Jewish beliefs center on the conviction that there is only one God. This was a minority view in its time, but monotheism is now dominant in the western world—thanks to the influence of Judaism on the powerful religions of Christianity and Islam.
Today, approximately 14 million people identify themselves as Jews. There are three main branches of Judaism, each with different approaches to religious life. Jewish life is rich in traditions, rituals and holidays, which commemorate the past, celebrate the present, and express hope for the future.
How did Judaism begin?
Judaism began about 4000 years ago with the Hebrew people in the Middle East. Abraham, a Hebrew man, is considered the father of the Jewish faith because he promoted the central idea of the Jewish faith: that there is one God. At the time many people in the Middle East worshipped many gods. It is said that Abraham and his wife Sarah, who were old and childless, were told by God that their children would be as plentiful as the stars in the sky and that they would live in a land of their own — the Promised Land. This gradually came true.
Abraham’s son, Isaac had a son, Jacob, also called Israel. In this way the descendants of Abraham came to be known as the Israelites. God promised the Israelites he would care for them as long as they obeyed God’s laws. While still traveling, the Hebrews lived in Egypt where they were enslaved. Moses, a Hebrew, was chosen by God to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Moses led the Hebrew people out of the Sinai Desert toward the promised land. At Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses the Law which would guide the Israelites to today. The laws were called the Ten Commandments and form the basis of the Torah, the book of Jewish law.
It took many years for the Israelites to finally get to what they thought was the Promised Land -Canaan. After some fighting the Jews established the Israelite kingdom. After many years, Canaan was conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and then eventually the Romans. The Israelites once again found themselves enslaved, this time by Babylonians. The Israelites were then taken over by Romans who destroyed much of what had been built in Jerusalem by the Israelites. Most of the Jews were scattered all over the region and eventually moved from place to place to avoid persecution which continues to this day. The dispersion of the Jews is called the Diaspora.
The worst persecution of the Jews was during World War II by the Nazis who murdered more than six million Jews or a third of the world’s Jewish population. This was called the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1880’s Jews began returning to their homeland in growing numbers, this time to avoid persecution where they lived. After World War II, many Jews believed that for the Jewish people and culture to survive, Jews needed to live in their own country where all Jews from anywhere in the world would have the right to live and be citizens. In 1948, Palestine was divided up and a Jewish state of Israel was formed in the land that was once called Canaan, surrounded by countries with predominantly Muslim populations. Since Muslims also claimed rights to the land where the Jews were living, there was conflict, which continues to this day in the Middle East.
Today nearly fourteen million Jewish people live all over the world. Approximately half of them live in the United States, one quarter live in Israel, and a quarter are still scattered around the world in countries in Europe, Russia, South America, Africa, Asia and other North American and Middle Eastern countries. Anyone born to a Jewish mother is considered a Jew.
What do Jewish people believe?
Jewish people believe in the Torah, which was the whole of the laws given to the Israelities at Sinai. They believe they must follow God’s laws which govern daily life. Later legal books, written by rabbis, determine the law as it applies to life in each new place and time.
The Ten Commandments, as written in the Torah, are:
•Worship no other God but me.
•Do not make images to worship.
•Do not misuse the name of God.
•Observe the Sabbath Day (Saturday). Keep it Holy.
•Honor and respect your father and mother.
•Do not murder.
•Do not commit adultery.
•Do not steal.
•Do not accuse anyone falsely. Do not tell lies about other people.
• Do not envy other’s possessions.
There are three basic groups of Jewish people who have a different understanding of the interpretation of the Torah.
•Orthodox Jews believe that all of the practices in the Torah which it is practical to obey must be obeyed without question.
•Conservative and Reform Jews believe that the ancient laws and practices have to be interpreted for modern life with inclusion of contemporary sources and with more concern with community practices than with ritual practices.
•Reform Jews also allow everyone to sit together, men and women, and both Hebrew and the local language are spoken in services.
What are the sacred texts of the Jewish people?
The Tenakh is the ancient collection of writings that are sacred to the Jews. They were written over almost a thousand years from 1000 to 100 BCE. The word Tenakh comes from the three first letters of the three books included in this text: the Torah, plus the Nev’im (prophets) and the Ki’tuvim (writings, which include histories, prophecies, poems, hymns and sayings).
The Torah is written on scrolls and kept in a special cabinet called the aron hakodish, the holy ark, in synagogues. The Torah is read with a pointer called a yad (hand) to keep it from being spoiled. Each week, one section is read until the entire Torah is completed and the reading begins again.
The Talmud is also an important collection of Jewish writings. Written about 2000 years ago, it is a recording of the rabbis discussion of the way to follow the Torah at that time. Later texts, the Mishnah Torah and the Shulhan Aruch, are recordings of rabbinic discussions from later periods.