secret knowledge of the unwritten Torah (divine revelation) that was communicated by God to Moses and Adam. Though observance of the Law of Moses remained the basic tenet of Judaism, Kabala provided a means of approaching God directly. Kabala began to flourish in Palestine in the 1st century AD and had as its main concern ecstatic and mystical contemplation of the divine throne, or “chariot” (merkava), seen in a vision by Ezekiel, the prophet.
Myths and Legends
Jewish myths and legends comprise a vast body of stories transmitted over the past 3,000 years in Hebrew and in vernacular dialects, such as Yiddish (Judeo-German) and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), spoken by Jews in various parts of the world. These stories have played an important role in the history of Jewish religion and culture. Not all of the stories are of Jewish origin; many can be readily paralleled elsewhere and are derived from tales the Jews picked up from their non-Jewish neighbours in the lands of their dispersion. Even what is borrowed, however, is usually impressed with a distinctive Jewish stamp, being adapted to point up some precepts of the Jewish religion, to illustrate some facets of Jewish life, or to exemplify some traits of Jewish character and temperament.
The word Jew (in Hebrew YEHUDHI, OR YEHUDI) describes any person whose religion is Judaism. In the broader sense of the term, a Jew is any person belonging to the worldwide group that constitutes, through descent or conversion, a continuation of the ancient Jewish people, who were themselves descendants of the Hebrews of the Old Testament. In ancient times, a Yehudhi was originally a member of Judah, that is either of the tribe of Judah (one of the 12 tribes that took possession of the Promised Land) or of the subsequent Kingdom of Judah. The Jewish people as a whole, initially called Hebrews (‘Ivrim), were known as Israelites (Yisre’elim) from the time of their entrance into the Holy Land at the end of the Babylonian Exile (538 BC). Thereafter, the term Yehudhi (English, Jew) was used to signify all adherents of Judaism, because the survivors of the Exile (the former inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah) were the only Israelites who had retained their distinctive identity. The ten other tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel had been dispersed after the Assyrian conquest of 721 BC, and were gradually assimilated by other peoples. The term “Jew” is thus derived through the Latin Judaeus and the Greek Ioudaios from the Hebrew Yehudhi.
Prohibited foods may not be consumed in any form. These include: all animals and the products of animals that do not chew the cud and do not have cloven hoofs (e.g., pigs, horses); fish without fins and scales; the blood of any animal; shellfish (e.g., clams, oysters, shrimp, crabs) and all other living creatures that creep; and those fowl enumerated in the Bible (e.g., vultures, hawks, owls, herons). All foods outside these categories may be eaten.