Dead sea scrolls Ishaiah scroll
Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. The religion of the ancient Hebrews and their descendants the Jews, based, according to the Hebrew Bible, on a covenant between God and Abraham about 2000 BCE, and the renewal of the covenant with Moses about 1200 BCE. It is one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths, and it is one of the oldest religious traditions still practiced today. The values and history of the Jewish people are a major part of the foundation of other Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Islam, as well as Samaritanism and the Bahá'í Faith.

Judaism has seldom, if ever, been monolithic in practice (although it has always been monotheistic in theology), and differs from many religions in that its central authority is not vested in any person or group but rather in its writings and traditions. Despite this, Judaism in all its variations has remained tightly bound to a number of religious principles, the most important of which is the belief that there is a single, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, transcendent God, who created the universe and continues to be involved in its governance. According to traditional Jewish belief, the God who created the world established a covenant with the Jewish people, and revealed his laws and commandments to them in the form of the Torah. The practice of Judaism is devoted to the study and observance of these laws and commandments, as written in the Torah, as well as those found in the Talmud. As of 2006, adherents of Judaism numbered around 14 million followers, making it the world's eleventh-largest organized religion.

Traditional view of the development of Judaism

The subject of the Hebrew Bible or otherwise called Torah is an account of the Israelites' relationship with God as reflected in their history from the beginning of time until the building of the Second Temple (c. 350 BCE). This relationship is often portrayed as contentious, as Hebrews struggle between their faith in God and their attraction for other gods, and as some Hebrews, such as Abraham; (most notably and directly), Jacob, the father of all Israelites — later known as Israel; and Moses struggle with God.

According to Orthodox Judaism and most religious Jews, the Biblical patriarch Abraham was the first Hebrew. Rabbinic literature records that he was the first since the generation of Noah to publicly reject idolatry and preach monotheism. As a result, God promised he would have children: "Look now toward heaven and count the stars/So shall be your progeny." (Genesis 15:5) Abraham's first child was Ishmael and his second son was Isaac, whom God said would continue Abraham's work and inherit the Land of Israel (then called Canaan), after having been exiled and redeemed. God sent the patriarch Jacob and his children to Egypt, where after many generations they became enslaved. Then God sent Moses to redeem the Israelites from slavery, and after the Exodus from Egypt, God led the Israelites to Mount Sinai in 1313BCE (Jewish Year 2448) and gave them the Torah, eventually bringing them to the land of Israel.

God designated the descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother, to be a priestly class within the Israelite community. They first officiated in the tabernacle (a portable house of worship), and later their descendants were in charge of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Once the Israelites had settled in the land of Israel, the tabernacle was planted in the city of Shiloh for over 300 years during which time God provided great men, and occasionally women, to rally the nation against attacking enemies, some of which were sent by God as a punishment for the sins of the people. This is described in the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges. As time went on, the spiritual level of the nation declined to the point that God allowed the Philistines to capture the tabernacle in Shiloh.

The people of Israel then told Samuel the prophet that they had reached the point where they needed to be governed by a permanent king, as were other nations, as described in the Books of Samuel. Samuel grudgingly acceded to this request and appointed Saul, a great but very humble man, to be their King. When the people pressured Saul into going against a command conveyed to him by Samuel, God told Samuel to appoint David in his stead.

Once King David was established, he told the prophet Nathan that he would like to build a permanent temple, and as a reward for his actions, God promised David that he would allow his son to build the temple and the throne would never depart from his children (David himself was not allowed to build the temple because he had been involved in many wars, making it inappropriate for him to build a temple representing peace). As a result, it was David's son Solomon who built the first permanent temple according to God's will, in Jerusalem, as described in the Books of Kings.

After Solomon's death, his Kingdom was split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. After several hundred years, because of rampant idolatry, God allowed Assyria to conquer Israel and exile its people. The southern Kingdom of Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem, home of the Temple, remained under the rule of the House of David, however, as in the north, idolatry increased to the point that God allowed Babylonia to conquer the Kingdom, destroy the Temple which had stood for 410 years, and exile its people to Babylonia, with the promise that they would be redeemed after seventy years. These events are recorded in the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Jeremiah.

After seventy years the Judahites were allowed back into Judaea under the leadership of Ezra, and the Temple was rebuilt, as recorded in the Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah. The Second Temple stood for 420 years, after which it was destroyed by the Roman general (later emperor) Titus. The Israelite temple is to remain in ruins until a descendant of David arises to restore the glory of Israel and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Torah, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; given on Mount Sinai was summarized in the five books of Moses. Together with the books of the prophets it is called the Written Torah. The details and interpretation of the law, which are called the Oral Torah or oral law were originally an unwritten tradition based upon what God told Moses on Mount Sinai that was not the written aspect of the law but all the codes of the Mishna as well as other holy books.

However, as the persecutions of the Jews increased and the details were in danger of being forgotten, rabbinic tradition holds that these oral laws were recorded by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) and recorded in the Mishnah. The Talmud was a compilation of both the Mishna & the Gemara (Aramaic for the word Tradition). The Babylonian Talmud is a recording of the inquiry of how to apply the Mishna legally, recorded from discussions in the houses of study by the scholars Ravina I, Ravina II, and Rav Ashi over an era.

Common editions of the Talmud today have the Mishna followed by its associated Gemara commentary. Then, the next Mishna, often only a few lines or short paragraph, followed by the commentary relevant to that Mishna which may be pages long, and so on until that particular tractate of Mishna is completed. There may be many chapters of Mishna in any given tractate (Ma'sechta in Hebrew). In pre-Constantinian late antiquity and even after, Judaism was extremely attractive to a substantial percentage of the Greco-Roman world. However, the numbers of Gentiles who actually undertook circumcision and the obligations of Sabbath observance were actually many fewer than those who found Judaism otherwise attractive. Without formal conversion, these Gentiles remained outside of Judaism.

Critical historical view of the development of Judaism

Although monotheism and Torah are fundamental to Rabbinic Judaism, many critical Bible scholars claim that certain verses in the Torah imply that the early Israelites accepted the existence of other gods (possibly angels), while viewing their God as the sole Creator, whose worship is obligated (a henotheistic point of view). Another way of putting this is that the Israelite, Yahwistic religion that preceded Rabbinic Judaism, as represented by the early prophets, demanded monolatry: worship of a single, "jealous" God. Interestingly, the biblical text that is considered to be the core of Judaism (Deut. 6,4: "Hear, O Israel, Yhwh is our God, Yhwh is One" (in Hebrew, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad", with "Adonai" standing in for YHWH), represents this God's apparent intolerance of accepting the worship of other gods besides Himself. As YHWH Himself was originally a War-God ("YHWH of the hosts"), the worship of fertility gods such as Baal (or the Baalim) was attractive once the Israelites had settled down. In this view, it was only by the Hellenic period that most Jews came to believe that their God was the only God (and thus, the God of everyone), and that the record of His revelation (the Torah) contained within it universal truths. This attitude reflected a growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a God that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which sought to establish universal truths, thus leading - potentially - to the idea of monotheism, at least in the sense that "all gods are One".

According to this theory, Jews began to grapple with the tension between their claims of particularism (that only Jews were required to obey the Torah), and universalism (that the Torah contained universal truths). The supposed result is a set of beliefs and practices concerning identity, ethics, and the relationships between man and nature and man and God that examine and privilege "differences" — for example the difference between Jews and non-Jews; the local differences in the practice of Judaism; a close attention, when interpreting texts, to difference in the meanings of three words; attempts to preserve and encode different points of view within texts, and a relative avoidance of creed and dogma.

In contrast to the Orthodox religious view of the Hebrew Bible, critical biblical scholars also suggest that the Torah consists of a variety of inconsistent texts that were edited together in a way that calls attention to divergent accounts (see Documentary hypothesis).

Religious doctrine and Principles of Faith

Historically, Judaism has considered belief in the divine revelation and acceptance of the Written and Oral Torah as its fundamental core belief. This gave rise to many different formulations as to the specific theological beliefs inherent in the Torah and Talmud. While individual rabbis have at times agreed upon a firm formulation, generally other rabbis have disagreed, many criticizing any such attempt as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (Rabbi S. of Montpelier, Yad Rama, Y. Alfacher, Rosh Amanah). Along these lines, the ancient historian Josephus emphasized practices and observances rather than religious beliefs, associating apostasy with a failure to observe Jewish law, and suggesting the requirements for conversion to Judaism included circumcision and adherence to traditional customs. Notably, in the Talmud some principles of faith (e.g., the Divine origin of the Torah) are considered important enough that rejection of them can put one in the category of "apikoros" (heretic).

Over the centuries, a number of clear formulations of Jewish principles of faith have appeared, and though they differ with respect to certain details, they demonstrate a commonality of core ideology. Of these, the one most widely considered authoritative is Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith, which assert the following:

  1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
  2. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
  3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is not a body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.
  4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.
  5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.
  6. I believe with perfect faith that all the works of the prophets are true.
  7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both of those who preceded him and of those who followed him.
  8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.
  9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be any other Law from the Creator, blessed be His name.
  10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, knows all the deeds of human beings, and all their thoughts, as it is said: “[He] that fashioned the hearts of them all, [He] that comprehends all their actions.”
  11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, rewards those that keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
  12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, with all this I wait every day for his coming.
  13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, blessed be His name, and exalted be His Name forever and ever. Importantly, Maimonides, while enumerating the above, added the following caveat "There is no difference between [the Biblical statement] "his wife was Mehithabel" (Genesis 10,6) on the one hand (i.e. an "unimportant" verse), and "Hear, O Israel" on the other (i.e. an "important" verse)...anyone who denies even such verses thereby denies God and shows contempt for his teachings more than any other skeptic, because he holds that the Torah can be divided into essential and non-essential parts..." The specialness of the thirteen fundamental beliefs was that even a rejection out of ignorance placed one outside Judaism, whereas the rejection of the rest of Torah must be a conscious act to stamp one as an unbeliever. Some, such as Rabbi Joseph Albo and the Raavad, criticized Maimonides' list as containing too many items that, while true, were not fundamentals of the faith, and thus placed too many Jews in the category of "heretic", rather than those who were simply in error. Many others criticized any such formulation as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (see above). As noted however, neither Maimonides nor his contemporaries viewed these principles as encompassing all of Jewish belief, but rather as the core theological underpinnings of the acceptance of Judaism.

Jewish literature

Rabbinic literature

Jews are often called a "People of the Book," and Judaism has an age-old intellectual tradition focusing on text-based Torah study. The following is a basic, structured list of the central works of Jewish practice and thought. For more detail, see Rabbinic literature.

A Torah scroll, the Torah contains the five books of Moses, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
A Torah scroll, the Torah contains the five books of Moses, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible
  • The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Jewish bible study, which include Mesorah, Targum, and Jewish Biblical exegesis (also see Midrash below)

  • Works of the Talmudic Era (classic rabbinic literature): The Mishnah and its commentaries, The Tosefta and the minor tractates, and The Talmud (The Jerusalem Talmud and its commentaries and The Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries

  • Midrashic literature: Halakhic Midrash, Aggadic Midrash

  • Halakhic literature, The Major Codes of Jewish Law and Custom (The Mishneh Torah and its commentaries, The Tur and its commentaries The Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries), Other books on Jewish law and custom, and The Responsa literature

Legal literature

The basis of Jewish law and tradition ("halakha") is the Torah (the five books of Moses). According to rabbinic tradition there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to the ancient priestly groups, the Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the tribe of Levi), some only to those who practice farming within the land of Israel. Many laws were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed, and fewer than 300 of these commandments are still applicable today.

While there have been Jewish groups which claimed to be based on the written text of the Torah alone (e.g., the Sadducees, and the Karaites), most Jews believed in what they call the oral law. These oral traditions were transmitted by the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were later recorded in written form and expanded upon by the rabbis.

Rabbinic Judaism has always held that the books of the Tanakh (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. To justify this viewpoint, Jews 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, i.e., oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as "the oral law".

By the time of Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (200 CE), after the destruction of Jerusalem, 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 Babylonia), 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 based on a combined reading of the Torah, and the oral tradition - the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. The Halakha has 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; the most important code, the Shulkhan Arukh, largely determines Jewish religious practice up to today.

Jewish philosophy

Jewish philosophy refers to the conjunction between serious study of philosophy and Jewish theology. Major Jewish philosophers include Solomon ibn Gabirol, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and Gersonides. Major changes occurred in response to the Enlightenment (late 1700s to early 1800s) leading to the post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers. Modern Jewish philosophy consists of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox oriented philosophy. Notable among Orthodox Jewish philosophers are Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Joseph Soloveitchik, and Yitzchok Hutner. Well-known non-Orthodox Jewish philosophers include Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Mordecai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Emmanuel Levinas.

Related Topics

Jewish identity

Distinction between Jews and Judaism

According to Daniel Boyarin, the underlying distinction between religion and race is foreign to Judaism itself, and is one form of the dualism between spirit and flesh that has its origin in Platonic philosophy and that permeated Hellenistic Judaism. Consequently, in his view, Judaism does not fit easily into conventional Western categories, such as religion, ethnicity, or culture. Boyarin suggests that this in part reflects the fact that most of Judaism's 4,000-year history predates the rise of Western culture and occurred outside the West. During this time, Jews have experienced slavery, anarchic and theocratic self-government, conquest, occupation, and exile; in the Diasporas they have been in contact with, and have been influenced by ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenic cultures, as well as modern movements such as the Enlightenment (see Haskalah) and the rise of nationalism, which would bear fruit in the form of a Jewish state in the Levant. They also saw an elite convert to Judaism (the Khazars), only to disappear as the centers of power in the lands once occupied by that elite fell to the people of Rus and then the Mongols. Thus, Boyarin has argued that "Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension."

What makes a person Jewish?

According to traditional Jewish Law, someone is considered to be a Jew if he or she was born of a Jewish mother or converted in accord with Jewish Law. American Reform Judaism and British Liberal Judaism accept the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents raise the child as a Jew by Progressive standards. All mainstream forms of Judaism today are open to sincere converts.

Judaism maintains that one born Jewish or one who has converted to Judaism retains his or her status as a Jew forever. One who converts to another religion or is an atheist is considered to be a Jew not in good religious standing. How religious one is, in this sense, is only important in one's status in Jewish law. For example, a person denying the Jewish principles of faith may be considered a heretic, while still considered Jewish.

The question of what determines Jewish identity was given new impetus when, in the 1950s, David ben Gurion requested opinions on mihu Yehudi ("who is a Jew") from Jewish religious authorities and intellectuals worldwide. The question is far from settled, and occasionally resurfaces in Israeli politics.

Jewish demographics

The number of Jews in the world is hotly contested and any estimate given may or may not be an accurate one. According to the Jewish Year Book (1901), the number of Jews in 1900 was around 11 million. The latest estimates available are from the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002, and the Jewish Year Calendar, (2005). The former states that in 2002 there were a total of 13.3 million Jews in the world, while the latter states a total of 14.6 million. Jewish population growth is currently almost zero percent, with a 0.3% growth from 2000 to 2001. The number of converts as well as the birthrate of Jews in Israel and the revival of interest in Jewish practice in other countries suggest that Judaism will steadily grow during the twenty-first century.

Judaism divisions

In the late Middle Ages, when Europe and western Asia were divided into Christian and Islamic countries, the Jewish people also found themselves divided into two main groups. Jews in central and eastern Europe, namely in Germany and Poland, were called Ashkenazi. Sephardic Jews can trace their tradition back to the Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain and Portugal under Muslim rule. When they were expelled in 1492, they settled in North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, the Far East, and northern Europe. The two traditions differ in a number of ritual and cultural ways, but their theology and basic Jewish practice are the same. The Hasidic sects of eastern Europe and some North African and Oriental countries also differ from other groups in their rites but they, too, maintain the concept of divine authority. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a move by some Jewish groups away from traditional or orthodox observances. This trend gave rise to a number of groups within Judaism. Orthodox Jews (see Orthodox Judaism) who form the majority, assert the supreme authority of the Torah and adhere to all the traditions of Judaism, including the strict dietary laws (see kosher) and the segregation of women in the synagogue. Reform Judaism rejects the idea that Jews are the chosen people, has a liberal interpretation of the dietary laws, and takes a questioning attitude towards the Torah. Conservative Judaism is a compromise between Orthodox and Reform in its acceptance of the traditional law, making some allowances for modern conditions, although its services and ceremonies are closer to Orthodox than to Reform. Liberal Judaism, or Reconstructionism, goes further than Reform in attempting to adapt Judaism to the needs of the modern world and to interpret the Torah in the light of current scholarship. In all the groups except Orthodox, women are not segregated in the synagogue, and there are female rabbis in both Reform and Liberal Judaism. Many people who call themselves Jews prefer to identify Judaism with a historical and cultural tradition rather than with strict religious observance, and a contemporary debate (complicated by the history of non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews) centres on the question of how to define a Jew. As in other religions, fundamentalist movements have emerged; for example, Gush Emunim.

Jewish denominations

Over the past two centuries the Jewish community has divided into a number of Jewish denominations; each has a different understanding of what principles of belief a Jew should hold, and how one should live as a Jew. To some degree, these doctrinal differences have created schisms between the Jewish denominations. Nonetheless, there is some level of Jewish unity. For example, it would not be unusual for a Conservative Jew to attend either an Orthodox or Reform synagogue. The article on Relationships between Jewish religious movements discusses how different Jewish denominations view each other.

  • Orthodox Judaism holds that both the Written and Oral Torah were divinely revealed to Moses, and that the laws within it are binding and unchanging. Orthodox Jews generally consider the Shulkhan Arukh, to be the definitive codification of Jewish law, and assert a continuity between the Judaism of the Temple in Jerusalem, pre-Enlightenment Rabbinic Judaism. and modern-day Orthodox Judaism. Most of Orthodox Judaism holds to one particular form of Jewish theology, based on Maimonides' 13 principles of Jewish faith. Orthodox Judaism broadly (and informally) shades into two main styles, Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism. The philosophical distinction is generally around accommodation to modernity and weight placed on non-Jewish disciplines, though in practical terms the differences are often reflected in styles of dress and rigor in practice. According to most Orthodox Jews, Jewish people who do not keep the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov (the holidays), Kashrut, and family purity are considered non-religious. Any Jew who keeps at least those laws would be considered observant and religious.

    • Modern Orthodox is a common traditional form of Judaism, which has a broad adherence to historic traditions, and practices, and worship and belief in traditional form.

    • Traditional Orthodox or Haredi Judaism is a very conservative form of Judaism. It is sometimes called Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but this term is widely considered to be offensive. Though there are a number of Haredi Jewish groups who, like Modern Orthodoxy, accept modernization (including followers of Torah im Derech Eretz and perhaps most notably Lubavitch Hassidism), the modern culture is seen as a means to worship God instead of an end unto itself. Many Orthodox Jews do not look at one's professed denomination alone as the principal way of evaluating religious level; instead they view Jews by how closely their beliefs and practices accord with Orthodox ones.

    • Hasidic Judaism is a form of Orthodox Judaism based on the teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the 'Baal Shem Tov'). Hassidic philosophy is rooted in the Kabbalah, and Hassidic Jews accept the Kabbalah as sacred scripture. They are distinguished both by a variety of special customs and practices including reliance on a Rebbe or supreme religious leader, and for a special dress code particular to each Hassidic group.

  • Conservative Judaism, known as Masorti Judaism outside of the United States and Canada, developed in Europe and the United States in the 1800s, as Jews reacted to the changes brought about by the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation. It is characterized by a commitment to following traditional Jewish laws and customs, including observance of Shabbat and Kashrut; a deliberately non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith; a positive attitude toward modern culture; an acceptance of both traditional rabbinic modes of study and modern scholarship and critical text study when considering Jewish religious texts.

    • It teaches that Jewish law was not static, but rather has always developed in response to changing conditions.

    • It holds that the Torah is a divine document written by prophets inspired by God, but rejects the Orthodox position that it was dictated by God to Moses. Similarly, Conservative Judaism holds that Judaism's oral law is divine and normative, but rejects some Orthodox interpretations of the oral law.

    • Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds that both the Written and Oral Law may be interpreted by the Rabbinnate to reflect modern sensibilities and suit modern conditions, although great caution should be exercised in doing so.

  • Progressive Judaism is composed of multiple movements in several countries.
  • Reform Judaism, called Liberal or Progressive in many countries, originally formed in Germany in response to the Enlightenment. (Note that in the United Kingdom, there are two distinct congregational unions, Reform and Liberal. The former is significantly more traditional than the latter, but both hold to essentially the same theoretical position.) Its defining characteristic with respect to the other movements is its rejection of the binding nature of Jewish ceremonial law as such and instead believing that individual Jews should exercise an informed autonomy about what to observe. Reform Judaism initially defined Judaism as a religion, rather than as a race or culture; rejected most of the ritual ceremonial laws of the Torah while observing moral laws; and emphasized the ethical call of the Prophets. Reform Judaism developed a prayer service in the vernacular (along with Hebrew in most cases) and emphasized personal connection to Jewish tradition over specific forms of observance. Today, many Reform congregations encourage the study of Hebrew and traditional observances.

  • Reconstructionist Judaism started as a stream of philosophy by Mordechai Kaplan, a Conservative rabbi, and later became an independent movement emphasizing reinterpreting Judaism for modern times. Like Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism does hold not that Jewish law, as such, requires observance, but unlike Reform, Reconstructionist thought emphasizes the role of the community in deciding what observances to follow.

  • Jewish Renewal, a recent North American movement, was begun by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Hassidic rabbi, in the 1960's. Jewish Renewal focuses on spirtuality and social justice, but does not address issues of Jewish law. Men and women participate equally in prayer.

Humanistic Judaism. A small nontheistic movement that emphasizes Jewish culture and history as the sources of Jewish identity. Founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, it is centered in North America and Israel but also has affiliated groups in Europe and Latin America.

Jewish denominations in Israel

Even though all of these denominations exist in Israel, Israelis tend to classify Jewish identity in ways that are different than diaspora Jewry. Most Jewish Israelis classify themselves as "secular" (hiloni), "traditional" (masorti), "religious" (dati) or Haredi. The term "secular" is more popular as a self-description among Israeli families of western (European) origin, whose Jewish identity may be a very powerful force in their lives, but who see it as largely independent of traditional religious belief and practice. This portion of the population largely ignores organized religious life, be it of the official Israeli rabbinate (Orthodox) or of the liberal movements common to diaspora Judaism (Reform, Conservative).

The term "traditional" (masorti) is most common as a self-description among Israeli families of "eastern" origin (i.e., the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa). This term, as commonly used, has nothing to do with the official Masorti (Conservative) movement.

There is a great deal of ambiguity in the ways "secular" and "traditional" are used in Israel. They often overlap, and they cover an extremely wide range in terms of ideology and religious observance.

The term "Orthodox" (Ortodoxi) is unpopular in Israeli discourse (among both "secular" and "religious" alike). Nevertheless, the spectrum covered by "Orthodox" in the diaspora exists in Israel, again with some important variations. The "Orthodox" spectrum in Israel is a far greater percentage of the Jewish population in Israel than in the diaspora, though how much greater is hotly debated. Various ways of measuring this percentage, each with its pros and cons, include the proportion of religiously observant Knesset members, the proportion of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools, and statistical studies on "identity".

What would be called "Orthodox" in the diaspora includes what is commonly called dati (religious) or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel. The former term includes what is called "Religious Zionism" or the "National Religious" community, as well as what has become known over the past decade or so as haredi-leumi (nationalist haredi), or "Hardal," which combines a largely haredi lifestyle with nationalist ideology.

Haredi applies to a populace that can be roughly divided into three separate groups along both ethnic and ideological lines: (1) "Lithuanian" (non-hasidic) haredim of Ashkenazic origin; (2) Hasidic haredim of Ashkenazic origin; and (3) Sephardic haredim. The third group is the largest, and has been the most politically active since the early 1990s.

Alternative Judaism

Other expressions of Jewish identity fall outside of this conservative-liberal continuum.

Unlike the above denominations, which were ideological reactions that resulted from the exposure of traditional rabbinic Judaism to the radical changes of modern times, Karaite Judaism did not begin as a modern Jewish movement. The followers of Karaism believe they are the remnants of the non-Rabbinic Jewish sects of the Second Temple period, such as the Sadducees, though others contend they are a sect started in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Karaites, or "Scripturalists," accept only the Hebrew Bible and what they view as the Peshat: "Plain or Simple Meaning"; and do not accept non-biblical writings as authoritative. Some European Karaites do not see themselves as part of the Jewish community, while most do. It is interesting to note that the Nazis often did not associate Karaites with Jews, and therefore several Karaite communities were spared in WWII and exist to this day even in places such as Lithuania where Jewish communities were completely devastated. In other areas, such as Greece, the Nazis deemed Karaites as belonging to a greater Jewish tradition and abused them accordingly.

Another historical division among ethnic Jews are the Samaritans, who maintain a distinct cultural and religious identity from mainstream Judaism, and are located entirely in Holon, Israel and around Mount Gerizim.

Jewish views of religious pluralism describes how Judaism views other religions; it also describes how members of each of the Jewish religious denominations view the other denominations.

What (who) is a "Jew"?

The misuse of this term is creating a deplorable confusion that is fueling the reawakening of rampant anti-Semitism.

Before writing on this subject, I wish to explain why I have chosen this particular moment to do so. Clearly, the current geopolitical turmoil, which is causing such grief and suffering, are the subject of widespread ignorance and prejudices. It has stimulated me to address a question that affects deeply so many people for different reasons and to which I have given much thought over the years.
As the text will make clear, my name (Goldschmidt) identifies me, in the minds of most people with my Jewish heritage of which I am proud. This association, which seems so evident, is the symptom of the lack of knowledge and the corresponding lack of understanding which has allowed the fate of a miniscule part of the world population (0.2%) to engender so much hate, jealousy and rejection.
The potential consequences imbedded in the current geopolitical template, when added to the challenges of poverty, climate change, the economy, or demography, are cataclysmic. It is imperative not to overlook the responsibilities of those in charge of these overriding priorities who, through their deliberate manipulations, often enflame their public opinion to obfuscate their own weakness (Iranian Mullahs – Turkish President Erdogan)  by exacerbating the growing discord between Nations.
Ignorance is man's worst enemy, destroying the very fabric of society and in particular universal values that are key to world peace, development and solidarity. That is why we cannot allow "communication" wars that spread "fake news" to shape our destiny. The resurgence of antisemitism is just one example fueled by these symptoms, along with the deliberate spreading of  blatant lies and  unrestricted violence.

*     *

  In his course on "Judaism", Father Rademakers S.J. of the Collège Saint Michel in Brussels introduced his lecture with the phrase:
"Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions!"

  This quip applies perfectly to the question being addressed. Indeed, "Jews" do not agree among themselves on the definition of the "Jew".
  For some, Jewishness" is conferred by being born of a Jewish mother. The origin of this rule results most probably from the isolation and dispersal of Jewish communities giving hardly any opportunity to subservient women to pursue extramarital relations, especially with foreigners; on the other hand men, often tradesmen, travelled continuously offering far more occasions to sire illegitimate children with non-Jewesses. Modern values, including equality between men and women, make such a definition obsolete.
  Additionally, this condition would make many descendants of prestigious European aristocrats "Jews", if we refer to all those who - often to restore their dilapidated fortunes - married wealthy "Jewish" heiresses. On the other hand, descendants of Jews with names such as my own, Cohen, or Levi, who may have married "non-Jewish" women would beget children who's "Jewishness" would be denied them!
  For others, specific conditions must be met, such as circumcision for males. This is, of course, unverifiable in normal interpersonal relations. At the same time, for purely hygienic reasons, circumcision has been extended  to a segment of the world's population far in excessins of the Jewi male count. It becomes therefor a necessary but insufficient condition to define a Jew.
  For still others, practicing a religion other than Judaism excludes the possibility of being considered as "Jewish"; not to mention the quarrels between different denominations of Judaism (from Hassidic to Reformists) that do not recognize each other.
  If Jews find it difficult to define themselves, how can we expect others to do so?
  Is it a race? Scientific progress has sufficiently demonstrated the inextricable intermingling of lineages of the human species capable of reproducing with one another, proving by the way, thanks to the study of DNA, that Homo sapiens procreated with Neanderthals. It renders racist theories outdated and pure figments of the imagination.
  On another level, attempts have been made (e.g. by the Nazis) to define the "biometric characteristics of the "Jew", but to no avail. It is worth recalling that, during the war, the King of Denmark wore a "yellow star" as a distinctive marker to identify with his fellow Danish Jewish subjects and underscore the imbecility of the occupier's regulations.

Is it a specific religious practice: "Judaism"? Such a definition is of course acceptable but only if it denies the character of "Jew" to all those who are agnostic or practice other religions.
Is it a question of belonging to a "community"? In the course of history, Jewish communities born of a diaspora dating back to antiquity have been subjected to discriminations of all kinds, notably in the early days of Christianity when the two faiths competed with each other. After the overwhelming success of Catholicism, antisemitism developed in various forms such as imposed living quarters (ghettos), restricted professional occupations and limited civil rights. This enforced isolation has encouraged the maintenance of privileged links between Jewish communities - often geographically distant. This distinctive feature enabled this small population to survive local persecutions, often
 by emigrating and spreading widely across the globe.
The minority nature of these groups, wherever they settled, favored their designation as "scapegoats", blamed for numerous calamities; they were abandoned to popular vindictiveness and the authorities, would, in some cases, organize these "pogroms" themselves in order to appropriate their wealth. (The King of France did the same with the Knights Templar).
Moreover, after the French Revolution, which favored the emancipation of Jews and their progressive integration into various national communities, ties were severed with a growing number of former Jews through secularization, religious conversion and interfaith marriages.
Today, the "Jewish community", estimated at some 15 million individuals (or up to 23 million depending on the definition of who is a Jew!), has settled mainly in Israel (6 million), the United States (5 million) and France (500,000), with the remainder scattered around the world. With the exception of Israel, they constitute everywhere an infinitesimal minority (0.2% of the world's 8 billion population).When compared either with the religions whose divinity they share (peoples of the book), Christians (2.6 billion), Muslims (2.3 billion), it is hard to believe that this community has become a central element in world geopolitics, and the subject of so much continued controversy over the centuries.
However, a strong sense of solidarity, cultural heritage and values has survived and permeates a significant proportion of the descendants of these ancient communities, including those who have distanced themselves from Judaism and their origins.
The unspeakable tragedy of the Shoah during WWII was the result of the Nazis' exacerbation of an ambient "anti-Semitism" based on racist theories that had developed in Europe and the United States after 1850. After the Second World War, this led to the creation of the State of Israel, conceived as a refuge for the "Jews" who had been demanding since the end of the 19th century, a land where they could live in safety.
This creation, ratified by the UN in 1947, opened a new chapter in the history of the "Jewish people". It has proved to be just as uncertain and chaotic as the twenty centuries since their exile imposed by the Roman Empire. The choice of the Palestinian territory, then under British mandate, in addition to its historical foundations, enabled the international community to offload the "Jewish problem", inherited from the Shoah, onto the backs of the Palestinians who - represented by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem - had supported the Nazi aim of total Jewish eradication.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose ins and outs are widely commented on by the world's media, has further complicated and blurred perceptions of the definition of a "Jew" and the use of this word in everyday life. Its latest iteration, currently underway in Gaza, is the harbinger of a third chapter in which "the Jew" will find itself at the center of a confrontation that could become planetary. It could call into question the disappearance of Israel, if not the eradication of all Jews (fulfilling thus Hitler's dreams), but also the end, of democracy itself. These ambiguities are deliberately exploited by Israel's enemies to steer public opinion, unprepared for the subtleties of language and therefore easily misled.
For example, the State of Israel has promulgated the conditions for Aliyah (right of return) that a Jew must meet in order to immigrate. The frequent substitution of the word "Jew" for "Israeli" contributes to the confusion between the concepts of nationality and identity. They are not interchangeable: indeed, many "Jews" have no intention of immigrating and when they do, many choose to retain their nationality of origin to become bi-nationals, as evidenced by the current imbroglio surrounding the hostages held by Hamas.

It is also common to blame the "Jewish State" or "the Jews" for events - certainly reprehensible - for which the responsibility lies with successive governments; today it is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government who are criticized by a majority of the Israeli population for failing to protect the country adequately. These misnomers (like those which attribute Putin's crimes to the Russians or Russia, or to Mali the abuses of the military, etc.) contribute heavily to the exportation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to third countries, where the debate is derailed to focus on ideology, religious  doctrine, home politics and the safeguard of domestic values. The aim is to extend responsibility for the current situation to "Jews" in general, thereby justifying their detractors' support for Hamas terrorists, whatever barbaric acts the latter may have committed.
This has led to a significant upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents (over 700 recorded in France over the last two weeks). These criminal acts, conveniently pinned on the Muslim diaspora, conceal, however, a low-key resurgence of indigenous anti-Semitism, which can be found on both the extreme right and extreme left of the political spectrum.
This development is one of the most disturbing features of the current situation, and constitutes ultimately a real danger to democracy. It is largely ignored by the general population, who wrongly believe that they are not concerned by this debate. This attitude is mirrored in the general geopolitical arena, where the majority of people feel unconcerned by the conflict in Ukraine, even though it will be a crucial element in the outcome of the Autocracies' struggle to impose a new world governance based on the rule of the mightiest and oblivious to the rule of law.
I hope to have demonstrated that there is no definitive answer to the question "What (who) is a Jew?" In the interests of honesty and transparency, however, I offer you my own definition:
"A Jew is one who recognizes himself as such".
This definition does not give the slightest justification to anyone to discriminate against a Jewish person, since every human being is equal in rights and dignity.
Not wishing, however, to evade my own response in relation to this definition, I claim the right to be recognized as a Belgian national (a legal status), a practicing Catholic (a testimony to my faith) and a Free-thinker (a philosophy to which I adhere). This posture will, however, never deter me from considering myself a "Jew", (like we were mostly all Americans on 9/11/01 or Charlies on 1/7/15) whenever I encounter a situation in which I perceive that my interlocutor(s) is/are attempting to disassociate me from my Jewish origins; indeed, I recognize the profound influence of Jewish values on my upbringing, not forgetting the deep kinship that my Catholic faith shares with Judaism.
Brussels, October 30th, 2023
Paul N. Goldschmidt
Director, European Commission (ret.); Member of the Advisory Council of "Stand Up for Europe".
Tel: +32 (02) 373 63 30                                         
Mob: +32(0497) 549259
E-mail: pn.goldschmidt@gmail.com               Web: www.paulgoldschmidt.eu

Jewish observances


There are three main daily prayer services, named Shacharit, Mincha (literally: "flour-offering") and Maariv or Arvit. All services include a number of benedictions called the Amidah or the Shemoneh Esrei ("eighteen"), which on weekdays consists of nineteen blessings (one was added in the time of the Mishna, but the name remains). Another key prayer in many services is the declaration of faith, the Shema which is recited at shacharit and maariv. The shema states, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad," or "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Most of the prayers in a traditional Jewish service can be said in solitary prayer. However, in order to have an actual service, you are required to have ten people. This is called a minyan (prayer quorum). There are also prayers and benedictions recited throughout the day, such as those before eating ("Hamotzi" for bread, "Mezonot" for pastry, etc) or drinking ("Hagaffen" for grape juice or wine, "Shehakol" for water, etc). There are a number of common Jewish religious objects used in prayer. The tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl. A kippah or yarmulke—pronounced ya-ma-ka (skullcap) is a head covering worn during prayer by most Jewish men, and at all times by more orthodox Jewish men — especially Ashkenazim. Phylacteries or tefillin, boxes containing the portions of the Torah mandating them, are also worn by religious Jews during weekday morning services.

The Jewish approach to prayer differs among the various branches of Judaism. While all use the same set of prayers and texts, the frequency of prayer, the number of prayers recited at various religious events, and whether one prays in a particular liturgical language or the vernacular differs from denomination to denomination, with Conservative and Orthodox congregations using more traditional services, and Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues more likely to incorporate translations, contemporary writings, and abbreviated services.

Jewish holy days

Jewish holy days celebrate central themes in the relationship between God and the world, such as creation, revelation, and redemption.


Shabbat, the weekly day of rest lasting from shortly before sundown on Friday night to shortly after sundown Saturday night, commemorates God's day of rest upon the completion of creation as well as the Exodus from Egypt.[5] It plays an important role in Jewish practice and is the subject of a large body of religious law. At the beginning of Shabbat, it is usual for the woman of the house to light a pair of candles and say a blessing praising God. The evening meal begins with a sanctification of Shabbat made over a cup of wine, and a blessing said over two loaves of bread. During Shabbat, Jews are forbidden to engage in any activity that falls under 39 categories of work. For example, writing, carrying items in public, and lighting fires are considered to be work. Driving is traditionally forbidden (as burning fuel comes under the prohibition of lighting a fire), so many Jews walk to synagogue to participate in Shabbat services.

Three pilgrim festivals

Jewish holidays, mostly festivals (haggim), celebrate revelation by commemorating different events in the passage of the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to their return to the Land of Israel. They are also timed to coincide with important agricultural seasons. They are also pilgrimage holidays, for which the Children of Israel would journey to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God in His Temple.

  • Passover (Pesach) is a week-long holiday beginning on the evening of the 14th day of Nisan (the first month in the Hebrew calendar), that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and coincides with the barley harvest. It is the only holiday that centers on home-service, the Seder. Leavened products are removed from the house prior to the holiday, and are not consumed during the holiday. Instead, one eats Matzah, or unleavened bread. Traditional food symbols include the shank bone (not eaten by Ashkenazim, only displayed), the bitter herb, and the parsley (or another vegetable).

  • Shavuot ("Pentecost" or "Feast of Weeks") celebrates the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, and marks the transition from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest.

  • Sukkot ("Tabernacles" or "The Festival of Booths") commemorates the wandering of the Children of Israel through the desert. It is celebrated through the construction of temporary booths called Sukkahs that represent the temporary shelters of the Children of Israel during their wandering. It coincides with the fruit harvest, and marks the end of the agricultural cycle. During Sukkot, Jews are commanded to create their own sukkah, a simple hut. They decorate it with fruit and vegetables. The roof is made of pine tree branches so that you can see the stars through the ceiling. Jews all around the world eat and sleep in this Sukkah for 7 days and nights. Sukkot concludes with Shemini Atzeret, where Jews begin to pray for rain and Simchat Torah, the holiday in which Jews finish reading the Torah and start over at the beginning. Jews read the end of the Torah, have a huge session of singing and dancing, then read the beginning of the Torah.

High Holy Days

The High Holidays (Yamim Noraim or "Days of Awe") celebrate judgment and forgiveness.

  • Rosh Hashanah ("[Jewish] New Year" or Yom Ha-Zikkaron - "Day of Remembrance," or Yom Teruah - "Day of the Sounding of the Shofar"). Although Rosh Hashanah means "new year" (literally, the "head [of] the year") it falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishri. It is called the Jewish New Year because it celebrates the day that the world was created; it also marks the beginning of the atonement period that ends ten days later with Yom Kippur. During these ten days, one is required to apologize to everyone whom one has wronged, and the aggrieved should forgive.

  • Yom Kippur, ("Day of Atonement") is centered on redemption; a day of atonement and fasting for sins committed individually and communally during the previous year. Many consider this the most important Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur is both a solemn day marked by self-scrutiny, when Jews should "afflict" themselves (by fasting), and a celebratory day, as Jews reflect on God's mercy.

Other holidays


Hanukkah, חנוכה, also known as the Festival of Lights or Festival of Dedication, is an eight day Jewish holiday that starts on the 25th day of Kislev (Hebrew calendar). The festival is observed in Jewish homes by the kindling of lights on each of the festival's eight nights, one on the first night, two on the second night and so on.

The holiday was called Hanukkah meaning "dedication" because it marks the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration under Antiochus IV. Spiritually, Hanukkah commemorates the "Miracle of the Oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days - which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.

Hanukkah was originally a minor holiday within Judaism but in modern times became one of the most celebrated and extravagant within the Jewish community.


Purim (Hebrew: פורים Pûrîm English: "Lots") is a joyous Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the plot of the evil Haman to exterminate them, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther. It is characterized by public recitation of the Book of Esther, giving mutual gifts of food and drink, giving charity to the poor, and a celebratory meal (Esther 9:22); other customs include drinking alcohol, wearing of masks and costumes, and huge joyus and sometimes wild parties.

Purim is celebrated annually on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar.

Torah readings

The core of festival and Sabbath prayer services is the public reading of the Torah, along with connected readings from the other books of the Jewish Bible, called Haftarah. During the course of a year, the full Torah is read, and the cycle begins again every autumn during Simhat Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah”).

Synagogues and Jewish buildings

Synagogues are Jewish houses of prayer and study, they usually contain separate rooms for prayer (the main sanctuary), smaller rooms for study, and often an area for community or educational use. There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly, so a synagogue may contain any (or none) of these features:

  • an ark (called aron ha-kodesh by Ashkenazim and hekhal by Sephardim) where the Torah scrolls are kept (the ark is often closed with an ornate curtain (parokhet) outside or inside the ark doors);

  • a large elevated reader's platform (called bimah by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim), where the Torah is read (and from where the services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues);

  • an Eternal Light (ner tamid), a continually-lit lamp or lantern used as a reminder of the constantly lit menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem; and,

  • (mainly in Ashkenazi synagogues) a pulpit facing the congregation to preach from and a pulpit or amud (Hebrew for "post" or "column") facing the Ark for the Hazzan (reader) to lead the prayers from.

In addition to synagogues, other buildings of significance in Judaism include yeshivas, or institutions of Jewish learning, and mikvahs, which are ritual baths.

Dietary laws: Kashrut

The laws of kashrut ("keeping kosher") are the Jewish dietary laws. Food in accord with Jewish law is termed kosher, and food not in accord with Jewish law is termed treifah or treif. From the context of the laws in the book of Leviticus, the purpose of kashrut is related to ritual purity and holiness, as well as health. Kashrut involves the abstention from consuming animals that eat other animals, and that roam the sea floor eating the excretions of other animals, therefore excluding birds/beasts of prey and seafood (other than fish), respectively. Also, mixing meat and milk is not allowed, as this is viewed as cooking the child in its mother's milk.

Although sometimes rationalized by reference to hygiene, its stated purpose is perhaps better understood as providing certainty that food eaten is prepared and partaken only from sources which are confirmed to have been spiritually appropriate and which avoided spiritual "negatives" such as pain, sickness, unclean animals or abusive practices in its preparation.

Family purity

The laws of niddah ("menstruant", often referred to euphemistically as "family purity") and various other laws regulating the interaction between men and women (e.g., tzeniut, modesty in dress) are perceived, especially by Orthodox Jews, as vital factors in Jewish life, though they are rarely followed by Reform or Conservative Jews. The laws of niddah dictate that sexual intercourse cannot take place while the woman is having a menstrual flow, and she has to count seven "clean" days and immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) following menstruation.

Life-cycle events

Life-cycle events, or rites of passage, occur throughout a Jew's life that serve to strengthen Jewish identity and bind him/her to the entire community.

  • Brit milah - Welcoming male babies into the covenant through the rite of circumcision on their eighth day of life. The baby boy is also given his Hebrew name in the ceremony. A naming ceremony intended as a parallel ritual for girls, named zeved habat, enjoys limited popularity.

  • Bar mitzvah and Bat mitzvah (B'nai mitzvah) - This passage from childhood to adulthood takes place when a female Jew is 12 and a male Jew is 13 years old among Orthodox and some Conservative congregations. In the Reform movement, both girls and boys have their bat/bar mitzvah at age 13. This is often commemorated by having the new adults, male only in the Orthodox tradition, lead the congregation in prayer and publicly read a 'portion' of the Torah.

  • Marriage - Marriage is an extremely important lifecycle event. A wedding takes place under a chupah, or wedding canopy, which symbolizes a happy house. At the end of the ceremony, the groom breaks a glass with his foot, symbolizing the continuous mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and the scattering of the Jewish people.

  • Death and Mourning - Judaism has a multi-staged mourning practice. The first stage is called the Shiv'ah (literally "seven", observed for one week) during which it is traditional to sit at home and be comforted by friends and family, the second is the shloshim (observed for one month) and for those who have lost one of their parents, there is a third stage, avelut yud bet chodesh, which is observed for eleven months.

Religious clothing

A kippah (Hebrew: כִּפָּה, also kipah, kipa, kippa, plural kippot; Yiddish: יאַרמלקע, yarmlke, yarmulke, yarmulka, yarmelke, less commonly called kapel) is a thin, usually slightly-rounded cloth skullcap worn by observant Jews (usually men, but not always; see below). Kipot range in size from four inches to 9.5 inches (100 mm to 240 mm) or larger in diameter.

Tzitzit (Ashkenazi pronunciation: tzitzis) are fringes or tassles (Hebrew: ציצת (Biblical), ציצית (Mishnaic)) found on a tallit worn by observant Jews as part of practicing Judaism. In Orthodox Judaism it is only worn by males.

A kittel, a white approximately knee-length belted overgarment resembling a lab coat, is worn by observent Jews on the High Holidays and by service leaders on certain other occaisons. Both the tallit and kittel form part of the tachrichim, the burial garments.

Community leadership

Classical priesthood

Judaism does not have a clergy, in the sense of full-time specialists required for religious services. Technically, the last time Judaism had a clergy was prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when priests attended to the Temple and sacrifices. The priesthood is an inherited position, and although priests no longer have any but vestigial clerical duties, they are still honored in many Jewish communities. Many Orthodox Jewish communities believe that they will be needed again for a future Third Temple and need to remain in readiness for future duty.

  • Kohen (priest) - patrilineal descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. In the Temple, the kohanim were charged with performing the sacrifices. Today, a Kohen is the first one called up at the reading of the Torah, performs the Priestly Blessing, as well as complying with other unique laws and ceremonies, including the ceremony of redemption of the first-born.

  • Levi (Levite) - Patrilineal descendant of Levi the son of Jacob. In the Temple in Jerusalem, the levites sang Psalms, performed construction, maintenance, janitorial, and guard duties, assisted the priests, and sometimes interpreted the law and Temple ritual to the public. Today, a Levite is called up second to the reading of the Torah. Levites also have a number of other minor duties in traditional synagogues, including washing the hands of the Kohanim (priests) before they say the priestly blessing.

Prayer leaders

From the time of the Mishna and Talmud to the present, Judaism has required specialists or authorities for the practice of very few rituals or ceremonies. A Jew can fulfill most requirements for prayer by himself. Some activities — reading the Torah and haftarah (a supplementary portion from the Prophets or Writings); the prayer for mourners; the blessings for bridegroom and bride; the complete grace after meals — require a minyan, the presence of ten adults (Orthodox Jews and some Conservative Jews require ten adult men; some Conservative Jews and Reform Jews include women in the minyan).

The most common professional clergy in a synagogue are:

  • Rabbi of a congregation - Jewish scholar who is charged with answering the legal questions of a congregation. This role requires ordination by the congregation's preferred authority (i.e. from a respected Orthodox rabbi or, if the congregation is Conservative or Reform, from academic seminaries). A congregation does not necessarily require a rabbi. Some congregations have a rabbi but also allow members of the congregation to act as shatz or baal kriyah (see below).

    • Hassidic Rebbe - rabbi who is the head of a Hasidic dynasty.

  • Chazzan (note: the "ch" denotes voiceless pharyngeal fricative) (cantor) - a trained vocalist who acts as shatz. Chosen for a good voice, knowledge of traditional tunes, understanding of the meaning of the prayers and sincerity in reciting them. A congregation does not need to have a dedicated chazzan.

Jewish prayer services do involve two specified roles, which are sometimes, but not always, filled by a rabbi and/or hazzan in many congregations. In other congregations these roles are filled on an ad-hoc basis by members of the congregation who lead portions of services on a rotating basis:

  • Shaliach tzibur or Shatz (leader — literally "agent" or "representative" — of the congregation) leads those assembled in prayer, and sometimes prays on behalf of the community. When a shatz recites a prayer on behalf of the congregation, he is not acting as an intermediary but rather as a facilitator. The entire congregation participates in the recital of such prayers by saying amen at their conclusion; it is with this act that the shatz's prayer becomes the prayer of the congregation. Any adult capable of speaking Hebrew clearly may act as shatz (Orthodox Jews and some Conservative Jews allow only men to act as shatz; some Conservative Jews and Reform Jews allow women to act as shatz as well).

  • Baal kriyah (master of the reading) reads the weekly Torah portion. The requirements for acting as a baal kriyah are the same as those for the shatz. Additionally, in many congregations, the baal kriyah is known as the baal koreh, although this is grammatically incorrect.

Note that these roles are not mutually exclusive. The same person is often qualified to fill more than one role, and often does. Often there are several people capable of filling these roles and different services (or parts of services) will be led by each.

Many congregations, especially larger ones, also rely on a:

  • Gabbai (sexton) - Calls people up to the Torah, appoints the shatz for each prayer session if there is no standard shatz, and makes certain that the synagogue is kept clean and supplied.

The three preceding positions are usually voluntary and considered an honor. Since the Enlightenment large synagogues have often adopted the practice of hiring rabbis and hazzans to act as shatz and baal kriyah, and this is still typically the case in many Conservative and Reform congregations. However, in most Orthodox synagogues these positions are filled by laypeople on a rotating or ad-hoc basis. Although most congregations hire one or more Rabbis, the use of a professional hazzan is generally declining in American congregations, and the use of professionals for other offices is rarer still.

Specialized religious roles

  • Dayan (judge) - expert in Jewish law who sits on a beth din (rabbinical court) for either monetary matters or for overseeing the giving of a bill of divorce (get). A dayan always requires semicha.

  • Mohel - performs the brit milah (circumcision). An expert in the laws of circumcision who has received training from a qualified mohel.

  • Shochet (ritual slaughterer) - slaughters all kosher meat. In order for meat to be kosher, it must be slaughtered by a shochet who is expert in the laws and has received training from another shochet, as well as having regular contact with a rabbi and revising the relevant guidelines on a regular basis.

  • Sofer (scribe) - Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot (scrolls put on doorposts), and gittin (bills of divorce) must be written by a sofer who is an expert in the laws of writing.

  • Rosh yeshivah - head of a yeshiva. Somebody who is an expert in delving into the depths of the Talmud, and lectures the highest class in a yeshiva.

  • Mashgiach of a yeshiva - expert in mussar (ethics). Oversees the emotional and spiritual welfare of the students in a yeshiva, and gives lectures on mussar.

  • Mashgiach over kosher products - supervises merchants and manufacturers of kosher food to ensure that the food is kosher. Either an expert in the laws of kashrut, or (generally) under the supervision of a rabbi who is expert in those laws.

Jewish religious history

As Judaism is an old religion with a long tradition of documentation, Jewish history is an extensive topic; this section will cover the elements of Jewish history of most importance to the Jewish religion and the development of Jewish denominations.

Ancient Jewish religious history

Jews trace their religious lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham, who established a covenant with God and moved to Canaan with his followers around 1800 BCE according to the Bible, through Isaac and Jacob, and they consider Abraham to be the starter of Judaism. Around 1600 BCE, as a result of famine, many Israelites migrated to Egypt, after a few hundred years of living freely in Egypt they were eventually held in slavery until the 13th century BCE, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and established a covenant with God around 1280 BCE, starting the religious tradition of Judaism. After the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews came back to Canaan around 1200 BCE, and settled the land. A kingdom was established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon with its capital in Jerusalem. After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Israel (in the north) and the Kingdom of Judah (in the south). The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Sargon II in the late 8th century BCE with many people from the capital Samaria being taken captive to Media and the Habor valley. The Kingdom of Judah continued as an independent state until it was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BCE, destroying the First Temple that was at the center of ancient Jewish worship. The Judean elite were exiled to Babylonia and this is regarded as the first Jewish Diaspora. During this captivity the Jews in Babylon wrote what is known as the "Babylonian Talmud" while the remaining Jews in Judea wrote what is called the "Palestinian Talmud". These are the first written forms of the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud is the Talmud used to this day. Later many of them returned to their homeland after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians seventy years later, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity. A new Second Temple was constructed, and old religious practices were resumed.

During the early years of the Second Temple, the highest religious authority was a council known as the Great Assembly, led by Ezra of the Book of Ezra. Among other accomplishments of the Great Assembly, the last books of the Bible were written at this time and the canon sealed.

After a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 66 CE, the Romans all but destroyed Jerusalem. Following a second revolt, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem and most Jewish worship was forbidden by Rome. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews, Jewish worship stopped being centrally organized around the Temple, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and worship was rebuilt around rabbis who acted as teachers and leaders of individual communities (see Jewish diaspora).

Historical Jewish groupings (to 1700)

Around the first century CE there were several small Jewish sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and Christians. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, these sects vanished. Christianity survived, but by breaking with Judaism and becoming a separate religion; the Pharisees survived but in the form of Rabbinic Judaism (today, known simply as "Judaism"). The Sadducees rejected the divine inspiration of the Prophets and the Writings, relying only on the Torah as divinely inspired. Consequently, a number of other core tenets of the Pharisees' belief system (which became the basis for modern Judaism), were also dismissed by the Sadducees.

Like the Sadducees who relied only on the Torah, some Jews in the 8th and 9th centuries rejected the authority and divine inspiration of the oral law of the Pharisees/rabbis, as recorded in the Mishnah (and developed by later rabbis in the two Talmuds), relying instead only upon the Tanakh. These included the Isunians, the Yudganites, the Malikites, and others. They soon developed oral traditions of their own, which differed from the rabbinic traditions, and eventually formed the Karaite sect. Karaites exist in small numbers today, mostly living in Israel. Rabbinical and Karaite Jews each hold that the others are Jews, but that the other faith is erroneous.

Over time Jews developed into distinct ethnic groups — amongst others, the Ashkenazi Jews (of Central and Eastern Europe with Russia); the Sephardi Jews (of Spain, Portugal, and North Africa), the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Yemenite Jews, from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. This split is cultural, and is not based on any doctrinal dispute, although the distance did result in minor differences in practice and prayers.


Antisemitism arose during the Middle Ages, in the form of persecutions, pogroms, forced conversion, expulsions, social restrictions and ghettoization.

This was different in quality to any repressions of Jews in ancient times. Ancient repression was politically motivated and Jews were treated no differently than any other ethnic group would have been. With the rise of the Churches, attacks on Jews became motivated instead by theological considerations specifically deriving from Christian views about Jews and Judaism. (See also Racial antisemitism)


Hasidic Judaism was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (or Besht). It originated in a time of persecution of the Jewish people, when European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study; many felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too "academic", and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. His disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life for many Jews in Europe. Waves of Jewish immigration in the 1880s carried it to the United States.

Early on, there was a serious schism between Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as mitnagdim, (lit. "opponents"). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism were the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and alleged miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect. Since then differences between the Hasidim and their opponents have slowly diminished and both groups are now considered part of Haredi Judaism.

The Enlightenment and Reform Judaism

In the late 18th century CE Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment led to reductions in the European laws that prohibited Jews to interact with the wider secular world, thus allowing Jews access to secular education and experience. A parallel Jewish movement, Haskalah or the "Jewish Enlightenment," began, especially in Central Europe, in response to both the Enlightenment and these new freedoms. It placed an emphasis on integration with secular society and a pursuit of non-religious knowledge. The thrust and counter-thrust between supporters of Haskalah and more traditional Jewish concepts eventually led to the formation of a number of different branches of Judaism: Haskalah supporters founded Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism, while traditionalists founded what is called Orthodox Judaism, and Jews seeking a balance between the two sides founded Conservative Judaism. A number of smaller groups came into being as well.

The Holocaust

While the Holocaust, the genocide of millions of Jews under Nazi Germany in World War II, did not directly affect Jewish denominations, the discrimination, moves to flee the Nazis, and great loss of life it caused resulted in a radical demographic shift, ultimately transforming the makeup of organized Judaism into the way it is today. (For example, various Hasidic rebbes and their central followers moved to the United States, settling in New York City and other urban centers.) A Jewish day of mourning, Yom HaShoah, was inserted into the Hebrew calendar commemorating the Holocaust.

The present situation

In most Western nations, such as the United States of America, Israel, Canada, United Kingdom, Argentina and South Africa, a wide variety of Jewish practices exist, along with a growing plurality of secular and non-practicing Jews. For example, in the world's second largest Jewish community, the United States, according to the 2001 edition of the National Jewish Population Survey, 4.3 million out of 5.1 million Jews had some sort of connection to the religion. Of that population of connected Jews, 80% participated in some sort of Jewish religious observance, but only 48% belonged to a synagogue.

Religious (and secular) Jewish movements 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 to, the birth rate for American Jews has dropped from over 2.0 down to 1.7 (the replacement rate is 2.1). (This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate relations, p. 27, Elliot N. Dorff, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1996). Intermarriage rates range from 40-50% in the US, and only about a third of children of intermarried couples are raised Jewish. Due to intermarriage and low birth rates, the Jewish population in the US shrank from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.1 million in 2001. This is indicative of the general population trends among the Jewish community in the Diaspora, but a focus on population masks the diversity of current Jewish religious practice, as well as growth trends among some communities, like haredi Jews.

In the last 50 years there has been a general increase in interest in religion among many segments of the Jewish population.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Complementing the increased popularity of the major denominations has been a number of new approaches to Jewish worship, including feminist approaches to Judaism and Jewish renewal movements. There is a separate article on the Baal teshuva movement, the movement of Jews returning to observant Judaism. Though this gain has not offset the general demographic loss due to intermarriage and acculturation, many Jewish communities and movements are growing.[citation needed]

Judaism and other religions

Christianity and Judaism

Since the Holocaust, there has been much to note in the way of reconciliation between some Christian groups and the Jewish people; the article on Christian-Jewish reconciliation studies this issue.

Islam and Judaism

Under Islamic rule, Judaism has been practiced for almost 1500 years and this has led to an interplay between the two religions which has been positive as well as negative at times. The period around 900 to 1200 in Moorish Spain came to be known as the Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain.

The 20th century animosity of Muslim leaders towards Zionism, the political movement of Jewish self-determination, has led to a renewed interest in the relationship between Judaism and Islam.

Judaism and Zoroastrianism

For most of its early history, Jews lived under the Zoroastrian Persian empire. Some scholars believe Judaism started off as a western branch of the state religion of the Persian empire, as evidenced by the fact that Cyrus the great, the first king of the Persian empire, and subsequent Iranian kings funded the construction of the second temple.

Syncretic beliefs incorporating Judaism

There are some religious beliefs that combine elements of Judaism with those of other religions. The most well-known of these is the Messianic Judaism movement (closely related to Hebrew Christianity), groups of ethnic Jews and gentiles who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. These groups typically combine Christian theology and Christology with Jewish religious practices. The most controversial of these groups is the American Jews for Jesus. The Jew-to-Gentile ratio of adherents is unknown and can vary widely between bodies of believers.

Other syncretic beliefs include Judeo-Paganism, a loosely-organized set of Jews who incorporate pagan or Wiccan beliefs; Jewish Buddhists, another loosely-organized group that incorporates elements of Asian spirituality in their faith; and Jewish Renewal, an organized spiritualist approach to Judaism, loosely based on Kabbalah and New Age principles, with around 50 congregations worldwide.

Criticism of Judaism

Criticism of Judaism has existed since Judaism's formative stages, as with many other religions, on philosophical, scientific, ethical, political and theological grounds.

In many religions ex-members and excommunicates became known for criticism of their former faith. In Judaism a process like excommunication is called Cherem and amongst these are critics of the faith.