Judaism is the religion and culture of the Jewish people. The tenets and history of Judaism constitute the historical foundation of many other religions including Christianity and Islam.

Judaism does not easily fit common Western categories, such as "religion," "race," "ethnicity," "culture." This is because Jews understand Judaism in terms of a 4,000 year history. During this stretch of time, Jews have experienced slavery, anarchic self-government, theocratic self-government, conquest and occupation, and exile; they have been in contact, and have been influenced by ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenic cultures, as well as modern movements such as the Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism. Thus, Daniel Boyarin has argued that "Jewishness disrupts the very categoris of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension." Unlike most other identities (including other races and religions) Judaism is not a self-enclosed and bounded phenomenon (A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity 243-244).

Two things distinguish Judaism from the other religions that existed when it first developed. First, it was monotheistic. The significance of this belief is not so much the denial of other gods (According to most critical Bible scholar, the Torah often implies that the Children of Israel accepted the existence of other gods). Rather, Judaism holds that God created and cares about people. In polythestic religions, humankind is often created by accident, and the gods are primarily concerned with their relations with other gods, not with people. Second, the Torah specifies all sorts of laws that the Children of Israel must follow. Other religions at the time were characterized by temples in which priests would worship their gods through sacrifice. The Children of Israel similarly had a temple, priests, and sacrified -- but these were not the sole means of worshipping God. In comparison to other religions, Judaism elevates everyday life to the level of a temple, and worships God through everyday actions.

By the Hellenic period, most Jews had come to believe that their God is the only God (and thus, the God of everyone), and that the record of His revelation (the Torah) contains within it universal truths. This attitude may reflect growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a God that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which saught to establish universal truths. Jews began to grapple with the tension between the paticularism of their claim that only Jews were required to obey the Torah, and the universalism of their claim that the Torah contained universal truths. The result is a set of beliefs and practices concerning both identity, ethics, one's relation to nature, and one's relation to God, that privilege "difference" -- the difference between Jews and non-Jews; the differences between locally variable ways of practicing Judaism; a close attention to different meanings of words when interpreting texts; attempts to encode different points of view within texts, and a relative indifference to creed and dogma.

The subject of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is an account of the Israelites (also called Hebrews) relationship with God as reflected in their history from the beginning of time until the building of the second temple (approx. 350 BCE). This relationship is generally portrayed as contentious, as Jews struggle between their faith in God and their attraction for other gods, and as some Jews (most notably, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses) struggle with God. Modern scholars also suggest that the Torah consistes of a variety of inconsistent texts that were edited together in a way that calls attention to divergent accounts (see Documentary hypothesis).

While Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish Principles of Faith, it has never developed a binding catechism. It is difficult, or impossible, to generalize about Jewish theology, because Judaism itself is non-creedal; that is, there is no dogma or set of orthodox beliefs that Jews believed were required of Jews. Josephus emphasizes laws rather than beliefs when he describes the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherance to traditional customs).

A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, yet they differ in a number of ways. In the last two centuries the Jewish community has divided into a number of Jewish denominations; each has a greatly different understanding of what these principles are. Most of Orthodox Judaism generally holds that the principles are unchanging and mandatory, non-Orthodox forms of Judaism generally hold that these principles have evolved over time, and thus allow for more leeway in what individual adherents believe. These topics are discussed more fully in the article on Jewish Principles of Faith.

Jewish denominations

Judaism is commonly divided into the following denominations:

Classical Jewish works

Some of these categories overlap, and some books have features that pertain to more than one category. Therefore, in order to make make this outline as useful as possible, the link to some individual books may appear under more than one category.

Principles of Faith

A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, yet they differ in certain details. A comparison of several such formulations demonstrates a wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives. Below is a summary of Jewish beliefs. A more detailed discussion of these beliefs, along with a discussion of how they developed, is found in the article on Jewish principles of faith.

What makes a person Jewish?

Jewish law considers someone born of a Jewish mother, or converted in accord with Jewish Law, Jewish. (Recently, American Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish people have included those born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers if the children are raised following the Jewish religion.)

A Jewish person who ceases practicing Judaism and becomes a non-practicing Jew is still regarded as Jewish. A Jewish person who does not accept Jewish principles of faith and becomes an agnostic or an atheist is also still considered to be Jewish.

However, if a Jew converts to another religion, such as Buddhism or Christianity, that person loses standing as a member of the Jewish community and becomes known as an apostate. Traditionally, his family and friends will mourn over him, for since he has left the religion, it is as if he has died. However, while the person is outside the Jewish community and has non-Jewish views, that person is still Jewish by most authorities in Jewish law.

Jewish philosophy

Jewish philosophy refers to the conjunction between serious study of philosophy and Jewish theology. Early Jewish philosophy was influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and Islamic philosophy. Major Jewish philosophers include Solomon ibn Gabirol, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Gersonides. Major changes occurred in response to the enlightenment (late 1700s to early 1800s) leading to the post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers, and then the modern Jewish philosophers.

See the article on Jewish philosophy for more details.

The Torah and Jewish law

The basis of Jewish law and tradition is the Torah (the five books of Moses). According to rabbinic traditional there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. Some of these laws are directed only to men or to women, some only to Kohanim and Leviyim (members of the priestly tribe), some only to those who practice framing within the land of Israel, and many laws were only applicable when the Temple in Jerusalem existed. Less than 300 of these commandments are still applicable today.

While there have been Jewish groups which were based on the written text of the Torah alone (the Sadducees, the Karaites), most Jews believed in what they call the oral law. These oral traditions originated in the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were latter recorded in written form and expanded upon by the Rabbis.

Rabbinic Judaism has always held that the books of the Tanakh (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. They point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; this, they argue, means that the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as "the oral law". Some of the methods by which it is derived can be found in halakhic Midrash. However, by the time of Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (200 CE) much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this law underwent discussion and debate in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylon), and the commentaries on the Mishnah from each of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the two Talmuds. These have been expounded by commentaries of various Torah scholars during the ages.

Halakha, the rabbinic Jewish way of life, then, is not based on a literal reading of the Torah, but on the combined oral and written tradition, which includes the Tanakh, the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. These have been summarized into codes of Jewish law by various Torah scholars, such as Rabbis Alfasi, Maimonides, Ya'akov ben Asher, Karo etc.

Halakha is developed slowly, through a precedent based system. The literature of questions to rabbis, and their considered answers, is referred to as responsa (in Hebrew, '"Sheelot U-Teshuvot".) Over time, as practices develop, codes of Jewish law are written that are based on the responsa.


Cherem is the highest ecclesiastical censure in the Jewish community. It is the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. Except in rare cases in the Ultra-Orthodox community, cherem stopped existing after the enlightenment, when local Jewish communities lost their political autonomy, and Jews were integrated into the greater gentile nations which they lived in. A fuller discussion of this subject is available in the cherem article.


Jewish life is bound up with religious tradition, and is celebrated in an annual cycle of Jewish holidays.

Life cycle events

Life-cycle events occur throughout a Jew's life that bind him/her to the entire community.

Brit milah - Welcoming male babies into the covenant through the rite of circumcision.

Bar mitzvah and Bat mitzvah - Celebrating a child's reaching the age of majority, becoming responsible from now on for themselves as an adult for living a Jewish life and following halakha.


Mourning - Judaism has a multi-staged mourning practice. The first stage is called the Shiv'ah (observed for one week), the second is the shloshim (observed for one month) and for those who have lost one of their parents, there is a third stage, avelut yud bet chodesh, which is observed for one year.

Jewish sects and denominations before the Enlightenment

Rabbinic Judaism at one time was related to Samaritanism; however Samaritans no longer refer to themselves as Jews, and both groups view themselves as separate religions.

Around the first century A.D. there were several large sects of Jewish leadership, generally each differently seeking a messianic salvation as national autonomy from the Roman Empire: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and Christians. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., these sects vanished. Christianity survived, but by breaking with Judaism and becoming a separate religion; the Pharisees survived but in the form of Rabbinic Judaism (today, known simply as "Judaism").

Some Jews in the 8th century adopted the Sadducees' rejection of the oral law of the Pharisees / Rabbis recorded in the Mishnah (and developed by later Rabbis in the two Talmuds), intending to rely only upon the Tanakh. Interestingly, they soon developed oral traditions of their own which differ from the Rabbinic traditions. These Jews formed the Karaite sect, which still exist to this day, though they are much smaller than the rest of Judaism. Rabbinic Jews hold that Karaites are Jews, but that their religion is an incomplete and erroneous form of Judaism.

Over time Jews developed into distinct ethnic groups: the Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern Europe and Russia); the Sephardi Jews (of Spain, Portugal and North Africa) and the Yemenite Jews, from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. This split is cultural, and is not based on any doctrinal dispute.

Development of Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, or the Besht. His disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life for many Jews in Europe; it came to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

Early on, there was a serious schism between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as mitnagdim, (lit. "opponents"). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism were the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship; their untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and alleged miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messainic sect. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed into mainstream Orthodox Judaism, particulary Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Development of modern denominations in response to the Enlightenment

In the late 18th century Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements known as the Enlightenment. Judaism developed into several distinct denominations in response to this unprecedented phenomenon: Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism, many forms of Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and a number of smaller groups as well. ? 2004

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