Judaism 101, From Origins to Modernity

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A man prays as workers remove notes from the cracks of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City April 6, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Judaism is the name of the religion and set of practices that unite the Jewish people.

The great innovation of Judaism was the monotheistic idea – the concept of a single, all-powerful but formless god. It was introduced nearly 4,000 years ago – 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 – making it the oldest of the three major monotheistic faiths.

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.

The Torah lays out the laws that are the basis for Jewish ritual practice. Yet it also recounts the seminal narrative of the Israelite people, from the creation of the universe through the life of the first Jew, Abraham. It continues onto the Exodus from Egypt and the wandering through the desert, where “the law” is given to the Israelites through the Prophet Moses.

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 faith by one of the generally recognized movements within the religion.

Unlike other religions, Judaism is not an active missionary religion. It is also not a race or a genetically determined identity, and the religion and the people are open to new members who are willing to undergo the process of conversion.

Today there are three main denominations of Judaism in the United States: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, each of which differs in terms of practice and levels of observance.

Orthodox Jews maintain a halakhic way of life – that is, they adhere to Jewish law as outlined by the Torah.

Conservative Judaism also generally accepts halakha (Jewish law), but believes religious practice should adapt to modern times while upholding the faith’s core values. The Conservative movement developed out of the tension between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.

Reform Judaism does not believe God wrote the Torah, yet it accepts the Torah as the foundation of Jewish life. It believes that Judaism should reflect life in modern times and introduce innovation and embrace diversity when it comes to Jewish belief and practice.

In Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls Jewish matters such as marriage and divorce and conversion – something that has created growing tension between it and the Conservative and Reform movements in the Diaspora. Those streams of Judaism have a presence in Israel, but unlike Americans, most Israelis describe themselves more generally as religious (dati) or secular (hiloni), as opposed to identifying with a particular denomination.