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 sought to establish universal truths. Jews began to grapple with the tension between the particularize 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 consists 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 adherence 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.
Judaism is commonly divided into the following denominations:
Orthodox Judaism (includes Hasidic Judaism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism)
Conservative Judaism (Outside of the USA it is known as Masorti Judaism.)
Reform Judaism (Outside of the USA also known as Progressive Judaism, and in the U.K. as Liberal Judaism)
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 this outline as useful as possible, the link to some individual books may appear under more than one category.
The Hebrew Bible and commentaries
The Mishnah and its commentaries.
The Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud and their commentaries.
Halakhic and Aggadic Midrash
Codes of Jewish Law and Custom
The Mishneh Torah and commentaries
The Tur and commentaries
The Shulkhan Arukh and commentaries
The Responsa literature
Jewish Thought and Ethics
Jewish ethics and the Mussar Movement
Classical Jewish Poetry (Piyyut)
Jewish Liturgy, including the Siddur
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.
Monotheism - Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality.
God is one - The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical for Jews to hold; it is considered akin to polytheism. Interestingly, while Jews hold that such conceptions of God are incorrect, they generally are of the opinion that gentiles that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.
God is all powerful (omnipotent), as well as all knowing (omniscient). The different names of God are ways to express different aspects of God's presence in the world. See the entry on The name of God in Judaism.
God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God.
To God alone may one offer prayer. Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical.
The Hebrew Bible, and much of the beliefs described in the Mishnah and Talmud, are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine", has always been a matter of some dispute. Different understandings of this subject exist among Jews.
The words of the prophets are true.
Moses was the chief of all prophets.
The Torah (five books of Moses) is the primary text of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism holds that the Torah is the same one that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah that we have today is exactly the same as it was when it was received from God by Moses with only minor scribal errors. Due to advances in biblical scholarship, and archeological and linguistic research, most non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle. Instead, they may accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah may have come from Moses, but the written Torah that we have today has been edited together from several documents.
God will reward those who observe His commandments, and punish those who violate them.
God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish people do not simply say that "God chose the Jews." Jews believe that they were chosen for a specific mission; to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the Torah. This idea is discussed further in the entry on the chosen people. Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the concept chosenness as morally defunct.
The messianic age. There will be a moshiach (messiah), or perhaps a messianic era.
The soul is pure at birth. People are born with a yetzer ha'tov, a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer ha'ra, a tendency to do bad. Thus, human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take.
People can atone for sins. The liturgy of the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (dutiful giving of charity) atone for sin. A more detailed discussion of the Jewish view of sin is available in the entry on sin.
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 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.
Other topics, each with its own entry
The entry on Rabbis discusses the role of the rabbi, and provides links to entries on many important rabbis.
A discussion of the Jewish priesthood may be found in its own entry, Kohen.
Rabbinic literature - discusses the many works of classical Judaism
Kosher aka Kashrut - The Jewish dietary laws; this entry deals with the rationale for the existence of these laws, describes which foods are and aren't Kosher.
Shabbat - This entry is about the Jewish view of the Sabbath, the role that it plays in Judaism, and the rules governing its observance.
There is an entry on the Role of women in Judaism.
The Temple in Jerusalem is no longer extant, but it still plays an important part in the Jewish faith.
There is a description of the Jewish services, which describes the daily prayer services, and offers a guide for visitors to the synagogue (also: Temple).
The Role of the cantor in Judaism discusses the role of the cantor (hazzan) as an emissary of the congregation.
The tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl.
Jewish eschatology - Jewish views of the messiah and the afterlife.
The entries on Jewish ethics and the Mussar Movement concern the ethical teachings of Judaism.
Holocaust theology Halakha (Jewish law and custom) and the responsa literature.
The article on Jewish views of religious pluralism describes how Judaism views other religions; it also describes how members of each of the Jewish religious denomination view the other denominations.
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 messianic sect. Since then all the sects of Hasidic Judaism have been subsumed into mainstream Orthodox Judaism, particularly Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
See the articles on Hasidic Judaism and Mitnagdim for more detailed information.
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.
This subject is covered in more depth in the article on Jewish denominations.
The state of Judaism among Jews today
In most western nations, such as the USA, England, Israel and South Africa, many secularized Jews have long since stopped participating in religious duties. Many of them recall having religious grand-parents, but grew up in homes where Jewish education and observance was no longer a priority. They have developed ambivalent feelings towards their religious duties. On the one hand they tend to cling to their traditions for identity reasons; on the other hand the influences of western mentality, daily life and peer-pressure tears them away from Judaism. Recent studies of American Jews indicate that many people who identify as being of Jewish heritage no longer identify as members of the religion known as Judaism. The various Jewish religious denominations in the USA and Canada perceive this as a crisis situation, and have grave concern over rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation in the Jewish community. Since American Jews are marrying at a later time in their life than they used to, and are having fewer children than they used, the birth rate for American Jews has dropped from over 2.0 down to 1.7 (the replacement rate is 2.1). (This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate relations, p.27, Elliot N. Dorff, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1996)
In the last 50 years all of the major Jewish denominations have experienced a resurgence in popularity, with increasing numbers of younger Jews participating in Jewish education, joining synagogues, and becoming (to varying degrees) more observant. There is a separate article on the Baal teshuva movement, the movement of Jews returning to observant Judaism. However, this gain has not offset the demographic loss due to intermarriage and acculturation.
Since the Holocaust, there has been much to note in the way of reconciliation between some Christians groups and the Jewish people; the article on Christian-Jewish reconciliation studies this issue.
There are articles on Islam and anti-Semitism and Projects working for peace among Israelis and Arabs.
See also: Jews, Abrahamic religions, Israel, Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Siddur, History of the Jews in Russia and Soviet Union