Judaism The religion centered on the covenant revealed to MOSES at Mount Sinai and preserved in the TORAH, the first five books of the Hebrew BIBLE. Judaism is a major religion. In addition, both CHRISTIANITY and ISLAM see themselves as continuing the ancient traditions of Judaism.


The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) preserves the sacred stories of Judaism. It tells the history of the people of Israel from their first ancestors, ABRAHAM and SARAH (perhaps 18th century B.C.E.) to the attempts to rebuild the kingdom of Judah (now southern Israel) after the Babylonian Exile (ended 539 B.C.E.). Judaism as we know it began when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in JERUSALEM in 70 C.E. After that event, a group of religious scholars known as RABBIS formulated the Jewish way of life on the basis of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible attributed to Moses. The rabbis compiled rules of behavior into a collection known as the Mishnah, then recorded the meanings of those rules in the TALMUD. From roughly 600 to 1789, Jews developed this way of life in several different directions. Jewish thinkers like Maimonides (1135–1204) and Judah Halevy (before 1075–1141) thought intensely about the relationship between GOD’s revelation and human reasoning. Other Jews sought to grasp intuitively the ultimate truth beyond all words and language; they developed Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah. Beginning in the 18th century, Jews in eastern Europe began to emphasize a religion of the heart as opposed to external observances. They began the movement known as HASIDISM. Until 1789, Jews, especially those living in Europe, were denied civil rights. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment taught that all people had certain inalienable rights. As a result, Jews began to be integrated into European society. The first significant “emancipation” of Jews came with the French Revolution in 1789. Emancipation posed two challenges. The first was the issue of what it meant to be Jewish in a secular state. Different responses gave rise to the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements (see JUDAISM IN AMERICA). At the same time, Jews had to confront the backlash of conservative Europeans (see ANTI-SEMITISM), seen most gruesomely in the HOLOCAUST. One significant response to antiSemitism and the Holocaust was ZIONISM and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.


As a religion, Judaism is much more a way of life than a set of beliefs. The Talmud, for example, concentrates on what one needs to do in order to follow God’s commandments, not on what one ought to believe. Nevertheless, Jews have generally held several beliefs. These include the conviction that there is one, eternal, omniscient, incorporeal God who created the universe, that he alone deserves WORSHIP, and that he revealed the unchanging Torah to Moses as a guide to life. Jews have generally spoken of God in male terms, but feminine images of the divine are not unknown. PriMary examples include God’s creative Wisdom in Proverbs (see WISDOM LITERATURE) and God’s Shekinah or manifestation in the mystical writings.


The goal of Judaism is to make life holy, to grace the temporal with the eternal and the material with the spiritual. Jews do this by following God’s commandments (mitzvot), so far as they can. These commandments are taken as a sign of God’s love and concern. Furthermore, in Judaism God is like a compassionate parent. God forgives people when they sincerely repent of their wrongdoings. The notion common among some Christians that the “God of the Old Testament” is a stern “God of the law” presents a totally misleading picture of Judaism.

The central Jewish observance is keeping the Sabbath, the time from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Jews rest on the Sabbath in imitation of God’s resting on the seventh day of creation. Sabbath observance varies in strictness in the different Jewish movements, but the ideal is always one of a Sabbath rest. At the Sabbath meal on Friday evening, the mother of an observant family will light the Sabbath candles and welcome Queen Sabbath. Observant Jews also generally attend a service at the SYNAGOGUE or temple on Saturday morning or, among the more liberal, on Friday evening. This service consists of readings from the Bible, PRAYERS, and songs. During the course of the year, there are several major and many minor festivals (see JEWISH FESTIVALS). The most holy days are Rosh ha-Shanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (DAY OF ATONEMENT), which occur in the fall. On Yom Kippur, Jews fast, collectively confess their SINS to God, and receive God’s forgiveness. The other major festivals are Pesach (PASSOVER), Shavuot (Pentecost or Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Originally celebrations of the harvest, these festivals were later connected with the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (see EXODUS), the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the wanderings in the wilderness. The minor festivals include HANUKKAH, PURIM, Simhat Torah, and Holocaust Day. Like most other religions, Judaism sanctifi es the rhythms of life. During Rituals performed soon after birth, Jews enter into the covenant with God and receive their names. The ritual for boys is CIRCUMCISION, known as brit milah, “covenant of circumcision,” or more colloquially as bris and performed on the eighth day of life. Rituals for girls vary; the traditional ritual is for fathers to introduce baby girls to the community at the synagogue service. When boys and, in the more liberal traditions, girls reach the age of 12 or 13, they become BAR or BAT MITZVAH, “son or daughter of the commandment” respectively, that is, members of the adult Jewish community. The ceremony involves reading a portion of the Torah in Hebrew and then commenting upon it. Distinctive features of a Jewish wedding include the huppah, the canopy under which the bride and groom stand, and the glass that the groom breaks with his foot at the end of the ceremony. Judaism also has distinctive funeral practices. When Jews learn that a close relative has died, they are supposed to tear their clothes. They also observe various periods of mourning; the most intense lasts from the moment of death until burial is over. Judaism does not as a rule allow cremation. Embalming is forbidden, and ideally the corpse should be buried within 24 hours.


Judaism is organized according to local congregations that join together to form national organizations. A congregation maintains a synagogue, which is a place for prayer, study, and fellowship. It also supports a rabbi, a person who, after intensive study, is ordained to serve a congregation’s spiritual needs (see ORDINATION). In Reform, Reconstructionist, and more recently Conservative Judaism, women have been ordained to the rabbinate. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews ordain only men. Rabbis are generally respected for their learning and their service to the community, but within Hasidism, the rabbi, or rather the rebbe, assumes an extraordinary position. The leader of a community that may span the globe, the Hasidic rebbe is thought to be blessed with special insight into God’s revelation and will. His person is especially revered, his word is taken as close to divine revelation, his advice is sought on all matters, and even his presence is spiritually uplifting. The state of Israel, established after the Holocaust, has a special place in the Jewish world. Its political leaders have no religious authority, but by its constitution every Jew in the world may become an Israeli citizen. Most Jews outside Israel strongly support the state. A few Hasidic Jews have rejected Israel as a human attempt to do what only God should do, restore the glories of ancient Israel.


One important topic for modern Jews is what it means to follow HALAKHAH, the Jewish “path.” Many followers still consider halakhah to embody the commands of God, but others see it as a code of customs that people are free to adopt or adapt according to their own consciences. In keeping with this distinction, some Orthodox Jews maintain that women cannot be rabbis, are not permitted to read Torah in services, cannot count toward a minyan (traditionally, the number of men required for a prayer service), and cannot hold their own prayer services. Other Jews, however, believe that women hold an equal place in society and religious practices. Jews from various religious backgrounds also differ on other controversial topics, such as homosexuality (see HOMOSEXUALITY AND RELIGION). Furthermore, because Judaism is a small community that does not proselytize, particularly important are issues relating to interfaith marriage and how to regard children of such marriages. (Traditionally, a child’s mother must be Jewish for the child to be considered Jewish.) Relationship with non-Jews also continue to demand attention (see ANTISEMITISM). For example, the last of the survivors of the Holocaust are now very old or dying, and, in an effort to avoid new surges of antisemitism, many Jews are actively trying to document their experiences before they can no longer do so. Also, in North America, Jews are sometimes the targets of vigorous attempts to convert them to other religions, especially by Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (see EVAngelICAL CHRISTIANITY; FUNDAMENTALISM, CHRISTIAN). Most Jews regard those attempts as annoying and disrespectful. Particularly troubling at the beginning of the 21st century is the degree of antisemitism and violence against Jews in the Middle East, especially the terrorist attacks on Jews in the state of Israel. As seen in the world media, the devastation caused by such acts as terrorists’ suicide bombings tends to drown out the voices, on both sides, of those working for peace.


At the end of the 20th century roughly 15 million people practiced Judaism. Although this is only a small percentage of the Earth’s population, Judaism remains a major religion. In addition, Judaism has enriched other religions of the world, such as Christianity and Islam, and individual Jews have made major contributions to the world’s culture.


  • Nicholas de Lange and Miri FreudKandel, Modern Judaism: An Oxford Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005);
  • Abraham Heschel, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism (New York: Free Press, 1965);
  • Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah; An Introduction to Judaism, 2d ed. (Encino, Calif.: Dickenson, 1974);
  • Herman Wouk, This Is My God (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959).

Taken from : The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC