Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions, characterized by a belief in one God (monotheism), a belief that the Torah is the source of divine knowledge and law, and that the Jews, because the Torah was given to them after other peoples turned it down, have an obligation to be a light unto the world. The Torah is also referred to as the holy scriptures. It is the first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the word Torah means “teaching.” In a larger sense the Torah consists not only of the five books, but includes all of Jewish tradition. The belief in monotheism is affirmed in the Shema, the first line and essence of which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, and is translated as ”Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Judaism does not claim to be the only true religion, but rather teaches that there are different ways of reaching God.
Some sources define Judaism as the religion of the Jews, but this then raises the question of how to define Jews. The definition has changed throughout history, and continues to change even until today. This situation exists largely because Jews also have been considered a race, an ethnic group, a culture, a civilization, or a nation. Today, a person born of a Jewish mother is considered Jewish even if he or she does not practice Judaism, unless there is a deliberate rejection of Judaism. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism accept a child born of either a Jewish mother or father if the child is raised to accept Judaism. But until about 2,000 years ago the religion followed the father instead of the mother. In Israel today the issue of who is a Jew continues to be a hotly debated topic which changes according to the internal political situation and influences from the Diaspora.
Abraham (ca. 1600 BCE) is considered the first patriarch and the founder of Judaism. He was born and raised in Ur (present day Iraq), and after rejecting the idols of his culture and accepting the belief in monotheism, he migrated to Canaan. As with much of ancient history, researchers today question whether this is legend or fact, or a mixture of both, but Abraham is viewed as the founder of Judaism.
The initials used above, BCE, refer to Before the Common Era, and CE refers to the Common Era. They frequently are used by Jews instead of BC and AD, which are based on the birth and death of Jesus, and hence are viewed by some as Christian markers. However, the years are the same as in the Christian (Gregorian) calendar, so that one could, for example, say 2007 CE, which would be the same as ad 2007. However, within the Jewish community, and with Jewish calendars, the years differ, and one does not use any initials after the year. Because Judaism, like Islam, the Chinese culture, and others, uses a lunar calendar instead of a fixed calendar, the Jewish year does not begin on January 1, but on the Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah (”the head of the year”), which usually occurs in September or early October. The Jewish calendar adds 3,761 years to the Christian calendar, so that, for example, the Christian year of 2000-2001 was the Jewish year of 5760-5761. Judaism uses this system to date the beginning of the world with Adam and Eve. Abraham, and the beginning of Judaism, go back only about 3,600 or 3,700 years, but the Jewish calendar goes back 1,946 years before Abraham. The number of years is based on the 19 generations listed inclusively from Adam to Abraham (Abram) in Genesis 5:3-32 and Genesis 11:10-26. The Jewish day begins at sundown instead of at midnight.
While all of the Torah is very important to Judaism, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai in the thirteenth century BCE, are viewed in Judaism as the basis of all legislation. About two centuries after Moses, King David (1010-970 BCE) made Jerusalem the center of the government and of Judaism. David’s son Solomon built the first Temple, making Jerusalem the physical center of worship for Jews. But the strengthening of Jerusalem strained relations with the tribes outside of Jerusalem, leading to major effects on the future of Judaism.
Like most religions, Judaism has changed over time and has developed divisions with different definitions, degrees of traditionalism, and practices. The first major division was in 721 BCE when the ten northern tribes, known as Israel, were conquered by the Assyrians and sent into exile (becoming known as the Lost Tribes), while the two southern tribes, known as Judah and centered in Jerusalem, continued. In 2 Kings 17:7 it is said that Israel fell because ”the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God.” But in 586 BCE Judah also fell, victim of the large Babylonian Empire to the east. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and much of the population, especially much of the religious leadership, was deported to Babylonia.
Large numbers also went to Egypt. But only a few decades later, in 538 BCE, under new Baby Ionian leadership, Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Some stayed in Babylonia and some returned. The exile was interpreted as punishment for sins, and the return was interpreted as God’s forgiveness for the sins.
The Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem (completed in 516 BCE) and referred to as the Second Temple. Rebuilding a Jewish life was not easy, but eventually Judah was reestablished with Judaism at its center and the Temple playing a major role. The Greek empire was the next threat to Judaism, partly by ruling over Judah, but also by presenting other perspectives and “hedonistic” philosophies. After 198 BCE the Seleucids ruled Jerusalem, banned the practice of Judaism, and raised an altar to Zeus in the Temple. In 165 BCE the Maccabees, a Jewish group, won independence for Judah and reestablished Judaism. Two groups arose during this period: the Pharisees, who maintained the Torah and the Oral Law and tried to adapt Judaism to new conditions, and the Sadducees, an aristocratic group who rejected the Oral Law and interpreted the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) literally. Although they were frequently dominant in Temple worship, they disappeared as a group with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Oral Law is the authoritative interpretation of the Written Law (the Pentateuch), and traditionally is considered as being given to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the Written Law.
The destruction of the Second Temple resulted from Roman rule. Religious conflict was dominant in Israel, partly leading to a weakened condition, and by 47 BCE Israel was ruled by the Roman Empire. This defeat brought great soul searching, many individuals claimed to be the promised Messiah who would bring peace ( Jesus, a rabbi, appeared in this context), and conflicts between religious groups were frequent. There were Jewish revolts against the Romans, and as a result in 70 CE the Second Temple was destroyed. In 135 CE a second revolt was crushed and most Jews were exiled from Israel.
Even by the end of the first century of the Common Era, shortly after the life of Jesus, the world Jewish population was about 7 million, with about 2.5 million in Israel and almost two thirds in the Diaspora, especially in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome, and Babylonia. With a Temple no longer existing as the major center of Judaism, and with nearly all Jews expelled from Israel in 135 ce, the worship of Judaism would undergo major changes. Over a million Jews had been killed during the revolts in Israel, including rabbis and other scholars, and many yeshivot (Jewish academies) had been destroyed. A religious need existed. Rabbinic Judaism, which emphasized interpretations by rabbis, would become dominant. The synagogue increased in importance, becoming the focus of Jewish communal life. Because nearly all Jews were now in Diaspora, living in many countries, many interpretations of how to believe in and practice Judaism developed. The Babylonian Talmud was developed between the early third and late fifth centuries CE. It consists of Jewish history and customs, and interpretations of Jewish law. The less accepted Jerusalem Talmud was completed around the fifth century CE. Halakhah refers to the legal part of the Talmudic and later Jewish literature, including Oral Law, and is the traditionally accepted interpretation of the Written Law.
From a cultural perspective, Jews today are classified as Sephardic or Ashkenazic. Sepharad comes from the Hebrew word referring to Spain, and Sephardic Jews in a restricted sense are those Jews from Spain or Portugal. However, the term frequently is used also to refer to Jews from the Near East, the Middle East, North Africa, and a few other locations. A more correct terminology is to refer to Jews from the Eastern world as Mizrahim, mizrahi meaning “eastern” in Hebrew. Ashkenazi comes from the Hebrew word for Germany, but like Sephardi, has been extended to cover a much larger area. It includes all of Europe except a few areas such as Spain and Portugal, and in a larger sense, generally refers to those Jews who have lived in christian lands. Jews lived in many of these areas long before the areas became christian. By contrast, most Sephardim have lived in Islamic or Muslim lands since the advent of Islam in the seventh century, although most of these areas,, such as Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, and North Africa, had sizable Sephardic populations long before the areas became Islamic.
Sephardim, living mostly in Islamic lands, were not treated as equals but generally were not treated as badly as the Ashkenazim (im is the masculine plural, and ot the feminine, in Hebrew). Sephardim were more likely to inter act with the non Jewish populations, whereas Ashkenazim, facing more oppression, were less likely to interact with non Jews. Ashkenazim generally maintained Yiddish, that is, Hebrew mixed with German or other European languages, as their major language. Sephardim from Spain maintained Ladino, Hebrew mixed with Spanish, to a limited degree, and in some other areas maintained Hebrew mixed with the local language, such as Judeo Persian. But Sephardim or Mizrahim largely spoke the language of the country. In all Arab countries Arabic remained the vernacular of the Jews to the present time, and a voluminous literature in Arabic was produced by Jews. Largely because of the interaction, or lack thereof, with non Jewish neighbors, Sephardim and Ashkenazim developed different responses to discrimination and persecution. Ashkenazim have been more likely to approach persecution from a martyr perspective, whereas Sephardim have been more likely to temporarily adjust themselves to the demands of the oppressive society (sometimes converting to the dominant religion, with a secret maintenance of Judaism) with the expectation of being able to return to Judaism at a later date. Maimonides (1135-1204), a very famous rabbi, philosopher, and physician who was born in Spain, fled to Morocco to escape persecution, and spent most of his life in Egypt, taught this perspective. Some indications are that his family followed this perspective.
In 1170 there were 1,400,000 Sephardim in the world, and only 100,000 Ashenazim, Sephardim comprising 93.3 percent of world Jewry. World trade patterns shifted, some countries underwent difficult times, and by 1700 there were 2 million Jews in the world, evenly divided between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. In the next 200 years the Ashkenazim, largely in Eastern Europe, continued an explosive growth while the Sephardim declined. In 1900 there were 9,550,000 Ashkenazim and only 950,000 Sephardim, Ashkenazim comprising 90.5 percent of world Jewry.
Largely because of different experiences of Jews living in diverse areas, as well as the influences of modernization, Judaism historically has had religious divisions and movements. In the Common Era, the Karaites appeared in the Middle East in the early eighth century, and rejected the Talmudic and Rabbinic traditions. Kabbalah, emphasizing Jewish mysticism, became more important around the twelfth century. By the sixteenth century, Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron were centers of Jewish mysticism in Israel. Shabbetai Zevi came out of Turkey in the seventeenth century, claimed to be the Messiah, and got a large following, but eventually converted to Islam under pressure. Hasidism arose in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century as a pietist religious and social movement, emphasizing devotion of the masses rather than Talmudic learning for a few. The Haskalah, a modernization and Enlightenment approach to Judaism, arose in Germany, Italy, and Western Europe in general in the 1770s.
Today, there are several major branches of Judaism, which differ in their beliefs and practices. In most Ashkenazi areas the two main divisions are Orthodox, or Traditional, Judaism, and Liberal, or Progressive, Judaism. Orthodox Judaism accepts the totality of Judaism as based on the Torah, Oral Laws, and commentary, and requires a strong degree of traditional belief and daily observance. It is divided into Modern Orthodox and Traditional Orthodox. Liberal Judaism has made more adjustments with modern societies and is less demanding in both beliefs and practices.
The US, whose Jewish population is over 90 percent Ashkenazi, developed a threefold division of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism, largely because of migration patterns which were not experienced in other countries. Although Sephardic Jews founded the US Jewish community in 1654 and remained the cultural elite until the 1700s, the first sizable Jewish population was established in the early and middle 1800s by German Jews. They usually had been influenced by Haskalah before migrating. Reform Judaism had begun in Germany and was brought to the US. In the 1880s large numbers of Jews began migrating to the US from Eastern Europe, which mostly had not yet experienced the Haskalah. Hence, they usually brought Orthodoxy with them. Many felt that Orthodoxy was too traditional for the US, which was much different from Eastern Europe, but many also felt that Reform Judaism had given up too much tradition. So a middle ground, Conservative Judaism, developed. Conservatism agrees with Orthodoxy in many beliefs, but is closer to Reform in practices. A fourth branch of Judaism in the US, Reconstructionism, views Judaism as an evolving religious civilization and follows some modern practices, such as ordination of women. Sephardic Jews did not follow this migration pattern to the US, and hence did not divide into either Reform or Conservative Judaism. Sephardic Judaism is Orthodox, but because it represents all Sephardim with various degrees of traditionalism and modernization, it tends to be more flexible than Ashkenazi Orthodoxy.
In contemporary Israel, because of political alignments within the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), Orthodoxy (mostly of the Ashkenazi perspective) has been the arbiter of religious and cultural disagreements. This includes the question of who is a Jew, and has led to major conflicts between traditional and nontraditional Jews. A large number of Israeli Jews are secular rather than religious. Reform and Conservative Judaism have made some progress in Israel, but progress has been limited because of insufficient political power. The Masorti movement, founded in 1979, is the umbrella for Conservative Jews in Israel.
Judaism has several major holidays and a number of minor holidays. Most important are Rosh Hashanah, Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah begins a 10 day period of repentance that ends with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. As noted, both occur in September or October. Other major Jewish holidays are a reflection of Judaism’s long religious and cultural history, including persecutions and victories. Purim (February-March) is a joyful holiday that celebrates the victory of the Jews over a plot to destroy them in ancient Persia. Pesach, or Passover (March-April) is a celebration of the Jewish escape from slavery in ancient Egypt in the thirteenth century BCE. Sukkot (September-October) is a joyful festival symbolized by booths (sukkot) which represent the huts which Jews lived in during the years in the wilderness during their return from Egyptian slavery. Sukkot is celebrated for 7 days and nights and concludes with Simchat Torah, a joyful holiday which celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle. Hanukkah (usually December) lasts for 8 days and celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid oppression in 165 BCE. Historically, Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday, but it has become more important in Christian countries partly to offset Christmas so that Jewish children do not feel left out.
Judaism has several life cycle events beginning with circumcision (brit milah) for a male Jewish child on the eighth day after birth. This is to renew the covenant between Abraham and God (Genesis 17:9-13). When a child is 13 years of age, a rite of passage into adulthood is celebrated: bar mitzvah for the male and bat mitzvah for the female. In the US and some other places in recent decades, these ceremonies have become expensive celebrations for some youths. Bat mitzvahs, traditionally not celebrated as much as bar mitzvahs, have increased in importance in recent decades to lessen the gender gap. Marriage and death, as in most religions, also have special religious ceremonies.
Intermarriage of Jews with non Jews has become very common in a number of places, including the US, in the last few decades. This reflects the extent to which Jews have been accepted in larger societies, but it also is a numerical threat to the Jewish community because of the tendency of children of inter married couples to merge into the larger society. Assimilating often is easier than maintaining a separate identity. Some non Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, but overall intermarriage is a numerical loss to the Jewish community.
At the same time that Judaism is losing people to intermarriage, there are two groups of people who are returning to Judaism. In the Americas, thousands of descendants of Jews who left Judaism during the Spanish Inquisition (especially 1391 to 1492) are returning to a Jewish identity. This is found especially in the Southwestern US, but is evident in most areas with large numbers of Hispanics, such as California, Miami, Florida, and New York City. Some descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, exiled by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, also are returning to Judaism. Some, especially from India, have returned to Israel to live. Black Jews from Ethiopia also have returned to Israel in large numbers, undergoing conversion once in Israel. Among all these returnee groups, there is a desire, so far unfulfilled, for a return ceremony rather than a conversion ceremony.
The belief that Jews are a race has been held by most non Jews and some Jews until recent decades, and historically has been used as an excuse for major anti Semitic actions. The Crusades, the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, the pogroms (mob attacks on Jews, often for fun) in Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust all have had various degrees of racial, religious, and social reasons for anti Semitism. The racial dimension has often been the most severe, especially during the Holocaust. It was the pogroms in Russia which gave impetus to the First Aliyah in 1881-2 and began the large scale return of Jews to Israel as part of the Zionist movement. In recent decades the concept of race has decreased in importance and more attention has been put on genetic (DNA) clusters. There is a Middle Eastern genetic base shared by about two thirds of Jews in the world, and the closest genetic relatives of Jews as a group are other Middle Eastern groups such as Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese.
Recent studies conclude that there are about 13 million (12,950,000) Jews in the world today, with 60.7 percent (7,856,000) in the Diaspora and 39.3 percent (5,094,000) in Israel. The Americas account for 46.9 percent (6,071,100) of world Jewry, with the US alone accounting for 40.9 percent (5,300,000). This has decreased in the last few decades, largely because of intermarriage and loss of children to Judaism. In the Americas, other than the US, the largest populations are in Canada (370,500), Argentina (187,000), Brazil (97,000), and Mexico (40,000).
Hashoah (the Holocaust) killed about 6,000,000 Jews – 37 percent of all world Jewry – mostly in Europe. Until then, 60 percent of world Jewry lived in Europe. Now, Europe has only 12.0 percent (1,550,800) of world Jewry. The three largest populations are found in France (498,000), of whom many are post 1948 exiles from Morocco, Algeria, and other North African countries, the United Kingdom (300,000), and Germany (108,000), most of whom are immigrants from Eastern Europe. Next in size in Europe are Russia (252,000), Ukraine (95,000), Hungary (50,000), Belgium (31,400), the Netherlands (30,000), Italy (29,000), and Belarus (23,000). In the 1990s about 900,000 Jews left the former Soviet Union and moved to Israel. Iran, Iraq, and North African countries historically had large Jewish populations, but most of these Jews (about 870,000) left in the 15 years after 1948 because of hostility against them after Israel’s independence in 1948 and the rise of Islamic based nationalism in North Africa. About 600,000 moved to Israel, and today about half of the population of Israel is Sephardi or Mizrahi.
The above figures, given annually in the American Jewish Year Book, are estimates and include people who identify as Jewish, whether or not they are active followers of, or even believers in, Judaism. Once again, the definition of who is a Jew includes a mixture of religious and cultural identities, and, for countries where anti Semitism persists, racial components.
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- Zohar, Z. (Ed.) (2005) Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times. New York University Press, New York.
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