Judaism

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Judaism, along with Christianity and Islam, is one of the three Abrahamic religions, so-called because each religion traces its roots back to the Biblical Patriarch Abraham. Although originating as the national religion of the Jewish people in their homeland, the dispersion of Jews in the Roman and Persian Empires spread Judaism far beyond the borders of the Land of Israel, even before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman Empire in 70 C.E. The word "Judaism" first appears among Greek-speaking Jews of the first century C.E. (References to C.E., the "Common Era," and B.C.E., "Before the Common Era," are preferred because they do not require verbal acceptance of the divinity of Jesus.)

Judaism is generally regarded as the first monotheistic religion. The Encyclopedia Judaica characterizes the Biblical view of the one G-d as being holy (Lev. 19:2; Isa. 6:3) and demanding holiness (Ex. 22:30; Lev. 19:2) righteousness, and justice both from G-d's people (Gen. 18:19; Ex. 23:2; Deut. 16:18-20) and from all humanity (Gen. 6:13; Amos 1; 2:1-3). G-d has compassion over all G-d's creatures (Ps. 145:9).

As a result of exposure to Persian and Hellenistic cultures and subjugation by the Roman Empire, Biblical Judaism began a process of change accelerated by the Destruction of the Temple and the failure of two great revolts against Rome. What sometimes is referred to as Rabbinic Judaism, therefore, emerged during an extended period that overlapped the development of Christianity.

Because Christianity separated from Judaism before the principal sources of Jewish religious law had been redacted, many Christians mistakenly believe that the principal source of religious authority for traditional Jews is the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible -- often referred to by the Hebrew acronym TaNaKh -- includes (i) the Torah, in this usage, first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles; (ii) Prophets, or Nevi'im, also including such books as Joshua and Judges; and (iii) Writings, or Ketuvim, such as Psalms, Proverbs, etc. (The term "Hebrew Bible" is preferred to the more familiar "Old Testament" because the latter term is polemical, embodying the view that it has been superseded by the "New Testament.")

In fact, the principal sources of religious law in Rabbinic Judaism are the Talmud and numerous Talmudic commentaries and codes written over the centuries. The idea is that, at Sinai, God gave Moses two sets of instruction, or Torahs: the written Torah, found in the Hebrew Bible; and the Oral Law, which was transmitted orally from Moses to Joshua down to the Sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods -- roughly speaking, the first centuries of the Common Era -- who eventually reduced the Oral Law to writing.

Prior to repression by the Roman Empire, both before and after Christianity became the imperial religion, Judaism was widespread and welcoming to converts. At its height, according to some estimates, approximately ten percent of the inhabitants of the Empire were Jewish. Jewish openness to converts is exemplified by the story, related in the Talmud, of a prospective convert who wanted to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one leg. The noted pre-Talmudic sage Hillel accepted him, answering: "That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary; go and study."

Roman repression affected Judaism and the Jewish people in many important ways. For example, losing two great revolts against the Roman Empire resulted in the slaughter, enslavement, and dispersion of a great part of the Jewish population Judaea. Indeed, one element of post-revolt Imperial policy was to change the name of the land to Palestine. Roman repression, intensified in this respect by the rise of Christianity, also led Judaism to become resistant to converts.

Since the center of Jewish religious practice was the Temple in Jerusalem, where atonement was accomplished through participation in the sacrificial cult, the destruction of the Temple produced a religious crisis. Rabbinic Judaism survived by substituting a focus on religious study, prayer, and good deeds.

Until the spread of the Enlightenment, Judaism could be understood simply as a religious term: the religion of the Jews. Conversion out was the only way to cease being a Jew and the idea of a secular Judaism would have been a logical impossibility. (Note, however, that in Christian Europe conversion did not always and everywhere mean full acceptance into the surrounding society. Spain, for example, developed a racial view of Judaism, discriminating against so-called New Christians. The Society of Jesus provides a particularly interesting example. Its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, accepted members from New Christian families, including his immediate successor. In 1593, the Society barred all descendants of Jews from membership.)

The spread of the Enlightenment and the development of a viable secular space within western civilization made the idea of secular Judiasm no longer a contradiciton in terms.

While a history of the Jewish people is beyond the scope of the current entry, suffice it to say that, although European Jewry underwent a population explosion in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as a result of its destruction by Nazi Germany during World War II (for which the word genocide was invented), today there are only about thirteen million Jews in a world of more than four billion people.


One of the core stories of Judaism found in the Torah is Exodus, the story of how the Jewish people were brought out of slavery in Egypt by Moses to the land of milk and honey promised to them by God in a location more or less the same as present day Israel.

The teachings of the Israelite prophets, such as Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah, are much concerned with social justice and the divine preference for the poor and oppressed.

Around 70 CE, the Jewish temple in Jersualem was destroyed by the Romans and the Jews were scattered in what is known as the Diaspora. The end of the temple also marks the point in time when Rabbis (teachers) began to replace Jewish Priests as the primary clergy figures in the religion and the shift in Judaism from practice that placed great importance on animal sacrifice to the current practice which focuses on personal purity, devotion and theological study.

Starting in the 18th century the idea of Zionism, i.e. the return of the Jewish people to Israel, gained momentum. In the early 20th century, many people acted on this idea and moved to the region that would become Israel.

Jews were a target of Genocide during World War II when Hitler tried to exterminate them in a part of that war known as the Holocaust. Six million Jews, one third of the world's Jewish population, were murdered. In the wake of this horror and millions of Jews moved to form Israel.

Jews are also important to U.S. political history primarily because Jews were the principal non-Christian religion in the United States for most of its history, and hence greatly impacted the development of legal doctrines of religious freedom. Because of experience of discrimination, Jews supported the civil rights movement earlier than most White Americans and still consider this movement one of their great political hours.

The major denominations of American Judaism are Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Reconstructionist Judaism.

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