What Is Judaism, the Jewish Religion?

To be Jewish, one needs to have been born to a Jewish mother - or to convert.

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"Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham," oil by Matthias Stom, done some time between 1637 and 1639.
"Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham," oil by Matthias Stom, done some time between 1637 and 1639.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Judaism is the name of the religious faith and set of practices that are shared by the Jewish people.

Technically, to be a member of the Jewish people, one needs either to have been born to a Jewish mother or to have converted to the Jewish faith by one of the generally recognized movements within the religion. And in fact, there are many Jews who are non-practicing and/or non-believing, but whose “membership” in the community is not disputed. If they are women, or men who marry a Jewish woman, their Jewishness will continue to be passed on from one generation to the next regardless of their individual behavior.

An evening of converts in Tel Aviv.Credit: David Bachar

Yet, Judaism is not a race nor a genetically determined identity, and the religion and the people are open to new members who are willing to undergo the process of conversion.

The Torah

The fundamental text of the Jewish people is the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses.

Not only does the Torah lay out the laws that constitute the basis for Jewish ritual practice: It also provides the seminal narrative of the Israelite people from the creation of the universe through the life of the first Jew, Abraham, and onto the Exodus from Egypt and the wandering through the desert, where “the law” is given to them through the Prophet Moses, a story that ends with Moses’ death.

The great innovation of the Jewish religion was the monotheistic idea – the concept of a single, all-powerful but formless god – introduced at a time when it was the norm in the Middle East for cultures to have numerous deities, and to represent them in the form of physical idols.

According to the Torah, the message of one god was given to Abram, later called “Abraham.” According to the story told in Genesis chapters 11 through 25, Abram, one of three sons of Terah, was born in Ur of the Chaldees, what we know as Mesopotamia (today Iraq), before moving to Haran. There, Abram receives the call from God to “Get thee out of thy country ... to the land that I will show thee.” In return, God promises to Abram to “make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.”

According to the dating system used in the Torah, Abram was born in about 1800 B.C.E. But biblical scholars suggest that the events described in the story of Abraham – whether or not such a man existed – probably took place in the centuries before 1000 B.C.E.

Abram and his wife, Sarai, follow God’s directions and travel with their clan to Canaan, which became what we know as the Land of Israel. According to both Jewish and Muslim tradition, Ishmael, Abram’s son with the concubine Hagar, becomes the father of the Arab people.

The line of the Jewish people arises from Sarai’s son, Isaac, the father of Jacob.

When God announces to Sarai and Abram that they will have a son, he also commands Abram to circumcise himself and future male descendants, after having once again promised him that he will be father of a people as numerous as the stars in the heavens, “if thou be able to count them” (Gen 15:5). It is at the time of his circumcision that Abram changes his name to “Abraham,” and Sarai’s name becomes “Sarah.”

In both cases, the meaning is only slightly changed – “Abraham” means “father of a multitude,” and “Sarah” means “princess” – but the process of making the change is indicative of an elevation in station, as when a king ascends the throne and takes on a new name.

Jacob, whom God renames “Israel,” fathers 12 sons. It is their male descendants who, according to the Torah, constitute the 12 tribes among whom the Land of Israel is divided after being reconquered by Joshua, following the Exodus from Egypt.

It is during that period of wandering in the wilderness that the Israelites, also called the Hebrews, that the covenant between the people and God is renewed and refined, when Moses accepts the law from God at Mt. Sinai, and the people promise that “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.”

Jewish tradition says that God gave Moses not only the written law of the Torah but also what is called the “Oral Law,” which is to say all the interpretive commentaries that were codified many centuries later in the Talmud, but that have the same authority as the 613 laws that the Talmudic sage Rabbi Simlai identified as appearing in the Five Books of Moses.

What we know as Judaism today is more correctly called “rabbinic Judaism,” which came into being after the destruction of the Second Temple, in Jerusalem, in 70 C.E.

That event, together with the Great Revolt against Rome 65 years later, also marked the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, even though Jews continued to be a constant presence there. (Large numbers were also taken into slavery, and sent to other parts of the Roman Empire.)

The exiles

With the loss of their cultic center, there were no more sacrifices by Jews, and no more priests. Strictly speaking, rabbis – unlike the Temple’s priests -- were not intermediaries with God, but rather teachers, learned in the law and its interpretation.

Instead of being governed by a priestly caste, the lives of the Jews would now be governed by laws, and they could fulfill their obligations as Jews anywhere they found themselves even as they maintained the aspiration to return to sovereignty in their own land, and to rebuild the Temple.

The Jewish dispersion did not begin with the loss of sovereignty after 70 C.E., since there was already an important community living in Babylonia beginning with an earlier exile from the Kingdom of Judah, early in the sixth century B.C.E. There was an even earlier dispersion, in 722 B.C.E., of the 10 tribes of the northern Kingdom of Israel, by the Assyrians, but the destinations and fate of those sent into exile is not known.

The Jews who had spread to Babylonia, and remained there, became the forerunners to Mizrahi Jews. Those who gravitated in the Middle Ages to Central Europe became the antecedents to Ashkenazi Jews. And those who emigrated to Iberia when it was under Muslim control were the forebears of Sephardi Jewry, who ended up in Northern Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

Wherever they ended up, and whatever variations there were in some of their specific rituals, the Jews always shared the Hebrew language. It not only was the language in which they prayed and studied, but it also served as a lingua franca when members of one community did business, for example, with those in another part of the world. Also, wherever they lived, the Jews shared a loyalty to and longing for their homeland, the Land of Israel. And they felt a connection and even a sense of mutual responsibility for their Jewish brethren, wherever they lived. These are all important elements of Jewish culture.

Recent advances in genetic research have found certain genetic markers that are present in high proportions of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, suggesting a common origin thousands of years ago. But this is a curiosity, and no one seriously suggests that genetic testing, for example, should be use to determine “membership” in the Jewish people. Jews will continue to argue, often very bitterly, about what it means to be Jewish and how best to pass the tradition on to succeeding generations, but it is only the enemies of the Jews, most horrifically the Nazis, who attempted to ascribe a fixed racial definition to them.

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