More than 14 million people worldwide claim a Jewish heritage. However, when it comes to what today's Jews believe or practice, most people understand very few of its details. Long before Christianity and Islam, Judaism's journey began through the ancient narrative of Abram in which God promised Abram, "I will make of you a great nation" (Genesis 12:1-3). Later he became known as Abraham. Genesis records his calling to a new land where God would bless him and make his name great.
The Jewish story continues through Isaac and Jacob, Jacob's twelve sons who became the leaders of Israel's twelve tribes, Moses leading Israel from Egyptian bondage, generations of judges and kings, times of conquest from outside nations, and Jewish migration throughout several nations around the world. According to Jewish sources, Judaism was the first great faith to believe in one God. Its fundamental beliefs are based on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), along with other Old Testament writings and rabbinical interpretations of the Torah.
At its most foundational level Judaism can simply be defined as the religion of the Jews. However, when asked "What is a Jew?" the answer can be much more complex. According to the Jewish perspective, we find that a Jew can be defined through five key questions: First, some see Judaism primarily as a religion. Second, others view Jews as an ethnic group. Third, Jews are often viewed and discussed as a culture. Fourth, Jews also compose a nation, Israel, which officially reorganized in 1948. Fifth, some rabbis speak of Jews as a family rather than any of the other four categories. All five are used at various times, yet for our purposes, we speak of Judaism primarily as a religion.
While there are many varieties of religious Judaism practiced, the major four branches found today include:
• Orthodox: Believes the Torah (books of Moses) was written by God and is to be followed today. Approximately 10% of American Jews claim to be Orthodox.
• Reform: Do not believe the Torah was written by Moses. Considered the liberals of Judaism, Reformed Jews follow the principles of the Torah rather than specific commandments. 35% of American Jews are Reformed.
• Conservative: A middle ground between Orthodox and Reformed Judaism, it believes the Torah came from God but contains human components as well. 26% of American Jews consider themselves as Conservatives.
• Messianic: Messianic Jews are Jewish Christians. Reports vary as to how many identify with this description.
What does Judaism believe and practice? Though there is much variety, most accept the list of 13 principles of faith by Rabbi Rambam (AD 1135—1204) that include:
1. God exists.
2. God is one and unique (the Jewish shema from Deuteronomy 6:5, that the Lord is one).
3. God is incorporeal (invisible).
4. God is eternal.
5. Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no other.
6. The words of the prophets are true.
7. Moses' prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets.
8. The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses.
9. There will be no other Torah.
10. God knows the thoughts and deeds of men.
11. God will reward the good and punish the wicked.
12. The Messiah will come.
13. The dead will be resurrected.
Judaism tends to focus more on actions than beliefs. For example, the emphasis in Orthodox Judaism is the practice of the 613 commandments of the Torah and their interpretation in later writings of the Rabbis. Many of today's books on Judaism focus on Jewish practices regarding special days (especially the Sabbath, Judaism's holy day each Saturday), holidays, and ongoing practices of the faith.
Despite the heavy emphasis on actions, it is important to note that Judaism consists of more than rules and regulations. According to the practices of Judaism, the attitudes of their religion can best be explained through the word halakhah, a Hebrew verb meaning "to go, walk, or travel." The goal of observing Jewish law is to increase spirituality, not simply to increase obedience. Through the practice of Jewish law, a person grows closer to God and with other people and provides a more meaningful way of life.
Christianity actually began as a sect within Judaism. Jesus and many of the first Christians were Jews. The early Jewish-Christians continued to practice many of the Jewish traditions along with their Christian beliefs. However, over time Jewish leaders began persecution of Christians, removing them from local synagogues. This, along with the spread of Christianity among non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire of the first century, eventually resulted in Christianity being viewed as a separate religion.
The two most striking differences in belief include views of Jesus and of Scripture. Conservative Jews believe in a Messiah who has yet to come. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah the Jews have long sought. Second, conservative Jews accept only the Old Testament writings (which they call the Hebrew Bible) as their inspired texts. Christians accept the 66 books of the Bible, Old and New Testament, as the Word of God.
While Jews and Christians share many beliefs and much history, they continue to stand as two distinct religions due to these key differences. Those Jews interested in Christian beliefs must face the questions of Nicodemus (John 3). Christians are called to share the hope within them to all people, including those of a Jewish background (1 Peter 3:15-16; Romans 1:16).
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