What is Judaism?

RSL2In his book Basic Judaism, Rabbi Milton Steinberg notes that the word Judaism has two distinct meanings. First, Judaism points to a multifaceted, complete civilization: the total history of the Jewish people that includes both sacred and secular elements. This definition is not linked to one specific ethnic identity, nor does it have one single geographical location. Instead, it incorporates a complex pattern of interwoven nationalities, cultures, and practices. Perhaps the most important point to underscore here is that Judaism is not a race—insofar as that term is even used any more. Instead, just like Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, Jews come in all colors, physical characteristics, and nationalities.

Second, the word Judaism also describes the spiritual aspect of that civilization: Jewish religious practices and beliefs. In describing the Jewish religion, Steinberg goes on to say that it is made up of no less than seven strands: doctrine, ethics, rites and customs, laws, a sacred literature, institutions, and the people Israel.

Modern Denominations within Judaism: A North American Overview

Judaism today is descended from Rabbinic Judaism, that is, the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 ce. This form of Judaism was centered around the Torah and the synagogue, instead of the temple. From the first century ce until the nineteenth century, there was basically only one way of being Jewish, and for the most part, by choice or not, it consisted of a life lived separated from the larger society.

With the growing secularization in nineteenth-century Western Europe, however, Jews became more active participants in “secular” society, even while maintaining their “sacred” practices and beliefs. Different interpretations of Judaism developed that guided the interplay between these sacred and secular worlds. Over time, these differences resulted in the four main branches of Judaism that exist today.

Orthodox Judaism is the modern term for what historically has been mainline Judaism: in other words, before the nineteenth century, Orthodox Judaism was Judaism, plain and simple. It is based on an understanding of the Torah as the unchangeable, inerrant revelation of God that provides the sole guide for all aspects of one’s daily life. Accordingly, Orthodox Jews meticulously observe Jewish law, that is, halakhah (literally “the way one walks”), which is based on an understanding that all 613 commandments within the Torah have been revealed as the direct, immutable will of God.

Reform Judaism emerged during the Enlightenment as some sought to “reform” Jewish thought and practice in light of new scientific developments, political ideas, and modernism. While Orthodox Judaism considers the Torah the unchanging divine command of God, Reform Judaism sees the Torah as written by “divinely inspired” human authors. The Torah—and the commandments therein—is regarded as instructional and inspirational, but not absolutely binding. Reform Judaism emphasizes obligation to the neighbor, care for the world, and the injunction to offer hospitality and care to all in need. All other aspects of Judaism are open to negotiation.

Conservative Judaism was founded as a response to what were viewed as overly radical changes in Reform Judaism: it was believed that while change was needed, Reform Judaism had moved too far too quickly. Conservative Judaism emphasizes on ritual practice, rather than specific doctrines. One of the distinguishing marks of Conservative Judaism, as opposed to Reform Judaism, is its preservation of the halakhic process when deciding how traditional interpretation of Jewish law might be changed. In that process, rabbis consult sacred scriptures and commentaries, rabbinic codes of law, and previous generations of rabbinical opinion, in order to craft a new reading for today.

Reconstructionist Judaism is the most recent to emerge. It holds that what is important about Judaism is not that everyone believes the same things about divine revelation, miracles, and God, or that people follow Jewish law in the same way. Instead, it sees the value of Judaism first as a cultural force uniting, supporting, and nurturing the Jewish people over time and space. As such, everything is open to debate and modification—all beliefs, all doctrines, all practices—according to the current needs of the Jewish community. Tradition is important as a way of maintaining community, but it has only a voice, not a veto—and, of course, there are many different views about how much of a vote tradition should have in any specific decision about Jewish life.

Jewish Sacred Texts: The Tanakh

Taken as a whole, the Tanakh is the name of the Hebrew scriptures. The name is an acronym for the three sections of scripture, Torah, Nevi’im, and Kethuvim. Torah, also called the Pentateuch, includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Nevi’im, or “prophets,” includes the eight books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and “the Twelve.”  Finally, Kethuvim is the name for “the writings,” a collection of books, canonized last and used for a wide variety of purposes. This is the full list of books contained in this section: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, a group called “the five scrolls”—the five short books of the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, each of which is read for a specific Jewish holiday—and finally Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. In Jewish tradition, Ezra and Nehemiah historically are viewed as one book, as is Chronicles.

Jewish Holy Days

The Sabbath: The heart and soul of Jewish practice is the weekly celebration of the Sabbath. The laws governing the Sabbath are meant to establish a day of physical rest (the Sabbath is for the body as well as the soul) and spiritual renewal, in which one may restore relationships with God, within the family, and within the community. For this reason labor is prohibited on the Sabbath—doing business, shopping, doing housework, using electricity, etc. These proscriptions, however, are seen as gifts, not punishments, for they set aside the sacred time in which life can flourish, nurtured by prayer and contemplation, rest and reflection, laughter and joy. The life of every Jew, every Jewish family, and every Jewish community revolves around the Sabbath.

The Days of Awe: The most sacred Jewish holidays are called the “Days of Awe,” the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, which marks the New Year in Judaism, and Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is the culmination of the season, and it is a twenty-five-hour day of solemn prayer, repentance, and strict fasting. During that day, forgiveness is sought from God and from others for the transgressions of the past year, in order to purify and prepare oneself for the coming year.

Passover: Another important holiday is Passover, which commemorates the deliverance of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. The major event of Passover is the Seder, a special meal in which special foods are eaten, special songs are sung, and a special book is used. This book is called the haggadah, and it contains the passages from the Bible as well as rabbinic interpretation that explains the significance of the celebration and describes the rituals that are to be performed throughout the course of the evening.

For Further Reading:

Basic Judaism, by Rabbi Milton Steinberg
Living Judaism, by Rabbi Wayne Dosick
Introduction to Judaism: A Sourcebook, by Lydia Kukoff
An Introduction to Judaism, by Nicholas de Lange
Judaism: A Very Short Introduction, by Norman Solomon
The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism, by Jacob Neusner
The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Night, by Elie Wiesel
The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal