views updated May 14 2018


FOUNDED: c. eighteenth century b.c.e.


Judaism had its beginnings some 3,800 years ago in Mesopotamia, today part of Iraq, with Abraham, the founding patriarch of the tribes of Israel. Judaism is a monotheistic faith affirming that God is one, the creator of the world and everything in it. God is also a transcendent being above and beyond the world and is thus without material form, and yet he is present in the world. His will and presence are especially, but not exclusively, manifest in his relationship with Israel (the Jewish people), to whom he has given the Torah (teaching), stipulating the laws that are to govern their religious and moral life, by virtue of which they are to be "a light unto the nations" (Isa. 49:6). Accordingly, Jews understand themselves as a chosen people, bound by a covenant with God.

In Judaism faith is less a matter of affirming a set of beliefs than of trust in God and fidelity to his law. Faith is thus primarily expressed "by walking in all the ways of God" (Deut. 11:22). These ways are specified in God's revealed law, which the rabbis, or teachers, appropriately called the Halakhah (walking). The commandments of the Halakhah embrace virtually every aspect of life, from worship to the most mundane aspects of daily existence. The precise details of the Halakhah are but adumbrated in the Torah, and they require elaboration to determine their contemporary applicability. This process is ongoing, for the Torah must be continually reinterpreted to meet new conditions, and the rabbis developed principles to allow this without violating its sanctity. The modern world has thus witnessed the emergence alongside traditional, or Orthodox, Judaism various movements—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—that have introduced new criteria for the interpretation of the Torah and for Jewish religious responsibility.

As early as 597 B.C.E.hasis>, with conquest by Babylonia, the Israelites were exiled from their homeland. Over the centuries the Jewish Diaspora came to include communities throughout the world but particularly in the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and in Europe. In modern times Europe was the center of Jewish religious and cultural life until more than two-thirds of European Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The center of Judaism then shifted to the United States and to the State of Israel, founded in 1948. Today there are smaller Jewish communities in Canada, Central and South America, and Australia, as well as several European countries.


Judaism traces its origins to Abraham, who in the judgment of most scholars lived in the eighteenth century b.c.e. Jewish tradition regards Abraham as the first person to have believed that God is one. At the age of 75 Abraham was commanded by God to leave Mesopotamia and settle in the land of Canaan: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation" (Gen. 12:1–2). His descendants were to be called the Children of Israel, and the country they were promised the Land of Israel. Only much later, in the Hellenistic period (333–63 b.c.e.), were the Israelites called Jews.

According to the Bible, the history of the Israelites was determined by their relationship to God, which was sealed by two events. The first was the Exodus of the enslaved Israelites from Egypt, where they had settled after a famine had blighted the Promised Land. The deliverance of the Children of Israel from servitude marked their birth as a nation. Previously they had been a loosely knit group of 12 tribes, descendants of Abraham. God's intervention on their behalf was understood to be an act of love and undeserved grace, solely the fulfillment of a promise he had made. Acknowledging that its existence was owed to God, Israel was henceforth beholden to him. The Exodus story, which the Israelites were enjoined to remember through constant retelling, thus constituted Israel's understanding of itself as a people destined to serve God in love and gratitude.

The second event shaping the spiritual history of Israel occurred some three months after the Exodus. Wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites stopped at the foot of Mount Sinai when their divinely appointed leader, Moses, ascended the mountain. He returned with a decree from God calling upon them to enter into a covenant (brit). The people agreed, after which they experienced God's presence in "thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn" (Exod. 19:16). Through Moses, God bestowed the Ten Commandments, proclaiming the people's duties to him and to their fellow humans. Overwhelmed by the experience, the people beseeched Moses to serve as their mediator with God. He obliged them and ascended the mountain once again. What followed was an extensive body of divine decrees, which Moses recorded in the books called the Torah and submitted to the people. With this act a covenant between Israel and God was established. The Mosaic Covenant is generally understood to be a renewal and elaboration of the original covenant between God and Abraham, confirmed by his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, but this time with the entire House of Israel.

Some 230 years after the Israelites returned from Egypt, they built the Temple in Jerusalem. This was the central site of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage and for the bringing of sacrifices as an expression of submission to God, as thanksgiving, and as atonement for sins. The Temple rites were conducted by a hereditary priesthood. In 587 b.c.e. the Temple was destroyed by the conquering armies of Babylonia, which resulted in the exile of most of the Israelite nobility and leadership. It was apparently during the Babylonian Exile that the institution of the synagogue as a house of prayer began to emerge. In 586 the Persian king Cyrus, who had defeated the armies of Babylonia, gave the exiles permission to return. Many, however, remained in Babylonia, which, together with Egypt, where Jews had also voluntarily settled, became the first community of the Diaspora. Those who did return found not only the Temple in ruins but also a dispirited people, bereft of spiritual leadership, who had neglected the Torah and had mixed with the heathen population and adopted their culture and religious practices.


The Menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum, is the most enduring symbol of Judaism. First constructed by Moses at Godís instruction (Exodus 25:31–38), it was placed in the portable sanctuary carried by the Israelites in the wilderness and then to the Temple of Jerusalem. When the temple was destroyed, the Menorah became the emblem of Jewish survival and continuity. The Star of David is a modern symbol of Jewish identity, although it has no religious content or scriptural basis.

The reconstruction of the Temple, which was rededicated in 516 b.c.e., failed to reassert the authority of the Torah. It was not until the return of two leaders that the process of assimilation was decisively reversed. The scribe and priest Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 458, and three years later the Persian overlords appointed Nehemiah governor of the province of Judea. Together Ezra and Nehemiah set out to uproot pagan influences and to reform the life of the Jewish community. Nehemiah instituted civil regulations ensuring social justice and the rule of law. Ezra, who, according to the traditional account, was authorized by the Persian king to impose the laws of the Torah on the community, annulled the marriages with heathen wives and introduced strict observance of the Sabbath, including a ban on business transactions. Perhaps most important was his codification of the Torah as the five books of Moses, which were read and expounded before the people at the Sabbath afternoon prayer and during the morning prayers on Mondays and Thursdays. Overseeing the people's solemn rededication to the Torah and its study, Ezra was said to be a second Moses, and his comprehensive program of reform laid the foundation for what was to become known as rabbinical Judaism.

The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e. found the Jews prepared to face the tragedy. A body of teachers and expositors of the Torah—the rabbis—was solidly in place. The synagogue, established in virtually every community, replaced the Temple as the focus of ritual and prayer. Led by Johanan ben Zakkai, the rabbis transferred many of the rites and ceremonies that had belonged to the Temple to the synagogue, where they were often recast as symbolic gestures. Sacrifices were replaced by acts of charity and repentance. The rabbis also recognized that, with the decentralization of religious authority, it was urgent to fix the biblical canon. Hitherto, aside from the Torah, the corpus of sacred writings had been fluid, with several competing versions. By the end of the first century the biblical text was sealed, with 31 books organized according to three parts—Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Hagiographa), collectively known by the acronym Tanakh.

Sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, Simeon Bar Kokhba led the Jews in a revolt against their Roman overlords. After three years the tenacious and valiant forces of the revolt were put down, and Bar Kokhba himself was killed in the last decisive battle, in the summer of 135. (According to one account, he was taken captive and enslaved.) In the aftermath the Jews were banished from Jerusalem, and Jewish ritual practices, including circumcision, study of the Torah, and observance of the Sabbath, were prohibited. The spiritual leadership was summarily executed, and most of the remaining Jewish population fled. The Romans quickly repopulated Judea with non-Jews, and the Land of Israel, aside from Galilee, ceased to be Jewish.

The fugitives from Judea scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Joined by scholars, these Jews spread to Asia Minor and westward to Spain, Gaul (France), and the Rhine valley, where they organized self-governing communities. Those Jews remaining in the Land of Israel also slowly reorganized themselves. The Sanhedrin (Greek for Council of the Elders), which formerly had its seat in Jerusalem, was reconstituted in Jabneh (Yavneh) as the supreme representative body in religious and communal affairs. The institution continued until the early fifth century, when the Roman authorities abolished the office of the presidency of the Sanhedrin.

With the vast majority of the Jews living outside the Land of Israel, many in distant lands, the rabbis referred to the emerging Diaspora as the Exile, as a tragic national and religious state of homelessness. While many answers were given to explain the indignity and spiritual dislocation wrought by the Exile, the rabbis were united in their faith that God would redeem the exiles and regather them. This redemption was associated with the advent of God's appointed deliverer, the Messiah, who would be chosen from among the descendants of King David. A redeemed Jerusalem became the symbol of the hope for the coming of the Messiah, who would herald not only the liberation of the Jews from Exile but also the establishment of the universal kingdom of God upon earth. The messianic age would witness the perfection of creation and of the human order. The rabbis also taught, however, that in Exile the Jews were not utterly bereft of God's providential presence. Earlier God had told the Israelites, "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will go down with you into Egypt and surely bring you again" (Gen. 46:3–4), and he accompanied the Jews in Exile. This teaching allowed the Jews to develop a creative spiritual and religious life while they mourned the desolation of Zion, or Israel, and new centers of Jewish life emerged throughout the Diaspora.

The Babylonian Diaspora, whose origins date to the destruction of the First Temple and the decision of most of the exiles not to return, was the oldest and largest settlement of Jews for at least the first thousand years of the Exile. By the second century c.e. the Jewish community of Babylonia had reached between 800,000 and 1.2 million, constituting from 10 to 12 percent of the total population. Under the leadership of an exilarch (head of the Exile), a hereditary office occupied by descendants of King David, the Jews enjoyed religious freedom and communal autonomy. The exilarchs ruled according to the Torah and Halakhah and encouraged the establishment of rabbinical academies (yeshivas), which initially acknowledged the authority of the academy in Jabneh and elsewhere in the Land of Israel. But with the decline of Israel, the Babylonian academies became the center of Jewish learning and culture. They produced the commentary on the Mishnah (collection of oral teachings on the Torah) known as the Babylonian Talmud, a labor of seven generations and hundreds of scholars, who completed their task in approximately 500, and communities throughout the Diaspora turned to Babylonian rabbis for guidance. The preeminence of the Babylonian Jewish community lasted until the tenth century, when it was superseded by centers of Jewish learning in the West.

The establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine (ruled 306–37) marked a turning point in the life of Western Jewry. Christians had an ambivalent attitude toward Jews. On the one hand, Jews were the people from whose midst Jesus and the first apostles of the church came, and they were the living custodians of the Old Testament, which contained the prophecies of the advent of Jesus as the Messiah. On the other hand, Jews were despised for rejecting Jesus. Despite the resulting history of antagonism, which often occasioned discrimination and persecution, there was also a rich cultural exchange. Early Christians adopted many Jewish beliefs and practices. The Gregorian chants of the Orthodox Church, for instance, are said to bear traces of the music of the Temple, and the structure of the Christian liturgy and many of its prayers are derived from Judaism, as is the practice of baptism. Medieval Jewish scholars took Greek philosophy, a knowledge of which they had acquired under the tutelage of Islamic sages, to Christian Europe. In turn, Christianity exercised an influence on popular Jewish religious practices, music, folklore, and thought, especially mysticism.

Within Christian Europe, Jews developed an intellectually and spirituality vibrant culture. Communities in southern Italy, where Jews had lived since the second century b.c.e., were particularly creative in composing liturgical poetry in Hebrew, and they thereby laid the foundations of what was to be called the Ashkenazi rite, a term designating the Jews who lived in medieval Germany and neighboring countries. In northern France and on the eastern banks of the Rhine, important centers of rabbinical scholarship crystallized in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The comprehensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud by the French rabbi Rashi (1040–1105) continues to serve as the basic text of a traditional Jewish education. In the second half of the twelfth and in the thirteen centuries, these communities produced highly original mystical theologies, collectively known as Hasidei Ashkenaz. The Jewish communities of Provence, in southern France, and of Christian Spain witnessed not only a flowering of philosophy, biblical exegesis, and Talmudic learning but also the un-folding of a mystical literature that culminated in the composition of the Zohar ("Book of Splendor") in the thirteenth century.

In the wake of the Crusades of 1096, 1146–47, and 1189–90 and of the Black Death in 1348–49, however, the situation of the Jews in Europe steadily deteriorated. Whole communities were massacred, and others were expelled. By 1500, except for isolated communities in France and Italy, western Europe was virtually empty of Jews. By then Jewish life was largely centered in the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, where a unique brand of Ashkenazi piety and learning developed, and in the Islamic world.

Under Muslim rule, which spread rapidly from the far corners of Persia to Spain, Jews on the whole enjoyed a less precarious lot than in Christian Europe. The very fact that some of the most important works of Jewish philosophy and even of Halakhah were written in Arabic, whereas in medieval Europe Jews wrote exclusively in Hebrew, illustrates the degree to which they were integrated into Muslim culture. Islamic philosophers, who revived the dormant thought of the Greeks, recruited disciples among Jews, the best known being Maimonides (1135–1204). The efflorescence of Jewish culture reached its height in Muslim Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, which was a golden age of Talmudic scholars, poets, philosophers, and mystics.

The Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain in the twelfth century led to the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the fifteenth century. Jews were allowed to remain in Spain only on the condition that they convert to Catholicism. Among the converts, however, were those who secretly maintained allegiance to their ancestral faith and who, as a consequence, later became subject to the Inquisition. Most of those who refused to convert sought refuge in Muslim countries, their descendants becoming known as Sephardic Jews, from the Hebrew name for Spain. Beginning in the late sixteenth century there was a steady stream of Jews from Spain and Portugal, popularly known as Marranos, who settled in the Netherlands, where they returned to Judaism. Members of this community founded the first Jewish settlements in the New World.


nonlegal, narrative portions of the Talmud and Mishna, which includes history, folklore, and other subjects
Jews whose ancestors in the Middle Ages lived in Germany (Ashkenaz in Hebrew) and the surrounding countries
bar mitzvah (son of commandment)
initiation ceremony for boys at age 13, when they are held to be responsible for their actions and hence are obliged to observe all of the commandments of the Torah; bat mitzah, a similar ceremony for girls at age 12, is observed by some Jews
Brit Milah
circumcision of a male infant or adult convert as a sign of acceptance of the covenant
Conservative Judaism
largest denomination of American Judaism, with affiliated congregations in South America and Israel; advocating moderate modifications of Halakhah, it occupies a middle ground between Reform and Orthodox Judaism
communities of Jews dispersed outside the Land of Israel, traditionally referred to as the Exile
book used at the Passover seder, containing the liturgical recitation of the Passover story and instructions on conducting the ceremonial meal
legal portions of the Talmud as later elaborated in rabbinic literature; in an extended sense it denotes the ritual and legal prescriptions governing the traditional Jewish way of life
revivalist mystical movement that originated in Poland in the eighteenth century
mystical reading of the Scriptures that arose in France and Spain during the twelfth century, culminating with the composition in the late thirteenth century of the Zohar ("Book of Splendor"), which, especially as interpreted by Isaac Luria (1534–72), exercised a decisive influence on late medieval and early modern Jewish spiritual life
rules and regulations for food and its preparation, often known by the Yiddish "kosher"
commentary on the Scriptures, both Halakhic (legal) and Aggadic (narrative), originally in the form of sermons or lectures
collection of the Oral Torah, or commentary on the Torah, first compiled in the second and third centuries c.e.
Orthodox Judaism
traditional Judaism, characterized by strict observance of laws and rituals (the Halakhah)
Passover (Pesach)
festival marking the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage
Prophets (Nevi'im)
second of the three part of the Tanakh, made up of the books of 7 major and 12 minor prophets
Reconstructionist Judaism
movement founded in the United States in the early twentieth century by Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983) that holds Judaism to be not only a religion but also a dynamic "civilization" embracing art, music, literature, culture, and folkways
Reform Judaism
movement originating in early nineteenth-century Germany that adapted the rituals and liturgy of Judaism to accommodate modern social, political, and cultural developments; sometimes called Liberal Judaism
Rosh Hashanah
Jewish New Year; also known as the Day of Judgment, it is a time of penitence
supreme religious body of ancient Judaism, disbanded by the Romans early in the fifth century c.e.
Jews of Spain and Portugal and their descendants, most of whom, in the wake of expulsion in 1492, settled in the Ottoman Empire and in North Africa; in the early seventeenth century small groups of descendants of Jews who had remained on the Iberian Peninsula and accepted Christianity settled in the Netherlands, where they reaffirmed their ancestral religion
Shabuoth (Feast of Weeks)
originally a harvest festival, now observed in commemoration of the giving of the Torah to the Israelites
also known as the Gemara, a running commentary on the Mishnah written by rabbis (called amoraim, or "explainers") from the third to the fifth centuries c.e. in Palestine and Babylonia; the work of the former is called the Jerusalem Talmud and the latter the Babylonian Talmud, which is generally regarded as the more authoritative of the two
anagram for Jewish Scriptures, comprising the Torah, Prophets, and Writings
Torah (Pentatuch or Law)
first division of the Tanakh, constituting the five books of Moses
Writings (Ketuvim or Hagiographa)
third division of the Tanakh, including the Psalms and other works said to have be written under holy guidance
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
end of 10 days of penitence that begin with Rosh Hashana; the most holy of Jewish days

Hence, on the threshold of the modern era the Diaspora was in the midst of a radical reconfiguration. Sephardic Jewry was establishing itself throughout the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, where it became the dominant constituency in Jewish cultural life. A much smaller but dynamic Sephardic community was established in the Netherlands and its colonies in the Americas. Ashkenazic Jewry was overwhelmingly concentrated in eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Lithuania. The remaining Jews of Germany slowly began to recover. This process was encouraged by the Protestant Reformation, which in alliance with nascent capitalism adopted a more pragmatic and thus tolerant attitude toward Jews. In time democratic forces led to the political emancipation of the Jews and their integration into the social and cultural life of Europe.

The effect on Judaism was far-reaching. The Jews' embrace of the Enlightenment and of liberal culture gave birth to new expressions of self-understanding and of religious belief and practice. One of the tragic ironies of the integration of Jews into modern European culture and society, however, was the intensification of anti-Semitism. Virulent opposition to the civic and political parity of the Jews, which for the most part was based on secular and not religious grounds, culminated in the fanatic hatred of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis) and in their efforts in the Holocaust (Shoah) to exterminate all Jews. More than two-thirds of the Jewish people of Europe, a third of Jews worldwide, were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. The survivors sought to rehabilitate themselves in the State of Israel, established in 1948, or in Jewish communities unscathed by the Holocaust, particularly in North and South America.


Principally a way of life, Judaism emphasizes religious practices rather than articles of faith. Upon his descent from Mount Sinai, Moses explained to the Children of Israel, "And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord's commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today …" (Deut. 10:12–13). Judaism thus began not with an affirmation of faith but with an acceptance of what the rabbis came to call "the yoke of the Torah." Even the Ten Commandments stress basic duties rather than principles of faith. Implicit in the Torah and its teachings are, of course, fundamental beliefs, for example, the belief in God as recorded in the declaration "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4), which is incorporated into the morning and evening prayers.

In Judaism heresy is thus defined as denial of the existence of God and of his oneness. Nonetheless, the rabbis did not formulate a binding statement of Judaism's principles of faith. The philosopher Philo (c. 20 b.c.e.–50 c.e.) was the first to attempt the outline of such a statement. Focusing on the creation narrative in Genesis, he enumerated five essential articles of Jewish belief: the eternal existence and rule of God, the unity of God, the divine creation of the world, the unity of creation, and divine providence that extends over the whole world. Philo's summary of the Jewish creed had virtually no resonance in subsequent theological discourse, however.

From time to time other Jewish philosophers, like Philo prompted by the need to explain and defend Judaism in the face of rival faiths, sought to formulate a succinct statement of essential beliefs. But it was only the philosopher and rabbinical scholar Maimonides who, in the twelfth century, succeeded in formulating a statement of Jewish doctrine that obtained an authoritative status. In his commentary on the Mishnah, he delineated the "Thirteen Principles of Faith":

  1. Belief in the existence of God
  2. Belief in God's unity
  3. Belief in God's incorporeality
  4. Belief in God's eternity
  5. Belief that God alone is to be worshiped
  6. Belief in prophecy
  7. Belief that Moses was the greatest of the prophets
  8. Belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses
  9. Belief that the Torah is unchangeable
  10. Belief that God knows the thoughts and deeds of each human being
  11. Belief that God rewards and punishes
  12. Belief in the coming of the Messiah
  13. Belief in the resurrection of the dead

These principles were soon incorporated into the prayer book as the hymn "Yigdal" ("May He be magnified … "), which in 1517 was supplemented by a more elaborate prose explication in the form of a personal attestation of belief ("I believe in perfect faith …").

With their inclusion in the traditional liturgy, the "Thirteen Principles" thus gained the status of an official catechism. Maimonides even went so far as to claim that anyone not subscribing to all of the principles of faith, even if the person observes the laws of Moses, will not have a share in the world to come. To underscore the overarching significance he attached to the principles, Maimonides held that an utter sinner, although he or she will be appropriately punished, will share in the world to come if the principles are affirmed. For Maimonides, then, a Jew is defined by what he believes and not by what he does, which amounted to a radical revision of Judaism. It is, therefore, not surprising that many rabbis and philosophers disputed the authority of the "Thirteen Principles," contending that they were not as basic and essential as Maimonides contended. For instance, the Spanish philosopher Yosef Albo (c. 1380–1444) argued that there are only three basic doctrines constitutive of Jewish belief: the existence of God, divine revelation, and divine reward and punishment. Another Spanish philosopher and biblical scholar, Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), questioned whether it was necessary at all to formulate articles of belief. To his mind the faith implicit in the observance of the Torah was sufficient. He concluded nonetheless that Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles," although not to be construed as dogma, might be helpful for those unable to comprehend on their own the theological presuppositions of the Torah and its commandments.

Although Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles" as formulated in the liturgy are still affirmed by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, they are subject to interpretation. Reform Jews have periodically formulated alternative statements of the essential Jewish beliefs, but by and large they continue to endorse the first five, namely, the existence of God, that he is one, that he has no bodily form, that he is eternal, and that he alone is to be worshiped.


Judaism does not distinguish between duties toward fellow human being and duties toward God. The Hebrew Bible and the rabbis regard moral and religious duties as inseparable. The emphasis is on attaining holiness, on "walking in God's ways" (Deut. 10:12–13), thus allowing his presence to dwell in one's midst. Through Moses, God told the Children of Israel, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2), which is recited today by observant Jews in their morning and evening prayers. This commandment is followed immediately by the injunction to honor one's parents and to observe the Sabbath. The weave of moral and ritual duties is maintained in a long list of commandments, from measures to aid the poor and secure their dignity to proper worship at the Temple, from fairness in commerce to the avoidance of pagan rites, from respect for the stranger to the sanctity of the firstfruits (Lev. 19:3–37), the earliest products of the harvest that are offered to God. A person attains holiness by observing the commandments and laws of God. As God is manifest only through his deeds, so a person is beckoned to imitate those deeds (Deut. 10:17–19).

The prophets, and the rabbis after them, typically warned that ritual piety unaccompanied by moral deeds is unacceptable to God. As the prophet Micah taught, "With what shall I approach the Lord, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings? … He has told you, O man, what is good / And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice / And to love goodness / And to walk humbly with your God …" (Mic. 6:6–8). But while upholding the primacy of morality over ritual, it was not the intention of Micah, or of any other prophet, to distinguish moral from religious virtue. The biblical conception of social responsibility as the axis of the ethical life was incorporated by the rabbis into the Halakhah. The rabbis elaborated biblical injunctions, codifying in great detail alongside the Jew's ritual duties the ethical principles of justice, equity, charity, and respect for the feelings and needs of others.

When asked to identify the overarching principle of the Torah, the rabbis pointed to its moral dimension. Hence, according to a Midrash on Leviticus 19:18, "Rabbi Akiva [c. 50–c. 136] said of the command, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' that is 'a great principle of Torah.'" Rabbi Hillel (c. 70 b.c.e.–c. 10 c.e.) formulated the same principle with psychological insight: "What is hateful unto yourself do not to your fellow human being. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study." Implicit in these encapsulations of biblical morality is that the ethical life requires sensibilities that often must go, as the rabbis would put it, "beyond the letter of the law." To love one's neighbor or to avoid treating one's neighbor in a manner that one would find repugnant—offensive, hurtful, humiliating—when done to oneself, requires a sensitivity that cannot be legislated.

The religious significance of the moral teachings of the Torah was summarized by a sixteenth-century rabbinical scholar from Prague, Judah Loew, popularly known as the Maharal. Through adhering to the moral teachings of the Torah, the Maharal taught, a person imitates God's ways and thus realizes his or her destiny as a being created in the image of God. Moral behavior, therefore, draws a person to God. Conversely, immoral conduct distances a person from God. The nineteenth-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observed that "the Torah teaches us justice towards our fellow human beings, justice towards the plants and animals and the earth, justice towards our own body and soul, and justice towards God who created us for love so that we may become a blessing for the world."


Judaism is a text-centered religion, the writings it regards as sacred constituting a vast library of thousands of volumes. Its foundational text is the Hebrew Bible, which is divided into three parts: the Torah, forming the five books of Moses (also called the Pentateuch); the Prophets (Nevi'im); and the Writings (Ketuvim or Hagiographa). Jewish tradition holds the Torah to be the direct, unmediated Word of God, whereas in the Prophets men said to be divinely inspired speak in their own voices, while the Writings are considered to be formulations in the words of men guided by the Holy Spirit.

Alongside the Torah and the other books of the Bible there developed an elaborate commentary explicating their teachings. This commentary was initially not written, but since it was regarded as divinely inspired, it was called the Oral Torah. Over the centuries the Oral Torah expanded to such a degree that it could no longer be contained by sheer memory. Hence, around the end of the second and the beginning of the third century c.e., Rabbi Judah the Prince (that is, the head of the supreme rabbinical council) compiled a comprehensive digest of the Oral Torah. This work, known as the Mishnah, assumed a canonical status. Written in Hebrew, the Mishnah is a multivolume work covering such subjects as the laws governing agriculture, Temple service, festivals and fast days, marriage and divorce, business transactions, ritual purity and purification, adjudication of torts, and general issues of jurisprudence. The Mishnah does not confine itself to Halakhic, or legal, matters. Under the rubric of Aggadah (narration), it contains reflections on Jewish history, ethics, etiquette, philosophy, folklore, medicine, astronomy, and piety. Typical of rabbinical discourse, the Aggadah and Halakhah are interwoven in the text of the Mishnah, complementing and amplifying each other.

Post-Mishnaic teachers and scholars in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia wrote running commentaries on the Mishnah. These commentaries, together with those on other, smaller works, were collected in two massive collections, one known as the Palestinian, or Jerusalem, Talmud and the other as the Babylonian Talmud. (Another term for the Talmud is Gemara, from an Aramaic word for "teaching.") These were completed around 400 and 500 c.e., respectively. The two Talmuds were written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. Similar to the Mishnah, the Talmuds contain Aggadah and Halakhah woven into a single skein. In the centuries that followed numerous commentaries were written on the Talmuds, particularly on the Babylonian, which became the preeminent text of Jewish sacred learning. In the age of printing the Talmuds were published with the principal commentaries on them adorning the margins of each page.

From time to time collections of scriptural commentaries, originally in the form of sermons or lectures at rabbinical academies from the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, were made. They appear under the general name Midrash (inquiry, or investigation). The collections are classified as Halakhic and Aggadic Midrashhim. The Halakhic Midrashim focus on explicating the laws of the Pentateuch, whereas the Aggadic Midrashim have a much larger range, employing the Bible to explore extralegal issues of religious and ethical meaning. The most widely studied Aggadic Midrashim are the Midrash Rabbah ("The Great Midrash"), compiled in the tenth century by Rabbi David ben Aaron of Yemen, and the Midrash of Rabbi Tanhuma in the fourth century. Aggadic Midrashim were written until the thirteenth century, when they yielded to two new genres of sacred writings, philosophy and mysticism (Kabbalah).

The most widely studied Jewish philosophical work is The Guide of the Perplexed, written by Maimonides at the end of the twelfth century, and the seminal work of the Kabbalah is the Zohar ("Book of Splendor"), from the late thirteenth century. Written in form of a mystical Midrash, the Zohar purports to present the revelations of the mysteries of the upper worlds granted to the second-century sage Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his circle. It is a work of unbridled imagination and symbolism that exercised a profound impact on the spiritual land-scape of Judaism. The Zohar's far-reaching influence was registered in prayers and in such popular movements as Hasidism (the pious ones), which arose in eighteenth-century Poland and which produced hundreds of mystical teachings and tales, all of which are considered to illuminate divine truths and hence are regarded as sacred.


Judaism has a culture rich in religious symbols, objects, and rituals that represent abstract concepts, particularly of God and his teachings and of his providential presence in Israel's history. Thus, God commanded Moses to instruct the Israelites to wear fringes, or tassels, on the corners of their garments as a reminder "to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God" (Num. 15:38–40). On the basis of this commandment there arose the practice of wearing a shawl (tallith) with tassels (zizith). This is either a tallith katan, a small four-cornered shawl generally worn under garments, or a larger tallith worn over clothes during prayer.

As a reminder of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites were commanded to place a sign upon their heads and a symbol on their foreheads (Exod. 13:9, 16). Jewish tradition interpreted this commandment as an injunction to wear tefillin, or phylacteries, small leather boxes fastened to the forehead and the upper left arm by straps; each cube-shaped box contains the Scriptural passages in which the commandment appears (Exod. 13:1–10; Exod. 13:11–16; Deut. 6:4–7; Deut. 11:12–21). The tefillin are worn during the morning service except on the Sabbath and on holidays, which are themselves symbols of God's presence.

The Bible also enjoins Jews to fix a mezuzah to the doorposts of their dwellings (Deut. 6:9; 11:20). The mezuzah, from the Hebrew word for "doorpost," consists of a small scroll of parchment, usually placed in a case or box and often ornately decorated, on which are inscribed two biblical passages (Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21). The first includes the commandments to love God, study the Torah, read the Shema prayer (attesting to the unity of God), wear the tefillin, and affix the mezuzah. The second passage associates good fortune and well-being with the observance of God's commandments.

The preeminent symbol of Judaism is Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision performed on a male child when he is eight days old or on an adult male convert as a sign of his acceptance of the covenant. The removal of the foreskin is a "sign in the flesh" of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:9–13).

The kippah, known in Yiddish as the yarmulke, is the name of the skullcap, which may be any head covering, worn by males in prayer and by Orthodox Jews throughout the day. Covering the head is regarded as a sign of awe before the divine presence, especially during prayer and while studying sacred texts. The kippah was apparently introduced by the Talmudic rabbis, for there is no commandment in the Bible giving this instruction.

The menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum, is the most enduring symbol of Judaism. First constructed by Moses at God's instruction (Exod. 25:31–38), it was placed in the portable sanctuary carried by the Israelites in the wilderness and then in the Temple of Jerusalem. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the menorah became the emblem of Jewish survival and continuity. In modern times the six-pointed Star of David was adopted as a symbol of Jewish identity, although it has no religious content or scriptural basis.


Abraham was the founding patriarch of the Jewish people and the paradigm of the moral and spiritual virtues—humility, magnanimity, and steadfast faith in God—incumbent upon Jews to attain. He was born into a heathen family in Mesopotamia in the eighteenth century b.c.e., and his path from idolatry to an affirmation of the one God is related in Genesis (11:27–25:18). The Bible does not tell why he was singled out by God, who promised to make of him a great nation, with abundant blessings, numerous offspring, and a land of its own. Abraham's selection is presented as an act of pure grace. The covenant God established with Abraham was symbolized by the rite of circumcision, which is reenacted by the circumcision of all Jewish male children. But Abraham was not only the father of his physical descendants; he is also the spiritual father of all who convert to Judaism. The prototypical Jew, Abraham is emblematic of a faith that resists all temptation, as when, to test his trust in God, he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.

The leadership of the Israelite nation passed to Abraham's son Isaac and then to his grandson Jacob, the progenitor of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Jacob was renamed Israel by an angel with whom he wrestled [Gen. 32:25–33].) Jacob's favorite son, Joseph, persecuted by his envious brothers, found his way to Egypt, first as a slave to a high-ranking official and eventually as vice-regent of the country. When Joseph encountered his brothers, he urged them to bring Jacob and their families to Egypt to avoid the famine blighting the Land of Israel. After Joseph's death the Children of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians.

Among the Hebrew slaves was the child Moses. He was raised by the pharaoh's daughter, who found him as an infant among the reeds of the Nile, where his mother had hid him from the Egyptian soldiers ordered to kill every Israelite male infant. Brought up as an Egyptian prince, Moses nonetheless commiserated with his people. On one occasion, when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster about to kill a Hebrew slave, Moses intervened and slew the Egyptian. Obliged to flee, he found refuge in the desert. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and ordered him to return to the pharaoh to demand that the Children of Israel be set free. After God had unleashed 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, the pharaoh freed the Children of Israel under Moses' leadership. As they were crossing the desert, however, the pharaoh had second thoughts, and he sent an army to recapture them. At the Red Sea, whose waters had miraculously parted to allow the Israelites to cross, the pursuing army drowned as the waters closed over them. When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, God gave them the Ten Commandments. Moses then ascended the mountain, where he stayed for 40 days and received further laws and instructions, called the Torah. For 40 years he led the people through the wilderness, until they came to the Promised Land. Before being able to enter the land with his people, Moses died at the age of 120.

The successor of Moses was Joshua (twelfth century b.c.e.), leader of the Israelite tribes in their conquest of the Promised Land. As depicted in the Bible, he was a composite of a prophet, judge, and military leader. Upon Joshua's death the people were ruled by judges. Except for Deborah, they were not judges in the technical sense but rather inspired leaders who, guided by the spirit of God, arose on the occasion of a crisis. As temporary leaders, they generally had limited influence, and thus the period was one of political and social instability.

Samuel (eleventh century b.c.e.) was the last of the judges and a prophet who led Israel during a transitional period. In the face of a growing threat from the neighboring Philistines, conflict among the tribes of Israel, and the weak and corrupt leadership of the judges, the people called upon Samuel to anoint a king over them. In accordance with God's will, Samuel anointed Saul, but only after warning the people of the disadvantages of a monarchy. Indeed, Samuel was profoundly disappointed with the king, and he secretly appointed David to replace Saul. Jewish tradition judges Samuel to be of equal importance with Moses.

Saul (c.1029–1005 b.c.e.) was a successful military leader, but his differences with Samuel and his melancholic disposition led to fits of depression, which were eased by music. A young harpist named David was often summoned to play for him. David's increasing popularity, culminating in his slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath, along with his marriage to Saul's daughter Michal and his friendship with Saul's son Jonathan, served only to deepen the king's jealousy. His suspicion that David was bent on wresting the throne from him drove Saul mad with rage, and he tried to kill David, forcing him to flee. Saul met an inglorious end when a force of Philistines defeated the armies of Israel and the wounded Saul took his own life. The victorious Philistines displayed his decapitated body on the wall of the Israelite city of Beth-Shan.

David was anointed king and reigned from c.1010 to 970 b.c.e. He led the remaining troops of Israel to swift victories over the Philistines and other enemies. He then captured Jerusalem, declared it the capital of his kingdom, and had the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of laws given by God to Moses, taken there. His plan to build a Temple was thwarted by the prophet Nathan, who claimed that God found David, a man of war, unsuitable for the sacred project. A warrior and statesman, David united the tribes of Israel and greatly expanded the borders of the kingdom. Although his reign was not free of intrigue and ill fortune, Jewish tradition regarded him as the ideal ruler. Indeed, it was held that the redeemer of Israel, the Messiah, would be a scion of the House of David (Isa. 9:5–6; 11:10).

It was given to David's son Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem. His 40-year reign was marked by peace, prosperity, and amiable ties with the surrounding countries. But Solomon taxed the people heavily to finance the construction of the Temple and an opulent palace and to strengthen his army. His many political marriages with foreign wives were also suspect in the eyes of the people. The festering resentment surfaced after his death and led to the division of the kingdom.

Upon the death of Solomon in 928 b.c.e., the 10 northern tribes of Israel seceded to establish the Kingdom of Israel. Solomon's son Rehoboam thus ruled over the southern Kingdom of Judah, which included only the tribes Judah and Benjamin and which was greatly diminished in territory. For the next 350 years the Kingdom of Israel was constantly beset by internal instability and external enemies. Although at times the rulers of the northern kingdom proved their mettle in battle, they failed to provide effective moral and religious leadership, and pagan practices spread. In response prophets arose in judgment of Israel's sins. In the ninth century the prophet Elijah inveighed against the idolatrous practices and decadent lives of the privileged classes. (Elijah was said not to have died but to have been taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, and later Jewish legend claimed that he would return to earth as the herald of the Messiah.)

In the eighth century b.c.e. the prophet Amos, who came from the Kingdom of Judah, fulminated against the oppression of the poor and disinherited members of society. Because of divine election, Amos taught, the Children of Israel, in both the north and the south, had a responsibility to pursue social justice. In contrast to Amos, who stressed justice, the contemporary prophet Hosea spoke of loving kindness. God loved his people, but they did not requite his love and "whored" with Baal, the pagan god of the Phoenicians. In a dream God commanded Hosea to marry a harlot to symbolize Israel's immoral behavior, while at the same time highlighting God's forgiveness and abiding love. The Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 when it was conquered by the Assyrians, who exiled the inhabitants. These 10 tribes of Israel were henceforth "lost" from history.

The kings of the Kingdom of Judah proved to be more resolute in fending off pagan influences, and they sought to strengthen knowledge of the Torah and its observance. Nonetheless, they were also subject to the wrath of the prophets. Active during the reign of four kings of Judah, the prophet Isaiah (eighth century b.c.e.) castigated the monarchs for forging alliances with foreign powers, arguing that the Jews should place their trust in God alone. Isaiah lent support to King Hezekiah (727–698), who instituted comprehensive religious reforms by uprooting all traces of pagan worship. The prophet Jeremiah (seventh–sixth centuries) denounced what he regarded as the rampant hypocrisy and conceit of the leadership of Judah. When the Babylonians reached the gates of Jerusalem, Jeremiah claimed that it would be futile to resist, and, accordingly, he urged the king to surrender and thus spare the city and its inhabitants from further suffering. His prophecy of doom earned for him the scorn of the leadership and masses alike. When the city fell in 597, he was not exiled to Babylonia with the rest of the political and spiritual elite. He eventually fled to Egypt, where he was last heard of fulminating against the idolatry of the Jews there.

In 538 b.c.e. the Persian emperor Cyrus, who had conquered Babylonia, allowed the exiled Jews to return to Judea (formerly Judah). At first only small groups were repatriated to their ancestral home, by then a province of the Persian Empire. The pace of the return gained momentum when Zerubbabel, a scion of King David, was appointed governor of Judea in about 521. Encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the governor led 44,000 exiles back to Judea. With the support of the prophets, Zerubbabel was able to overcome many political and economic obstacles, as well as the public's apathy toward the rebuilding of the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The Temple, henceforth known as the Second Temple, was rededicated in 516. Under the leadership of the priest Ezra, another group of exiles returned to Judea in 458. Ezra was soon joined by Nehemiah, whom the Persians appointed governor, and the two worked together to rebuild Jerusalem and to reorganize and reform Jewish communal life. They pledged the people to renew the covenant and to rid themselves of foreign and pagan influences.

For the next 300 years Judea was a vassal state ruled by a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian overlords and a religious leader in the person of a high priest. In the last third of the fourth century b.c.e., Judea fell under the power of the Hellenistic world. The Greeks concentrated temporal as well as religious power in the hands of the high priest. To ensure their control, the Greeks also established colonies throughout the land, and their culture gradually penetrated the upper classes of the Jewish population. Hellenization intensified when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164), the Seleucid ruler of Syria, laid claim to Judea and appointed Jason, a Hellenized Jew, to the office of high priest. Jason transformed Jerusalem into a Greek polis (city-state) named Antiochia, in honor of the Seleucid king, and had a sports arena built to replace the Temple as the focus of the city's social and cultural life. Dissatisfied with Jason, Antiochus replaced him with Menelaus, another Hellenized Jew, with whose conniving he plundered the Temple's treasures. In the wake of a revolt by Jason, Antiochus took further measures to obliterate the Jewish character of Jerusalem. He forbade Jews to practice their religion and forced them to eat foods forbidden by the Torah and to participate in pagan rites. The Temple was desecrated and rendered a site for the worship of Zeus. These harsh actions led to an uprising led by the Hasmoneans, a priestly family headed by Mattathias.

Mattathias and his five sons proved able warriors and leaders. Through guerilla warfare they liberated the countryside from Seleucid control. After Mattathias's death in 167 b.c.e., his son Judah Maccabees assumed leadership of the revolt. A brilliant strategist and tactician, he further routed the Seleucid armies and eventually dislodged them from Jerusalem. In 164 the Temple was ritually purified and rededicated, and to celebrate the event, the festival of Hanukkah was instituted. When Judas Maccabees fell in battle in 160, his brothers Jonathan and Simeon resumed guerilla warfare against the Seleucids. Through diplomatic and military efforts they prevailed and gained de facto independence of Judea. In 140 Simeon convened an assembly of priests and learned men who confirmed him, and his sons after him, as the high priest and commander in chief of the Jewish nation.

The Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea lasted for 80 years. During this period the territory was expanded to include virtually all of the Land of Israel. For the most part the Hasmoneans aligned themselves with the Pharisees, who regarded themselves as disciples of Ezra and Nehemiah and who sought to develop Judaism as a dynamic, evolving religion based on both the Written and the Oral Torah. The Hasmoneans also recognized the Sanhedrin as the supreme judicial institution of the Pharisees. For more than five centuries this body, composed of the 71 leading rabbis of the generation, and its president served as the central religious, and at times even temporal, authority of the Jewish people. The leadership of the Pharisees was solidified under the rule (76–67 b.c.e.) of Queen Salome Alexandra, the widow of King Alexander Yanai (103–76), whose father, Aristobulus I, had assumed the title of king (104–103).

Upon Queen Alexandra's death her sons waged a struggle for the throne and the high priesthood, and the resulting civil war rendered Judea vulnerable to invasion. In 63 b.c.e. Roman armies conquered the country, bringing an end to the independence of Judea. The Jewish state once again became a province of an empire. In 37 the Romans appointed Herod, an official in the Hasmonean administration and a descendent of converts to Judaism, king of Judea. With the help of a Roman army, he defeated Antigonus, a grandson of Alexandra who had led a successful revolt against the Romans and reclaimed the Hasmonean throne. Herod loyally served his Roman overlords, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition and reducing the power of the high priests and the Sanhedrin. On the other hand, he allowed the Pharisees to continue to teach and interpret the Torah. Ruling during a period of prosperity, Herod pursued a construction program that included renovation of the Temple. Further, he did not hesitate to intercede with Roman authorities on behalf of Jewish communities throughout the empire.

Herod's kingdom did not endure beyond his death in 4 b.c.e. With the consent of the emperor, he had divided his realm among his three sons, which proved ungainly and ineffective and which led to unrest. Once again the emperor reorganized Judea as a Roman province governed by a non-Jewish administrator. Although the Sanhedrin was allowed to reassemble as the supreme religious and judicial body of the Jews, heavy taxes and the presence of Roman troops in Jerusalem continued to cause discontent. The appointment of Pontius Pilate as governor in 26 c.e. ushered in a particularly oppressive regime. The land was rife with revolutionary and messianic ferment, although with the accession of Emperor Claudius in 41, the situation seemed to ease. The emperor appointed Herod's grandson, Agrippa I, as king, and he proved to be a shrewd political leader and a Jewish patriot. With his death in 44, however, the Roman authorities reimposed direct rule. Once again Judea was in the grips of discontent and messianic agitation, and groups of freedom fighters surfaced. The mounting resistance to Roman rule led to a revolt in 66, which was not put down until four years later when Titus led an army to conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. With the fall of the desert fortress of Masada in 73, Jewish hopes for the restoration of political sovereignty were crushed.

There was a growing realization that an alternative to political and military leadership had to be found. This was offered by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, a leader of the Pharisees during the first century. He had slipped out of Jerusalem during the city's siege and reconstituted the Sanhedrin in the coastal town of Jabneh, already a center of learning. Through his inspiration the Sanhedrin took measures to strengthen Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. When asked by one of his disciples how the Jews were to atone for their sins now that the Temple was destroyed and expiatory animal sacrifices were no longer possible, Johanan replied by citing the prophet Hosea: "Do not fear, we now have charity as a substitute" (6:6). Johanan was joined by many of the leading sages of the time, and together they laid the ground for Judaism to continue as a faith independent of the Temple. Without relinquishing hope for the restoration of the Temple, they implicitly established a new scale of values, at whose pinnacle was the study of the Torah. At Jabneh the Jews truly became a People of the Book.

Upon Johanan's death in c. 80, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel II was appointed president of the Sanhedrin, and he continued the work of reorganizing the national and religious life of the Jewish people. Gamaliel frequently traveled to Rome, where he was greeted as the head of the Jewish nation, and he negotiated with Roman authorities with determination and skill. Under him the community of sages gathered at Jabneh established guidelines for Judaism as a religious faith and practice. Toward this end they elaborated a body of theological, legal, ritual, and ethical teachings that Gamaliel's grandson, Judah ha-Nasi (c. 138–c. 217) brought together in the Mishnah.

Despite the efforts of the Sanhendrin to channel Jewish loyalties into a life of prayer and study, national feelings continued to erupt in revolts against Roman rule, both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel. In the early second century Jewish revolts broke out in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyprus, and the Land of Israel. When the emperor Hadrian disclosed plans to establish a Roman colony on the ruins of Jerusalem—to be called Aelia Capitolina in honor of himself, Aelius Hadrianus, and the god Jupiter Capitolinus—he provoked a war. Led by Simeon Bar Kokhba, the well-planned revolt, which broke out in 132, took the Romans by surprise. The Jewish rebels first liberated Jerusalem and then seized control of Judea and large parts of Galilee. Enthralled by Bar Kokhba's spectacular victories, many Jews, including Rabbi Akiva, widely regarded as the pre-eminent scholar of his generation, hailed him as the Messiah, and he was named the nasi (prince or president) of Judea. After three years, however, the revolt was suppressed, leaving 600,000 Jews dead in battle or from hunger and disease. Tens of thousands of others were sold into slavery, and many more, including scholars, fled the country. Judea was now empty of Jews.

The Sanhedrin was relocated to a small town in Galilee and through resolute leadership extended its authority throughout the Diaspora, where the majority of the Jews now lived. It retained the sole right to ordain rabbis, and emissaries were periodically dispatched to regulate the religious observances of the scattered communities and to collect a voluntary tax for the support of the Sanhedrin and its president. The Roman administration allowed the Sanhedrin to function as part of an implicit agreement that it act to restrain Jewish militants and national sentiments. During this period the Sanhedrin became not only a judicial but also a deliberative and legislative body, and its president, referred to by the Romans as the patriarch, served in effect as the chief executive of the Jewish people. In 420, however, the Romans withdrew their recognition of the patriarch and dissolved the Sanhedrin.

Alternative leadership was provided by the exilarch (in Aramaic, Resh Galuta, or "leader of the Exile") of the Jewish community of Babylonia, which in Jewish nomenclature corresponded to the Persian Empire. Since the days of the First Temple, the Babylonian Diaspora had grown in strength, and it emerged as a dynamic center of Jewish spiritual life and learning. Allowed to develop autonomous institutions, the community was headed by the exilarch, a hereditary office reserved for descendants of King David, who represented the community before the non-Jewish rulers of Babylonia. For 12 centuries after the abolition of the Sanhedrin and the office of the patriarch, the exilarch headed not only the Jewish community of Babylonia but also most other communities of the Diaspora. The exilarch was responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish community, and he had the authority to impose fines and even to imprison delinquents. His office was strengthened by his administrative and financial control of the great rabbinical academies that had evolved in Babylonia. The spiritual significance of this relationship was under-scored by the academies' practice of naming as the heir to the office the member of the deceased exilarch's family deemed the most erudite in the Torah. Under the tutelage of the exilarch, the academies of Babylonia produced the commentary on the Mishnah known as the Babylonian Talmud. By virtue of the esteem accorded this elaboration of Jewish law, it eclipsed the Talmud produced by the academies in Palestine and served to set the contours of Jewish religious life.

The academies of Babylonia drew students and scholars from throughout the Jewish world. The heads of the academies, known as geonim (singular, gaon; "pride" or "excellency"), thus exercised influence far beyond Babylonia, and they were a major factor in maintaining Jewish unity. From Egypt, North Africa, and Christian and Muslim Spain, questions on all aspects of Judaism were sent to the geonim. From the end of the sixth to the middle of the eleventh century, the geonim were considered the intellectual leaders of the Diaspora, and their decisions were regarded as binding by most Jewish communities.

The decline in the influence of the Babylonian academies and the geonim was to a great measure caused by their success. Through their power the Babylonian Talmud became the bedrock of Judaism, and eventually new centers of learning, along with great rabbinical scholars, emerged throughout the Diaspora. As a result, the dependence on the Babylonia academies and the geonim declined. Political divisions within Islam, which since the seventh century had come to reign over most of the lands of the Diaspora, were also a factor. The caliphs of Spain, for instance, did not appreciate the relationship of their Jews to Babylonia, which was governed by a rival caliph. Moreover, under the caliph of Baghdad, Babylonia entered a period of economic stagnation and impoverishment, which naturally affected the Jewish community and its ability to support the rabbinical academies. By the eleventh century the last of the great academies of Babylonia had closed, and the office of the exilarch, long diminished in stature, came to an end in the fifteenth century.

Centralized Jewish leadership thus also came to an end. The various Jewish communities established their own institutions to govern themselves and to represent their interests in non-Jewish societies. Fragmentation of the Jewish people was prevented by the firm foundation that rabbinical Judaism, as amplified especially by the Babylonian Talmud, had throughout the Diaspora. Despite the loss of a central religious and political authority, a worldwide network of correspondence among rabbis and the circulation of their writings served to reinforce the spiritual unity of the Jewish people.


Virtually all of the foundational texts of Judaism, starting with the Hebrew Bible, are of collective authorship. According to Jewish tradition, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, are the Word of God as recorded by Moses. (The exception is the last section, describing his death and burial.) Tradition holds that the other two sections, the Prophets and Writings, were inspired by God, although not directly written by him. Modern critical scholarship, however, regards the Torah as the composite work of several human authors writing in different periods. Similarly, scholarly opinion judges the other books of the Bible to be the work of editors and not necessarily of the authors to whom individual books are ascribed within the texts.

Whether one follows the traditional view or that of modern scholars, the Bible is clearly a chorus of many different theological voices. Moreover, not all voices were included in the text as it was finally canonized. Some of these works have been preserved, although not always in the original Hebrew, in what is called the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. This literature, which also embraces works written by Jewish authors in Aramaic and Greek, was sanctified in the canons of various Christian churches, often in translation in the sacred language of these churches—for example, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syriac, and Old Slavonic. Indeed, it is only by virtue of the sanctity these books have for Christianity that the voices have been remembered. This body of extracanonical Jewish writings was augmented in 1947 when the manuscripts now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves near the Judean desert.

The voices that came to be a part of the Jewish Scriptures were ultimately determined by the Pharisees, who considered themselves disciples of the scholar and prophet Ezra and who emerged during the time of the Hasmoneans. During this period the dominant voice of the Pharisees was Hillel, known as Hillel the Elder (c. 70 b.c.e.–c. 10 c.e.). Born and educated in Babylonia, he developed interpretative principles that encouraged a flexible reading of the Torah. Above all, Hillel taught the virtue of Torah study, to be pursued for its own sake and without ulterior motives. He believed that learning, and learning alone, could refine a person's character and religious personality and endow him with the fear of God. It is told that Hillel was once approached by a would-be convert who asked to be taught the whole Torah while Hillel stood on one foot. He replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow human being; this is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn!" This, the "golden rule," Hillel suggested, is not only the best introduction to Judaism but also its sum total. Thus, Hillel played a decisive role in the history of Judaism. His hermeneutical rules expanded and revolutionized the Jewish tradition, while his stress on the primacy of ethical conduct and his tolerance and humanity deeply influenced the character and image of Judaism. Hillel was the patron of what has been termed "classical Judaism." To the worship of power and the state, he opposed the ideal of the community of those learned in Torah and of those who love God and their fellow human beings.

Hillel's teachings are woven into the Mishnah, an anthology of Pharisaic interpretations of the Written and Oral Torah that was edited by one of his descendants, Judah ha-Nasi (c. 138–c. 217), head of the Sanhedrin. Noting that over the centuries the Oral Torah had continued to grow exponentially, Judah ha-Nasi deemed it necessary, especially since a majority of Jews by then lived in the Diaspora, to have a written protocol of the most significant teachings. He prevailed upon each of the Pharisees, who bore the honorific title of rabbi (master or teacher of the Torah), to prepare a synopsis of the Oral Torah they taught in the various academies of the Land of Israel. He then edited and collated the material into the compendium titled the Mishnah, a name derived from the Hebrew verb shanah, meaning "to repeat," that is, to recapitulate what one has learned. In his work Judah ha-Nasi had been aided by other scholars who preceded him, in particular Rabbi Akiva (c. 50–c. 136).

Contemporary Midrash

The affirmation of Judaism as a living faith has led a number of thinkers, particularly in the United States, to place sacred texts once again at the center of Jewish spirituality. Inspired by postmodernism and its critique of the Enlightenment's quest for objective truth, such thinkers as Arthur A. Green (born in 1941), Michael A. Fishbane (born in 1944), and Peter Ochs (born in 1950) have initiated what has become an ever increasing trend of reestablishing Judaism as a community of study in which the foundational texts are continuously reinterpreted without any claim for the absolute validity of a single reading. The study of these texts and their inexhaustible interpretation are said to renew the traditional understanding of Torah study, broadly called Midrash, as the principal medium of Israel's covenantal relation with God and his revealed Word.

Judah ha-Nasi intended the Mishnah to serve as a curriculum for the study of Jewish law. He thus did not seek to establish an authoritative text but rather provided variant opinions and rulings on the subjects discussed. The corpus of teachings gathered in the Mishnah did not exhaust the oral traditions of the rabbis, who in the collection are also called tannaim (singular, tanna; Aramaic for "teacher"), for there were teachings Judah ha-Nasi chose to exclude and others unknown to him. Further, the Oral Torah continued to develop. Later teachings were collected in a variety of anthologies, such as the Tosefta, literally the "addition" to the Mishnah. An important body of rabbinical teachings representing hundreds of different voices, it was apparently edited at the end of the fourth century, perhaps even later.

The crowning achievement of rabbinic Judaism was the two Talmuds. In the Land of Israel and in Babylonia scholars known as amoraim (Aramaic for "explainers") organized themselves into academies (yeshivas) to study the Mishnah and other collections of rabbinical teachings. The record of the reflections and debates of the amoraim was published as a commentary on the Mishnah in two multivolume works, the Jerusalem and the Baby-lonian Talmuds. Both encompass the work of many generations of scholars. The Jerusalem Talmud, actually composed in academies in Galilee, was concluded in about 400, and the Babylonian Talmud a century later. Because of the intensification of the anti-Jewish policy of the Roman authorities, which led to the flight of many scholars, the Jerusalem Talmud was hastily compiled. It thus lacks the editorial polish of the Babylonian Talmud, which was prepared under far calmer circumstances.

The amoraim also edited collections of the commentaries known as Midrashim. Whereas previous collections had been based on Halakhic (legal) discussions of the rabbis of the Land of Israel, the later Midrashim, edited in the fifth and sixth centuries, largely originated in the homilies of synagogues, which had become the central institution of Jewish religious life. These Midrashim were also devoted to an exegesis of Scripture, often in a sustained line-by-line commentary. There are, for example, such collections for the books of Genesis, Lamentations, Esther, the Song of Songs, and Ruth.

Another seminal work of collective authorship that emerged during this period was the Hebrew prayer book, which with local variations became authoritative for Jews everywhere. Although the Bible gives witness to personal prayers, it is not clear that Temple rituals were accompanied by communal prayers. Sacrificial rites were accompanied by a chorus of psalms chanted by Levites (descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob, who were by hereditary privilege assigned a special role in the Temple service) but without the participation of the congregation. There is evidence, however, that in the Second Temple a form of communal prayer had begun to take shape. But it was only after the destruction of the Temple and the end of its rites that the rabbis at Jabneh began to standardize Jewish liturgical practice. Alongside the obligatory prayers instituted by the rabbis, there also developed the tradition of composing piyyutim (liturgical poems), many of which were incorporated into the prayer book.

Other than certain books of the Bible, the first work by a Jewish author to appear under the name of an individual was that of the philosopher Philo (c. 20 b.c.e.–50 c.e.), who lived in Alexandria. Writing in Greek, he composed an exegesis of the Bible in which many passages were interpreted as allegorical elucidations of metaphysical truths. His concept that God created the world through Logos had a profound impact on the Christian dogma that identified Jesus with the Logos. The Christian church therefore preserved many of Philo's writings, which, other than a few brief passages cited in the Talmud, were forgotten by his fellow Jews after his death.

Sustained Jewish interest in philosophy was to be manifest only under the impact of Islamic thought, which was nurtured by Greek philosophy, and by and large Jewish philosophy was philosophy of religion. Writing for the most part in Arabic, Jewish philosophers used the philosopher's tools to address religious or theological questions. It is significant that medieval Jewish philosophy was inaugurated by a gaon (head) of one the leading rabbinical academies in Babylonia, the Egyptian-born Saadiah Gaon (882–942). His Book of Beliefs and Opinions, written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew, presented a rational analysis and proof of the basic theological concepts of Judaism.

Among the most important Jewish philosophers was Solomon ibn Gabriol (c. 1026–50), of Muslim Spain, who wrote a Neoplatonic defense of the biblical concept of creation that, translated from the Arabic into Latin as Fons vitae ("Fountain of Life"), deeply influenced Christian theology. Drawing on Islamic mysticism, Neoplatonic philosophy, and perhaps even esoteric Christian literature, Bahya ibn Pakuda (second half of the eleventh century), who also lived in Spain, wrote on ethical and spiritual life in Duties of the Heart, which first appeared in 1080 in Arabic. Through translations into Hebrew, the first of which had already appeared in the late twelfth century, and other languages, this guide is still widely studied within the Jewish community.

One of the most popular Jewish philosophical works of the Middle Ages was written by the poet Judah Halevi of Toledo (c. 1075–1141). Known for his Hebrew poems, some 800 of which are extant, Halevi was the author of the treatise The Book of the Kuzars. Written in Arabic in the form of a dialogue between a Jewish scholar and the king of the Khazars, who was subsequently to convert to Judaism, Halevi's book explores the conflict between philosophy and revealed faith. Exposing what he believes to be the limitations of Aristotlean philosophy, he argues that only religious faith that affirms God's transcendence and the gift of revelation, namely, the Torah and its commandments, can bring a person close to God. Another prominent Spanish philosopher writing in Arabic was Abraham ibn Daud (c. 1110–c. 1180). In The Exalted Faith Ibn Daud systematically sought to harmonize the principles of Judaism with Aristotelian rationalist philosophy.

The Jewish philosophical tradition in Spain had its most esteemed expression in the work of Rabbi Moseh ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1135–1204). Writing like most of his colleagues in Arabic, he addressed The Guide of the Perplexed to those who had difficulty reconciling Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelianism, with biblical faith. Like Philo, Maimonides read the Bible as allegorical expositions of philosophical truths and thus demonstrated that the conflict between faith and reason is but apparent. Accordingly, the authentically wise person realizes that intellectual and religious perfection, the latter to be achieved through the observance of God's laws, are identical. Maimonides also wrote, in Hebrew, a comprehensive codification of Jewish law called the Mishnah Torah.

All subsequent medieval Jewish philosophy may be viewed as either affirmative or dissenting footnotes to Maimonides. The Italian Jewish philosopher Hillel ben Samuel (c. 1220–c. 1295) devoted a Hebrew work to defending Maimonides' doctrine of the soul—survival of physical death as pure intellect—arguing that he did not mean to deny individual immortality. The Catalonian Jewish philosopher Isaac Albalag (thirteenth century), while seeming to affirm the survival of the individual soul after death, in fact subtlety rejected the notion, suggesting that reason allows a person to speak only of the eternity of the universe.

The philosopher and rabbinical scholar Hasdai Crescas (1340–1410) refuted the Aristotelian premises of Maimonides. Indeed, he opposed all attempts to identify the principles of Judaism with those of Greek philosophy. For him man is a spiritual being, and hence his soul departs the body after death and survives. In contrast to Maimonides and followers of Aristotle, Crescas taught that love and rational knowledge are the highest good and, as such, that it is the love between man and God that determines the immortality of the soul. Joseph Albo (c. 1380–1445), who was regarded as the last of the great Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, was at home in the Latin Scholasticism of Christianity as well as in Islamic philosophy. This Spanish philosopher sought to forge a synthesis of Maimonides and Crescas. With regard to the question of the immortality of the soul, to which a large portion of his Book of Principles, written in Hebrew, was devoted, he endorsed Crescas's view that the soul is spiritual and not intellectual in nature but that it is, nonetheless, capable of attaining rational knowledge.

Although the Italian Renaissance witnessed a rebirth of Jewish philosophy, such writers as Judah Abrabanel (better known as Leone Ebreo; c. 1460–c. 154) and Joseph Delmedigo (1591–1655) essentially confined themselves to expositions of the teachings of their medieval predecessors. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77), however, marked the end of the Jewish tradition in medieval philosophy. Gaining his initial instruction from the works of such philosophers as Maimonides and Crescas, Spinoza developed a philosophical system that abandoned all attempts to reconcile faith and reason, revelation and philosophy. He regarded faith in revelation or in a divine source of knowledge, held to be superior to or at least compatible with reason, as undermining the integrity of philosophy as a self-sufficient rational discourse. Spinoza thus boldly challenged the overarching concern of medieval philosophy, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic alike. His radical, implicitly secular views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community, whereupon he took the name Benedictus, the Latin equivalent of his Hebrew name.

Philosophy was not the only expression of medieval Jewish thought. Jews also developed a robust mystical tradition that gave birth to a rich and varied literature. Most of this literature is characterized by collective authorship or is pseudepigraphic—that is, ascribed to ancient or mythical authors. The first written evidence of Jewish mysticism was a collection of some 20 brief treatises originating from the Talmudic period (third century c.e.) and collectively known as Hekhalot ("Supernal Palaces") and Merkavah ("Divine Chariot") literature. The writings record a journey through the celestial palaces to the vision of God's chariot, or throne. In the second half of the twelfth century there emerged groups of scholars in the Germanic lands, known in Hebrew as Ashkenaz, who developed an acute mystical consciousness. Writing under the trauma of the massacres of Jews during the Crusades, they reflected on the mystery of the inner life of God as a key to understanding what seemed to be his ambiguous relationship to history and Jewish fate. Most of the literature produced by this mystical school, known as Hasidei Ashkenaz (pious men of Ashkenaz), was either anonymous or pseudepigraphic. In addition to speculative theosophical literature, these scholars produced ethical tracts that sought to inculcate a severe pietistic discipline touching virtually every aspect of life.

In neighboring France and Spain the seeds of a parallel school of Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, were sown. Abraham ben David of Posquieres (c. 1125–98), in Provence, one of the most renowned rabbinical scholars of his age, was a fierce critic of Maimonides' attempt to reduce the Talmud to a code of law and to render Judaism a species of rational philosophy. Although a prolific writer, he limited his mystical teachings to oral instructions to his sons. They became the literary guides of the emerging Kabbalah movement, which purported to be based on an ancient tradition of esoteric readings of the Torah's deepest meanings.

These teachings were elaborated by Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (known as Nahmanides or the Ramban; 1194–1270) of Gerona. Deeply impressed by French rabbinical scholarship, he worked to raise the prestige and significance of Talmud study in Spain. He, too, objected to Maimonides' attempt to render philosophy the touchstone of religious truth. In his voluminous writings, some 50 of which are preserved, Nahmanides wove, particularly in his commentary on the Torah, his teachings in encoded form. Kabbalists of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries devoted considerable effort to decode Nahmanides' teachings. As elaborated by his and Abraham ben David's disciples, Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world.

The various mystical impulses of Kabbalah culminated in the appearance in the late thirteenth century of the Zohar ("Book of Splendor"), which became its main text. The principal author of this multivolume pseudepigraphic work was identified by twentieth-century scholars as Moses de Lion (c. 1240–1305) of Castile. Written as a commentary on the Torah, the Zohar is presented as the esoteric Oral Torah taught by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a tanna (teacher) of the fourth generation and one of the most prominent disciples of Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Judah ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah. Written in a symbolically rich Aramaic, the Zohar inspired numerous works that sought to develop further insights into the hidden layers of the Torah's meaning as the ground of the ultimate and most intimate knowledge of God.

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century engendered a profound sense of crisis and messianic longing. This was expressed through the speculations spawned by new schools of Kabbalah established in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Land of Israel. Presented as commentaries on the Zohar, these writings had the questions of evil and redemption as their central themes. In the sixteenth century the small town of Safed in Galilee became the center of this new, indeed revolutionary, trend in Kabbalah, which gained its fullest expression with Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–72) and his disciples, especially Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1542–1620). Expounding a messianic theology based on motifs and images from the Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah taught that the Exile and Israel's tragic history were but symbolic reflections of a higher reality in which part of God suffered exile, trapped in the material realm through a flaw in the process of creation. In fulfilling the precepts of the Torah with the proper mystical intent, the Jewish people redeemed both God and themselves. By virtue of this teaching, Kabbalah was transformed into a messianic myth that allowed the Jews to believe they could actively change the course of their history and at the same time cleanse the world of evil, which was a result of God's exile.

This teaching, especially as amplified through popular writings, captured the imagination of the Jewish people. The heightened hope that redemption was approaching led to the advent of a mystical Messiah in the person of Shabbetai Tzevi (1626–76). Through the writings of his disciples, especially Nathan of Gaza (1644–80), the Jewish world was electrified with excitement. All seemed to collapse, however, when Shabbetai, confronted by Turkish authorities who saw in the messianic movement that galvanized about him a political threat to their rule over the Land of Israel, was given the choice of death or conversion to Islam and chose the latter. Shabbetai's ignominious end left the Jewish people deeply perplexed.

Among the many responses to the energy induced by Lurianic Kabbalah and by Shabbetai Tzevi was a movement of popular mysticism called Hasidism that arose in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Founded by Israel ben Eliezer (known as Baal Shem Tov or by the acronym Besht; c. 1700–60), the movement reinterpreted Kabbalistic teachings so that they neutralized the sting of messianic disappointment that lingered after Shabbetai's death. Israel ben Eliezer and his disciples redirected the longing for redemption to the experience of God in the here and now through the everyday acts of prayer, ritual, and good deeds. Rejoicing in the all-pervasive presence of God through song and dance was also deemed to be a valid form of divine service. In addition to writing numerous works on Kabbalah, Hasidic teachers developed a unique genre of mystical parables and stories that were eventually collected in widely circulated collections. Many of these parables and stories are ascribed to Baal Shem Tov, who himself did not write any books. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (1772–1811), his great-grandson, was a particularly gifted storyteller whose mystical tales and subtle theology, rich with psychological insight, continue to exercise a unique fascination on Jews beyond the Hasidic movement.

With the dawn of the modern world, Jewish religious thinkers were faced with the challenge of accommodating not only new conceptions of truth, which questioned divine revelation as a source of knowledge, but also with the task of articulating strategies that would allow Jews to participate in a culture that was essentially secular and universal while they preserved their commitment to Judaism as a distinctive way of life. The first philosopher to acknowledge this task was the German-born Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86). One of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment, he contributed highly acclaimed essays and books on such general subjects as metaphysics, aesthetics, and psychology. Hailed in his day as the German Socrates, he was obliged to explain publicly his abiding devotion to the Torah and its precepts. Many of his contemporaries wondered how he could be a Jew, beholden to biblical revelation, and at the same time a philosopher who acknowledged reason as the sole arbiter of truth. Mendelssohn published a defense of his allegiance to both Judaism and philosophy in the book Jerusalem (1783). His answer was that Judaism understands revelation, not as a divine disclosure of propositions, but rather as divine instruction on how to conduct religious life. Intellectually, he held, Jews are totally free to pursue the rule of reason.

But as the social and cultural reality changed for an ever increasing number of Jews, Mendelssohn's reconciliation of traditional Judaism and philosophy no longer proved tenable. By sheer dint of their participation in modern culture, Jews found themselves occupying a new social and political space that led them, in varying degrees, to abandon the duties of traditional Judaism. In response to the new cultural reality, scholars and religious philosophers in the early nineteenth century, primarily in Germany, sought to develop a theology that would authenticate new conceptions of traditional obligations. Gathering under the banner of what came to be called Reform, or Liberal, Judaism, they wrote learned essays and monographs arguing that the essence of Judaism was to be found in its universal ethical teachings as opposed to time-bound ceremonial laws. Among the leading representatives of this school were Solomon Ludwig Steinheim (1790–1866), Samuel Holdheim (1806–60), and Abraham Geiger (1810–74).

A centrist position between Reform and Orthodoxy—as traditional Judaism has often been called since the early nineteenth century—was forged by Zacharias Frankel (1801–75). His blend of intellectual modernism and modified traditional practice sowed the seeds of what in twentieth-century North America came to be known as Conservative Judaism. Initially affiliated with Conservative Judaism, Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983) developed a religious philosophy he called Reconstructionism. Believing that traditional conceptions of God as a supernatural, personal being were hopelessly out-of-date, he argued that fundamental presuppositions of Jewish religious thought must be revised and purged of anachronistic supernaturalism. Reconstructed as a "naturalistic" faith, Judaism would be more attuned both to the modern world and to the evolving spiritual and cultural aspirations of Jews. Judaism was best understood as a civilization, of which religion was but one, albeit central, component. In this respect Kaplan drew inspiration from Zionism, which in advancing its political program understood Jews as principally a nation and culture, to which a person might be affiliated on purely secular terms.

Traditional Jews did not remain indifferent to these developments. Moses Sofer (1762–1839), a Germanborn rabbi who was widely recognized as the leading Halakhah authority of his day, viewed all theological and organizational attempts to accommodate the modern world and its secular values as a mortal threat to Judaism. He is said to have coined the slogan "All innovation is forbidden by the Torah," about which Ultra-Orthodox Jews have since organized their uncompromising opposition to any deviation from Jewish tradition. Sofer's younger colleague, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), also a German-born traditional rabbi, regarded Sofer's principled resistance to all things modern as profoundly mistaken. Preferring to call him-self a "Torah-true" rather than an Orthodox rabbi, Hirsch held that traditional Judaism not only could but also should affirm certain aspects of modern enlightened culture. Indeed, Jews should regard themselves as obligated to learn the physical and social sciences, for God is manifest in nature and history. Further, the humanistic ethic of the Enlightenment is compatible with the deepest ethical values of Judaism. In the twentieth century other Orthodox theologians, such as Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903–93) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72), have given their own twists to Hirsch's modern, or Neo-Orthodox, views.

Modern Jewish religious thought has also been characterized by theologies developed outside the denominational framework. Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), who held a chair in philosophy at the University of Marburg in Germany, employed philosophical categories derived from his studies of Immanuel Kant to present Judaism as a "religion of reason." According to his conception, human reason is assigned the "ethical task" of striving to perfect institutions promoting social justice and universal peace. As a religious community, Jews, whose spiritual and moral sensibilities are nurtured by their ancient liturgy and ritual, should exemplify a commitment to this task. He associated devotion to the task with the traditional Jewish concept of imitating God's holiness and serving as his partner in perfecting the work of creation.

For Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) the tendency to regard religion as but a handmaiden of ethics eliminated the core experience of divine revelation. Removing revelation as the ground of an existential relationship to God, Rosenzweig protested, amounted to "atheistic theology." He also directed his criticism against Martin Buber (1878–1965), who represented a tendency shared by both Jewish and Protestant thinkers to ascribe the "spirit" animating a community of faith with the national or ethnic "genius" of that community. In time Buber recognized the mistake of this essentially romantic, indeed nationalistic, conception of religion, and he sought in Ich und Du (1923; I and Thou) and other works to redefine the biblical concept of revelation as a dialogue between a human being and a transcendent, personal God. Rosenzweig also developed a dialogic view of revelation, although his took into account more traditional conceptions of Jewish religious practice. He set forth his views in a monumental volume titled Der Stern der Erlösung (1921; The Star of Redemption).

The legacy of European Jewish thought has continued to inspire American-born thinkers, including Will Herberg (1902–77), Milton Steinberg (1903–50), Arthur A. Cohen (1928–86), Eugene B. Borowitz (born in 1928), Richard Rubenstein (born in 1924), and David Hartman (born in 1931). Their writings have largely been characterized by interpretative commentaries on the thought of their European predecessors. This dependence may be indicative not only of a pervasive sense of being indebted heirs of their predecessors but also an awesome sense that they are their survivors. The tragic, catastrophic end of European Jewry created, in the words of Cohen, a profound "caesura," or rupture, in Jewish collective and personal existence, engendering a feeling of inconsolable mourning and obligation. In reflecting on the tragedy of the Nazi era and on its theological implications for the "surviving remnant" of Jewry, American Jews have been at their most original and probing. The resulting "theology of the Holocaust" may in many respects be viewed as a theology of survival, seeking to affirm the obligations of the remnant of Jewry to survive somehow as Jews. Auschwitz, in the words of Emil L. Fackenheim (1916–2003), issued "a commandment" to Jews to endure and to ensure the survival of Judaism.

Several Hasidic rabbis developed theological responses to the Holocaust, most significantly Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–94), head of the Lubavitcher, or Habad, branch of Hasidism. He viewed the Holocaust as the "birth pangs of the Messiah," the tribulations preceding Redemption, whose imminent advent was indicated by the "miraculous" birth of the State of Israel. The rabbi's messianic enthusiasm was expressed by his dedication to the spiritual "ingathering" of the exiled of Israel, which he pursued by establishing a worldwide program to instill in secularized and assimilated Jews a love of the Torah. Many of Rabbi Schneerson's followers believe that he himself was the longed-for Messiah, who, despite his death, will soon return as the manifest Redeemer of Israel and the world.

The commandment to endure also inspired the slow but impressive reconstruction of European Jewry, which has likewise witnessed the renewal of Jewish religious thought, most notably represented by Emmanuel Lévinas (1906–95) in France and Louis Jacobs (born in 1920) in England. Lévinas, one of the most esteemed philosophers of post-World War II France, represented a continuation of the existentialist thought pioneered by Rosenzweig and Buber. Employing the metaphysical phenomenology he developed as a critique of Edmund Husserl's and Martin Heidegger's concept of "the other," Lévinas sought to illuminate the religious meaning of Judaism. The moral experience of the other, borne by a compelling sense of responsibility toward him, is the only genuine knowledge of a person. Lévinas contrasted the antihumanistic tendency of Western culture—which, he held, masquerades as liberty but which is, in fact, bereft of responsibility for the other—with the biblical concept, especially as elaborated by the rabbis, of "a difficult liberty." (The title of his most important collection of essays on Judaism is Difficile liberté[1963; Difficult Freedom, 1990].) Paradoxically, the Jew obtains transcendence, and thus liberty, by living under God's law, which requires ethical and social responsibility for the other. Biblical man, Lévinas observed, with an oblique reference to Heidegger, "discovers" his fellow man before "he discovers landscapes." As the custodian of biblical humanism, Lévinas declared, Judaism stands before the contemporary world and defiantly proclaims that liberty entails ethical responsibility and obligation.


Since the abolishing of the Sanhedrin at the beginning of the fifth century c.e. and the decline of the office of the geonim, the heads of the Babylonian rabbinical academies, in the eleventh century, Judaism has not had a central religious authority acknowledged by all communities. In response some communities have organized themselves around a regional or countrywide leadership, such as a central rabbinical judicial court or even a chief rabbi. In fifteenth-century Turkey, for instance, the position of hakham bashi (chief sage) was established. In the nineteenth century the position was elevated by the Turkish authorities and assigned the function of chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte convened what he ceremoniously called a Sanhedrin in order to gain rabbinical sanction for the changes in Jewish laws and theological orientation that he deemed would facilitate Jewish integration into the French state. Napoleon hoped that this body of representatives, two-thirds rabbis and one-third lay leaders from the French empire and the Kingdom of Italy, would gain the recognition of all Jewry. The world Jewish community greeted the French Sanhedrin with indifference or profound suspicion, however, and after doing the emperor's bidding, it ceased to exist. Thereafter, Napoleon instituted the office of a chief rabbi, which eventually was transferred from government auspices to the autonomous communal organization of French Jewry.

A chief rabbinate in England arose at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was officially recognized by the government in 1845, which assured that its authority would extend over the entire British Empire. In 1840, during the period of Ottoman rule, Jerusalem became a regional administrative center, and the hakham bashi or rishon le-Zion (First of Zion, or the chief rabbi of the Sephardic community) was recognized as the chief rabbi of the Land of Israel. In 1920 the British mandatory government of Palestine established two offices of the chief rabbinate, one for the Ashkenazim and the other for the Sephardim. The authority of these offices, which the State of Israel continues to support, is not universally acknowledged by all Jewish communities, however. Recurrent attempts to establish a chief rabbinate in the United States have failed. Instead, each denomination—Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—has established its own organization.


In Judaism, as in all biblical religions, the notion of specific holy places is ambiguous. If God is the universal God of creation, it is not clear how his glory or presence can be manifest in any one place rather than another. Some rabbis regard certain places as intrinsically holy because the divine presence objectively dwells in those spaces, namely, the Land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. Others view holy places as sanctified by historical association, as sites evoking certain religious memories and, therefore, emotions. Among such holy places in Judaism are Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac (Gen. 22:14) and upon which, according to Jewish tradition, the Temple was built. The holiness of Mount Sinai, where God gave the Children of Israel the Torah, was limited to the time of divine revelation and subsequently has had no special status. Although the Land of Israel is regarded as the Holy Land and the Temple Mount as the most holy part of this land, some rabbis have debated what constitutes the holiness of this land and of the Temple Mount. It is significant that King Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, raised this very question: "For will God indeed dwell on the earth?Behold, the heaven and the heaven of the heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27). As the twentieth-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, "God has no geographical address nor a permanent residence." None-theless, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the remaining parts of its Western Wall, popularly known as the Wailing Wall, became a site of collective mourning and of the expression of messianic longing for its restoration.

Judaism also regards as holy the site in the city of Hebron where the patriarchs are said to be buried. Similarly, the tomb of Rachel, near Bethlehem, is revered as holy. Some Jewish communities regard as holy the grave sites of famed rabbis—for example, the grave at Meron in Galilee of Simeon ben Yohai, the second-century sage who figures prominently in the Mishnah and in the Zohar. Members of the Hasidic community following the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav make annual pilgrimages to his grave in the Ukrainian village of Uman.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the synagogue, from the Greek meaning "assembly," has served as the site of Jewish worship. (The Hebrew equivalent is bet ha-keneset, or "house of assembly.") In the Talmudic period there arose a parallel institution called bet ha-Midrash, or "house of study," designating a place where Jews went to study the Torah. The two institutions eventually were joined, and in Yiddish, the vernacular of eastern European Jewry, the synagogue is simply called a Schul, or "school." In order to signal that they no longer pray for the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple, Reform congregations often call their house of worship a temple.


The Hebrew term for "holiness" is kedushah, meaning the act of "setting apart," or dedication to God, who as the holy one and the creator of the universe is the source of all holiness. The act of dedicating oneself and one's actions to God constitutes the sacred in Judaism. Hence, it is said that Jews' relationship to God is preeminently through time and not space. It may, therefore, seem to be a paradox that one of the most frequent names for God in the Talmud is Makom, Hebrew for "space." The paradox is explained by a mid-rash ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (first–second centuries c.e.) on Psalm 90:1—"… Lord, Thou has been our dwelling place in all generations"—pointing to the fact that wherever there are righteous and pious people "God is with them."

Through pious deeds Jews sanctify the objects (food, drink, a residence, an object of beauty) and natural activities (sex, work, beholding beauty as well as tragedy) of the created order and thereby render them receptive to God's holy presence. These deeds include those specified by the Torah, as elaborated by the Halakhah, and those acts of reverence and morality that one must legislate to oneself. The rabbis, however, have held that it is life itself that is most sacred, and in order to preserve a life the precepts of the Torah may be suspended. Accordingly, they interpreted Leviticus 19:16 to mean "… neither shalt thou stand aside when mischief befalls thy neighbor," and hence if someone is, say, assaulted, it is incumbent upon all who are in a position to help to do so, even if this entails abrogating the ritual commandments of the Torah.

In Judaism reverence is accorded to ritual objects, and in this sense they are regarded as sacred. Religious books written in Hebrew, "the sacred tongue," starting with the Bible, are regarded as sacred. Hence, when these books become worn and no longer fit for use, they are not simply discarded but rather are reverentially buried in a cemetery, often in the grave of a great scholar or particularly pious person. In some communities it is the custom to store Hebrew texts, including correspondence dealing with religious matters, that are no longer in use in a special vault, or genizah (hiding place), usually in the synagogue.


The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is the paradigm for all holidays in Judaism. Associated with God's creation of the world and with the enduring source of life's ultimate meaning, the Sabbath is marked by a cessation of work and mundane activity and by dedication to worship, thanksgiving, study of the Torah, and reaffirmation of Israel's covenant with God. With important modifications, this pattern applies to all major Jewish festivals.

The Jewish liturgical calendar essentially has five major festivals and two principal minor festivals, the former biblically ordained and the latter instituted by the Talmudic sages. While on the Sabbath all work is forbidden, on the major holidays the preparation of food is permitted. The major holidays are Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur, which is regarded as the Sabbath, with all work whatsoever forbidden; Sukkoth; Passover; and Shabuoth. In biblical times the latter three were celebrated by pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. The two principal minor festivals introduced by the rabbis are Hanukkah and Purim, which do not carry the prohibition against working or engaging in mundane activities. Similar rules apply to other minor festivals and fast days.

The holidays and festivals are ordered according to the ancient Jewish calendar, which is based on the monthly cycle of the moon, with adjustments to the seasonal pattern of the solar year. The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, falls on the lst of the month of Tishri, which generally corresponds to a day in September. Literally "head of the year," the holiday is also known as the Day of Judgment (Yom Ha-Din), on which a person stands before God, who judges his or her personal repentance. God's judgment is dispensed 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah is a festive celebration of divine creation and, at the same time, a solemn reckoning of one's sins. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as the Days of Awe and is devoted to penitential prayer, which culminates with the fasting and intense expression of contrition and atonement that mark Yom Kippur. On this, the holiest day of the Jewish year, on which God's judgement is cast, Jews pray to be pardoned for their sins and for reconciliation with God.

Five days after Yom Kippur, on the 15th of Tishri, the autumn festival of Sukkoth (Tabernacles) takes place. Lasting a week, the festival is marked by the construction of provisional booths, or sukkahs (from the Hebrew sukkoth), as a reminder of the structures in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years' journey in the wilderness (Lev. 23:42). The roof of the sukkah, in which a person is to eat and, if possible, sleep for the duration of the festival, is to be made from things that grow from the ground, a symbol of God's care for the earth and its inhabitants. On the last day of the festival, called Hoshanah Rabbah (Great Hosannah), hymns are sung appealing to God for deliverance from hunger. Sukkoth is followed immediately by Shemini Atzeret, the "eighth day of assembly," on which God is entreated to bestow rain to ensure a good harvest, and the next day is Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). On this day the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah is completed, hence the rejoicing. In the Land of Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are observed on the same day.

Hanukkah (Dedication) is a winter festival that begins on the 25th of Kislev, the second month after Tishri. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids, although greater import is attached to the rededication of the Temple. According to the Talmud, the Maccabees could find ceremonial oil for only one night, but by a miracle its flames lasted for eight days until a fresh supply could be obtained. In commemoration of the miracle, lights are kindled in Jewish homes during the eight nights of Hanukkah, customarily in a special candelabrum.

Two Israeli Holidays

Two holidays of the State of Israel are also marked throughout the Diaspora. One is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), on the 27th of Nisan, which commemorates the systematic killing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. It was on this date in 1943 that the Nazis suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the heroic resistance of Jewish partisans is thus also remembered on this day. Many Jewish congregations and communities throughout the Diaspora have incorporated Yom Ha-Shoah into their liturgical and communal calendars.

The second holiday is Yom Ha-Atzamaut (Israeli Independence Day), on the 5th of Iyyar, the eighth month of the Jewish calendar, which marks the proclamation of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. Although it is an Israeli civil holiday, Yom Ha-Atzamaut is celebrated in most Jewish congregations with special prayers of thanksgiving.

Purim, or the Feast of Esther, falls on the 14th of Adar, the fifth month after Tishri. This festival commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from Haman, the chief minister of the king of Persia, who cast lots (Hebrew, purim) to determine the date on which the Jews in the kingdom would be killed. The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue on the night of Purim and on the next morning. During the reading it is customary for the congregation to "blot out" the name of Haman, held to be a descendent of Amalek (Exod. 17:8–16) and the forefather of those bent on destroying the Jewish people, by shouting raucously, pounding their feet, and rattling noisemakers. In general a carnival mood prevails, and many people, including children, dress in costumes.

Passover takes place from the 15th to the 22nd (in the Diaspora from the 15th to the 23rd) of Nisan, the seventh month after Tishri. The Hebrew name for the holiday, Pesach, denotes the lamb offered on the even of the festival during the time of the Temple. With a change in one vowel, the name becomes the past tense of the verb pasach (to pass over), alluding to God's having passed over the houses of the Children of Israel when he slew the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:13). After the destruction of the Second Temple, the principal ritual focus of the holiday was transferred to the prohibition against eating leavened bread, with matzo becoming a symbol of affliction and poverty. A seder, or festive meal and religious service, is held in the home on the first night of Passover in Israel and for the first two nights in the Diaspora. At the meal the Haggadah relating the story of the Exodus, along with legends and homiletic commentaries on the Passover ritual, is recited.

Shabuoth falls on the 6th (in the Diaspora on the 6th and 7th) of Sivan, the ninth month after Tishri. It takes place 50 days after the Omer (sheaf of barley) was taken to the Temple on the second day of Passover. (Hence, it is called Pentecost [Greek for "50"] in Christian sources.) In biblical times Shabuoth was a harvest holiday, and it is celebrated as such by many secular Israelis today. The rabbis, however, understood its principal significance to be a commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The portion of the Torah read on the first day of Shabuoth is from Exodus (19:1–20:26). On the second day, in the Diaspora, a parallel passage from Deuteronomy 16:1–17 is read. It is also customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shabuoth, for of her own volition Ruth the Moabite entered into the covenant of Abraham. She is, therefore, the paradigm both of pure faith and of a genuine convert to Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, Ruth's grandson, King David, died on Shabuoth. Although there are no special rituals to mark Shabuoth, many customs have evolved over the centuries. The eating of dairy dishes, some especially prepared for the day, is a particularly popular custom. The Kabbalist custom of devoting the entire night of Shabuoth to Torah study was later adopted by other Jewish communities.


Aside from the biblical commandment to attach fringes (zizith) to the four corners of garments (Num. 15:38–40; Deut. 22:12), which are also attached to a special shawl (tallith) worn by men during prayer, Jewish law does not prescribe any specific dress. Nonetheless, a dress code has indirectly been created by the prohibition against wearing garments containing a mixture of wool and flax (Deut. 22:11) and the injunction against men wearing women's clothing and women dressing like men (Deut. 22:5). A verse in Leviticus (19:27)—"You shall not round off the side-growth of your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard"—was interpreted by the Talmudic sages as a prohibition against shaving with a razor, which was regarded as an act of disfigurement. The removal of facial hair with a scissors, or in modern times with an electric razor, is permitted, but the practice of wearing a beard and side locks (peot) has been widely adopted by traditional Jews.

Rules of modesty influence the manner of traditional Jewish dress. Since ancient times married women have covered their hair, considered one of the sources of a woman's allure. As an expression of piety, the custom has evolved for men to wear a skullcap, especially during prayer and while studying sacred texts, and many Orthodox men wear a head covering at all times. In Conservative and Reform circles the practice of women wearing a skullcap has increased. In the modern period Ultra-Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim, have adopted special dress as a way of securing their religious identity, especially in the face of secularization and acculturation.


Based primarily on passages in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, traditional Judaism has developed an elaborate code governing foods that are permitted and forbidden. For instance, only animals that have cloven hooves and that chew the cud are permitted; hence, a person is not to consume pork, for the pig does not chew the cud. Similarly, only fish with scales and fins may be eaten; accordingly, shrimp and lobster are deemed unfit for consumption. There are also rules regulating the separation of meat and dairy products, while other laws determine how certain meats are to be slaughtered, prepared, and cooked. These regulations are known collectively as "kasruth" (often in English as "kosher" after the Ashkenazi pronunciation) from the Hebrew kasher, for "fit." As an expression of God's will, the dietary code is said to promote a life of holiness (Exod. 22:30; Lev. 11:44–45; Deut.14:21).


As symbolic acts meant to endow life with holiness, Jewish rituals are generally derived from biblical commandments determining a person's relationship to the divine. This relationship is most often expressed ritually and ranges from the donning of tefillin to the manner of washing one's hands before eating, from the symbolic gestures and prayers with which one greets the Sabbath to the Habdalah (separation) ceremony at the end that marks the division between the day of rest and the remainder of the week.

Jewish ritual life embraces both the home and the synagogue, where the rituals are woven into the liturgy, and virtually all festivals are celebrated in both through prescribed rituals and prayers. This is especially true of the three "pilgrimages" specified in the book of Deuteronomy (16:16): "Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover], on the Feast of Weeks [Shabuoth], and on the Feast of Booths [Sukkoth]—all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose." The place of God's choice was the Jerusalem Temple, but with its destruction the pilgrimages came to be enacted symbolically through rituals. Some Jewish communities make pilgrimages to the graves of saintly rabbis.

In Judaism births, marriages, and deaths are noted with prescribed liturgies and rituals. All of these are rich in symbols.


Eight days after birth a Jewish boy is received into the covenant of Abraham through the rite of circumcision (Brit Milah). Conservative and Reform Jews have introduced a parallel ceremony for girls, without circumcision, called Brit ha-Bat (covenant for a daughter). A male convert to Judaism undergoes circumcision, followed by immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh), while the conversion of a woman is marked by a ritual bath only.

When a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13, marking the beginning of puberty, he is held be intellectually and spiritually ready to assume full responsibility for his actions and hence obliged to observe all of the commandments of the Torah. He is thus said to be "bar mitzvah," that is, a "son of the commandment." Although this status is automatic by virtue of age, it is customarily marked by a ceremony held in the synagogue. The boy is called upon to read or chant a passage from the Torah and then a portion of the book of Prophets, determined by the liturgical calendar for that particular day. Often the boy is honored by being invited to deliver a discourse on the passages he has read, thus displaying his intellectual responsibility to be a learned and spiritually conscious Jew. The ceremony is followed by a festive party.

Girls reach the status of full religious responsibility at the age of 12. Until contemporary times no special ceremony was held to celebrate this. Increasingly, however, many congregations, especially those associated with Reform and Conservative movements, have introduced a ceremony for girls, called bat mitzvah, that replicates bar mitzvah. Most Orthodox congregations, which adhere to the ancient practice of separating the sexes in prayer, object to women reading from the Torah in the synagogue, although they may allow special worship services for women, at which time a bat mitzvah may read from the Torah.

Reform Judaism has introduced the rite of confirmation as supplementary to the bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. Whereas the latter mark a technical change in status, confirmation, which is preceded by an extended and systematic study of Judaism, is held to reflect knowledge and thus a deepened sense of personal commitment. The rite, generally a group ceremony for boys and girls who have reached the age of 15, is usually part of the Shabuoth service.


According to traditional law, a person is a Jew by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or by conversion. The child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is regarded as a Jew, whereas the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not. By and large, however, Reform Judaism recognizes patrilineal descent, holding that it is sufficient for a child to have a Jewish father—that is, a father who is Jewish by birth or through conversion—to be considered a member of the Jewish people.

As a monotheistic religion affirming the oneness of God and thus of humanity, Judaism welcomes conversion. The classic example of the convert is Ruth the Moabite, who in accepting the God of Abraham declared, "For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16). The fact that Ruth was the grandmother of King David, from whose descendants the Messiah is to emerge, underscores the esteemed status of the convert.

Until the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism actively sought to proselytize. Thereafter, as a dispersed minority, missionary activity became difficult. Moreover, as they increasingly became subject to often aggressive Christian missionaries, Jews developed an aversion to active proselytizing. This attitude was reinforced by the Talmudic doctrine that "the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come." Hence, a person need not be a Jew in order to be graced with God's love. All that is required of non-Jews is the observance of the seven Noahide Laws, the laws given to Noah and his "descendants," that is, all of humanity, after the Flood (Gen. 9:1–17): prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery and incest, robbery, and the eating of flesh torn from living animals (and by extension cruelty to animals), as well as the establishment of courts of justice. The rabbis considered these laws to be understood instinctively by all peoples. Nonetheless, sincere converts are welcome, their sincerity judged by a preparedness to accept the fate of the Jewish people and a commitment to observe the precepts and teachings of the Torah. The prevailing practice is to require the prospective convert to undertake an intensive course of study before submitting an application to a court of at least three rabbis.


As implied by the Noahide Laws and the Talmudic doctrine that all righteous peoples will share in the world to come, members of other faith communities are to be accorded respect. The philosopher Maimonides argued that the Noahide Laws were based on belief in the God of Abraham, in effect limiting the principle of tolerance to followers of biblical religions. Most other rabbinical scholars, however, have not accepted this interpretation. Attitudes toward Gentiles—the term "goyim" is from the Hebrew for "nations," that is, other nations—are also determined by whether or not religious and cultural practices are understood as idolatrous. It has thus been suggested that, although Judaism is not a universal religion, a religion that seeks to embrace all of humanity, it is a universalistic religion.


The unyielding pursuit of justice is one of the overarching themes of the Bible: "Justice, justice shall you pursue …" (Deut. 16:20). Initially addressed to judges, beseeching them to administer the law with integrity, this injunction was interpreted both in the Bible itself and in later Jewish teachings as a commandment to be alert to the needs of disinherited members of society: the poor, the widowed and orphaned, the stranger, and the physically and mentally infirm. Indeed it is held that, unaccompanied by the pursuit of justice, the worship of God is vacuous: "Spare Me the sound of your hymns, And let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream" (Amos 5:23–24). The rabbis recognized that justice must be grounded in the law and in a society's institutions.

Hence, rabbinical law (Halakhah) is an ongoing process—until this day in Orthodox communities—of review and refinement, representing a quest to understand how God's will, as embodied in the Torah and its principles, apply to the ever unfolding complex realities of life. The Bible sets forth certain criteria for social justice. Among these is that charity, the Hebrew term for which is derived from the word for "justice," should avoid humiliating the recipient. The needy are not to expose themselves to the humiliation of begging. The philosopher Maimonides therefore taught that the highest and purest form of charity is constituted by actions that prevent a person from becoming poor or that assist a person emerging from poverty by providing a decent job or other help. Implicit in this dictum, as many modern interpreters underscore, is the premise that the alleviation of suffering by individual acts of charity alone is insufficient. Equally if not more important is the establishment of just social institutions and laws.

The rabbis also recognized, however, the danger of relegating the pursuit of justice to social and legal institutions. Thus, they introduced the concept of benevolence (gimilut hasadim, or "bestowing kindness"). Whereas charity is invariably of a material nature, benevolence requires that a person give of the self, if merely a kind word or gesture, to another. Even those who enjoy material well-being are in need of benevolent attention. And whereas charity may be prompted by a sense of duty, benevolence is a spontaneous deed of the caring heart.


To marry and to bear children are supreme religious and social values in Judaism. As the rabbis observe, the first commandment issued by God was addressed to Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and multiply …" (Gen. 1:28). But God created Eve as Adam's companion, not only as a partner for procreation. Male and female are bonded in companionship in order to create a family, to become husband and wife as well as father and mother to their common offspring. Marriage is thus regarded as a covenant. Indeed, the union of man and wife often serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel.

Although the Bible sanctions polygamy, the ideal marriage, as projected by the story of Adam and Eve, is monogamous. The practice of having more than one wife persisted, however, until the German Rabbenu (Our Rabbi) Gershom ben Judah (960–1028 c.e.) proclaimed a ban on such marriages, which has been universally honored since by Ashkenazi Jews. Today Sephardic Jews also reject polygamy. Divorce is permitted by Jewish law, although a rabbinical court sanctions divorce only if it is convinced that the breakdown in the marriage is beyond repair.


Since the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century c.e. and the parallel eclipse of the Babylonian academies, Judaism has had no central authority. In general, however, the various communities have recognized the rulings of esteemed rabbis. All rabbis are beholden to biblical and Talmudic teachings, as well as to the precedents of the ever unfolding development of Jewish law (Halakhah). Differences between rabbis are understood as a matter of interpretation of these teachings and precedents. The emergence in the modern era of denominations and of their subdivisions has further fragmented theological opinion.

Nonetheless, on various contemporary issues there is a rough consensus among Orthodox Jews. Abortion, for instance, is regarded as a grievous act akin to homicide. Yet as the rabbis of the Mishnah ruled, if a woman's life is endangered by a pregnancy, it is permitted to abort the fetus in order to save her life. If the child she is bearing already has begun to emerge from the womb, and is thus deemed a full-fledged being, it is not permitted to kill one life for the sake of another. There are cases, however, when the rabbis would allow even this principle to be overridden. Some rabbis have ruled that if, in the judgment of a physician, a child will be born with a severe physical or mental infirmity, abortion is permitted. Others have sanctioned abortion when the pregnancy resulted from rape by a man other than the woman's husband. All Orthodox rabbis object to abortion as a means of birth control. Conservative and especially Reform opinion tends to be far more liberal on abortion, affirming a woman's inalienable right to choose to give birth or not to a child she bears.

The issue of using artificial means to prevent fertilization and conception is complex. The overarching reason for marriage is to bear children and establish a family. The rabbis also acknowledge, however, that sexual intercourse often is pleasurable. Hence, the question is whether or not it is permissible for a married couple to employ contraceptives and thus separate the pursuit of sexual pleasure from the divine commandment to procreate. (Extramarital sex is frowned upon as utterly sinful.) The rabbis generally approach the question in view of the biblical injunction against "spilling," or "wasting," one's seed (Gen. 38:9). The majority of contemporary Orthodox rabbis reason that, since this injunction applies only to a man, a woman may use a contraceptive device or take birth control pills. Such measures are particularly countenanced when pregnancy would be detrimental to the woman's health.

In consonance with biblical and rabbinical views, Orthodox Judaism is unambiguously patriarchal. Women not only are strictly separated from men in the synagogue and houses of study but also occupy a lower position in the religious life of the community. They are not counted in the minyan, or quorum, required for communal prayer, nor do they take an active part in the worship service, such as reading from the Torah or serving as a cantor and leading the congregation in prayer. Reform and Reconstructionist, and to a lesser extent Conservative, Judaism have adopted gender-inclusive positions, removing barriers to the full participation of women in religious life.

Advances in medical science have engendered an array of ethical and religious issues, such as organ transplants, artificial insemination, and genetic engineering. All branches of Judaism view these developments positively when they are understood as serving to enhance the sanctity of life. This attitude is guided by the rabbinical teaching that the preservation of life overrides all other considerations and religious prohibitions.


Since its biblical beginnings Judaism has developed a rich history of religious expression through music, dance, and song. Miriam, Moses' sister, led the women of Israel in song and dance to celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20). The Temple service was accompanied by singing and instrumental music (Ps. 150:3–5). The rabbis of the Talmud, however, deemed instrumental music to be a form of work and thus banned it on the Sabbath and during festivities. But prayers at home and in the synagogue were often chanted and sung. Indeed, song has remained a prominent feature of Jewish worship. Throughout the ages poets have written religious hymns (piyyutim), for which melodies were often composed. Songs and wordless melodies play a particularly significant role in Hasidism. In addition, Hasidim often punctuate their prayers with dance, which they regard as a form of worship. Dance and instrumental music are common features of weddings and other celebrations in all Jewish traditions.

Visual art is yet another important form of religious expression in Judaism. The Tabernacle (temporary sanctuary used by the Israelites in the wilderness) and later the Jerusalem Temples were richly adorned with ornamental art, apparently even pictorial paintings. The biblical prohibition against the fashioning of graven images pertains only to the creation of idols for the purpose of worship (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:15–19). Hence, there is a tendency in Jewish tradition to frown upon sculpture, especially if placed in the synagogue, although sculpture is not in itself prohibited. The synagogue is often richly adorned with paintings, although they tend to avoid the depiction of human images. The Torah scroll is usually bedecked in a finely embroidered mantle or decorated encasing and is adorned with specially crafted silver ornaments of bells and a breastplate, or shield, and topped with a crown. Other ceremonial objects, such as goblets and the cases for mezuzah (door-post) parchments, are also especially crafted by artisans, and there is a long tradition of illuminated Aggadah manuscripts.

In contrast to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was built according to precise architectural blueprints, there are no guidelines regarding the construction of synagogues. Hence, the design of synagogues frequently reflects the influence of local architectural styles. The ark containing the Torah scroll, however, should face Jerusalem.

In traditional Judaism verbal imagination found expression in the Aggadah, the nonlegal portions of the Talmud and Mishna. A species of Midrash, the scriptural commentaries of the Aggadah provided the framework for developing ideas and perspectives on a variety of ethical and religious issues. The Aggadah also served to convey folklore and folktales. In the modern period Jews have adopted new genres, preeminently fiction, theater, and film, to give expression to their verbal imagination.

Paul Mendes-Flohr

See Also Vol. 1: Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism


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The term Judaism admits of various meanings. Rarely, it denotes the identity of an individual Jew (as, "He is aware of his Judaism") or an indeterminate bond among all Jews; occasionally, the whole of Jewry; more often, the manifold expression of Jewish history or culture; and commonly, the sum total of commandments, rites, traditions, and beliefs that make up the Jewish religion. Even in its religious signification, the term is not univocal. Taken broadly, it encompasses the life, worship, and faith of the Jewish people of all times, beginning with the Patriarchs and Prophets. More precisely, it refers to the Jewish religion as it developed after the Babylonian Exile. The latter meaning is the topic of this article. (On the older Israelite religion, see israel, 3.)

As Israel's postexilic way, Judaism has known diverse religious experiences, gone through several phases, and expressed itself through a number of currents. There is something unique about it. Fitting none of the usual categories, Judaism is a people religion: a religion limited to one people, and a people so tied to that religion as to exist for and through it. [The word people must not be taken here in a narrow sense. In post-Biblical no less than in Biblical times, Gentiles have sought refuge under the wings of the God of Israel (Ru 2.12). Not only individuals but also a whole people, such as the khazars, have become part of Judaism.] True, not all Jews live by their traditions; still, religion is so woven into the texture of their history that they are tied together by a spiritual bond and not merely by blood.

Birth. Judaism, in the strict sense of the word, was born when, under the leadership of ezra, the Israelites bound themselves to walk in the ways of God's Torah (Neh 10.29). Probably toward the end of the 5th century b.c. a caravan had brought Ezra from Babylon to Jerusalem. There this priest and scribe began to teach the statutes and ordinances of Torah to those returned from captivity (Ezr 7.10). Thus the industrious scribe student, knower, and expounder of the Lawtook the place of the stormy prophet. As the rabbis have it, with the death of the last Prophets, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel; divine inspiration withdrew, but the men in Israel could still hear "a small voice [coming from above]" (bat qôl, literally "daughter of sound," i.e., echo; e.g., So. 48b). For fear that the Israelites would not remain constant in the service of the Lord, Ezra ordered them to expel their "foreign," i.e., pagan, wives. The presence of such women threatened faith in and worship of the one God. Ezra was convinced that, as God's "special possession" (Ex 19.5), Israel was bound to keep aloof from peoples and lands tainted by idolatry (Ezr ch. 910). see idolatry (in the bible).

Seminal Ideas. Ezra's reform was the starting point of a long development. Seminal forces, small at first and growing slowly, gave Judaism its special character.

God. Prior to the Exile, Israel's belief in the living Godthe Lord of history intervening in Israel's life, the One before and above man yet close to him, the One far yet nearhad frequently been couched in anthropomorphic language. see anthropomorphism (in the bible). Without denying God's peerlessness, the anthropomorphisms of Scripture proclaimed Him as the God who loves, seeks, and cares. Postexilic generations, however, must have felt some embarrassment at language that seemed all too human. According to the targums, it was not God who "walked in the garden" (Gn 3.8) but the memrā, His word; it was the word, not God Himself, whom Moses called "a consuming fire" (Dt 4.24). By the 3d century b.c., the name yahweh was considered forbidden to human lips; adonai (My Lord) took its place. The Alexandrian Jewish translators of the Old Testament who produced the septuagint simply wrote Κύριος (the Lord). Other circumlocutions were "the Name," "Heaven," or "Power," all of which are echoed in the New Testament: "hallowed be thy name" (Mt6.9), "the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew passim ), "the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power" (Mt 26.64).

No matter how deep the emphasis on God's transcendence may have been, Judaism would not be what it is if the intensely personal God had been turned into a remote deity. The later rabbis, too, stressed that God was unlike man, but at the same time they tried to express the warm relationship between God and Israel through concepts such as the shekinah, His indwelling among creatures. The Shekinah was said to go with Israel into exile, to dwell among the people even in their uncleanness, and to weep at the sadness that followed Jerusalem's destruction (Meg. 29a; Yom. 56b; Lam. Rabbah 1.46). In this

concept Judaism developed a counterpoise to the Christian message that God had come in the flesh to carry man's burden.

Israel. With the expulsion of pagan wives under Ezra, there began a growing, though at no time complete, isolation of the Jewish people from its neighbors. From then on, the Biblical belief that Israel was chosen for the sake of all the earth (Gn 12.3) and the noncanonical notion that the world was made for Israel's sake (Assumption of Moses 1.12) rivaled each other. Though the latter may suggest that the heavens and the earth were created for Israel's honor only, this and similar sayings must not be taken with unimaginative literalness. They are often no more than homiletic exaggerations. This one is not necessarily a sign of national vain glory; its underlying thought is rather that the material world is not an end in itself, that all things must serve the salvation of the just (cf. 2 Baruch 15.7)an eminently Christian idea, too. Nonetheless, there is danger in such affirmations. Though Scripture never tires of proclaiming Israel's unmerited election (e.g., Dt 7.7; Ez 16.314), the assumption that it had proved its merit gained ascendancy in postexilic times. A Jewish legend (e.g., 'Avodah Zarah 2b) has it that Torah was accepted by the chosen people, but only after it had been offered to all the nations and had been

rejected by them. (On the use of the term Torah without the definite article, see below.)

The terms pagan and sinner were frequently synonymousa usage that prevailed even in early New Testament times. In his Pentecostal speech Peter reminded the men of Jerusalem that they had crucified Jesus "through the hands of wicked men" (Acts 2.23). The wicked men ("men without the Law," according to the Greek text) are Pilate and his soldiers, all unbelievers in the true God. When Scripture calls Israel God's very own, dearer than all other people (Ex 19.5), it did not pronounce it superior to the Gentiles. No doubt the religious and moral superiority of the Jewish people over the pagan world was real; still, to assert it was not altogether salutary.

"Turn to me and be saved," the Prophet had cried in Yahweh's name to all the ends of the earth (Is 45.22). But the prophetic word announced also a day of vengeance when God would crush the nations in His wrath [Is 63.4, 6; see day of the lord (eschatology)]. This twofold attitude is heightened in Jewish apocalyptic literature. One vision has it that all Gentiles will become just, worship the one God, and share in the future messianic blessings (e.g., 1 Enoch 10.21); another, that the Messiah will destroy the godless nations, the oppressors of Israel, with the word of His mouth (e.g., Psalms of Solomon 17.27). One would gravely misunderstand this dire prediction if he forgot that the bitterness spelled out here is common to all peoples trodden under foot.

Torah. Ezra's great work was to teach and expound the Torah. The Torah stands primarily for the Pentateuch, now and then for the entire Old Testament. In later literature, it embraces the whole tradition, written as well as unwritten. (Some scholars distinguish between "the Torah," the five books of Moses, and "Torah"without the articlethe whole body of law built on them by the rabbis, in other words, Biblical and Talmudic law.) A meaningful English rendering of Torah as found in the Bible is "revelation"; its literal sense is "instruction," "guidance." It is God's instruction on what He would have His creature do in order to be just in His eyes, His guidance to Israel on how to follow Him on the road to holiness. The core of this revelation, the Ten Commandments, is surrounded by other laws and norms, statutes, or decrees; "You shall" is their idiom. Since a large part of the Pentateuch is legal in character, Torah came to be understood as law. Such is the translation of the Septuagint and the understanding of later Jewish tradition.

Though not revealed till Sinai, the Law was considered a living being, identical with the wisdom that existed before time (Prv 8.2231). Like wisdom, the Torah was the craftsman at God's side; it served Him as the plan according to which He created the world (Ab. 3.14; Gen. Rabbah 1. 1). The Law was perfect and immutable; yet it had to be interpreted, supplemented, and adapted to the exigencies of time. There evolved, then, alongside the written law, sometimes overshadowing it, the unwritten law, "the tradition of the ancients" (Mt 15.2). On the one hand, rules were mitigated so as to make the Law workable; on the other, an ever-higher "fence" was built around it (Ab. 1.1)a protective wall, with stop signs and danger signals, definitions and directivesthat, to forestall transgression, left little room for personal decision. Although for the devout the Law was life and joy, the manythose, e.g., whose livelihood depended on the landfound its demands impossible to carry out. As the number of precepts increased, it had to be studied, too, before it could be kept. Hence the unlettered were thought of as the ungodly (see Jn 7.49).

The Final Events. Though the postexilic period was marked by an inner withdrawal from other nations, the ever-widening emigration of Jews to many lands created a vast Jewish diaspora whose synagogues became, paradoxically enough, proselytizing centers among the Gentiles. Moreover, foreign invasion and domination, as well as encounter with the two great cultures of Persia and Greece, helped the flowering of certain Biblical seeds, particularly that of hope.

The Prophets had seen the past as herald of the future: the Exodus of old foretelling a new exodus, the reign of David, that of another David (e.g., Is ch. 35; Jer 23.56). As time went on, some in Israel looked for a new priest to bring blessing to the people or for a righteous leader who would himself be a source of righteousness. Many others dreamed of a mighty deliverer who would free them from pagan tyranny. Whereas the majority of the people expected a Warrior-Messiah, a scattered few longed for the Chosen One, hidden in God's presence since the beginning of the world and before it, who would soon come in the likeness of a man, yet bearing a face "full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels" (1 Enoch 46.1).

For a long time the glittering magic and morbid sensuousness pervading so much of pagan fantasy about the afterlife had kept Israel from a fuller understanding of the world and life to come. In the centuries preceding the coming of Jesus, however, the hope in a blessed immortality, the bodily resurrection of the just and their share in God's triumph and reign, erupted in many hearts (see resurrection of the dead). Full force was given to the Isaian words: "Your dead shall live, their corpses rise; awake and sing, you who lie in the dust" (26.19).

First Christian Century. These trends did not spring up at the same time, nor were they all universally accepted. In fact, 1st-century Judaism was intensely diversified, full of unrest and strife.

Sadducees. At the center was official Judaism, the small but powerful party of the sadducees. Made up of the leading priests, the notables, the influential and wealthy families, they were defenders of the status quo. Clinging to the letter of Scripture, they rejected doctrinal development as well as the oral tradition. Thus the world to come was of little interest to them; they even mocked the hope that the dead would rise (see Mk 12.1819). But their spiritual tepidity did not hinder them from upholding a rigid and stern jurisprudence. In their self-reliance they thought of man as the captain of his soul, the architect of his fortune (see Josephus, Ant. 13.5.9). As they disdained the common people, so were they disdained in turn. Since the grandeur of the Temple was their life, they disappeared with it in a.d. 70.

Pharisees. Pitted against these men of birth were the men of ritual perfection, the pharisees, the successors to the hasidaeans, those "stout men in Israel" who, at the time of the Machabean uprising, were passionately devoted to the Law (1 Mc 2.42). As their name (perûšîm, separated ones) indicates, the Pharisees kept apart from the masses who would not or could not observe the many precepts regarding ritual purity. The pharisaic movement drew its strength from the ăbûrôt, companies of like-minded men who encouraged one another in the exact fulfillment of the demands made on the pious Israelite: his food, his clothing, the very walls of his house; indeed, his entire life was under the regimen of the Law.

Despite the scrupulous attention the Pharisees gave to the Torah, they believed in a certain evolution of the Torah-bound life and tried to adjust the Law to changing circumstances. They were far from uniform in their interpretation. In the 1st century b.c. there were two great competing schools: the one of the unbending Shammai and the other of the more compassionate Hillel. When confronted, for example, with the authority of truth and its conflict with that sister of love, courtesy, in daily life, the two decided differently. The first would not permit wedding guests to call a homely bride pretty, whereas the latter held that every bride ought to be looked upon as beautiful and praised (Ket. 16b-17a). Their differences, mainly of a casuistic nature, were strong enough to produce the byword that "the Torah has become as two Torahs" (Sanh. 88b). In the end the camp of moderation prevailed over the more rigid school.

Most of the teachers and preachers, i.e., most of the men who determined the worship of the synagogues in the land, were Pharisees, a fact that explains the influence of the Pharisees on the people despite their aloofness. A saying attributed to the later Rabbi akiba ben joseph is almost a sum of their beliefs: "All is foreseen, yet free will is given; the world is judged by goodness but all [judgment] is according to the amount of work" (Ab. 3.22). God is sovereign, the Pharisees held, yet man is free. Man is to be judged after death; paradise, purgatory, or hell will then be his lot. In the end God's reign will appear when He will be all in all as the just rise to glory.

Many Pharisees served God faithfully, in genuine devotion, even with a gentle spirit (see Jn 3.1; Acts 5.34;23.6). When the Gospels charge Pharisees with hypocrisy, this must be taken as prophetic speech, not as a scholarly appraisal of the entire movement, much less of every individual. The Talmud, too, distinguishes between the Pharisees moved by love of God and those driven, knowingly or unknowingly, by love of self (So. 22b). The faults castigated in the Gospels, e.g., those of equating things essential with nonessential or commandment with preference and even confusing one with the other (see Mt 23.1618), are pitfalls that threaten the life of piety everywhere. Although Jesus and the early Church disagreed with the Pharisees on the function and the interpretation of the Law, they gave new weight and direction to other pharisaic beliefs.

Essenes. Whereas the Sadducees held the center of Judaism and the Pharisees struggled to seize it, the essenes deliberately remained at its periphery. Without deciding which of the two is the legitimate heir, one can trace the beginnings of the Essenes, like those of the Pharisees, to the early Hasidaeans (1 Mc 2.42). For some scholars, the term Essenes is a synonym for members of the qumran community; but probably it is a generic name for several kindred groups devoted to an ascetic life. With the monks of Qumran it was a life of obedience, poverty, and chastity; of common study, common worship, and common meals; of strictest submission to the Law, according to a rule. Though they allowed no traffic with the common people, whom they considered unclean and thus enemies of God; though they despised the Sadducees, particularly the high priestly clique, as a band of usurpers; and though they shunned the Pharisees as "preachers of falsehood" and "seekers after smooth things" (1QH 2.32), the radiance of their lives broke through the walls of their "cloister." For all the tremendous differences of some of their teachings from those of the infant Church, their influence upon the Church was considerable. Yet the community had a sudden end at the hands of Roman legionaries.

Zealots. Another peripheral movement, though a vocal and active one, was that of the zealots. Zeal for God, His law, and His glory (see Acts 22.3) has always been a distinctive mark of all Jewish piety. The zeal of the Zealots, however, was of a militant kind. Although the Pharisees eagerly awaited the collapse of the Roman Empire, the end of all godless men, and the coming of the messianic reign with its lasting peace, they did not consider it their task to hasten these events. On the contrary, the Zealots, an extreme wing split off from the main pharisaic body, held it their duty to intervene. "God alone is Lord" was their creed, and "Freedom!" was their battle cry. No one in Israel, they insisted, may obey an emperor who arrogates to himself the homage that is God's due.

The Zealots supported their conviction by violence. Some of them seem to have stabbed their opponents, particularly Jewish collaborators, to death in broad daylight. Because of their favored weapon, concealed in their robes, they were known as dagger men (σικάριοι). As "underground fighters," lawless rebels against the Roman order, they are called λησταί (robbers, bandits, revolutionists) both by the Jewish historian Flavius josephus (Bell. Jud. 2.253254) and by the Evangelists (Jn 18.40; Mt 27.38, 44; see barabbas). Their wrathfulness was the ferment in the people's "holy war" against the Romans, whose last procurator, Gessius Florus, had plundered the Temple treasury, probably to make up a tax deficit. This uprising (a.d. 6673) led to disaster; together with the later one of bar kokhba (132135), it cost the Jewish people the last vestige of political autonomy and cost Jerusalem its role as the spiritual center of all the Jews wherever they dwelt.

Opposition and Unity. There were other groups at the border of Jewish life, e.g., the penitential movements in the Jordan region, of which John the Baptist's was foremost. The Talmud speaks somewhat disparagingly of those who submerge themselves in water every morning (Ber. 22a). There are no exact statistics on the various movements. At the time of Christ, Palestine may have had about 1.5 million Jewish inhabitants, a small number compared to the estimated 4 or 4.5 million Jews already dispersed throughout the Roman Empire (seven percent of its total population). According to Josephus, who describes the major Jewish Sects, the number of Pharisees was 6,000, of the Essenes 4,000 (Ant. 13.5.9; 10.6;17.2.4; 18.1.34; 20.9.1; Bell. Jud. 2.8.214). Although his figures cannot always be relied on, these estimates give at least an idea of the comparative strength of some of the leading movements. But they tell nothing of the extent, much less of the attitude of the people at large, the "country folk" (ammê hāāre ). In the New Testament some Pharisees are quoted as saying of them: "This crowd, which does not know the Law, is accursed" (Jn 7.49). The opposition among the four major groups was no less fierce. Strangely enough, the Law that united them also separated them. Yet as many-layered and striferidden as Judaism was, it was held together by the common confession: "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" (Dt 6.4).

Rabbinical Judaism. Wishing to have no part in the suicidal revolt of a.d. 66, Jewish Christians retreated to Pella beyond the Jordan. When the Roman army beleaguered the Holy City, Jews in their despair turned on Jews, one group excelling the other in violence. Thousands upon thousands died of starvation and disease, were crucified, deported, or sold into slavery. The ancient estimates of those killed and captured vary from more than half a million to more than a million.

Victory of Pharisaism. One man, however, was able to turn this disaster into a triumph. Before the city fell, Rabbi johanan ben zakkai had himself carried out in a coffin. He went to the Roman camp and obtained the permission of its commander, Vespasian, to open a school for the study of Torah in the coastal town of Jamnia. This daring move enabled Judaism to survive; or more exactly, it established Pharisaism, rather the school of Hillel, as the foundation of all future forms of Judaism.

Great Bet Din. Rabbi Johanan was joined by other rabbis. Under his presidency, the Great Bet Din (bet dîn, house of judgment), a sort of supreme court or council, continued some of the functions of the extinct Sanhedrin. In the course of time it fixed the calendar and the canon of Scripture, from which it rejected the so-called Apocryphabooks contained in the Septuagint, such as Sirach, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabeesas well as the Gospels and other "heretical" writings (see Moore, 1:186187). The Great Bet Din had to tackle also the many problems arising from the fact that at least one third of Torah, the laws pertaining to Temple worship, could no longer be carried out. The groundwork was laid, therefore, for teachings such as these: study of the laws on sacrifice takes the place of the sacrifices themselves; God accepts the former as if the latter had been offered (see Pes. K 60b). Since the Temple was destroyed, prayer, "the service of the heart," acquired the atoning power that had resided in the institutions of old. "We have no prophet, no priest, no sacrifice, no sanctuary, no altar to help win forgiveness for us," R. Isaac mourned; "from the day the Temple was laid waste, nothing was left to us but prayer. Lord, hearken then, and forgive" (Midr. Teh. 5.7).

Under Johanan's successor, Gamaliel II, Jewish Christians were expelled from the Synagogue by an ingenious strategem. A curse on renegades, heretics, and Nazarenes (i.e., Christians) was introduced into the daily prayers: that they be without hope and stricken from the book of life. No follower of Christ could have repeated this imprecation without committing spiritual suicide.

Talmud. At the turn of the 1st Christian century, Rabbi judah ha-nasi, then head of the Great Bet Din, gathered the oral traditions and probably had them put into writing. The compilation was named mishnah for the method applied, i.e., repetition; it contained the important halakic (legal) teachings (see halakah) of the preceding generations of rabbis, the Tannaim, or traditioners. The Mishnah soon became the standard work of study and investigation in the academies of Palestine and Babylon. The men who commented on it, the Amoraim, or expositors, produced the gemarah, or completion. Both, Mishnah and Gemarah, make up the talmud, which is, therefore, basically halakic. Haggadic material, however (see haggadah), i.e., spiritual and moral reflections, together with practical counsels, metaphysical speculations, historical narratives, legends, scientific observations, etc., appear in it as well. The Talmud was completed at the end of the 4th century in Galilee and a century later in Babylonia; hence the two versions, the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmuds. The Talmud is not the only compilation of rabbinic thought. There are, e.g., collections of haggadic commentaries on the Biblical books, the Midrashim (see midrashic literature).

What makes the understanding of the Talmud difficult is that it is a code of laws, a case book, and a digest of discussions and disputes that went on among various rabbis; interspersed are reflections of every kind; its contents are at times as motley as a daily newspaper. Now and then the opinions recorded are dissimilar or even contradictory. Quite often, the rabbis consider a man ignorant of the Law unworthy of trust, unreliable as witness in a court, unfit to be an orphan's protector. Yet the compilers of the Talmud rejoice in telling of the power a simple man has in heaven. During a drought, Honi (1st century b.c.) drew a circle around himself and said to God, "I swear by Your great name that I will not budge from here until You have mercy upon Your children," and rain fell (Taan. 23a). Moreover, the Talmud engages in a great deal of casuistry, and all casuistry tends to be tortured; still, in admonishing its readers not to wrong another man through words, it calls moral demands that cannot be codified "things entrusted to the heart" (Bava Metzia 58b).

So great is the occasional contrast between rabbinical statements that, in one place, it can be said that the nations' charity is but sin since they practice it for no other reason than to boast; in another, that the Holy Spirit rests on a man, be he Gentile or Jew, according to his deeds (see Montefiore and Loewe, 562563, 557). Many rabbinic sayings are, therefore, tentative or are located in a definite situation so that evaluation of rabbinic thought is a special science, indeed, an art. It is not only the variety of opinions recorded in the Talmud and other rabbinical literature that hamper their appreciation, but also the stylesuccinct, telegraphic, often bare to the bone makes the Talmud inaccessible without a guide. Such guidance was provided by the heads of the two leading rabbinic academies of Babylonia, titled Geonim, "illustrious ones." From the 6th to the 11th centuries their authority was supreme all over Babyloniawhich in the meantime had become the center of all Jewryand thus, for most of that time, in other countries as well. Yet at the very moment the rule of talmudic Judaism seemed unassailable, it was contested by the Karaites, schismatics who, in the 8th century, repudiated the entire rabbinic tradition.

Medieval Thinkers. One who took up the defense of rabbinic Judaism against the Karaites was the Egyptianborn saadia ben joseph (882942), "the father of Jewish philosophy." In his main work, Beliefs and Opinions, he propounded the unity of revelation and reason. The new element in his thought is its debt to Moslem theology. Saadia thus ushers in a line of medieval thinkers whose thought is born of a meeting with Moslem and Christian theologies, Neoplatonism, or Aristotelianism. With avicebron (ibn gabirol), in the first half of the 11th century, the focal point of Jewish thought shifts to Spain. According to him all things emanate from God as the first principle, not by necessity but through His loving will. Avicebron's depth may be shown by the climactic stanza of one of his poems:

When all Thy face is dark, And Thy just angers rise, From Thee I turn to Thee And find love in Thine eyes.

The first to treat Jewish ethics systematically was Avicebron's contemporary ibn paqŪda. His Duties of the Heart became a guide to the inner life for untold numbers of Jews. Rather than defend Judaism, the poet-philosopher judah ben Samuel ha-Levi (c. 1080c. 1145) attempted to show its superiority over Christianity and islam. Although he enjoyed the comforts of "the golden age of Spanish Jewry," he felt that the Jews were in exile and he dreamed of Zion. Jews, he held, bore the sufferings of the world; their restoration to the Holy Land would bring salvation to the entire earth. Yet he sang also: "Would I might behold His face within my heart!/Mine eyes would never ask to look beyond."

The giant of Spanish-Jewish thinkers was the great Talmudist maimonides (Moses ben Maimon; 11351204). His work is many-sided; what made it original and influential, though at first bitterly opposed by Jews (his Guide of the Perplexed was burned), was the attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Holy Scripture. As a young man, he tried to sum up Jewish faith in 13 principles: (1) God exists and is the Creator of all things; (2) He is one; (3) He is without a body; (4) He is eternal; (5) man is obliged to worship Him alone; (6) the words of the Prophets are to be believed; (7) Moses is the greatest among them; (8) the Torah was revealed by God to Moses; (9) it is unchangeable; (10) God knows all things;(11) He rewards and punishes man according to his deeds; (12) the Messiah will come; and (13) the dead will rise.

Unless he believes in these fundamental principles, a Jew cannot attain everlasting bliss, Maimonides held. Some theologians of his day disagreed with him on the selection of these principles, or on the reduction of Jewish belief to 13 articles, or even on the basic assumption that Judaism possesses dogmas, binding tenets. Still, his "creed" survived the disputes and was eventually embodiednot in its original form but in both a prose and a poetic version of later datesin the Siddur, the Jewish daily prayerbook. The prose version, by an unknown author, begins with the words: "I believe [ănî maămîn ] with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the Author and Guide of everything that has been created, and that He alone has made, does make and will make all things." The poetic version by Daniel ben Judah of Rome is known by its first word, Yigdal, "Magnified and praised be the living God."

Significantly, the 13 principles were embodied in the liturgy of the synagogue. Any stress on Jewish faith without an accompanying emphasis on the sacredness of day, week, month, and year distorts the image of Judaism, at whose heart is 'ăvōdâ [(divine) service, (the) work (of honoring God)]. There is no fullness of Jewish life without the sabbath and the festivals throughout the year without their joy and their sorrow, without their penitential mood and their delight in God's grace, without Israel's appeal to His mercy and its assurance of His faithfulness, without the remembrance of the past and the expectation of the future. see feasts, religious; passover, feast of; booths (tabernacles), feast of; atonement, day of (yom kippur); dedication of the temple, feast of; purim, feast of.

Cabala. Swift and fragmentary though this survey is, mention must be made, at least, of the sum of Jewish mysticism, the cabala. Mystical thoughts had appeared intermittently for centuries: in some apocalyptic works as far back as the 2d century b.c., in esoteric teachings found in the oldest midrashic literature, and in early pharisaic speculations on the work of creation and the throne of God, "the Divine Chariot" (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In the 11th century the mystical force so long underground came to the fore. By the 14th century the secrets of a few became the possession of many. In Christian mysticism the longing of the individual believerirrevocably planted in the community of the faithfulfor union with God prevails. In the Cabala (Kabbala) the personal element is hidden; "the Law of the Torah became a symbol of cosmic law, and the history of the Jewish people a symbol of the cosmic process" (Scholem, On the Kabbalah , 2). The powerful hold of mystical trends on Jewish life is far greater than is generally assumed.

Among the devotees of cabalistic speculation were men as different as Joseph ben Ephraim caro (14881575), the author of the Shulchan Aruch (Set Table); Shabbatai (Sabbatai) Sevi (Zevi; 162676), a false Messiah who, after having brought the Jewish masses everywhere to a high pitch of excitement, defected to Islam (see shabataiÏsm); and the Baal Shem Tov (c. 170060), the founder of the Hasidic movement, whose message of joy, song, and love in God swept across the Jewish communities of eastern Europe. The Shulchan Aruch, based on Spanish authorities, such as Maimonides, but neglecting the traditions of central and eastern Europe, sought to fix the Law in all its minutiae forever, as it were. Theoretically, no rabbinic code can be considered final; Halakah is ever in a fluid state. In practice, however, the Shulchan Aruch has dominated Jewish life as if it were God's infallible word. Through its unifications of various legal teachings, it became the strongest cohesive bond among Orthodox Jews. But their clinging to demands that have become obsolete made it a barrier, too; thus, even the most legitimate quests for reform were rebuffed.

Modern Times. The experience of having been misled by a "Messiah" who became an apostate and put the Jewish hope to shame was more than many hearts could bear. For a time hasidism, with its comfort of God's constant presence in the daily life of every Jew, lifted the Jewish soul to new heights.

Emancipation. Yet the deception was a trauma not to be healed quickly. Weariness set in and the appeal of the outside world became stronger. For centuries Jews had lived within the confines of the ghetto, whose walls oppressed as well as protected. These walls had given them the chance of leading their own lives; but as they began to tumble, the old life no longer seemed desirable. Not a few Western Jews welcomed the age of enlightenment. Moses Mendelssohn (172986), a ghetto-born philosopher, counseled his fellow Jews to adapt themselves to the customs and laws of the countries in which they lived; yet he urged them to remain loyal to the faith of their forefathers. He maintained that Judaism was not a revealed religion, only revealed legislation. He accepted the Mosaic commandments and precepts as given to Jews in a supernatural way, but he recognized no eternal truths save those "comprehensible to human reason and demonstrable by the ability to think."

Cry for Reform. Ever since their loss of national sovereignty, Jews had lived at the fringe of history. All through the Middle Ages they had been a foreign body in a more or less unified society, objects of discriminatory measures, and victims of persecution. Suddenly emancipationfreedom, equality, status, and progress beckoned before their eyes. An assembly of 110 notables convoked by Napoleon in 1806 marveled at the hidden plans of Divine Providence "changing the form of human affairs, giving comfort to the distressed, and raising the lowly out of the dust" (W. G. Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, 72). Again, in 1844, the president of a rabbinic conference held at Braunschweig, Germany, proclaimed: "Let us understand the time and use it [so] that our holy religion, purified of all dross and additions, cleansed of all that is merely local or ephemeral, of all disfigurations which adhere to it, will rise in new glory, to fulfill its mission to mold mankind into one brotherhood" (Plaut, 79).

Two years before, the Society of the Friends of Reform in Frankfurt had declared themselves in favor of unlimited progress in religious matters; they denied any authority to "the collection of controversies, dissertations, and prescriptions commonly called Talmud," and they repudiated the traditional hope of being led back to the land of their forefathers by a messiah. "We know no fatherland except that to which we belong by birth and citizenship," they proclaimed. (See Plaut, 52.)

Reaction. These and similar demands for an updating of Jewish worship, as well as the rejection of the Talmud's perennial authority and the novel actions taken, led to furious controversies. The promoters of the reform were denounced as deceitful or as lacking in scholarship. Bans were imposed by one side, only to be declared null and void by the other. Prohibitions were proclaimed against changing anything in the order of prayer, against using another language than Hebrew in Jewish worship, and against playing an instrument, e.g., an organ, in a synagogue. Observant Jews were warned against traffic with the dissenters; burial was refused to those who deviated from the practices of the past; the innovators were even denounced to the secular authorities. A prominent rabbi counseled the traditionalists of Hamburg: "Go to the government and ask them to humble these wanton people [and to] stay the arm of the evildoers" (Plaut, 36).

Classical Reform in America. In the middle of the 19th century, Reform (Liberal or Progressive) Judaism

was brought to the U.S. by German-born rabbis. Before it reached the proportions of the 20th century, it had to struggle, though by no means as hard as in the land of its birth. In 1885, 19 rabbis assembled in Pittsburgh, where they formulated their ideological stance, known as the Pittsburgh Platform, which, interestingly enough, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical organization, never made its own, though the Platform reflected the thinking of its founders.

These were its principles. (1) Every religion is an attempt to grasp the infinite. Judaism presents the highest conception of the God idea. (2) The Bible is the record of the consecration of the Jewish people as priests of the one God and a potent instrument of religious and moral instruction. Though it reflects primitive ideas, modern discoveries are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism. (3) The Mosaic legislation was a necessary system of training for the Jewish people during its national life in Palestine. In the modern world only its moral laws are binding. No ceremonies are to be retained except those of a sanctifying character. Everything not adaptable to modern civilization is to be rejected. (4) The Mosaic and rabbinical laws regarding diet or ritual purity are foreign to modern mental and spiritual outlooks. (5) The modern era of universal culture is a sign that Israel's great messianic hope is about to be realized. Hence, neither a return to Palestine nor a restoration of the ancient sacrificial system is desirable. (6) Judaism is a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. Christianity has a providential mission in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truths. (7) The soul of man is immortal but belief in bodily resurrection, hell, and paradise is to be rejected as not rooted in Judaism. (8) In the spirit of the Mosaic Law, which strives to regulate the relation between rich and poor, Jews are duty-bound to help solve the modern problems of social justice. (See Davis, 226227).

Conservative Movement. American Reform Judaism rallied around the Pittsburgh Platform as the instrument that would take Jews "out of medieval darkness into the light of modern progress." But, as had happened in Germany, some reform-minded men felt they could not go all the way with the leaders of the reform. In their eyes the decisive principle of the Platform was the spirit of the age, not that of Jewish tradition. The Law was indeed a living tradition and thus open to change, they argued, but all changes had to be made in harmony with what went before. The totality of Jewish historypast, present, and futureor, as Solomon Schechter (18501915), the founder of Conservative Judaism, called it, "Catholic Israel," was ever to be the judge of true development. As the needs of the Jewish people are heeded, Jews dare not forget the primacy of faith in God and the demands of the Torah.

While thus dismissing a static attitude, the historical school kept a deep reverence for the past and its ways. Its perspective became that of Conservative Judaism. (Its main organizations are the United Synagogue of America and the Rabbinical Assembly of America.) At first glance, it might be considered midway between Orthodoxy and Reform, but its direction is complex. It upholds the rabbinical architecture of life in its entirety, but it interprets it with a certain freedom. It honors the "creed" of Maimonides, but it is responsive to modern critical views. Many of its rabbis see the Messiah as an ideal or an age to come, rather than as a person. The idea of a "universal Israel" and its refusal to stand by any platform or series of tenets make it broad enough to harbor within its ranks the Reconstructionist Movement.

The great concern of Reconstructionism is the survival of the Jewish people; its approach is that of 20th-century pragmatism. In the eyes of Reconstructionists, God is not the supreme being but the process that makes for salvation; to believe is to reckon with life's creative forces as an organic unity and thus give meaning to life; Jewish religious practices are folkways rather than divine demands; and Judaism itself is a civilization of which religion is but a part, however important.

Modified Reform. Half a century after the Pittsburgh Platform, Reform Judaism found it necessary to modify that statement. Therefore, in 1937 the Columbus Platform was issued. Its framers no longer speak of the "God idea" but "of the One, living God, who rules the world through law and love . Though transcending time and space, He is the indwelling Presence of the world." Man is His child and active co-worker. The new declaration still says that "revelation is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age," but it calls the Torah "a depository of permanent spiritual ideas, the dynamic source of the life of Israel." (See Finkelstein, 2:132789.) Earlier American Reform rabbis had flatly declared: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish State." (See Davis, 227.) Now they see in the rehabilitation of Palestine "the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland , a haven of refuge for the oppressed [and] a center of Jewish culture and life."

Classical Reform rejected all that was contrary to modern views and habits. The Columbus Platform, however, demands "the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals, and holydays," and "the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction." Thus the way was paved for a deeper appreciation of traditional values and symbols, a move that is paralleled by a slow awakening in some Orthodox Jewish circles to the fact that not all rules or interpretations of the past are absolute and thus unalterable, that change and evil are not necessarily synonymous. Orthodoxy is by no means a monolithic body. It knows several strands, several philosophies of a life ruled by the Law. (Its major organizations are the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.)

Differences in Modern Practice. Although the contrasts are less harsh in the 1960s than they were years ago, the differences remain. The traditional service is, except for a few Aramaic interludes, in Hebrew. However, in the typical Reform Temple (the term temple was originally chosen as a substitute for synagogue to disavow hope for the rebuilding of the shrine that was once the pride of Jews) most of the prayers are in the vernacular. Since every congregation is independent, the proportional use of Hebrew and English in Reform and Conservative congregations varies. Traditional Jews will not pray, study Torah, or perform any act of worship unless their heads are covered. If they did otherwise, they would consider it irreverent, to stand slipshod in the presence of the Lord. The Orthodox Jews who follow custom rigidly have their heads constantly covered; at services they like to wear hats, whereas Conservatives use "yarmulkes" (Yiddish word for skullcaps), at times of varied colors and beautifully embroidered. Reform Jews wear no head covering, following in this the conventions of Western civilization, where the bared head is a sign of respect.

In Orthodox synagogues men and women are separated. In most Conservative synagogues and all Reform temples they are seated together. In a traditional service Scripture readings and prayers are chanted; in a modernized one, they are recited in a formal manner. In all Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues, priestly descendants (their shoes removed, as was done in the Temple of Jerusalem) chant the Aaronic blessing (Nm6.2227) over the people. The cantillation, at times amateurish, may jar a modern musically trained ear. In a reformed service, therefore, the rabbi imparts that blessing. There, as elsewhere, a prevailing criterion is decorum.

On awakening, the pious Jew praises God for having made the new day. He blesses Him for having given him sight, for clothing him, for having renewed his strength, for granting him the power to walk, for putting firm ground under foot. There is a whole system of blessings accompanying the observant Jew throughout the day. (see berakhot.) If rightly used, such blessings open his heart to God's nearness and the many manifestations of His goodness. Yet like all acts to be performed at stated times, they are in danger of becoming routine. Fearing such mechanization or even the "ritualization" of religious life, Reform Judaismmistaking the protests of the Prophets against sacrifices devoid of love as a condemnation of all ritualhas discarded the system of blessings and many other ceremonies as well, although a new appreciation of worship is dawning. Reform Judaism continues to see itself as "Prophetic Judaism," keeping alive the social concern of the Prophets; hence the involvement of many Reform Jews (not to speak here of the commitment of other Jews) in the continuing struggle to obtain social justice.

To consecrate his life to the Lord, the tradition-bound Jew wears, during the morning service, phylacteries (t efillîn ) on head and arm near the heart; these are small boxes containing parchment strips with the words of Ex 11.16; 13.110; Dt 6.49; 11.1321 and attached to leather straps. At all times, or at least during the morning prayers, he wears the allît, a fringed garment used as a prayer shawl. Its purpose is to remind him "not to follow [his] heart and eyes in lustful urge [but] to be holy to [his] God" (Nm 15.3940).

Dietary Laws. Hebrew dietary laws, too, are meant to hallow a Jew's life. They recall that he lives under the discipline of the Law. Rabbinical tradition requires that animals be slaughtered by a Shoet (šôe ), an expert slaughterer who must see to it that the animal dies with the least possible pain and that blood is allowed to flow off freely. The cook, too, must observe certain regulations: the meat is to be cleansed and salted, so that every drop of blood will be drawn out. All vegetables are allowed. Of the animal kingdom, only fish with scales and fins, certain kinds of fowl, and those quadrupeds that chew their food twice and have cloven hoofs are permitted. Meat and dairy products may not be eaten together; hence, two separate kinds of dishes are used, and a six-hour interval must be observed between a meal with meat and one with milk or its derivatives. Reform Judaism has discarded the idea of kašrût (fitness), i.e., the laws regulating kosher food, although some of its adherents will, out of a loyalty to parents or to the Jewish past, abstain from pork. While many observant Jews modify the strict requirements of the Law to suit the demands of modern life, they expect their rabbis to observe, in their stead, the traditional rules uncompromisingly.

Bar Mitzvah. Every male child is circumcised. On the Sabbath following his 13th birthday a boy is called up to read publicly the proper passage from the Torah, thus becoming bar mitzvah (son of the commandment, man of duty). From that time on, he is obliged to fulfill all the commandments. In quite a few American congregations, there is an equivalent service for 12-year-old girls, called bat mitzvah (daughter of the comandment).

Marriage. A traditional wedding is performed under a huppâ (canopy), a symbol of the home, the shelter of the marital state. The ceremony consists of a number of blessings. The first praises God for having created the fruit of the vine, of which both bride and bridegroom partake. After this sharing, the bridegroom places a ring on the bride's finger: "By this ring you are wedded unto me according to the Law of Moses and that of the people of Israel." Whoever officiates, commonly a rabbi, renders thanks to God for creating all things for His glory, fashioning man and woman in His image, making them companions, and granting them joy. He begs for their continued happiness and ties their hopes to the messianic hopes of the Jewish people. At the wedding, a glass is shattered to remind the bridal couple in the midst of joy, as some have it, of the destruction of Jerusalem or, as others interpret it, of the ease with which domestic sanctity and peace can be broken.

Sometime before the wedding, a marriage contract (k etûbâ ) is drawn up, and it is read aloud at the marriage ceremony; it contains, among other things, the bride-groom's promise to the bride: "I will work for you. I will honor you. I will support and maintain you as befits a Jewish husband." Complicated rules govern divorce. The gē, or bill of divorce, must be drawn up by a recognized scholar. Reform rabbis, however, accept a civil divorce as terminating a Jewish marriage. In the Reform marriage ceremony, uppâ and ketûbâ are almost always omitted, as well as the reference to the restoration of the Holy City. Other English prayers, however, for the wellbeing of the bride and bridegroom, are added.

Death and Burial. As his hour of death approaches, a Jew steeped in the ways of his forefathers admits shame for his sins and asks forgiveness. He begs that his pain as well as his death atone for them, that he be granted the abounding happiness stored up for the just, and that he be admitted to God's presence, where there is fullness of joy. He may appeal to the Lord to take back the soul He lent him in mercy and peace, so that the Angel of Death cannot torment him: "Hide me in the shadow of your wings." He then blesses his children. When the end is truly near, those gathered around him proclaim: "The Lord reigns, the Lord has reigned, the Lord shall reign forever and forever." It is considered a sign of divine favor if a man can die with the profession of faith on his lips: "Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!"

Several hours after death, the body is washed in a prescribed way and dressed in a white shroud. For a man it is the same garment he wore for the first time as bridegroom, and later at every New Year's service, on the Day of Atonement, and at the Passover meal. A prayer shawl is wound around his body. All shrouds and coffins have the same simplicity for the rich as for the poor. The moment the coffin is lowered into the grave these words are said: "May he come to his place in peace." If a son buries one of his parents, he prays thus:

May His great name be magnified and sanctified in the world that is to be created anew, where He will quicken the dead and raise them up to life eternal, where He will rebuild the city of Jerusalem and establish His Temple in its midst, and where He will uproot all alien worship from the earth and restore the worship of the true God.

This kaddish (qaddîš, hallowed) is one of several similar doxologies recited on various occasions. In hallowing the name of God for 11 months, a bereaved son hopes that through the power of praise his beloved parent may find peace in God. The Kaddish does not mention the dead. Yet the mourner's Kaddish is said on every anniversary. Although Jewish tradition frowns on extreme griefexcessiveness is said to imply that the mourner is filled with greater pity than Godthe Orthodox rules on various periods of mourning are complicated and quite detailed. Reform Judaism has abandoned most of the practices with which tradition has surrounded the death event, particularly those of mourning, as cumbersome, harsh, and aggravating grief rather than offering solace.

Jews and Jesus. Ever since Jamnia, Judaism has precluded belief in Jesus as the Redeemer. Although some later Jewish teaching developed with Christianity in mind, the Talmudic sages avoided direct discussion of the gospel. The few hostile passages in the Talmud that, according to the opinion of competent scholars, refer to Jesus, do so without naming Him. Moreover, in speaking of Gentiles, rabbinic literature hardly distinguishes between Christians, worshipers of the one, true God, and pagans, worshipers of idols. Maimonides seems to have been the first to hold a mildly positive view of Christ's work. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 11.4) held that Jesus' teaching, like Muammad's, "only served to clear the way for the King Messiah to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord" (cf. So 3.9). Several decades after Maimonides, another rabbi distinguished between the Gentiles referred to in the Talmud and those of his own day. He called his Christian contemporaries "nations restricted by the ways of religion"; and those of which the Talmudic teachers speak, "nations not delimited by the ways of religion." There have been others who spoke of the kindness "the man of Nazareth wrought to the world."

But not till Reform Judaism made its voice heard did Jesus and Christianitytopics shunned till then by most Jews and even today by some of thembecome a matter of investigation. Not until then were such words spoken as those of Sigismund Stern, a German Jewish school teacher of the middle of the 19th century: "Judaism and Christianity must hold out a brotherly hand to each other, for the sake of their common work for mankind .[The Jewish believers] must love their Christian fellow men, not merely as fellow human beings, but feel related to them in faith and bound to them with special ties."

Since then, a new appreciation of the person of Jesusnot to be mistaken, however, for faith in Him as the Christhas set in. Even a scholar as steeped in tradition as Joseph Klausner (18741958) called Jesus a great moral teacher; Claude J. G. montefiore (18591939), the founder of Liberal Judaism in England, saw in Him a new type of prophet; Rabbi Leo Baeck (18741956) the distinguished head of German Jewry at the time of Hitler and one-time president of the World Union for Progressive Judaismacclaimed Him as the manifestation "of what is pure and good in Judaism." The Conservative theologian Rabbi Milton Steinberg (190350) spoke of Him as "an extraordinarily beautiful and noble spirit, aglow with love and pity for men," and the existential thinker Martin Buber (18781965) regarded Him as "my great brother." Of the several statements made by American rabbis on this theme, the most interesting are those of Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, though they carry no official weight. Some consider them eccentric. In 1963 he called on Jews to reappraise their "ofttimes jaundiced view of him in whose name Christianity was established," and in 1965 he asked that Jesus, "this Jewish hero," be incorporated "into our never too overcrowded company of saintly spirits."

Present and Future. The largest Jewish communities are in the U.S., Russia, and Israel. Although the state of Israel guarantees freedom of worship, Orthodoxy so dominates the religious life that it prevents the other branches of Judaism from getting a foothold. Russian Jewry is threatened with spiritual extinction for lack of a sufficient number of synagogues, of religious training, and cultural activities. No attempt has been made to gather exact statistics on the number of the synagogue-affiliated among the 5½ million American Jews. Nor is the ratio of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform membership certain. There were in 1965 more than 1,600 known Orthodox congregations, many of them quite small; the Conservative and Reform synagogues numbered 770 and 640 respectively. In all likelihood, each of the three branches has about one million adherents. According to one estimate, four million avail themselves of the service of the synagogue, at the high points of life.

It is impossible to say what the future holds for the various branches, indeed for the whole of American Judaism. Jews seem to be more exposed than other people to the apathy toward, even the estrangement from, religion that marks much of modern life. There are those who predict that the unprecedented freedom and comfort American Jews enjoy will quench all religious thirst and wipe out most of the marks that distinguish them from their neighbors; after a few generations, they will be little more than "custodians of a museum." There are others, however, who see American Jewish life in flux and who hope for a new flowering, indeed, the emergence of a Minhag America, a fresh American-bred expression of the ancient Jewish way.

Christian View of Judaism. Christians have frequently seen Judaism as a "service of death," misapplying the words of St. Paul, who says in 2 Cor 3.6 that "the letter kills but the Spirit gives life," i.e., that the Law, when seen as God's inexorable demands, condemns the sinner to death, whereas grace renews and quickens him. Is the Christian bound to think that Judaism, however much alive empirically, is dead in God's judgment? Or is he bound to believe that God's hand is not shortened and the workings of grace not limited? Every morning the observant Jew remembers man's frailty and dependence, as well as God's sovereign goodness:

Master of all worlds! Not because of our just deeds do we cast our humble prayers before You but because of Your abundant mercy. What are we? What is our life? What our love? What our justice? What our victory? What our strength? What our might? What are we to say before You, O Lord our God and God of our fathers? Indeed, before Your presence, the mighty are as nothing the wise as without knowledge . Yet, we are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the sons of Abraham Your friend . It is, therefore, our duty to thank, praise, and glorify You . How good is our portion , how great our happiness that early and late, morning and night, twice every day, we may proclaim: Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!

There can be no doubt that God's love hovers over those who pray thus. "It is not true," writes Cardinal Liénart, Bishop of Lille, "that Israel, the chosen people of the Old Covenant, has become an accursed people in the New. Actually, the religious destiny of Israel is a mystery of grace, and we Christians ought to ponder it with respectful sympathy" (Lenten Pastoral 1960). By encouraging common Biblical and theological studies as well as fraternal dialogue between Christians and Jews, Vatican Council II has clearly shown that it considers Judaism a living faith. (See section on the Jews of the Declaration on the Church's Relationship to non-Christian Religions, 1965.)

See Also: jews, post-biblical history of the; jewish philosophy.

Bibliography: g. f. moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 v. (Cambridge, MA 192730). c. j. g. montefiore and h. m. j. loewe, eds., A Rabbinic Anthology, Selected and Arranged with Comments and Introductions (London 1938; pa. New York 1963). m. kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York 1952); Organic Thinking (New York 1938). i. epstein, Judaism: A Historical Presentation (Baltimore 1959). d. s. russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (Philadelphia 1964). g. g. scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. New York 1954; repr. pa. New York 1961); On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, tr. r. manheim (New York 1964). w.g. plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism (New York 1963). m. davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism (Philadelphia 1963). n. glazer, American Judaism (Chicago 1957). j. b. agus, Guideposts in Modern Judaism (New York 1954). j. j. petuchowski, Ever Since Sinai: A Modern View of Torah (New York 1961). l. jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith (London 1964). The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, ed. h. j. hertz (rev. ed. New York 1959). e. garfiel, The Service of the Heart; A Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book (New York 1958). l. finkelstein, "The Jewish Religion: Its Beliefs and Practices," The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion, 2 v., ed. l. finkelstein (3d ed. New York 1960). m. n. eisendrath, Can Faith Survive? (New York 1964). k. galling et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:9781000. r. r. geis et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:115671.

[j. m. oesterreicher]


views updated May 14 2018


JUDAISM , the religion, philosophy, and way of life of the Jews.


The term Judaism is first found among the Greek-speaking Jews of the first century c.e. (Judaismes, see ii Macc. 2:21; 8:1; 14:38; Gal. 1:13–14). Its Hebrew equivalent, Yahadut, found only occasionally in medieval literature (e.g., Ibn Ezra to Deut. 21:13), but used frequently in modern times, has parallels neither in the Bible (but see Esth. 8:17, mityahadim, "became Jews") nor in the rabbinic literature. (The term dat Yehudit, found in Ket. 7:6, means no more than the Jewish law, custom, or practice in a particular instance, e.g., that a married woman should not spin or have her head uncovered in the street.)

The Term "Torah"

The term generally used in the classical sources for the whole body of Jewish teaching is *Torah, "doctrine," "teaching." Thus the Talmud (Shab. 31a) tells the story of a heathen who wished to be converted to the Jewish faith but only on the understanding that he would be taught the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel accepted him and, in response to his request, replied: "That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study." Presumably if the Greek-speaking Jews had told the story they would have made the prospective convert demand to be taught Judaism while standing on one leg.

Modern Distinctions Between "Judaism" and "Torah"

In modern usage the terms "Judaism" and "Torah" are virtually interchangeable, but the former has on the whole a more humanistic nuance while "Torah" calls attention to the divine, revelatory aspects. The term "secular Judaism" – used to describe the philosophy of Jews who accept specific Jewish values but who reject the Jewish religion – is not, therefore, self-contradictory as the term "secular Torah" would be. (In modern Hebrew, however, the word torah is also used for "doctrine" or "theory" (e.g., "the Marxist theory"), and in this sense it would also be logically possible to speak of a secular torah. In English transliteration the two meanings might be distinguished by using a capital T for the one and a small t for the other, but this is not possible in Hebrew which knows of no distinction between small and capital letters.)

A further difference in nuance, stemming from the first, is that "Torah" refers to the eternal, static elements in Jewish life and thought while "Judaism" refers to the more creative, dynamic elements as manifested in the varied civilizations and cultures of the Jews at the different stages of their history, such as Hellenistic Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, medieval Judaism, and, from the 19th century, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism. (The term Yidishkeyt is the Yiddish equivalent of "Judaism" but has a less universalistic connotation and refers more specifically to the folk elements of the faith.)

It is usually considered to be anachronistic to refer to the biblical religion (the "religion of Israel") as "Judaism," both because there were no Jews (i.e., "those belonging to the tribe of Judah") in the formative period of the Bible, and because there are distinctive features which mark off later Judaism from the earlier forms, ideas, and worship. For all that, most Jews would recognize sufficient continuity to reject as unwarranted the description of Judaism as a completely different religion from the biblical.

the essence of judaism

The Hebrew writer *Aḥad Ha-Am (Al Parashat Derakhim, 4 (Berlin ed. 1924), 42) observed that if Hillel's convert (see above) had come to him demanding to be taught the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg, he would have replied: "'Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness' (Ex. 20:4). This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary," i.e., that the essence of Judaism consists in the elevation of the ideal above all material or physical forms or conceptions.

Aḥad Ha-Am's was only one of the latest attempts at discovering the essence of Judaism, its main idea or ideas, its particular viewpoint, wherein it differs from other religions and philosophies. This is an extremely difficult – some would say impossible – task, since the differing civilizations, Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Christian, Muslim, with which Jews came into contact, have made their influence felt on Jews and through them on Judaism itself. It is precarious to think of Judaism in monolithic terms. Developed and adapted to changing circumstances throughout its long history, it naturally contains varying emphases as well as outright contradictions. Belief in the transmigration of souls, for example, was strongly upheld by some Jewish teachers and vehemently rejected by others. Yet the quest has rarely ceased for certain distinctive viewpoints which make Judaism what it is. Some of these must here be mentioned.

Talmudic Attempts to State Essence

In a talmudic passage (Mak. 23b–24a) it is said that God gave to Moses 613 precepts, but that later seers and prophets reduced these to certain basic principles: David to eleven (Ps. 15); Isaiah to six (Isa. 33:15–16); Micah to three (Micah 6:8); Isaiah, again, to two (Isa. 56:1); and, finally, Habakkuk to one: "The righteous shall live by his faith" (Hab. 2:4). This would make trust in God Judaism's guiding principle.

In another passage the second-century rabbis ruled at the council of Lydda that, although the other precepts of the Torah can be set aside in order to save life, martyrdom is demanded when life can only be saved by committing murder, by worshiping idols, or by offending against the laws governing forbiddden sexual relations (e.g., those against adultery and incest). The historian Heinrich Graetz (in jqr, 1 (1889), 4–13) deduces from this ruling that there are two elements in the essence of Judaism: the ethical and the religious. The ethical includes in its positive side, love of mankind, benevolence, humility, justice, holiness in thought and deed, and in its negative aspects, care against unchastity, subdual of selfishness and the beast in man. The religious element includes the prohibition of worshiping a transient being as God and insists that all idolatry is vain and must be rejected entirely. The positive side is to regard the highest Being as one and unique, to worship it as the Godhead and as the essence of all ethical perfections.

Maimonides' 13 Principles

In the 12th century, *Maimonides (commentary to the Mishnah, on Sanh., ch. Ḥelek (10)) drew up 13 principles of the Jewish faith. These are:

(1) Belief in the existence of God;

(2) Belief in God's unity;

(3) Belief that God is incorporeal;

(4) Belief that God is eternal;

(5) Belief that God alone is to be worshiped;

(6) Belief in prophecy;

(7) Belief that Moses is the greatest of the prophets;

(8) Belief that the Torah is divine;

(9) Belief that the Torah in unchanging;

(10) Belief that God knows the thoughts and deeds of men;

(11) Belief that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked;

(12) Belief in the coming of the *Messiah;

(13) Belief in the *resurrection of the dead.

A close examination of Maimonides' thought reveals that his principles are far more in the nature of direct response to the particular challenges that Judaism had to face in his day than conclusions arrived at by abstract investigation into the main ideas of Judaism. The third principle, for instance, is clearly directed against cruder notions of deity which were popular among some talmudists in Maimonides' day. (Maimonides' contemporary critic, *Abraham b. David of Posquières, while believing with Maimonides that God is incorporeal, refuses to treat a belief in God's corporeality as heretical since, he says, many great and good Jews do entertain such a notion because they are misled by a literal understanding of the anthropomorphic passages in Scripture and the rabbinic literature; see Maim. Yad, Teshuvah, 3:7). The seventh principle seems to be aimed against the Christian claims for Jesus and the Muslim claims for Muhammad. The ninth principle similarly serves as a rejection of the Christian and Muslim claim that Judaism had been superseded (see S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism, 1 (1896), 147–81).

Reactions to Maimonides

Joseph *Albo (Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 1:26) reduces Maimonides' principles to three basic ones – (1) Belief in God; (2) Belief that the Torah is divine; (3) Belief in reward and punishment – while Isaac *Arama (Akedat Yiẓḥak, Gate 55) reduces them to (1) Belief in creatio ex nihilo; (2) Belief that the Torah is divine; (3) Belief in the hereafter. On the other hand Isaac *Abrabanel (Rosh Amanah, 23) is out of sympathy with the whole enterprise of trying to discover the basic principles of Judaism, in that it implies that some parts of the Torah are less significant than others. Similarly, the 16th-century teacher *David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra writes: "I do not agree that it is right to make any part of the perfect Torah into a 'principle' since the whole Torah is a principle from the mouth of the Almighty. Our sages say that whoever states that the whole of the Torah is from heaven with the exception of one verse is a heretic. Consequently, each precept is a principle and a basic idea. Even a light precept has a secret reason beyond our understanding. How, then, dare we suggest that this is inessential and that fundamental?" (Radbaz, Resp. no. 344; see also *Articles of Faith).

Modern Trends

In modern times two new factors have been operative in the search for the essence of Judaism, one making the task more difficult, the other more urgent. The first is the rise of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement in the 19th century. This had as its aim the objective historical investigation into the sources and history of Judaism. Its practitioners succeeded in demonstrating the complexity of Jewish thought and the fact that it developed in response to outside stimuli, so that there could no longer be any question of seeing Judaism as a self-contained unchanging entity consistent in all its parts. The second new factor was the emancipation of the Jew and his emergence into Western society, calling for a fresh adaptation of Judaism so as to make it viable and relevant in the new situation. The historical movement had demonstrated the developing nature of Judaism and seemed, therefore, to offer encouragement to those thinkers who wished to develop the faith further in accord with the new ideals and challenges. Yet this very demonstration made it far more difficult to detect that which is permanent in Judaism when so much is seen to be fluid and subject to change. Among modern thinkers, Leo *Baeck was so convinced that the quest was not futile that his book carries the revealing title, The Essence of Judaism (19482). Acknowledging the rich variety of forms and differing phenomena in Judaism's history, Baeck still feels able to declare: "The essence is characterized by what has been gained and preserved. And such constancy, such essence, Judaism possesses despite its many varieties and the shifting phases of its long career. In virtue of that essence they all have something in common, a unity of thought and feeling, and an inward bond."

The Concept of "Normative Judaism"

Jewish thinkers who hold that an essence of Judaism can be perceived tend to speak of "normative Judaism," with the implication that at the heart of the Jewish faith there is a hard, imperishable core, to be externally preserved, together with numerous peripheral ideas, expressed, to be sure, by great Jewish thinkers in different ages but not really essential to the faith, which could be dismissed if necessary as deviations.

Unfortunately for this line of thinking, no criteria are available for distinguishing the essential from the ephemeral, so that a strong element of subjectivity is present in this whole approach. Almost invariably the process ends in a particular thinker's embracing ideas he holds to be true and valuable, discovering these reflected in the tradition and hence belonging to the "normative," while rejecting ideas he holds to be harmful or valueless as peripheral to Judaism, even though they are found in the tradition. Nor is the statistical approach helpful. An idea occurring very frequently in the traditional sources may be rejected by some thinkers on the grounds that it is untrue or irrelevant, while one hardly mentioned in the sources may assume fresh significance in a new situation, to say nothing of the difficulties in deciding which sources are to be considered the more authoritative. The absurdities which can result from the "normative Judaism" approach can be seen when, for example, contemporary thinkers with a dislike for asceticism, who wish at the same time to speak in the name of Judaism, virtually read out of the faith ascetics such as *Bahya ibn Paquda and Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto (see, for instance, Abba Hillel Silver, Where Judaism Differed (1957), 182–223).

Recognition of Constant Ideas

However, if due caution is exercised and no exaggerated are claims made, the idea of a normative Judaism is not without value in that it calls attention to the undeniable fact that for all the variety of moods in Judaism's history there does emerge among the faithful a kind of consensus on the main issues. It has always been recognized, for instance, after the rise of Christianity and Islam, that these two religions are incompatible with Judaism and that no Jew can consistently embrace them while remaining an adherent of Judaism. The same applies to the Far Eastern religions. This, of course, is very different from affirming that there are no points of contact between Judaism and other faiths, or no common concerns. Nor has the idea of a Judaism divorced from the peoplehood of Israel ever made much headway, even in circles in which the doctrine of Israel's chosenness is a source of embarrassment. Nor does Jewish history know of a Torah-less Judaism, even though the interpretations of what is meant by Torah differ widely. The most important work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, speaks of three grades or stages bound one to the other – God, the Torah, and Israel (Zohar, Lev. 73a–b). Historically considered, it is true that Judaism is an amalgam of three ideas – belief in God, God's revelation of the Torah to Israel, and Israel as the people which lives by the Torah in obedience to God. The interpretation of these ideas has varied from age to age, but the ideas themselves have remained constant.

The Development of Judaism

the biblical period

Any account of the development of Judaism must begin with the Bible as the record of those ideas, practices, and institutions which became prominent in the faith. With regard to the biblical record, as with regard to Judaism itself, the monolithic view has yielded among modern scholars to that of development and change, so that it is unsatisfactory to speak of the faith of the Bible, as if the Bible were a unit rather than a collection of books produced over a period of many hundreds of years and stemming from diverse circles with divergent views. The opinions of biblical criticism are frequently at variance with the traditional viewpoint on such questions as to whether the biblical accounts of the lives of the patriarchs are factually accurate, or whether all the legislation attributed to Moses really goes back to the great lawgiver or was fathered by him. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace certain key ideas, which eventually assumed importance in the Bible and which were influential in shaping Judaism.


The usual description of the biblical faith is ethical *monotheism. Whether, as a minority of scholars suggest (e.g. Y. Kaufmann), monotheism erupted spontaneously among the people in ancient Israel or whether, as the majority would have it, there can be traced a gradual progress from polytheism through henotheism to complete monotheism (see the survey and critique by H.H. Rowley, From Moses to Qumran (1963), 35–63), the doctrine that there is one God, Lord of the universe, is clearly taught in a large number of biblical passages (e.g., Gen. 1:1–2:3; 5:1–2; 6:1–7; 9:1–8; 11:1–9; 14:18–22; Ex. 19:5; 20:1–14; Deut. 4:15–19; 5:6–8; 10:14; 32:8; i Kings 8:27; Isa. 2:1–4; 11; 45:5–8; 66:1–2; Jer. 32:17–19; Amos 5:8; Jonah 1:9; Micah 1:2; Hab. 3:3; Zech. 8:20–23; 14:9; Mal. 1:11; Ps. 8:2–4; 33:8–11; 47:6–9; 67:2–5; 86:9; 90:1–4; 96:5; 104; 113:4–6; 115:16; 136; 139:7–18; 145; 148; Job 38; 39; 40). What later became Israel's declaration of faith – the *Shema – is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." The probable meaning of eḥad ("one") in this verse is not only "not many" but also "unique." God is transcendent and different from all His creatures (S.R. Driver, icc, Deuteronomy (18962) 89–91). From the critical standpoint these passages are comparatively late, but they are present in the Bible and were consequently adopted by Judaism.

characteristics of the one god

This one God is holy (Lev. 19:2; Isa. 6:3) and demands holiness (Ex. 22:30; Lev. 19:2), righteousness, and justice from His people (Gen. 18:19; Ex. 23:2; Deut. 16:18–20) and from all mankind (Gen. 6:13; Amos 1; 2:1–3). He has compassion over all His creatures (Ps. 145:9), and man can respond to His love in love and fear of Him (Deut. 6:5; 10:20). This God, Lord of all the earth, has chosen the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to serve as a "nation of priests" (Ex. 19:6) and to assist in the fulfillment of His purposes (Isa. 43:10; Zech. 8:23). It is incorrect to see the biblical idea of Israel's choice in terms of the relationship between the god of a tribe and the tribe: a tribal god cannot choose; his destiny is bound up with that of his people. When the tribe is vanquished he, too, suffers defeat. In the biblical record it is the God of all the earth who chooses Israel (Heinemann, in Sinai, 16 (1944/45), 17–30). God has given Israel the holy land as its place of abode (Gen. 28:13; 50:24; Ex. 6:8; Deut. 26:15). The special place in which God is to be worshiped by the sacrifices is the *Temple (Deut. 12:11–14; i Kings 8).

ceremonial and ethical laws

Prominent among the ceremonial laws are the observance of the *Sabbath (Ex. 20:8–11; 31:12–17; Lev. 25:1ff.; Deut. 5:12–15), the *New Moon feast (Num. 28:11–15; Amos 8:5; Hos. 2:13; Isa. 1:14; ii Kings 4:23), and the celebration of the festivals of *Passover (Ex. 12:14–20; 23:15; Lev. 23:5–8; Deut. 16:1–8), *Shavuot (Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:15–21), and *Sukkot (Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:33–43). Males were to be circumcised (see *Circumcision) as a sign of the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 17:9–27; 34:13–15; Josh. 5:2–8). The *dietary laws (Lev. 11:1–23; Deut. 14:3–21) were to be observed, as well as laws governing dress (Deut. 22:11; Num. 15:37:41; Lev. 19:27) and agriculture (Lev. 19:9–10; 23:22; Num. 18:8–32). Numerous are the laws governing human relationships and social justice (Ex. 21; 22; 23:1–9; Lev. 19; Deut. 22; 23; 24; 25).

spiritual leaders

The spiritual leaders of the people were of different kinds: the *priest (kohen) who served in the Temple and was the custodian of the law (Lev. 21; 22:1–25; Deut. 17:8–13); the prophet (navi) who brought a particular message from God to the people (Deut. 18:18; i Sam. 9:9); and the sage (ḥakham), the teacher of worldly wisdom and good conduct (Jer. 9:22; Eccles. 7:4–5).

messianic beliefs

The belief became more and more pronounced that a day would eventually dawn when God's kingdom would be established over all the earth and war would be banished (Isa. 2:1–4; 11:1–10; Micah 4:1–4; Zech. 14:9). After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylon, this hope became associated with that of national restoration under a Davidic ruler, later called the *Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:2).

universalism and particularism

Israel, it was taught, had been chosen to be a light unto the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6) and to be God's special treasure (Ex. 19:5). But both universalism and particularism are found in the Bible, with all the tensions inseparable from belief in God as Father and King of all men and belief in His special concern with Israel. This people were to lead lives of absolute faithfulness to God. The greatest sin they could, and did, commit was idolatry.

There are many prayers in the Bible but these are private and individualistic. Communal prayer was a later development (see *Prayer).

The Pre-Rabbinic Age

The period after the return from Babylon is shrouded in obscurity, but some of the main lines of development can be traced. Not later than the fifth century b.c.e. the Pentateuch had become the Torah, sacred Scripture, with the prophetic books and the books of the Hagiographa being added later on as holy writ. The process of canonization of the biblical books, other than the Pentateuch, was a lengthy one, the full acceptance of all 24 books which constitute the Hebrew Bible, taking place as late as the second century c.e. (see *Bible: Canon).

the rise of oral tradition

The concept of Torah was, of course, known in the earlier biblical period, but there it referred to groups of laws taught by the priests (Lev. 6:2, 7; 7:11, 37; 13:59; 14:2; 15:32; Num. 5:29–30; 6:13, 21) or to general "teaching" or "doctrine" (Isa. 2:3). In this period, for the first time, the new idea of the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch) as a sacred text came to the fore. The regular reading of the Torah in assembly began at this period. Out of these assemblies the synagogue and the whole system of public worship evolved. The reading of the Torah was accompanied by its exposition and its application to new situations (see Reading of the *Torah). It is commonly assumed that the notion of an Oral Law, as distinct from the Written Law, was the invention of the *Pharisees in their determination to make Judaism viable by freeing it from the bonds of a text written down in former ages. It is said, further, that the *Sadducees rejected the whole notion of an Oral Law. While it is undoubtedly true that the full development of the Oral Law idea was the work of the Pharisees, the issue must not be oversimplified. The Sadducees, too, must have had some traditions of Torah interpretation, if only because the literal reading of the Torah text cries out for further amplification. Buying and selling, for instance, are referred to in the Torah, but no indications are given there as to how the transfer of property is to be effected. There are references in the Torah to keeping the Sabbath, but hardly any indication of what is involved in Sabbath work (see *Sabbath).

persian and greek influences

The two civilizations with which the Jews came into contact at this period, first the Persian then the Greek, made their influence felt on Jewish beliefs. Under Babylonian and Persian influence there came into Jewish life and thought the notion of angels as identifiable, sentient, but not necessarily corporeal beings, each with his own name: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and so forth (see *Angels and Angelology). The personification of the evil in the universe as Satan probably owes much to Persia, as do the beliefs in demons and the resurrection of the dead. It was probably under Greek influence that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul came into Judaism. The doctrine of the resurrection also established itself, possibly at the time of the *Hasmoneans when young men were dying for their religion, so that the older solutions to the problem of suffering, in terms of worldly recompense, became increasingly untenable. There are no doubt indications of this belief in the earlier period, but it had not at that time obtained a complete foothold in the faith. Basically, the two beliefs of resurrection and the soul's *immortality are contradictory. The one refers to a collective resurrection at the end of days, i.e., that the dead sleeping in the earth will arise from the grave, while the other refers to the state of the soul after the death of the body. When both ideas became incorporated into Judaism it was held that, when the individual died, his soul still lived on in another realm (this gave rise to all the beliefs regarding heaven and hell), while his body lay in the grave to await the physical resurrection of all the dead here on earth (see also *Garden of Eden, and *Netherworld). However, the pronounced this-wordly emphasis of the early biblical period was not abandoned completely. This life was still held to be good in itself as a gift from God. But the thought took shape that, in addition, this life was a kind of school, a time of preparation for eternal life.

eschatological elements

Toward the end of the Second Temple period, when ominous clouds of complete national catastrophe began to gather, the eschatological note was sounded particularly loudly. Speculations were rife regarding the end of days and hope for a new era to be ushered in by direct divine intervention. The doctrine of the Messiah and the messianic age, heralded by the prophets, was seen as a hope shortly to be realized. Some groups of Jews fled into the desert, there to await the coming of the Messiah, as is evidenced by the sect of *Qumran (held by most scholars to be identical with the *Essenes).

challenges from other religions

From the time of Judaism's contact with Zoroastrianism, faith in the unity of God had to be defended against dualistic theories that there were two gods, one of light and goodness, the other of darkness and evil. With the rise of Christianity the challenge came from the doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity. These challenges took the place of the polytheism and idolatry of the earlier biblical period, though, of course, idolatry continued to exist in the form of the Greek and Roman gods, and made polemics and legislation against avodah zarah ("strange worship") all but academic.

The Rabbinic Period

Rabbinic Judaism, the heir to all these tendencies, emerged at the beginning of the present era and lasted until the year 500, but many of the ideas put forward by the great rabbis had their origin in an earlier age. In the rabbinic literature there is a fairly consistent treatment of the three ideas of God, Torah, and Israel, with much debate among the rabbis on this or that detail.

particularistic tendencies

With regard to the doctrine of Jewish peoplehood, the greater the degradation and the more intense the feelings of national rejection, the stronger became the need for national consolation and the assurance that God still cared. All the poignancy of Israel's hope against hope is expressed in the typically rabbinic, imaginary dialogue between God and Israel, in which Israel complains that she has been forgotten by God, and God replies "My daughter, 12 constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created 30 hosts, and for each host I have created 30 legions, and for each legion I have created 30 cohorts, and for each cohort I have created 30 maniples, and for each maniple I have created 30 camps, and to each camp I have attached 365 thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for thy sake, and thou sayest that I have forgotten thee" (Ber. 32b). It can hardly be accidental that the groupings are taken from the divisions of the Roman army. The universalistic tendencies in Judaism are apt to become obscured by the particular in this period. Nevertheless, conversion to Judaism is possible. The biblical ger ("sojourner") had long been interpreted to mean a *proselyte to the Jewish faith, and the equal rights demanded in the Bible for the ger are applied. "Our rabbis taught: If at the present time a man wishes to become a convert, he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for wishing to become a convert; do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?' If he replies 'I know and yet am unworthy,' he is accepted forthwith and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments" (Yev. 47a).

dominant value of torah study

The study of the Torah is now the supreme religious duty, the closest approach to God, the Pharisaic form of the beatific vision (R. Travers Herford, The Ethics of the Talmud, Sayings of the Fathers (1962), 15). Typical is the saying in the Mishnah (Pe'ah 1:1): "These are the things whose fruits a man enjoys in this world while the capital is laid up for him in the world to come: honoring father and mother, deeds of lovingkindness, making peace between a man and his fellow; but the study of the Torah is equal to them all." When a rabbi took an unduly long time over his prayers it was not considered incongruous for his colleague to rebuke him: "They neglect eternal life [Torah study] and engage in temporal existence [prayer]" (Shab. 10a). Only such devotion to Torah study can explain the remarkable ruling in the Mishnah (bm 2:11): "If a man is called upon to seek the lost property of his father and that of his teacher, his teacher's comes first – for his father only brought him into this world but his teacher, that taught him wisdom, brings him into the world to come; but if his father was also a sage, his father's comes first. If his father and his teacher each bore a burden, he must first relieve his teacher and afterward his father. If his father and his teacher were taken captive, he must first ransom his teacher and afterward his father; but if his father was also a sage he must first ransom his father and afterward ransom his teacher." The reference to wisdom in this passage comes at the end of a long process in which wisdom no longer means, as it does in the Bible, worldly knowledge and practical philosophy but the wisdom of the Torah. Moreover, Torah is no longer the province of the priest but the heritage of all the people.


Anthropomorphic descriptions of God abound in the rabbinic literature but, when excessively bold, are generally qualified by the term kivyakhol ("as it were"). The two most popular names for God in this literature are Ribbono shel olam ("Lord of the universe"), used in direct speech, and ha-Kadosh barukh Hu ("the Holy One, blessed be He"), used in indirect speech.

this world and the world to come

The idea of this life as a preparation for eternal bliss in the hereafter looms very large in rabbinic thinking, yet the value of this life as good in itself is not overshadowed. The second-century teacher, R. Jacob, said: "Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world to come; but better is one hour of bliss in the world to come than the whole life of this world" (Avot 4:17). The same teacher said (Avot 4:16): "This world is like a vestibule before the world to come: prepare thyself in the vestibule that thou mayest enter the banqueting hall." In the same vein is the saying that this world is like the eve of Sabbath and the world to come like the Sabbath. Only one who prepares adequately on the eve of the Sabbath can enjoy the delights of the Sabbath (Av. Zar. 3a). Bliss in the hereafter is not limited to Jews. The view of R. Joshua, against that of R. Eliezer, was adopted that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come (Tosef., Sanh. 13:2).

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages Judaism was confronted with the challenge of Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb. The Jews mainly affected were those of Spain and Islamic lands. The French and German Jews were more remote from the new trends, and their work is chiefly a continuation of the rabbinic modes of thinking. The impact of Greek thought demanded both a more systematic presentation of the truths of the faith and a fresh consideration of what these were in the light of the new ideas. A good deal of the conflict was in the realm of particularism. There is definite hostility in much of Greek thought to the notion of truths capable of being perceived only by a special group. Truth is universal and for all men. There is a marked tendency in medieval Jewish thought to play down Jewish particularism. This is not to say that Judaism was held to be only relatively true, but that the doctrine of Israel's chosenness had become especially difficult to comprehend philosophically. The greatest thinker of this period, Maimonides, hardly touches on the question of the chosen people and, significantly enough, does not number the doctrine among his principles of the faith. For most of the thinkers of this age a burning problem was the relationship between reason and revelation. What need is there for a special revelation of the truth if truth is universal and can be attained by man's unaided reason?

In rabbinic times, wisdom is synonymous with Torah. The tendency in medieval thought is to give wisdom its head but to incorporate this, too, under the heading of Torah. Greek physics and metaphysics thus not only become legitimate fields of study for the Jew but part of the Torah (Maim. Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah, 2:5).

law codes and biblical exegesis

The great codes of Jewish law were compiled in this period, partly in response to the new demand for great systemization, partly because the laws were scattered through the voluminous talmudic literature and required to be brought together, so that the posekim could easily find the sources of their decisions. A further aim was to render decisions in cases of doubt.

In addition to the incorporation of secular learning into Torah, the scope of Torah studies proper was widened considerably. The *Karaites were responsible for a new flowering of biblical scholarship. The *Kabbalah was born, its devotees engaging in theosophical reflection on the biblical texts. According to the Kabbalah every detail of the precepts mirrored the supernal mysteries, and the performance of the precepts consequently had the power of influencing the higher worlds. In the writings of the later kabbalists, Judaism becomes a mystery religion, its magical powers known only to the mystical adepts.

theological speculations

Under the impact of Greek thought the emphasis in medieval Jewish thinking among the philosophers is on the impersonal aspects of the Deity. Not only is anthropomorphism rejected but the whole question of the divine attributes – of what can and cannot be said about God – receives the closest scrutiny. Baḥya ibn Paquda (Duties of the Heart, Sha'ar ha-Yiḥud, 10) and Maimonides (Guide, 1:31–60) allow only negative attributes to be used of the Deity; to say that God is wise is to say no more than that He is not ignorant. It is not to say anything about the reality of the divine nature in itself which must always remain utterly incomprehensible. In reaction to the philosophers' depersonalization of the Deity, the kabbalists, evidently under Gnostic influence, developed the doctrine of the Sefirot, the ten divine emanations by which the world is governed, though among the kabbalists, too, in the doctrine of Ein Sof ("the Limitless"), God as He is in Himself – the Neoplatonic idea of deus absconditus – is preserved. Indeed, from one point of view, the Kabbalah is more radical than the philosophers in that it negates all language from Ein Sof. The utterly impersonal ground is not mentioned in the Bible. Of it nothing can be said at all. No name can be given it except the negative one of "Nothing" (because of it, nothing can be postulated). By thus affirming both the impersonal ground and the dynamic life of the Sefirot, the kabbalists endeavor to satisfy the philosophical mind while catering to the popular need for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Period of Transition

The 18th century was a period of great ferment in Jewish life, the old world dying, the new not yet coming to birth. The pioneer Jewish historian *Zunz correctly sees the Jewish Middle Ages as lasting until the end of this century. The repercussions following on the adventures of the pseudo-messiah *Shabbetai Ẓevi caused Jewish leaders to retreat into the past. There was a fear of new tendencies in Jewish thought and a pronounced suspicion of mystical fervor. Yet revivalist tendencies were in the air, and not only among Jews. The century which saw the phenomenal successes of a Wesley in England, and movements addicted to what Father Ronald Knox calls "enthusiasm" in America and the European continent, also witnessed the rise of *Ḥasidism. The three towering Jewish figures of this age each represented a prominent trend important at the time and influential for the future. R. *Elijah b. Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna (1720–97), "the last great theologian of classical Rabbinism" (L. Ginzberg, Students, Scholars and Saints (1928), 125), spent his days and nights shut up in his study with drawn shutters and setting standards of utter devotion to Torah study in the classical sense as man's noblest pursuit. In the 16th century, Poland had become a home of Torah. The complete devotion there to talmudic studies on the part of so many was unparalleled. The Gaon was an outstanding but not untypical product of this type of hermit-like dedication. The old teaching (Avot 6:4), "This is the way of the Torah. Thou shalt eat bread with salt and thou shalt drink water by measure, and on the ground shalt thou sleep and thou shalt lead a life of suffering the while thou toilest in the Torah," became, in large measure through the Gaon's influence, the pattern for many thousands of talmudists in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania.


It is extremely difficult to disentangle fact from legend in studying the life and work of R. *Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (d. c. 1760), but Ḥasidism, the movement he founded – with its message that simple faith is superior to scholasticism untouched with fervor, that joy is to be invoked in God's service, and that there are "holy sparks" in all things to be redeemed by a life of sanctity – spread so rapidly, despite the most powerful opposition of established rabbinic authorities, that by the end of the 18th century it had won over to its side numerous Jewish communities in Galicia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Belorussia.

mendelssohn and the enlightenment

Moses *Mendelssohn (1729–86) is rightly looked upon as the pioneer in bringing the Jewish people face to face with the modern world. Religious truth, taught Mendelssohn, was universal and could be attained by the exercise of the free human reason. No special revelation was required. The Torah, for Mendelssohn, is not revealed religion but revealed legislation. The eternal truths that there is a God, that He is good, and that man's soul is immortal are revealed in all places and at all times. Mendelssohn, thus speaking as a child of the Enlightenment, succeeded in paving the way for those Jews – and they were many – who wished to eat of its fruits. But Mendelssohn was not able to explain adequately why a special revelation to Israel was necessary if the basic truths were attainable by all men. What was the purpose of this special revealed legislation and, if it had value, why was this confined to a special group? He speaks of "a special favor" for "very special reasons," but nowhere states what these reasons were (M.A. Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (1967), 37). Moreover his advice to his fellow Jews to comply with the customs and civil constitutions of the countries in which they lived while, at the same time, being constant to the faith of their forefathers, was easier said than done. Nevertheless no modern Jew is immune from Mendelssohn's influence, and, by the same token, opponents of any kind of modernism in the Jewish camp have laid all the ills of subsequent Jewish faithlessness at Mendelssohn's door.

With the possible exception of the Oriental communities, every Jew in the post-emancipation era, insofar as he strove to remain Jewishly committed, was a disciple of the Gaon, or the Ba'al Shem Tov, or Mendelssohn, with many Jews disciples of more than one of these great figures at the same time.

The Emancipation

The entrance of the Jew into Western society at the beginning of the 19th century presented Judaism with a direct confrontation with modern thought, without the long period of preparation and adjustment that had been available to Christendom since the Renaissance. On the practical side there were the problems connected with the new social conditions. How, for example, were Jews to participate in life in a non-Jewish environment without surrendering their distinctiveness and the claims of their ancient past? How were they to avoid being dubbed antisocial or outlandish? How were they to earn a living if they refused to work on the Sabbath? How were they to mix freely with their neighbors and keep the dietary laws? On the intellectual plane fresh challenges were being presented to the ancient faith by the new scientific viewpoints, by modern philosophy, by art, music, and literature, cultivated independently of any dogmatic considerations, and later, by the historical investigations into the Bible and Jewish origins. It was in Germany that Judaism had to bear the brunt of the new thinking, though, as evidenced by the emergence of a Russian *Haskalah movement, other Jewries were not unaffected by the revolutionary trends.

theological challenges

It is not surprising that atheism and agnosticism had their unprecedented appeal for some Jews, and Christianity in one form or another for others. But among the faithful, traditional theism remained the accepted philosophy of life until more recent years, when a number of Jewish thinkers began to explore the possibility of a radical reinterpretation of theism in naturalistic terms. The main tensions, however, in post-emancipation Judaism centered on the ideas of Torah and Israel rather than God.

the nationalistic question

With regard to Jewish peoplehood, the *Zionist movement at the end of the century posed in acute form a problem which had agitated Jewish minds from the beginning of the century – the role of nationalism in Judaism. Were the Jews merely adherents of a common religion – as it was put, Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen of the Mosaic persuasion – or were they a nation? Was Judaism dependent for its fullest realization on residence in the Holy Land, or was it desirable that Jews be dispersed in many lands to further there the "mission of Israel" in bringing God to mankind in the purest form of teaching? These questions were being asked, and the replies varied considerably. The early Reformers deleted from the prayer book all references to national restoration. Exile was not seen as an evil to be redressed but as an essential step in the fulfillment of the divine purpose (see *Reform Judaism). The Reformers were not alone in their opposition to a nationalistic interpretation of Judaism. When political Zionism became a practical policy for Jews, many of the Orthodox opposed it as a denial of Jewish messianism according to which, it was believed, the redemption would come through direct divine intervention, not at the hands of men. There were not lacking, however, religious leaders who advocated a form of religious Zionism, claiming that, as in other spheres, the divine blessing follows on prior human effort.

With the actual establishment of the State of Israel the older attitudes became academic. With the exception of the fringe groups of the *Neturei Karta (Orthodox) and the *American Council for Judaism (Reform), the majority of Jews now accept the special role the new state has to play as a spiritual center (over and above the haven of refuge it provides), while generally acknowledging that to uncover the full implications of this concept requires a good deal of fresh thinking. Some Orthodox thinkers have taken refuge in the notion of the establishment of the State of Israel as atḥalta di-ge'ullah ("the beginning of the redemption"), i.e., that while complete redemption is at the hands of God through the Messiah, the present life of the State still has messianic overtones and belongs in a realm far removed from the secular. Some see this as an unsuccessful attempt literally to have the best of both worlds.

the question of halakhah

The great divide between Orthodoxy and Reform was on the question of Jewish law (halakhah). According to the Orthodox position, the traditional doctrine of Torah min ha-Shamayim ("the Torah is from Heaven") means that both the Written and the Oral Laws were communicated by God to Moses and that, therefore, all the Pentateuchal laws, in their interpretation as found in the rabbinic literature, are binding upon Jews by divine fiat. The Sabbath, for instance, is to be kept in the manner set forth in detail in the Talmud; the dietary laws are to be observed in all their minutiae. On this view nothing in the law is trivial or unworthy or out-of-date, since every law is a direct command of God for all time. Reform Judaism rejects the idea of a permanently binding religious law. In the Reform view, the moral law alone is eternally valid, together with those religious ceremonies which are still capable of inspiring contemporary Jews to appreciate the beauty, dignity, and supreme worth of a God-orientated life. A middle of the road position was advocated by the followers of the historical school in Germany and later by the *Conservative movement in the United States. In this view, Reform is in error in rejecting the halakhah, but Orthodoxy is also mistaken in wedding adherence to halakhah to a fundamentalism which recognizes no change or development in Jewish law.

Contemporary Judaism

There are a number of groupings in contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Reform has made little headway among Sephardi or Oriental Jews, and the majority of these, if religious, are at least Orthodox, with many of their own rites and customs.

orthodoxy of the lithuanian pattern

Among the Ashkenazim, possibly the most prominent Orthodox group is that represented by the yeshivot of the Lithuanian pattern and the rabbis educated in these institutions, most of them in Israel and the U.S. The main emphasis here is on Torah study, to the virtual exclusion of all else, and the carrying out of the detailed practical observances. In this group the stress is on intellectual comprehension, particularly of the difficult logic and reasoning of the Talmud, the most admired figure being the lamdan, the man proficient in these studies. Religious feeling and ethical content is provided by the *Musar movement, which succeeded in capturing the Lithuanian yeshivot at the end of the last century. Secular learning is either entirely frowned upon or treated as necessary for earning a living, and little more.


Neo-Orthodoxy (not generally called by this name) has a far more positive attitude to secular learning, with a particular fondness for the physical sciences. In this group are the followers of the Samson Raphael *Hirsch school, which aims at combining Torah (i.e., strict adherence to halakhah) with derekh ereẓ ("the way of the earth," in this context, the values of Western civilization). In this group, too, are the majority of Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. (the rabbis mainly alumni of *Yeshiva University) and Great Britain (the rabbis mainly alumni of *Jews College).


The Ḥasidim still owe their allegiance to various dynasties of rabbis. Ḥasidism is emotional and mystical. Most of the Hasidim wear a special garb, consisting of a girdle for prayer, a long black coat, and fur hat. Beards are generally worn long and earlocks (pe'ot) cultivated. Ritual immersion plays an important part in ḥasidic life. The best-known ḥasidic rabbis with large followings today are the Lubavitcher and the Satmarer in New York, and the Gerer, Viznitzer, and Belzer in Israel. Neo-Ḥasidism, as presented in the writings of Martin Buber, is not a movement but a mood of sympathy with some of the ḥasidic values as relevant to the spiritual predicament of Western man.

The two major world groupings of Orthodoxy, embracing members of all preceding groups, are the Zionist *Mizrachi movement and the more right-wing *Agudat Israel.

conservative judaism

This movement is especially strong in the U.S., with its teaching center at the *Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It is organized in the *United Synagogue of America and has sympathizers in other parts of the Jewish world. It has been said that, while contemporary Reform stresses the God idea and contemporary Orthodoxy the idea of Torah, Conservative Judaism stresses that of Israel (i.e., Jewish peoplehood). This is too much of a generalization, but it is true that an important plank in the Conservative platform is the unity of the Jewish people amid its diversity.

reform judaism

This movement is strong in the U.S., with its teaching headquarters at the *Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, but with followers in other parts of the Jewish world. Reform congregations are loosely organized in the World Union of Progressive Synagogues. (The term "Traditional Judaism" is used, nowadays, to denote either Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. The term "Torah-true Judaism" is used by some of the Orthodox as a synonym for Orthodoxy in order to avoid the possible pejorative implications of the latter term as suggesting reaction or obscurantism. "Liberal Judaism" is the term used in Great Britain for the Reform position, though there are in Great Britain both Liberal and Reform congregations, with the Liberals more to the left.)

There are very few Reform or Conservative congregations in the State of Israel. Orthodoxy is the official religious position in Israel, with the majority of the rabbis belonging to the old school of talmudic jurists. Here and there in recent years a number of small groups have emerged with the aim of seeking a religiously orientated outlook, but one not necessarily Orthodox.

the influence of judaism

Judaism's main influence on civilization has been in the sphere of religion. This influence has been especially felt by the daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. The institutions of church and mosque are direct descendants of the synagogue, with many of their forms of worship adapted from the mother faith. Words like amen and Hallelujah have become part of the religious vocabulary of a large portion of mankind. The Church uses the Bible in its worship. The Sabbath, the Psalms, the prophetic readings, the weekly sermon, are, through Judaism, the common heritage of the Christian world. The language of the Bible has helped to mold the tongues of the Western world, so that the peoples of Great Britain and the U.S., France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, speak without incongruity in the idioms of ancient Judea. The prophetic vision of a world at peace is still a potent force in human affairs despite the war-blackened pages of human history. Judaism's insistence on justice and righteousness, and the brotherhood of man founded on the Fatherhood of God, has been, in part at least, responsible for the emergence of Western democratic patterns and social reforms.

The rise of modern science was due to a number of factors, prominent among them the Greek element in Western thought. But Judaism's teachings regarding the unity of nature as the creation of the one God are not to be underestimated in their effects on early scientific thought. It is doubtful whether science could have emerged in its full boldness and confidence against a polytheistic backcloth in which each god is allotted only a portion of the world.

The concrete nature of Jewish thought, its concern with the deed, its practical application of lofty ideals, has been responsible, perhaps more than any other factor, for the emergence of ideas connected with social justice. Individual Jews have stood on both sides of the debate on the major social issues. "Yet the determination not to abandon Justice to the realm of the abstract is independent of the machinery suggested for its establishment, and in so far as any movement sets before itself the task of bringing the good things of life within the reach of the masses, it is carrying on the work of the prophets" (L. Roth, in: E.R. Bevan and C. Singer (eds.) The Legacy of Israel (19282), 468).

In speaking of the influence of Judaism it is sometimes customary to refer to the contributions made by individual Jews, but this is a highly questionable procedure. Adapting a maxim of Rabbi *Kook, it can be argued that these are the contributions of Jews who were great rather than of great Jews. It is certainly a moot point to what extent the thought of a *Spinoza, a *Marx, a *Bergson, an *Einstein, or a *Freud, was nurtured by his Jewish background. Yet it would seem that some of Judaism's influence is to be detected even here in a roundabout way. It can be argued, not unconvincingly, that something of Judaism's spirit contrives to live even in the souls of those of her children who have abandoned her.


J.B. Agus, The Evolution of Jewish Thought (1959); Baron, Social2; I. Epstein, Judaism, A Historical Presentation (1959); M. Friedlaender, The Jewish Religion (19133); A. Hertzberg (ed.), Judaism (1961); M. Joseph, Judaism as Creed and Life (19584); M.M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (19572); K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918); Loewe, in ere, 7 (1914), 581–609; G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 2 vols. (1927); L. Roth, Judaism, A Portrait (1960); M. Steinberg, Basic Judaism (1947); Werblowsky, in: The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (1959), 23–50; L. Baeck, The Essence of Judaism (1961); M. Buber, On Judaism (1967). additional bibliography: R.S. Frank and W. Wollheim, The Book of Jewish Books: a Reader's Guide to Judaism (1986); C. Cutter and M.F. Oppenheim, Judaica Reference Sources: a Selective, Annotated Bibliographic Guide (19932); R.P. Bulka, The Coming Cataclysm: the Orthodox-Reform Rift and the Future of the Jewish People (1984); D. Cohn-Sherbok, Dictionary of Judaica (1992); M.L. Raphael, Profiles in American Judaism: the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist Traditions in Historical Perspective (1984); G.S. Rosenthal, Contemporary Judaism: Patterns of Survival (1985); J.J. Schacter (ed.), Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jew (1992); J. Wertheimer, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (1993).

[Louis Jacobs]


views updated May 18 2018


The term Judaism is used to refer both to a religion and to a nation of people with close cultural ties. Throughout history Jews have often been seen as members of a "race," but the existence of white, black, and Asian Jews makes clear that unlike race, being Jewish is a matter of choice. Jews prefer to think of themselves not as a race but as a people or a nation. Nation is used not in the political sense of a country with political boundaries but in the social sense of a people with a shared history and a common vision of the future. Being Jewish, then, is not necessarily a matter of practicing a set of religious beliefs as it is belonging to a culture. Even secular, or nonreligious, Jews think of themselves as Jews.

There are great differences in beliefs across the various communities of Jews. All, however, share some core beliefs. These include the belief in one, eternal, nonmaterial, supreme God who knows people's thoughts and deeds and passes judgment on them. Additional beliefs include belief in the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Tanakh), Judaism's chief sacred text; belief in the prophets, particularly Moses (c. 1392–c. 1272 bce); belief that a Messiah, or savior, will come; and belief in the resurrection of the dead. Some Jews, though, dispute even some of these core beliefs.

Estimating the number of Jews in the world is difficult. Because of Judaism's history of persecution (harassment or injury), many Jews do not openly acknowledge their Judaism. In addition, many countries do not gather information about the religious beliefs of their citizens. Estimates suggest that there are about thirteen to fourteen million Jews in the world, with about five million in the United States, and an equal number in Israel. Europe is home to about two million Jews. Four hundred thousand live in Latin America, and three hundred and fifty thousand live in Canada. About 90 percent of Africa's Jews live in the nation of South Africa. Judaism ranks as the twelfth largest religion in the world.

History and development

At the time that Judaism developed, the people in the region that is now called the Middle East had historically worshipped many gods, a practice called polytheism. Judaism arose during the Bronze Age, from roughly 4000 to 3000 bce. This religion differed from the others of its day in that it called for the worship of only one God, a practice called monotheism. As a result of its being a new religion and challenging the accepted beliefs of the day by promoting only one god, Judaism's early history experienced many challenges. This early history is recorded in the first five books of the Tanakh; these five books are collectively called the Torah. The key event was God's appointment of the prophet Abraham (c. 2050–c. 1950 bce) as the leader of the Israelites, God's chosen people. Another key event was the bondage, or enslavement, of the Jews in Egypt and their exodus, or escape, under the leadership of the prophet Moses, who received from God the Ten Commandments (religious laws) and gave them to the Jewish people. Judaism became more structured and organized under kings Saul (c. 1020–1000 bce), David (d. 962 bce), and Solomon (tenth century bce), who constructed a magnificent Temple (the First Temple) in Jerusalem in the tenth century bce. There, in a room called the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This cabinet contained the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were carved. Jews soon came to regard the Temple and the city of Jerusalem as their most holy sites.

In 586 bce the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple and drove the Jews into exile (the Babylonian exile). The Jews returned and rebuilt the Temple, the Second Temple, in 515 bce after the Babylonians were defeated by the Persian Empire. In 175 the king of Syria desecrated (violated and damaged) the Temple and passed laws in an effort to eliminate the Jews. In 164 bce the Jews revolted, a revolt still commemorated on the Jewish festival of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah), which recreates the rededication of the Temple.

In 63 bce Jerusalem and the surrounding nation of Palestine fell under the domination of the Roman Empire (c. 31 bce–476 ce), which persecuted the Jews and forced them to pay high taxes. To persecute someone is to mistreat them because of differences. This mistreatment often includes violence. At about the beginning of the Common Era a Jewish group called the Zealots formed to oppose the Romans. In 66 ce the Zealots launched a revolt, known as the Great Revolt, which


Ark of the Covenant:
A cabinet in which the Ten Commandments were kept in the First Temple of Jerusalem.
Term used to refer to Jews of France, Germany, and eastern Europe.
bar mitzvah:
The coming-of-age ceremony for boys.
bat mitzvah:
The coming-of-age ceremony for girls.
A movement in modern Judaism that tries to strike a balance between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
The scattering of the Jews throughout the world.
The Festival of Lights commemorating the rededication of the First Temple.
The systematic slaughter of Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany before and during World War II (1939–45).
Dietary laws, referred to in Hebrew as kashrut.
Magen David:
The so-called Star of David, a symbol of the Jewish faith and nation.
A seven-branched candelabrum; at Hanukkah, a nine-branched candelabrum is used.
A small case containing Torah passages that observant Jews attach to the doorposts of their houses.
Stories that expand on incidents in the Hebrew Bible.
The written text of the Talmud.
The laws of Judaism contained in the Torah.
The expected Messiah in Jewish belief.
Oral Torah:
Interpretations of the Torah and ways to apply their laws.
The name of one of the sects of Judaism, generally referring to traditional Jews who are conservative in their outlook.
The feast of Passover, commemorating the flight of the Jews from Egypt.
One of the sects of Judaism, generally used to refer to the less traditional branch of the faith.
Rosh Hoshanah:
The Jewish "New Year."
Term used to refer to Jews of North Africa, the Middle East, Spain, and Portugal.
Traditions that explain and interpret the Torah.
The chief Jewish scripture; the Hebrew Bible.
The first five books of the Tanakh: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
One of the names for God in the Tanakh.
Yom Kippur:
The Day of Atonement.
A movement that began in the nineteenth century to find a permanent home for Jews.

ended in 70 ce when Roman troops occupied the city, massacred the Jews, and destroyed the Temple. A second revolt took place in 132 ce when hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred or enslaved, and their survivors were banished from (forced to leave) Jerusalem.

Despite these setbacks Judaism grew in the centuries that followed. A major center of Jewish influence was Spain, where scholars made strides in such areas as theology (the study of religion) and science. Although Judaism continued to grow and spread, Jews throughout Europe faced many challenges. In 1086 unsuccessful efforts were made to convert Spanish Jews to Islam, the religion of Muslims. The Islamic leadership was called the Umayyad caliphate, or domain. The Umayyad at that time controlled large areas of Spain. At the end of the century many Jews in Europe, particularly those in Germany, were slaughtered by Christian Crusaders who were on their way to Palestine to reclaim it from Islam. In 1290 Jews were expelled from England. In 1492 they were expelled from Spain. In the 1700s Jews faced persecution in central Europe and Russia, and, although they were allowed to return to such countries as England, they faced discrimination (mistreatment) and exclusion from public life.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the restrictions that had been placed on Jews were lifted. For example, Jews could hold public office or attend universities. These changes, however, did not end discrimination and prejudice. Beginning in about the mid-nineteenth century many Jews began to dream of a safe, permanent homeland in Palestine, the land where Judaism historically originated. This became a movement called Zionism.

The dream seemed to have been realized in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, Great Britain's agreement to form a Jewish state in Palestine after World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). This agreement was complicated, however, by the fact that the British had made identical promises to the Arabs living in Palestine. (At the time, large areas of the Middle East were British colonies.) Arabs are predominantly Muslim, although many are Christian. This plan was disrupted by the growing tensions in Europe that led to World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). During these years, roughly from the mid-1930s to the end of the war in 1945, Germany's Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) systematically exterminated, or killed, six million European Jews. The Holocaust, as it is called, is perhaps the single defining event in modern Jewish history.

About Judaism

  • Belief. The core beliefs of Judaism include belief in one God, belief in the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible, belief in the prophets, belief that a messiah will come, and belief in the last judgment and resurrection.
  • Followers. Judaism is the twelfth largest religion in the world, with some thirteen to fourteen million believers.
  • Name of God. Jews use the name God, although common names for God found in the Hebrew Bible include Yahweh and Elohim.
  • Symbols. Judaism has a number of symbols, including the Magen David (Star of David), the mezuzah, the menorah, and such articles of clothing as the yarmulke.
  • Worship. Jews worship in synagogues, or temples. The Jewish liturgy includes prayers and blessings, but the center of Jewish worship is reading from the Torah.
  • Dress. Jews have no particular dress, though women are expected to dress modestly. Some Orthodox men keep their heads covered. Others wear the peyos, or long locks of hair at their sideburns.
  • Texts. The chief text of Judaism is the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, especially the first five books, collectively called the Torah. In addition, the Talmud contains interpretations and applications of the Torah.
  • Sites. The most important site for Jews is the nation of Israel, especially the city of Jerusalem.
  • Observances. The Jewish calendar includes many observances. Some of the most important are Passover (Pesach), Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah.
  • Phrases. Judaism has many widely used phrases, including Shabbat shalom ("good Shabbat," used as a greeting on Shabbat, or day of worship), mazel tov (meaning "good luck," but referring to past rather than future luck and used as a form of congratulations), shalom (peace), and l'chayim ("to life," usually used as a toast).

After the war the Jewish nation of Israel was created as a result of a 1947 United Nations declaration. It was indeed located in Palestine, on land formerly occupied by Great Britain and populated by Arabs. At Israel's creation, thousands of Arabs moved to areas of Palestine that were not part of the new nation. Some, however, stayed. Tensions between the two groups were high. In the years that followed, however, Israel faced hostility from its neighbors and became involved in wars in 1949, 1967, and 1973. Although Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, hostility from Arab neighbors, particularly the Palestinians, continues in the twenty-first century.

Sects and schisms

After the revolt in 164 bce, the first significant divisions in Judaism began to appear with the emergence of three distinct groups: the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. The Essenes were ascetics (meaning that they lived lives of poverty) and held more mystical views. The Sadducees were the aristocrats and priests of Jewish society, conservative, or traditional, in matters of law but socially more liberal, or open to change. They did not believe in the authority of the Oral Torah. For the Sadducees, the center of Jewish life was the Temple and the sacrificial rites conducted there. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed that God gave to Moses both the Oral and the Written Torah. Both were open to interpretation, so it was the Pharisees who promoted a strong tradition of education and biblical scholarship (study) in Judaism.

Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews

The differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews are based principally on geography. Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of eastern Europe, France, and Germany. The word Ashkenazic comes from the Hebrew word for Germany. Sephardic Jews come from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. This group is often subdivided into Sephardim from Spain and Portugal and Mizrachim from North Africa and the Middle East.

Most Jews in the United States are Ashkenazic, for they are the descendants of Jews that immigrated from northern and eastern Europe. Interestingly, though, the very first Jewish congregation in the United States, founded in New York City in 1684 and still in existence, is Sephardic. Jews in Israel are a mix of the two traditions, consisting of the descendants of the original Sephardic Jews of the area and immigrants from Ashkenazic countries. Most of the differences between the two traditions have to do with language and culture rather than basic beliefs; these differences translate into minor differences in services, prayers, and the like. Historically, a chief distinction between the two is that Sephardic Jews tended to be more integrated into the surrounding non-Jewish culture. Ashkenazic Jews tended to live separately from, and in a state of tension with, the surrounding culture.

The next movement to develop, in the early years of the Common Era, was the Zealots. The Zealots were less a religious movement than a nationalistic one, meaning they believed in promoting their culture and interests above all others. They "zealously" (fiercely) opposed domination by the Roman Empire and launched a revolt to Roman rule in 70 ce. The Zealots are most famous for holding out against Roman legions at their stronghold at Masada, where they ultimately committed mass suicide rather than surrender.

The Zealots and Essenes were nearly all killed by the Romans. The Sadducees lost their influence with the Roman destruction of the Temple. The only group to survive this period was the Pharisees. For many of the following centuries there was no significant division in Judaism. There were minor differences in culture and ritual between the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern Europe, France, and Germany and the Sephardic Jews of Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Yet Judaism remained remarkably unified until about the ninth century.

In the 1700s yet another movement emerged. Traditionally, Jews believed that education was the best way to know God. A movement known as Hasidism (sometimes spelled Chasidism), founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700–1760), emerged that took a more mystical, or spiritual, view and relied more on personal experience than on formal education. The movement was considered quite radical at the time, and those who opposed it were called mitnagdim, meaning "opponents." In the twenty-first century a number of Hasidic sects continue to exist. They are now considered conservative, however, rather than radical. Hasidic Jews are unified with more Orthodox (traditional) Jews in their opposition to modern liberal movements.

Modern divisions

In modern life Judaism is represented by three major groups: Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Conservative Judaism. There is also a fourth, smaller group, called Reconstructionist. Orthodox Judaism, generally regarded as conservative, is a coalition (partnership) of a number of groups that have in common the belief that God gave Moses the entire Torah, including both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. They believe that the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments or laws contained in the Torah, remain binding on Jews. It is estimated that about 7 percent of American Jews are Orthodox. Orthodox Judaism is the only recognized form of Judaism in Israel, though most Israeli Jews do not identify themselves with a movement as much as American Jews do.

Reform Jews, in contrast, do not accept that God gave Moses the Torah. They believe that the source of the Torah was several different authors and that the Torah represents a compilation of these texts. They do not adhere to the 613 mitzvoth, but they do retain many of the values, ethics, practices, and culture of Judaism. Many Jews regard Reform Judaism as the movement that is the most open-minded or accepting of change. About 42 percent of American Jews identify themselves as Reform.

Conservative Judaism was an attempt to heal the rift between Orthodox and Reform Judaism by striking a middle ground. Conservative Jews believe, for example, that God did reveal the Torah to Moses but that it was recorded and transmitted by human authors, so it contains human elements. Conservative Jews also believe that Jewish law should change and adapt to the culture that surrounds it. Some observers find great variation in the practices of Conservative Jews. Some practices are barely distinguishable from Orthodox Jews; others, from Reform Jews. In the United States about 38 percent of Jews identify themselves as Conservative.

Reconstructionist Judaism is a very small movement, consisting of only about 1 percent of American Jews. Some observers believe that it is the most liberal branch of Judaism. In some respects, this is true. Reconstructionists, for example, do not believe that the Jews are the chosen people of God, nor do they believe that God has been active in human affairs throughout history. On the other hand, Reconstructionists give more emphasis to Jewish observances than do Reform Jews.

Basic beliefs

Many efforts have been made to outline the core beliefs of Judaism. Few of these efforts are universally accepted. Many Jews, however, accept a list of thirteen core religious beliefs as outlined by Maimonides, one of the great scholars in Jewish history.

  1. God exists. Jews rarely offer any proof that God exists. The first line of the first book of the Torah, Genesis, states, "In the beginning, God created heaven and Earth." God, therefore, existed before the universe did, and he created everything in it, including evil.
  2. God is one. Unlike some religions, which believe in the concept of a god that manifests, or appears, in various ways or through various figures or minor gods, Jews believe that God is a single entity that cannot be described by his attributes. He exists everywhere, is all powerful, and all knowing ("omniscient").
  3. God is incorporeal. This means that God does not have a body or any physical attributes, including gender. God is a "he" primarily because Hebrew, the ancient language of the Jewish people, does not have neuter words, that is, words whose grammatical gender is neither masculine nor feminine.
  4. God is eternal. He has no beginning and no end.
  5. Prayer is to be addressed to God and to no other being. Prayer is central to Jewish life, and devout Jews pray at least three times each day.
  6. The words of the prophets in the Tanakh are true. Jewish scripture identifies fifty-five prophets, including seven women. These prophets spoke for God and helped to define the relationship between God and His people.
  7. A related belief is that Moses was the greatest prophet and that his words are true.
  8. The words of the Written Torah, or the first five books of the Tanakh (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), are true and were given to Moses by God. Similarly, the words of the Oral Torah, which includes the Talmud, or traditions that interpret and explain the scriptures, are accepted as true. In the second century of the Common Era the Talmud was written down in a text called the Mishnah. Orthodox Jews believe that God taught it to Moses and that it was handed down orally until then.
  9. There will be no other Torah.
  10. God knows the deeds and thoughts of people.
  11. God will reward the good and punish the evil. Some people regard Judaism as a strict religion that emphasizes a "God of wrath." They believe that Judaism emphasizes the "justice" of God at the expense of mercy. Many Jews dispute this belief, pointing out that of the two names used most frequently in the Hebrew Bible to refer to God, the name that refers to His mercy is used just as often as the other.
  12. The Messiah will come. The word messiah is an English version of the Hebrew word moshiach, which means "anointed." Jews believe that God will appoint a messiah who will end evil, rebuild the Temple, and return exiles to Israel. (Jews frequently refer to the Diaspora, or the scattering of Jews throughout the world. The Diaspora began with the Babylonian exile and continues to this day.) Judaism's split with Christianity came about primarily because of this belief. Christians believe that Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce) was the Messiah, while Jews do not.
  13. The dead will be resurrected in the "Time to Come," or in Hebrew, Olam Ha-Ba, the afterlife.

Sacred writings

Jewish tradition recognizes Tanakh, also called the Hebrew Bible (mainly by non-Jews), as its core sacred scripture. The Tanakh, in turn, comprises three parts. The first part is the Torah, or Law, which contains the first five books of the Tanakh: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The second part is called Nevi'im, or Prophets, and includes twenty-one books, including I Kings, II Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. These books, as the names suggest, record the life and teachings of many of the major prophets of Judaism. The third part is called Ketuvim, or Writings, and includes a number of the more "literary" books of the Tanakh, including Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and others.


One of the greatest scholars in the history of Judaism was Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), also known as Rambam and as Moshe ben Maimon. Maimonides was born in Coórdoba, Spain, where he was a doctor. Throughout his life he fled persecution (harassment) to live in many different places, including North Africa and the Middle East. In addition to developing the thirteen principles of faith, he was also the author of the Mishnah Torah, an extensive code of Jewish law written in simple and easy-to-understand language, which made it accessible to more people. He also wrote the Guide for the Perplexed, which discusses difficult theological (religious) ideas from the perspective of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 bce).

Many, but not all, Jews believe that Moses was the author of the Torah, which contains the account of creation and the earliest days of Judaism. Modern biblical scholarship, however, has determined that the book's authorship is unknown, and even many Jews accept that the Hebrew Bible was the work of many authors, written down, compiled, and edited by others. For centuries, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated to the ninth century ce. Then, in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include books of the Hebrew Bible, were discovered by a shepherd boy in a cave near Qumran, Israel, near the northwest coast of the Dead Sea. These scrolls were hidden by clerics (priests), probably Essenes, to protect them from invading Romans. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest manuscript versions of the Hebrew Bible known to survive date to the first century bce.

The Torah is central to Jewish belief because it outlines at least four important themes in Jewish history. The first is the concept of "election," or the belief that God chooses special people to carry out His work on Earth. A key event in the book of Genesis is God's election of the Israelites as His chosen people, with Abraham as their father. The second major theme is the concept of "covenant," which refers to agreements between God and man. This sense of covenant governed all human relationships and made both moral and ritual demands on the Jewish people. The third theme is "law," including the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but the Torah contains numerous other laws, including the 613 mitzvoth. The final theme is "exodus," the most prominent example of which is contained in the second book of the Torah, Exodus. The escape of Jews from bondage in Egypt and their return to the Promised Land is a key event in Jewish history, an event still commemorated in the yearly Feast of Passover.

In a Jewish temple, the Torah is handwritten in beautiful calligraphy (stylized handwriting) on parchment scrolls rather than in book form. The scroll itself is not to be touched; instead a pointer in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger is used. This pointer is called a yad. The scrolls are covered in ornamental cloth and stored in a cabinet called an ark.


The mitzvoth are a comprehensive list of laws contained in the Tanakh. Some of these are "affirmative" laws, meaning that they are obligations that Jews are required to carry out. Others are "negative" laws, referring to practices that are not allowed. Still others are applicable only to Jews living in Israel.

One of the difficulties with the mitzvoth for modern Jews is that while some are common-sense laws that remain applicable in modern life, others are a reflection of cultural biases or the material and physical conditions of life at the time they were written. Thus, Jews (and others) have no difficulty with such laws as praying to God, honoring fathers and mothers, not striking a parent, not cheating others in business dealings, or treating the poor and widows with kindness and respect. Similarly, other laws detail forbidden practices, and these prohibitions remain strong cultural taboos. Other laws, however, do not seem to apply to modern life, such as not to eat the flesh of an ox that has been condemned to be stoned, not to sell a Hebrew maid to another person, or not to leave the dead body of an executed criminal hanging overnight.

These scrolls make up the Written Torah. In addition to the Written Torah is the Oral Torah, or interpretations of the Torah and ways to apply their laws. These interpretations are referred to as the Talmud. (Use of the term Torah can be ambiguous. Depending on the context, "Torah" can mean the Written Torah or both the Written and Oral Torah. In connection with the Written Torah, it is sometimes used to refer to the entire Hebrew Bible.) In the centuries that followed, further commentaries, called the Gemara, were written, both in Jerusalem and in Babylon. So there are actually two Talmuds: the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is more complete and comprehensive. It is usually this version that Jews mean when they refer to "the" Talmud.

The Mishnah, or written text of the Talmud, consists of six sections, or sedarim (orders):

  1. Zera'im (Seeds), dealing with agricultural laws.
  2. Mo'ed (Festival), dealing with festivals as well as Sabbath (the period from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday) observances.
  3. Nashim (Women), dealing with such issues as contracts, marriage, and divorce.
  4. Nezikin (Damages), dealing with laws pertaining to financial matters and torts (wrongful acts that injure or harm another).
  5. Kodashim (Holy Things), dealing with temple worship and sacrifices.
  6. Toharot (Purities), dealing with laws pertaining to ritual purity.

Each of the sedarim includes further divisions called masekhtots, or tractates. The total number of masekhtot is sixty-three. These tractates deal with specific issues in Jewish law.

In addition to the Torah and the Talmud, Jews consult two additional sources for insights into the faith. The first is the midrashim, which are essentially stories that expand on incidents in the Hebrew Bible. The other is an immense body of commentary called the responsa. These consist of answers to questions about Jewish law that were written down by respected rabbis (the leader of a Jewish congregation), usually with detailed reference to the Torah. These responsa continue to be written and compiled.

Sacred symbols

The most recognizable symbol of Judaism is the five-pointed Star of David, more accurately referred to as the Shield of David or the Magen David. It appears on Jewish synagogues (houses of worship), on the flag of the nation of Israel, and as the symbol for the Israeli Magen David, the equivalent of the Red Cross. It is thought traditionally to have been the symbol on the shield of the Jewish king David.

The star consists of two interlocking triangles. Many attempts have been made to read some religious significance into the design of the Magen David. Some people have argued, for example, that one of the triangles points up, toward God, and the other points down, toward Earth, suggesting the unity of God and his people. None of these theories, though, can be proved. The Magen David began to appear relatively recently, perhaps in about the fifteenth century, when Jews in some places were required to wear a badge to identify themselves, as they did later in Nazi Germany. In the seventeenth century the Magen David began to appear on synagogues to identify them as houses of worship, much in the same way Christian churches use the cross. It gained popularity in the late nineteenth century as a symbol of the Zionist movement, which consisted of Jews calling for a separate homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people.

Menorah, mezuzah, and tzitzit

A second recognizable symbol of Judaism is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum (a decorative holder of candles). At the time of the Second Temple, the menorah was lit every evening and cleaned out every morning. The menorah was significant because it symbolized the united nation of Israel and, according to the book of Isaiah, Israel's role as "a light unto the nations." During Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, a nine-candle menorah is lit on each of the festival's eight nights (eight of the candles represent the eight nights of the festival, the ninth is used to light the other eight).

A third common symbol of Judaism is the mezuzah, from a Hebrew word that means "doorpost." The mezuzah is a small case, placed on the doorposts of houses. In the book of Deuteronomy, God commands Jews to keep his words constantly, and to do so, "you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." This verse is from a Jewish prayer called the Shema, and the words of the Shema are handwritten on a small scroll contained within the case. The case is affixed at an angle for the simple reason that early rabbis could not decide whether it should be affixed horizontally or vertically, so they compromised. When passing through the door, a person is to touch the mezuzah with the fingertips, then kiss the fingertips.

Moreover, the Torah commands Jews to wear tzitzit, or fringes, on their garments as a way of reminding them of God's commandments. In modern times Jewish men fulfill this commandment by wearing the tallit, a four-cornered shawl with fringes, at morning prayers. Finally, when Jewish men attend temple, they wear one of the most recognizable signs of Judaism, the yarmulke, or skullcap. The yarmulke, which fits over the man's head, has no particular significance in Judaism and is more a custom than a commandment. It reflects the Eastern belief that covering the head is a sign of respect.


Daily prayer is at the heart of Jewish life. Observant Jews attend formal prayer services three times each day. The evening prayer service is called Ma'ariv, the morning service Shacharit, and the afternoon service Minchah. (The Jewish day is considered to run from sundown to sundown. Accordingly, the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat (day of rest), begins at sundown on Friday and continues to sundown on Saturday.) Shabbat commemorates God's "resting" on the seventh day after six days of creation, as recounted in the book of Genesis. The seventh day of creation is regarded as the first celebration of Shabbat, and the obligation to celebrate Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments. All of these daily prayers are gathered in a book called the Siddur.

The oldest Jewish prayer is the Shema, which consists of passages from two books of the Torah, Deuteronomy (chapter 6, verses 4 through 9) and Numbers (chapter 15, verses 37 through 41). Another important prayer, one that is at the center of every Jewish service, is the Shemoneh Esrei, which means "eighteen" and refers to eighteen blessings. (The prayer is also called the Amidah, which means "standing," since the congregation stands when the prayer is recited, or Tefilah, meaning "the Prayer.") The Shemoneh Esrei consists of three groups of blessings. The first group praises God; the second group makes thirteen requests for such blessings as redemption (salvation), forgiveness, and health; and the third group expresses gratitude.

A crucial part of a Jewish prayer service is reading from the Torah, which is divided into sections so that the entire Torah is read in the span of a year. Also read is a passage from the twenty-one books of the Prophets (Nevi'im). These readings are accompanied with great ceremony, as the Torah is carried around the room and then set on a bimah, or podium, where a member of the congregation (group of worshippers) is often given the honor of reciting a blessing over it.

Many non-Jews believe that a Jewish prayer called the Kaddish is recited only by mourners (those grieving for a loss). While there is a variation of the Kaddish that is used for mourning, the Kaddish, which echoes the language of the book of Ezekiel (chapter 38, verse 23) is recited more generally in praise of God. One reason for its significance is that it is written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic (a southwest Asian language related to Hebrew and spoken by Jews during the Babylonian exile). Yet another prayer, which is recited at the end of every prayer service, is the Aleinu, which also praises God. A portion of it, as reproduced on the Jewish Virtual Library, reads:

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified [holy] in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire family of Israel, swiftly and soon. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty.

These are some of the components of daily prayer services, including services conducted on Shabbat. The composition of each service, though, differs, depending on the time of day and, in some instances, the day of the week. For example, evening prayer consists of the Shema, the Shemoneh Esrei, and the Aleinu. The morning service adds other prayers and includes the reading from the Torah. The afternoon service includes a reading from the book of Psalms, the Shemoneh Esrei, and the Aleinu. Further, the Jewish service can differ for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, and it also differs for Jews from the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. While there are differences, however, the core of the service (blessings, praise of God, readings from the Torah) remains the same.

Observances and pilgrimages

Jewish holidays can be confusing for non-Jews (referred to by Jews as Gentiles) for two principal reasons. First, the date of Jewish holidays is determined by the Jewish calendar, so holidays fall on different days each year in the secular (nonreligious) calendar. Second, Jewish holidays can last for different lengths of time, depending on the tradition from which a particular Jew or Jewish family or congregation comes. While the Jewish calendar contains a large number of holidays and observances, the four most prominent are Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah.


The feast of Passover, called Pesach in Hebrew, is perhaps the most important Jewish holiday. Most Jews observe this holiday to some extent, even those who are not otherwise religious. Passover, which begins on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nissan, commemorates the Jewish escape from Egypt after many years of slavery. The name refers to God "passing over" the homes of Jews when the firstborn sons of Egypt were slaughtered, as recorded in Exodus, Chapter 12.

At the center of Passover is the seder, a ceremonial dinner held in the home or the community on the first or first and second evenings of Passover. One of the most recognizable features of Passover and the seder is that Jews avoid any breads or grain products that contain leaven, the substance that makes bread rise. This observance commemorates the fact that when the Jews fled from Egypt, they did not have time to allow their bread to rise. Accordingly, a common food item served during Passover and the seder is matzo, a bread made with just flour and water and no yeast. Under strict Jewish law, during Passover a person may not even own any product with leaven in it, including pet food or even food given to cattle.

According to strict Jewish law, all work, including school, is forbidden on the first two and last two days of Passover (or just the first and last days in some traditions). In the United States most Jews do not adhere strictly to this law. It is customary for most Jews to take some time off from work or school to prepare for seder, a long and complicated process of cooking food and cleaning the home, especially the stove and refrigerator that come into contact with leavened products. The seder dinner itself is a complex ritual consisting of at least fifteen parts, including a variety of blessings. At the center of the seder meal is the maggid, a retelling of the story of Exodus, and the youngest person in the group asking the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah) to prompt the story.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah is typically referred to as the Jewish New Year. It takes place on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri. Tishri is the seventh month of the Jewish calendar (Nissan is the first month), but Tishri marks the "new year" because that is when the number indicating the year is increased by one.

Rosh Hashanah is typically a time for reflection and making resolutions for the new year. Work is not permitted. Observant Jews spend most of the day in a synagogue. Some of the rituals associated with Rosh Hashanah include the blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn trumpet, as a call to repentance; eating apples dipped in honey to signify hopes for a sweet new year; and, or "casting off," when Jews walk to a body of flowing water and empty their pockets into it, suggesting a casting off of sins.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, in combination with Rosh Hoshanah, is part of what are called the High Holy Days of Judaism. Yom Kippur, which falls on the tenth day of Tishri, is generally regarded as the most important day on the Jewish calendar. The name means "Day of Atonement." Yom Kippur is a day set aside for Jews to atone for their sins against God. One who has sinned against another person is to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with that person before Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a day of strict fasting, which lasts for twenty-five hours, beginning an hour before sunset the evening before and continuing until sunset the following day. During this period Jews not only abstain from all food and beverages, even water, but also avoid "anointing" themselves (that is, wearing cosmetics or deodorant), washing and bathing, wearing leather shoes (canvas sneakers are often worn by Orthodox Jews), and having sexual relations. Young children, the elderly, and women who are giving or have just given birth to a child, however, are not permitted to fast so as not to endanger their health. Older children are allowed to break their fast if it becomes necessary.

Observant Jews treat Yom Kippur as Shabbat. No work is done, and much of the day is spent in the synagogue. Services typically last from midmorning to midafternoon, then resume in the evening. The liturgy (religious practice) that is followed is much more complex than that followed on other occasions and requires a special prayer book, the machzor. During the services Jews confess their sins (in the plural, emphasizing communal responsibility for sin) and make vows for the future.


Hanukkah, sometimes spelled Chanukah, is regarded by Gentiles as the Jewish Christmas, for it occurs during the Christmas season in the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas), beginning on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev. While Hanukkah is perhaps the most visible Jewish holiday to Gentiles, who often send Hanukkah cards to Jewish friends in place of Christmas cards, Jews do not regard it as a major holiday.

Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights. Its significance in Jewish history dates back to the rededication of the Temple in the second century bce. Antiochus IV (215–164 bce), who ruled Syria from 175 to 164 bce, oppressed the Jews in Palestine and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee led a revolt, which ultimately proved successful. The Temple was rededicated. At the time of the rededication, however, little oil for the menorah remained in the Temple, just enough for one day. Miraculously, the menorah burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared. Accordingly, Jews celebrate an eight-day festival to commemorate the event.

Hanukkah is a time for gift giving, although typically only children are given gifts. The chief religious observance is the lighting of the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, beginning with one candle on the first night and adding a candle each successive night. Because of the role of oil in the rededication of the Temple, it is traditional for the season to feature fried foods, especially potato pancakes, or latkes. Also common during Hanukkah is playing with a dreidel, a square top. During the reign of Antiochus, reading the Torah was illegal, but gambling games were not. Jews of the time who had gathered to read the Torah often played with the dreidel to hide what they were actually doing.


The holiest place on Earth for Jews is Israel, especially Jerusalem. Much of Jewish law is applicable only to Jews who live in Israel. Any Jew who wants to can automatically gain citizenship in Israel. Many Jews who live elsewhere make it a point to visit Israel at some point in their lives.

Israel is filled with sites that are considered sacred to Jews. One of the most famous sites is in Jerusalem. It is the Western Wall, sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall. This wall was a retaining wall built around the Second Temple and later became part of a wall built around the city of Jerusalem by the Ottoman emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566). Since that time, Jews from around the world have traveled to Jerusalem to spend time at the Western Wall. Many elderly Jews move to Jerusalem so that they can spend their last years near the wall. The wall became known as the Wailing Wall after Westerners observed many Jews in tearful prayer at the wall.

Everyday living

Being Jewish is as much a cultural as a religious matter. In many areas, particularly in larger cities, some Jewish people can be recognized by their dress and head coverings. This is especially true for Orthodox men, who dress in black and keep their heads covered. Throughout the world, however, Jews have been fully integrated into the surrounding culture and are often not recognizable by dress or daily observances. Gentiles are likely to be roughly aware, though, of three prominent elements of Jewish life: kosher food, wedding rituals, and the bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls.


Kosher is the word commonly used to refer to the dietary laws of Judaism, called kashrut. In the larger community kosher is often used to refer generally to Jewish-style cooking. Yet kosher does not refer to a style of cooking but to prohibitions on the types of food items that can be eaten and to ways of storing and preparing food. Some Jews follow these dietary laws strictly while others do not follow them at all. The National Jewish Population Survey estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of American Jews adhere to the dietary laws to some extent, and that about 17 percent adhere to the regulations regarding meat all the time.

Kosher encompasses seven regulations. The first is that only animals with cloven hooves and that chew their cud can be eaten. Commonly, pork is forbidden because pigs do not chew their cud. Second, animals that are eaten must be slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law. This is primarily to ensure that the animal's death is painless and quick and that the blood drains from the animal, which is the third law. The fourth law prohibits eating certain parts of the animal, including certain nerves and fats. The fifth is that meat and dairy products may not be eaten together. The sixth is that utensils that have come into contact with dairy may not be used to cook meat, and vice versa. Finally, grape products, including wine and juices, produced by non-Jews may not be consumed.


Jewish weddings tend to be elaborate affairs. Customarily, the bride and groom avoid any contact with each other for a week before the wedding. On the Shabbat that falls during the week of the wedding, it is customary for the groom to be given the honor of reciting the blessing over the Torah (aliyah). On the day before the wedding, the groom and the bride both fast.

During the wedding ceremony the bride wears a veil. The bride approaches the groom and circles around him. Then, after two blessings are recited over wine, the groom places a ring on the bride's finger and recites the words "Be sanctified to me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." Jewish law does not require a rabbi to be present, but one normally is for civil rather than religious reasons. During the marriage ceremony the couple stand beneath a canopy called a chuppah, which symboli2es their home together. The couple then recites seven blessings (sheva brakhos), which they must do in the presence of ten adult Jewish men. After the couple drinks wine, the man smashes his glass, or sometimes a small symbolic piece of glass, with his right foot, in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. The wedding ceremony is traditionally followed by a feast and a repetition of the seven blessings.

Bar and bat mitzvah

The Aramaic word bar means "son," and in both Hebrew and Aramaic, the word mitzvah means "commandment," and bat means "daughter." The bar mitzvah ceremony for boys at age thirteen and the bat (or sometimes "bas") mit2vah ceremonies for girls at age twelve are regarded as similar to confirmation in the Christian tradition. These ceremonies mark the passage of the child into adulthood. Until these ages, Jewish children are not required to obey Jewish law, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible. Afterwards, however, they acquire all the rights and responsibilities of Jewish adults. For example, a boy who has been "bar-mitzvahed" can be one of the ten adult men required to be present during a Jewish wedding.

In contemporary life the bar and bat mit2vah ceremonies tend to be elaborate. This is a modern innovation and is not required by the Torah. A boy, for example, becomes a "son of the commandment" automatically upon reaching thirteen. It has, however, become customary to mark the event in a number of ways. The young man recites the blessing over the Torah, chants numerous prayers, and makes a speech that traditionally begins with the words "Today I am a man." It has become common for the Temple service to be followed with a celebration and feast that is as elaborate as that found at weddings.

Judaism's influences

Jews have accomplished many great things throughout their history. Jews have won 22 percent of the world's Nobel Pri2es, including forty-five in physics (the study of energy and motion), twenty-eight in chemistry (the science of structures and substances), fifty-two in medicine, twenty-one in economics, and twelve in literature. These are astonishing numbers, considering that Jews represent less than 1 percent of the world's population. In addition, nine Jews have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

One of the most prominent Jews to win a Nobel Prize was physicist and mathematician Albert Einstein (1879–1955). A physicist studies energy and motion. He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect. Einstein went on to write several papers that gained him fame in the scientific community, including his famous one on the theory of relativity. His work laid the foundation for several other fields of inquiry within the physics community. His name, and even his face, are familiar to people around the world.

Chaim Wiezmann (1874–1952) was instrumental in the planning for a Jewish state in Israel. A native of Russia, he studied biochemistry (the study of chemical compounds and processes that occur in organisms) and worked with the Allies (the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and others) during World War I. Weizmann made many connections with British leaders through his work and was influential in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain announced its support for a Jewish state in Palestine. Additionally, the British appointed him to advise on the formation of such a state. During World War II, when Jews were being targeted for extermination by Na2i Germany, Weizmann tried to prevent the restriction of Jewish immigration into Palestine, though he was unsuccessful. After the war he was involved with partition plan presented before the United Nations, which established boundaries for the proposed Jewish state in Palestine. The state of Israel was declared in 1947, and Weizmann served as its first president, a position he held until his death.


One of the world's most identifiable and influential literary works is Jewish in origin. The Bible, which contains both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian New Testament, has been translated into more than two thousand languages and dialects. A survey of Bible sales up to 1992 revealed that an estimated six billion copies of the book have been sold, making it one of the bestselling books of all time. The stories of the Tanakh, such as that of Creation, the Flood, and the Exodus from Egypt led by Moses, are familiar to millions of people around the world, many of whom are not Jewish. These stories have been reproduced in television and in movies, including Moses (1975) starring Burt Lancaster (1913–1994), The Ten Commandments (1956) with Charlton Heston (1924–) and Yul Brynner (1920–1985), and Samson and Delilah (1956), produced by Cecile B. DeMille (1881–1959).

Scenes from the stories told in the Tanakh have also been portrayed in paintings throughout time, including Johann Liss's well-known Judith in the Tent of Holofernes (painted c. 1622). This painting depicts a scene from the Book of Judith, in which Judith, after having suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, sneaks into the camp of Assyrian general Holofernes. She offers assistance with the general's sei2e of the city of Bethulia. After having gained his trust, she comes upon him while he is drunk and cuts off his head.

The "Prayer of Judith" from the Book of Judith (chapter 9, verses 7 through 10) relays her words to God before she set out for the Assyrian camp:

Here now are the Assyrians, a greatly increased force, priding themselves in their horses and riders, boasting in the strength of their foot soldiers, and trusting in shield and spear, in bow and sling. They do not know that you are the Lord who crushes wars; the Lord is your name. Break their strength by your might, and bring down their power in your anger; for they intend to defile [corrupt] your sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle [residence] where your glorious name resides, and to break off the horns of your altar with the sword. Look at their pride, and send your wrath [anger] upon their heads. Give to me, a widow, the strong hand to do what I plan. By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.

Some universities offer courses in the literature of the Bible. In these courses, students from a variety of faiths read and analyze the stories of the Bible, illustrating that the book's appeal goes beyond the purely religious.

The Arts

American composer George Gershwin (1898–1937) had a significant influence on the world of music. Along with his brother Ira, Gershwin wrote several musicals that became true classics. He is, however, probably best known for his work Rhapsody in Blue, which was the first time that elements of jazz, blues, and classical music were woven together. Gershwin was posthumously (after death) awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his many accomplishments in music.

Painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985) is considered one of the most notable painters of the twentieth century. He was born to a Jewish family in Russia and raised in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism. Chagall's paintings hang in museums around the world, particularly in the museum named after him, the Musee Chagall, in Nice, France. His style incorporates aspects of several artistic styles, such as Cubism (portraying images as fragmented) and Surrealism (a style that is dreamlike or fantastic), and uses vibrant colors. Among his paintings is the well-known I and the Village, which shows a cubist influence in the way parts of the painting appear to fracture like stained glass. He also worked in sculpture, ceramics, and stained glass. Among his stained glass creations is The Twelve Tribes of Israel, which appears in the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

The long course of Jewish history has resulted in numerous historical contributions from Jews, as well. The fact that being Jewish also has social and cultural aspects attached to it means that Jewish influences can be found in virtually all areas of life. Sikhs, for instance, follow Jewish kosher laws for food. The religion of Sikhism was founded in the Punjab region of India. This ancient religion will likely remain an influential force in the twenty-first century.

For More Information


De Lange, Nicholas. An Introduction to Judaism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals. Rev. ed. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2000.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Eiteracy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. New York, NY: William Morrow, 1991.


"Judaism." About.com. http://judaism.about.com/ (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Judaism." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. http://www.religioustolerance.org/judaism.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Religion and Ethics: Judaism." British Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/ (accessed on June 5, 2006).


views updated May 29 2018


Rabbinic Judaism

Heterodoxy and sectarianism

Modern Judaism


The word “Jew” can refer to a member of either of two kinds of collectivities. First, it is sometimes used to refer to any person of Jewish parentage, that is, anyone born of people who are identified as descendants of the group described in Biblical and post-Biblical sources; this criterion of descent does not necessarily entail a particular common attitude on the part of those to whom it applies. The word is also applied to an adherent to a body of beliefs —Judaism—who performs the religious practice required by it.

Absolute monotheism is the main tenet of Judaism. Religious practice consists primarily in abiding by the body of prescriptions and prohibitions laid down by the Supreme Being, the details of which are to be found in the traditional literature as it is interpreted by the duly authorized persons, the rabbis. In non-Orthodox practices of Judaism the adherence to details of this ritual is selective.

The Jews formed a definite society in the Palestine of the Near East sometime between the years 1200 and 600 B.C. The Jewish people, or at least the prophets and their devotees, manifested a sense of religious consciousness which set the Jews apart from other nations and attributed to them a special religious mission. This self-image involved a belief in a covenant which, once contracted between God and the ancestors of the existing Jewish society, rendered the observance of the divine revelation incumbent on the whole society. The prophetically foretold events of the sixth century, such as the deportation of the Jews to Babylonia and their subsequent restoration to Palestine by the Persians, strengthened the belief that the Jewish nation was under the special care of divine providence and led to ideas of the future redemption of the nation.

During the second commonwealth, which followed the restoration to Palestine and which lasted until A.D. 70, Jews came into political and cultural contact with the West. During this period Jewish communities were also established outside Palestine, in Babylonia and Egypt. These encounters with other cultures sharpened the Jews’ feelings of ethnic and cultural distinctiveness and made their sense of religious mission more acute. Both in Palestine and abroad, Jewish society was, in principle, based on traditions contained in the law and prophetic teachings, which were then being collected and canonized. These were supplemented by and adapted to current conditions by means of the oral law, a large and somewhat fluid body of interpretations and independent teachings and prescriptions, which claimed to be coeval with the written law itself and to have been handed down by word of mouth through the ages. The oral law did not remain uncontested and its fluid character invited widespread variations; alongside the mainstream of Judaism there appeared different denominations and sects, such as the Samaritans, Sadducees, Essenes, and Kumerans (perhaps identical with the Essenes). With the exception of the Samaritans, however, these sects were not separated from the political framework of the nation.

After the Jews ceased to be a self-governing society, they continued to believe that the old covenant remained in force and continued to maintain and develop the national religious tradition which subsequently served as the framework of existence for all Jewish communities during the Middle Ages.

The loss of political autonomy was accompanied by the cessation of the internal sectarianism which had been characteristic of the second commonwealth. Pharisaism, the major sect of that period, now achieved complete ascendancy and provided the set of beliefs and practices which came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism and which became the belief system of all Jewry. Only the Karaites (a sect in Babylonia which rejected, in principle, the use of the oral law in the interpretation of the Bible) challenged the authority of Rabbinic Judaism during the early Middle Ages. Otherwise, throughout this period what variations there were, were those of interpretation and custom as, for example, the Sephardic (Spanish) as against the Ashkenazi (German) traditions in Europe or various local traditions in the Near East, such as the Yemenite. Only in the beginning of modern times—in the late seventeenth century—was the consensus of religious belief within the Jewish people disrupted, first by the sudden appearance of antinomian and mystical sects and then by the gradual spread of rationalism.

The number of Jews during different historical periods is roughly estimated as follows: for Biblical times 2 million; at the end of the second common-wealth 5 to 8 million (accounting for 10 to 12 per cent of the population of the Roman Empire); during the Middle Ages 2.5 million, remaining at that level until the second half of the eighteenth century; from the end of the nineteenth century it remained at 15 million, until the Nazi holocaust, when a loss of 5 to 6 million was sustained. The present estimate is 12 million, of whom 5.5 million live in the United States, 1.5 million in Israel, some 3 million in Russia and other communist countries, 1 million in western Europe, and 1 million elsewhere.

Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism is historically the most wide-spread and most representative form of Judaism. It accepts the canonized books of the Hebrew Bible as divine revelation and accords them uncontested authority. The same holds true of the substance of the oral tradition. Both written and oral law, how-ever, are not simple sources to be directly consulted by the believer for guidance. Their interpretation lies in the hands of experts, that is, the sages or rabbis who are, in a more or less formal fashion, authorized by their predecessors. This uninterrupted transmission of oral law from teacher to student since the time of Moses is one of the cardinal tenets of the belief system of Rabbinic Judaism.

The rules and content of interpretation are them-selves included in the tradition and are relatively stringent when they touch upon practical affairs, such as moral, ritual, or civic matters (halachah). In the area of belief and dogma, however, the body of teaching (agadah) is less strictly defined in both method and in content. Both types of teachings were incorporated into the basic texts of Rabbinic Judaism—the Mishnah and the Gemara, which together constitute the Talmud (both the Palestinian version, edited in the third century, and Babylonian, edited in the fifth). The Mishnah is a terse summary, in Hebrew, of the full corpus of Jewish law as it had crystallized by the second century of the Christian era. The Gemara is a quasi-stenographic report, in Aramaic, of the discussions and lengthy elaborations of the Mishnah as they occurred in the Palestinian and Babylonian academies in the subsequent centuries. The text is further interspersed with lengthy discussions of formulated exegesis and folklore. The whole body of religious teachings is commonly designated by the name torah, a term which strictly speaking refers only to the first five books of the Old Testament, that is, the Pentateuch.

The authoritative Mishnah and Gemara were subjected to reinterpretation, partly as a consequence of the inherent dialectic of textual interpretation and partly as an outgrowth of religious–judicial decisions on new and problematic realities. From commentaries, novellae, and responsa, layer after layer was added to the law, and as a consequence the halachah was repeatedly codified. Correspondingly, religious thinkers brought its theoretical teachings into alignment with various contemporary philosophical systems. Both intellectual activities—juridical and philosophical—were dependent on interpretation of given sacred texts by qualified authorities and remained scholastic in nature.

Alongside these two branches of religious learning there developed since Talmudic times, especially during the Middle Ages, the esoteric lore of the mystics known as the cabala. Starting with gnostic-like ideas, it developed emanative theories of the godhead and reinterpreted much of the tradition in this light. The main book of the cabala is the pseudographic Zohar, written in Aramaic in thirteenth-century Spain and attributed to one of the Talmudic sages of the second century. Al-though opposed by some rationalists ever since and looked upon with suspicion by some hala-chists, it nevertheless found widespread acceptance, especially since the late Middle Ages, when it strongly influenced both religious thinking and practice.

The natural universe

Judaism did not define its own beliefs dogmatically. The Jewish outlook on the nature of the universe, man, and the like must be derived from an analysis of sources rather than by citation of authoritative statements.

For the Jew, the universe is the creation of God and it runs its course according to laws implanted in it by the Creator. Interference by man with the course of natural events by use of magic is perhaps possible but is outlawed by religious proscription. The Creator himself is capable of changing the course of nature, and it is assumed that such changes did indeed occur in the remote past— Biblical miracles are in principle taken literally. New interventions by the Creator, while possible, are not expected. Nature is therefore taken, for all intents and purposes, as a stable and reliable entity. This stability does not exclude, however, the control of God over the natural processes which determine human life. The welfare of man on earth is dependent on his moral and religious behavior. Longevity, the blessing of children, prosperity, and health are thought to be dependent upon one’s merit. This presupposes the divine direction of events. The obvious logical and experimental difficulties of this position are noted and have been discussed in theological and philosophical terms. In effect, however, neither the constancy of nature nor the providence of God is repudiated.

This conception of the relationship between nature, God, and man leaves man sufficient scope to work out his own destiny. Man is regarded as free to choose the morally good and religiously desirable. Rabbinic Judaism is aware of the evil impulse in man both as an impediment to the performance of good and as a constant source of temptation. This, however, is capable of being overcome by human will, and divine support is vouchsafed to aid in the struggle. The concept of original sin is not unknown but is peripheral and does not infringe upon the capacity of man to determine his own fate both in this world and in the world to come.

The attitude of Rabbinic Judaism to the world does not preclude quietism, but it is more conducive to activity. Man’s moral responsibility requires him to provide for his own needs and for the needs of those who are dependent on him.

The conception of God as transcendent does not preclude contact with him. Revelation and prophecy, like miracles, however, have been relegated by Judaism to remote times, and they are viewed as having ended with the close of the Biblical era. Although the claims of individuals throughout later periods to have had visions or other supernatural contacts with another world were not discounted, they never received recognition as authoritative guides to religious conduct. Such guidance is to be derived exclusively from the accepted body of revealed law through the medium of rational interpretation.

The conduct of life

Religious precepts in Judaism are traditionally divided into prohibitions and positive commandments. The first represents a system of religious taboos or restrictions which lend to Jewish life the air of restraint but not of outright ascetic character. They limit gratification but do not seek to suppress it. Dietary laws prescribe the exclusion of some (“unclean”) animals from the Jewish menu and dictate the manner of preparation of certain foods—the slaughtering and salting of meat and the separation of milk and meat products, for example. Within these limits the partaking of food is limited only by the general injunction against gluttony. As against the days of fast, there are festivals on which the enjoyment of a meal is a religious duty. All sexual or even erotic contact outside marriage is proscribed, and marriage is prescribed, preferably at an early age. Within marriage, sexual intercourse is limited by an additional period of purification after the cessation of menstruation. Yet sexual intercourse is not limited to the purpose of propagation but includes the mutual satisfaction of man and woman.

The execution of religious rites is part of the fulfillment of the positive commandments. Prayer, preferably together with the community, must be recited three times a day. The Pentateuch is read during the Sabbath and festival services, and on festivals special rites are also performed. On the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth), for example, originally a harvest festival, the worshiper is required to hold four kinds of plants during the services. On the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) the ram’s horn (shofar) is sounded. The special rites of Passover, such as the partaking of unleavened bread (matzah) and the narration of the exodus from Egypt, take place within the family. Special significance is attributed to the rite of circumcision, since it initiates the eight-day-old male child into the covenant of Israel. Although devoid of any special rite, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) with its full-day fast and prayers occupies a special place in the Jewish religious calendar, for it is dedicated to repentance which, if genuine, is, according to the rabbinic outlook, capable of atoning for sins. The periodic unity of the community in prayer and ritual has been a major factor in social cohesion, while the family is similarly strengthened by being the locus of the religious performance.

Positive as well as negative commandments are obligatory on males above the age of 13 and females above the age of 12. Women are exempted from some of the positive commandments, as they are also excluded from the study of the law beyond an acquaintance with the precepts necessary for religious practice. Women are not participants in the religious community, nor do they take active part in the communal rites, although they may attend such services, seated in sections apart from the men. They may, however, acquire religious merit by fulfilling the special duties connected with the Jewish home and by aiding their husbands and sons in the fulfillment of religious obligations, especially the study of the law.

The fulfillment of religious precepts, both positive and negative, is the basic means of religious justification (in the Weberian sense) in Rabbinic Judaism. The degree of piety is established by the conscientiousness and exactitude of religious observance—the time and effort lavished upon an observance to give it an aesthetic character above and beyond its technical requirements and the intensity and devotion with which the commandment is actually performed.

In addition to being attached to religious duties in the strict sense of the word, religious merit is attributed to communal good works. Communal works are highly esteemed, as is every aid to those in need, such as extending hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, and, above all, attending the dying and eulogizing and burying the dead. Correct behavior in business relations and abstention from deceptive speech and practices are also religiously valued. In places where the letter of the law conflicts with equity, the individual is admonished to forgo his legal rights. Thus moral behavior also becomes a source of religious justification.

Rabbinical learning and practice

Besides emphasizing the practical need for knowledge of the law (Torah) as a guide to religious observance and communal practice, Rabbinic Judaism regards the study of the law as an end in itself and one of the most basic of religious duties. Therefore, it advocates the dedication of one’s time to the study of the Torah and exclusive devotion to it, even at the cost of reducing all other activities to a bare minimum.

Since early Pharisaic times there developed an elite which tried to live up to these demands. This was first achieved by the leading of an austere and even ascetic life in a society of peasants or artisans where work could be limited to provide for the necessities of life. In Mishnaic and Talmudic times, both direct and indirect support were provided by the community to members of the learned elite. They were often exempted from taxation and given certain minor business concessions: where they were concentrated in academies, as in Babylonia during Talmudic times, for example, these institutions were supported by voluntary contributions, and in the early Middle Ages a tax was levied on the Jews within their districts. Generally, despite variations arising from the different environments in which they existed, all Jewish communities followed these patterns. In the earliest stages of a Jewish settlement, men of learning were not to be found, but after having consolidated itself economically, a particular community usually attracted scholars from other, longer-established Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

The status of the elite varied according to prevailing economic conditions. In Yemen, where Jews remained an artisan class, no systematically supported elite developed and learning was cultivated as a part-time occupation of the intellectually oriented. In France and Germany, where the Jews became money lenders, their economic activity left much time free for independent study by “laymen,” alongside that taking place in the communally supported institutions devoted exclusively to the study of the texts and the training of young persons in their interpretation. In Muslim and Christian Spain the academies were supported by rich courtiers. In addition to the support of the very rich, the academies of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could rely on the support of the less wealthy but still prosperous middle class. The intellectual elite became dependent upon the court Jews (the permanent financial agents of the abso-lute rulers of German principalities), who emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In all periods there were instances of wealthy families supporting a scholar among their own kin and sometimes even sustaining a whole academy which had grown up around him.

The door to the intellectual elite was, both in principle and in the final analysis, open to all, though naturally the time required to master the complex data made it easier for the well-born and well-to-do to attain the necessary intellectual level. In several instances this conjunction of advantages, circumstances, and hereditary talent resulted in learned family dynasties.

The support of those who devoted themselves to study was regarded as one of the highest religious virtues. The contributor was viewed as participating vicariously in the activity of the learned. Even after the maintenance of scholars had become common, exceptional individuals still adhered to the old ideal and refused to accept any remuneration for their studies. Indeed, one of the greatest authorities of medieval Jewry, Maimonides (1135–1204), lodged a formal protest against the institution of private or communal support of the learned. For the average scholar, however, neither such protests nor his own qualms were of much avail, as both the changed economic conditions and the ever-increasing body of material to be mastered made full-time study imperative and necessitated what may be called a division of labor between the economically active and the learned.

The disapprobation which had adhered to the acceptance of payment by scholars had been attached also to the acceptance of payment for any services rendered in the exercise of religious authority. It was originally assumed that teaching, preaching, serving as a judge, or functioning in any other religious capacity was to be done gratuitously. Later, payment for such services was legalized and morally defended. When such functions were concentrated in the hands of one person, spontaneously by virtue of his intellectual and moral pre-eminence or formally by election by the community, the communal rabbinate arose. This occurred noticeably in Christian Spain in the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries and in Germany and Poland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the course of time a fixed salary was guaranteed in addition to various emoluments.

Any action of a scholar or rabbi in matters of ritual or in the performance of marriage or divorce drew its authority from his halachic expertise. If an error could be shown, the action could be invalidated. As no formal hierarchy existed, invalidation could be achieved only by appeal to some informally acknowledged higher rabbinic authority or by bringing the matter before the assembled opinion of the learned. On all levels, once decisions were made, discussions were conducted upon formal legal categories. Although theoretically the validity of any act depended solely upon its technical agreement with an external frame of reference (halachah), in practice it drew much of its authority from the fact that it came from one who was regarded as being charismatic in consequence of his knowledge of and sustained contact with divine law and lore.

Relations with other religions

Judaism makes no claim to universal allegiance and demands it only from those born of a Jewish mother. It holds the door open, however, to those who wish to join it out of conviction. The ritual of conversion requires circumcision and immersion for the male and the latter for the female. In pre-Christian times Jewish proselytes were common and in some places perhaps converted en masse. The attitude toward converts is somewhat ambivalent, but the possibility of their joining the faith has never been seriously contested. Proselytes from among the Christians were accepted at times even in Christian countries where such conversion was forbidden by the political authorities. Jewish activity for gaining converts was perhaps vigorous at times, but at no time did Judaism achieve the dimensions of a missionary religion.

The claim of religious superiority has traditionally been maintained toward Christianity, which was first regarded by Judaism as simply another form of idolatry. Jews who became Christians fell under the category of heretics (min) or renegades (mumar). Insofar as Christianity claimed to be the true party to the Abrahamic or Sinaitic covenant, it was viewed as a usurper. In business and social affairs the Jews in Christian countries sought viable and amicable relationships with the population, and many restrictions originally instituted with respect to paganism were declared inoperable in relation to Christianity. Gradually this also led to a lenient attitude toward Christianity itself. Maimonides, for example, declared that the spread of Christianity paved the way for the ultimate universal acceptance of the true faith. One of his followers in the fourteenth century exonerated Christianity from any charge of paganism. This tolerant attitude has gained more and more acceptance since the sixteenth century. Islam, being dogmatically unequivocal as to its monotheism, has been regarded as less contradictory than Christianity to Judaism. Toward the other world religions Rabbinic Judaism has had no occasion to take a stand.

Society and polity

Rabbinic Judaism takes the division of society between rich and poor for granted. Poverty may be viewed as a divine punishment for one’s sins, as a testing of the righteous by God, or simply as a result of misfortune; but at any rate poverty is not a state in which one ought to remain intentionally. A premium is placed upon economic independence, not so much as an indication of divine grace but rather as the circumstance in which man is most free to serve God. Fundamentally Judaism is indifferent to the manner of self-support. Indirectly, however, through the high evaluation of study, the choice of profession has historically been religiously influenced. Occupations which left time free for study were preferred. This led in earlier societies to the preference of artisanship over agriculture and in later times to trade over manual labor. A religious impetus for acquiring wealth derived from the fact that wealth could be used for performing good deeds, especially the support of scholars. Striving for wealth could have derived some of its motivation from religious sources, but economic activity could not become a calling, as it was in certain Protestant sects. Economic success could only be a contributory factor to religious justification but not the basis of it.

It is more difficult to elicit the thoughts of Rabbinic Judaism in the field of politics. The necessity of government in general is acknowledged in the maxim “Were it not for fear of the government a man would devour his neighbor alive.” But the manner of establishing the government is not set forth. Talmudic literature reflects the conception of a hereditary kingdom guided by the prescriptions of the law and limited somewhat by the High Court (Sanhedrin). Since the Jews did not long retain political independence and the foreign body politic within which the Jews existed had to be accepted, there was no incentive for the further development of political thought. Jewish communities adapted themselves to the prevailing political conditions. The political authority of the Christian prince was at no time challenged; it was acknowledged from the outset. In practical matters a similar attitude was adopted toward Islam. Concern for political matters was confined to communal affairs, which were conducted by the acknowledged elders or elected officials under general rabbinic supervision.

Heterodoxy and sectarianism

The Karaites

The religious unity of the Jews lasted from the first to the seventeenth century with only one major deviating sect—the Karaites. This sect arose in the seventh century in Babylonia, under Arab rule and probably under Arab influence. Its members rejected the authority of the oral law and based their beliefs upon the direct interpretation of the Scriptures. The sect spread to Palestine, Egypt, and other Mediterranean countries with some outposts in the Crimea, Poland, and Lithuania. Although strongly opposed by the rabbinates, the Karaites at no time rejected the basic conception of Judaism as an institutionalized revealed religion whose observance was incumbent upon all members of the Jewish people, and they rejected the rival religions of Christianity and Islam. The links between the two communities were not severed, and intermarriage was at times countenanced and even legalized. In modern times the sense of common nationality drew the two groups together, although in Israel the Karaites view themselves, and are viewed, as a sect apart.

Sabbatai Zevi

Jewish tradition had foreseen a radical change in the status of religious law in the Messianic era. According to the widely held view, with the appearance of the Messiah the religious commandments would no longer be held binding. Throughout the Middle Ages, Messianic expectations evoked Messianic pretenders, but as they were quickly disproved, the possible implications for religious practice were not realized. Different, however, was Sabbatai Zevi, who came from Smyrna, Turkey, and who from 1665 to 1666 succeeded in keeping all Jewry in suspenseful waiting for the final call. He introduced new religious rites and partook in forbidden food in order to demonstrate by deed the end of the old era and the commencement of the new. When called to account by the Turkish authorities for causing mass upheavals, Sabbatai Zevi, to save his life, converted to Islam. A number of his followers accepted this as a necessary stage in the process of redemption, and in the course of theological justification for the converted Messiah, heretical theologies arose which were linked with the prevailing dualistic doctrines of the cabala. These gave rise to a number of sects, some of which were syncretisms of Judaism and Islam and lived on the margin of Jewish society, while others, although remaining within the confines of the Jewish community, were of a heretical and even antinomian or nihilistic character. These groups led a more or less clandestine existence among Jews in Turkey, Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia, thus disrupting the age-old religious unity of the Jewish people.


Sabbataianism at the very least served as a catalyst in engendering the great mystical movement of Hasidism, which arose in Poland in the middle of the eighteenth century. Originating in the small rural communities of Podolia, this movement centered on popular religious leaders of lower rank, wandering preachers, popular healers, and the like. Its first leader, Israel Ba’al Shem-Tov (who died in 1760) possessed an extraordinary gift for communicating his mystical experiences to his followers. During his lifetime the movement was still a local one, but in the following decades, under his disciples, it spread throughout eastern Europe and was checked only where it encountered savage opposition, as in Lithuania, for example. Hasidism did not challenge the validity of religious law, and except for some minor changes in liturgy and ritual, the accepted body of law and custom was left intact. What Hasidism did introduce was a new overriding religious value —that of communion with God, which was to be achieved either through enthusiasm or contemplation. The Hasidic leader was expected to have attained this “union” and to communicate it to his followers. Thus, a new type of religious leader arose whose legitimation did not stem primarily from his knowledge of the law but from his charismatic qualities. A new “community” was thus formed upon the basis of personal contact and was not bound by traditional territorial divisions. Those who could settle around the leader did so, while those who could not returned regularly to participate in the religious experiences of the community. In the course of time the leader was viewed not only as the guarantor of religious experience but also as a figure whose intervention was essential for the material well-being of the individual. The followers who gathered around provided for his support and that of his household, which often took on the dimensions of a court. And as in courts, the succession tended to become hereditary. The new religious leadership did not supplant the traditional rabbinical type, but it did encroach upon its authority.

Hasidism also had a deep impact upon many nonreligious aspects of life. It lessened the ascetic tendencies in Jewish living and encouraged emotional self-expression in the form of storytelling and song. It also loosened religious and communal disciplines and sanctioned the quiescent attitude toward the demands of practical life. It was a religious movement, but its total impact was to produce a new Jewish mentality.

Modern Judaism

While Hasidism was altering Jewish society in eastern Europe from within, Jewry in western Europe was being transformed by forces from without. The theory and practice of separateness, which had been the way of Jewish life, was becoming progressively less tenable. Intellectual, social, and political forces were, in the course of a century, from 1750 to 1850, transforming Europe from a semifeudal society into a society of classes having a relatively high mobility. The status of Jewry within this new framework had to be re-defined, and internally the old tradition had to be adapted to the new conditions.

The idea of Jewish political and social emancipation was originally conceived by John Toland in England in 1714, spelled out in detail in 1781–1783 in Germany by Ch. W. Dohm, and first implemented during the French Revolution. In the United States, Jewish equality was implied in the constitution. In the following decades the idea of emancipation spread to all countries of western Europe, and by 1870, after much struggle and some reverses, political emancipation was an accomplished fact.

Alongside these social and political changes, intellectual contact with European thought took place. In the last third of the eighteenth century, the first Jewish secular intellectuals appeared, headed by Moses Mendelssohn. They were deeply influenced by the doctrines of the Enlightenment and later by other European intellectual currents.

Judaism was confronted by rationalism and later by historical criticism. These, together with the social and political adjustments, led to a dis-integration of the old conceptual as well as concrete framework of Jewish existence. In the ensuing chaos, many intellectuals and members of the upper class abandoned Judaism and perfunctorily embraced Christianity. Later, as the intellectual turmoil subsided, the main trends of modern Judaism emerged—Reform, Orthodox, and what came to be known as Conservative.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism started in Germany in the second decade of the nineteenth century, found followers in other European countries, such as England, Holland, and Hungary, and spread widely in the United States, where it assumed its most radical and thoroughgoing form. It rejected ritual, especially the restricting observances, and retained only ceremonies with obvious symbolic meanings. Liturgy was purged of elements of an archaic and nationalistic character, such as the prayer for the institution of sacrifices and the ultimate return of the Jews to their home-land. Instead, Messianism was interpreted as a belief in human progress. Of the prayers retained, some were translated into the vernacular, and the service was adapted to modern taste. As to doctrine, Reform Judaism emphasizes the ethical aspects of religion and advocates an enlightened but absolute monotheism, stressing in this way its difference from Christianity. Relinquishing tradition in principle, the Reform trend did not substitute any other source of authority for guidance in religious theory or practice. For this reason there is no unanimity among Reform Jews on just how much of the tradition is to be retained. The Reform rabbi is not expected to lay down the law for the community but rather to serve as preacher whose task is to officiate at ceremonies and guide the congregation to religious contemplation and elevation.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, retained the authority of halachah and claimed allegiance to all details of Jewish observance and rites. In theory at least, an Orthodox rabbi is prepared to answer all questions concerning the permissible and the forbidden arising out of modern conditions while adhering to the traditional modes of halachic interpretation. In dogma, no concessions are made either to criticism of the verbatim revelation of the Pentateuch or to criticism of the substantive reliability of the oral tradition. Orthodoxy therefore remains antagonistic toward critical examination of the literary sources of religion. This did not prevent one German group under the guidance of S. R. Hirsch, regarded as the founder of modern Orthodoxy, from advocating the acquisition of and participation in secular culture. The old Talmudic institutions having disappeared, Hirsch attempted to secure the loyalty of the youth not by the study of the law’s minutiae but through an understanding of and identification with the principles of Jewish doctrine and observance.

Eastern Europe in the early nineteenth century witnessed a renaissance of Talmudic academies, but as midcentury drew near, the impact of rationalism was being felt. To counterbalance the increasingly secular and assimilationist environment, an ethical–religious movement (Mussar), founded by Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, arose, which sought to assure identification with Jewish values and commandments through continuous introspection. A third trend in Orthodoxy was noticeable in Hungary, where the clash with the Reform led the Orthodox leadership to advocate a radical seclusion from modern life and a proscription of any secular study. Hasidism, despite serious inroads of secularism, maintained its communal cohesion. All these ideologies are still operative in our day, especially in the United States, England, and modern Israel.

Conservative Judaism

The greater part of Jewry, while not accepting tradition as absolutely valid, adheres nevertheless to some parts of it be-cause of religious sentiments or need for identification. This attitude assumed the nature of a principle for some thinkers and historians of the Breslau school in Germany and for the Conservative movement in the United States. Having perceived in the past a process of development in religion, they accept this notion as a legitimate course to be pursued in the present. However, they expect the process to be organic and continuous and reject outright changes based on rationalistic considerations. Conservatism neither accepts halachah in the strict sense of the word nor repudiates it. Accordingly it has made some adaptations in religious services and practice but more on an ad hoc basis than on any clear-cut principle.

These three main trends in modern Judaism have assumed the character of denominations. They are centered on synagogues, and these are connected by nation-wide and even world-wide organizations. They also maintain seminars for the training of teachers and rabbis. In Continental Europe in the nineteenth century such organizations were necessary, as one’s formal affiliation with the Jewish community was prescribed by the secular state. However, in English-speaking countries, in France since 1905, and in Germany since the end of World War I, such associations have been on a voluntary basis.

Since then, the usual manner of identification with Judaism has been through affiliation with one of the religious organizations or by observance of some religious practice. A third way, though less common, is the personal acceptance of a certain religious outlook which is defined as Jewish. Such a school of thought is represented by Martin Buber, who interpreted prophetic Judaism and especially Hasidism in the light of an existentialist philosophy. Buber was not committed to any observance nor was he associated with any synagogue, but he was satisfied to be affiliated on the basis of his theoretical exposition of the Jewish religion. Buber has had a marked influence among affiliated and nonaffiliated Jews alike. [See the biography of Buber.]

Secular Judaism

It is paradoxical but historically understandable that there evolved ways of Jewish identification which are religiously indifferent or even antireligious. This development originated in eastern Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century where, in spite of the disintegration of the traditional religious framework, Jewry remained a distinct ethnic group, linguistically and socially set apart from the populace. In this environment Yiddish and Hebrew literature of a secular nature prepared the ground for national social movements with distinctly Jewish objectives—such as Zionism and the socialist movement of the Bund. These movements drew their objectives from the persecutions in eastern Europe and the rise of anti-Semitism in western Europe. However, large segments within secular Judaism based their ideologies upon a reinterpretation of Jewish history: behind the religious unfolding of Judaism through the ages there always had been an ethical or social doctrine which, by the progress of human thought, then came to the fore-front. The ethical interpretation was represented by Achad Haam (pseudonym of Asher Ginzberg) and the social one by Ber-Borochoff, both leading figures of modern nationalistic movements. Achad Haam, especially, believed in the revitalization of ancient Judaism through the establishment of a Jewish state and society which, although secular, would have a historical continuity with traditional Judaism because of its ethnic identity with it. A secular interpretation of Judaism is the premise of the contemporary national culture of Israel.

In other countries, too, trends combining ethnic and cultural aspirations together with some religious content could be discerned. Most conspicuous perhaps is the reconstructionist movement of Mordecai M. Kaplan in the United States, which prefers to define Judaism in terms of civilization rather than in terms of religious dogma or law.

Not all those who are considered by themselves or by others as Jews would subscribe to any of the above-mentioned outlooks, whether religious or secular. There are Jews who are indifferent to any Jewish content yet still have strong feelings of group identity, expressed in such ways as contributing to Jewish causes. Others disavow Judaism entirely, and some even conceal their origins. Irrespective of how assimilated a Jew may be, he is nevertheless commonly regarded by Jews and gentiles alike as a Jew until he joins a non-Jewish church, a fact which reflects the original ethnic-religious connotation of the term. Converts to Judaism, being few in number, are easily absorbed by the community.

The Jewish community

Any assessment of the numerical division of Jewry among the abovementioned groups remains conjectural. The three religious movements in the United States, for example, claim to include some 60 per cent of the 5½ million American Jews. Each group claims about 1 million members. While affiliation with the Reform movement clearly indicates the renunciation of strict religious observance, affiliation with Orthodoxy and Conservatism does not indicate the degree of adherence to religious practice. It is certain that the number of those who strictly abide by the law comes nowhere near that of the formally affiliated. In Great Britain, with the exception of some ultra-Orthodox and a few Reform congregations, all the synagogues are officially connected with the Orthodox chief rabbinate, but no more than 5 per cent of the half million British Jews could possibly be viewed as strictly observant. In France, out of a slightly smaller population, even fewer Jews are observant. Other countries conform to a similar pattern. In eastern European countries, especially in Russia, religious activity is barely tolerated, and Jewish observance and even circumcision is practiced by only a small fraction of the 3 million Jews.

Israel is a case apart. If judged by the number of those voting for religious political parties, Orthodox Jewry would total 15 per cent of the population; if judged by those sending their children to religious schools, they would total 37 per cent. Both figures are correct, as they reflect various aspects of religious attachments. Reform Judaism and Conservatism for all practical purposes are not represented institutionally. Nonetheless, gradations of observance are to be found among the populace. The nation is also divided on the issue of church and state. Since the time of the British mandate no secular marriage or divorce exists, and religious communities (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) are subject to their respective religious courts. This is resented by the antireligious segments of the population and criticized by some religious elements as well. The tension is heightened by the generous leavening provided by the extremely orthodox (some of whom go so far as to deny the authority of the state) and militantly antireligious minorities in Israel.

Contemporary relevance of religion

Having found that Jewry in modern times adopts a selective attitude toward its traditional religion, we may ask whether this religion still retains some influence. Allowing for variations according to time and place, Jewry in modern society presents a certain sociological profile which may roughly be described as follows: It is a social unit with a clear sense of group identity and a strong leaning toward endogamy, family cohesion, and group solidarity. Concentrated largely in certain sectors of the economy, it constitutes a comparatively striving group within it. Socially it tends to move within its own circles, culturally to have a comparatively high level of education, and politically to reveal a leaning toward the more liberal trends and parties of its country.

All these traits can be understood in light of past history and the present situation as a consequence of the memory of former persecutions and as a reaction to contemporary economic and social prejudice. Yet it is still possible that religion has its share in maintaining some of these group characteristics. Two forces are at work, and we must clearly distinguish between the restrictive tendencies of specific religious requirements and the general Weltanschauung of Judaism.

Religious restrictions, such as Sabbath observance, dietary laws, and, among some groups, opposition to secular knowledge, confine their followers in the choice of occupation, in the extent of social intercourse with the environment, and in the identification with the surrounding culture. They act directly upon the believer and are operative only insofar as one submits to them; thus, their impact is most noticeable among the Orthodox and becomes progressively less as one moves across the religious spectrum.

The effects of the Jewish Weltanschauung are less direct, more diffuse and general, and thus much more difficult to gauge. It is commonly held that Jewish intellectualism of the medieval period (until the eighteenth century) has influenced the development of modern society. The absence of religious restrictions upon the acquisition of wealth may have fostered Jewish economic striving. Finally, the idea of social justice, found abundantly in Jewish sources and dwelt upon by modern exponents of Judaism, strengthened the impulse toward social reform which had probably been engendered by the situation of the Jews as a permanent minority.

Be that as it may, religion continues to serve as a source of social cohesion. For while it is true that during the modern period Jewish society developed many secular institutions of social and quasi-political activity (Zionism, for example), which presented opportunities for group identification, nevertheless religious organizations remain to this day the most ubiquitous and all-embracing. In this capacity, Judaism, even in its most diluted form, serves the purpose of communal self-preservation.

Jacob Katz

[See alsoAnti-Semitism; Canon law; Near Eastern society, article onisrael; Zionism. Other relevant material may be found under Religion.]


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Wiener, M. 1933 Jüdische Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation. Berlin: Philo.


views updated May 14 2018


Jay R. Berkovitz

Owing to the rich textual and hermeneutical legacy of Judaism, Jewish historical research has, until the latter part of the twentieth century, been dominated by an overwhelming concern with intellectual development. This emphasis reflects continuity with central elements of the Jewish religious tradition, on the one hand, and a modern cultural-political response to the increasing participation of Jews in European society, on the other. Aiming to enhance the literary and philosophical prestige of Judaism, and thereby advance the cause of civic and social emancipation, nineteenth-century practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums devoted much of their energies to documenting and highlighting contributions that Jews had made to human civilization. Only since the 1980s has the study of Jewish history expanded to include social institutions and the experiences of ordinary people. Employing quantified data drawn from notarial documents, censuses, tax rolls, and birth, marriage, and death records, the new historiography has been able to reconstruct demographic trends, migration patterns, and occupational distributions of European Jewry. More descriptive accounts furnished by memoirs, personal correspondence, and oral testimonies have also been used to balance the picture that emerged from quantified sources. These methodological approaches, shared both by Jewish and general social historians, have been applied to the dynamics of acculturation, assimilation, and the shaping of modern Jewish political, cultural, and religious identities. However, in contrast to general trends in the field of social history, where the focus has only recently shifted from the working classes, the study of Jewish modernization has included the entire Jewish community.

The modern history of Judaism, with its rich variety of geographical, ethnic, cultural, and religious expressions, traces its foundation to the Hebrew scriptures and the Pharisaic articulation of Israelite traditions. Initially preserved and transmitted orally, the authoritative rabbinic interpretation of biblical Judaism was recorded in the Mishnah, elaborated upon in the Talmud, and expanded further in biblical and talmudic commentaries, philosophical tracts, mystical compositions, legal codes, and responsa literature. Medieval interpretations and embellishments of earlier teachings were frequently novel, even far-reaching in character, but remained faithful to the ancient traditions. Even movements that deviated more radically from normative Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries nonetheless continued to derive much of their authority and core ideas from the very same Jewish tradition from which they diverged, albeit each in accordance with its own reading and emphases. Together, these diverse strands constitute a largely unbroken continuity to the Judaism of today and find expression through the corporate life of the Jewish people. Owing to the interdependence of these elements, this article examines the social impact of modernity on Judaism and Jewish culture, and therefore integrates social and intellectual history.


Public discussions concerning the status of the Jews, occasioned first by the prospect of their readmission into western and central Europe in the seventeenth century and later by the need to ascertain their suitability for citizenship, invariably centered on the social dimension of the Jewish religion. As the likelihood for entrance into modern society improved, the challenges it presented seized the attention of the Jewish community and remained the main topic of internal debate for most of the modern era. At issue was the corpus of social teachings that determined the ethical obligations toward non-Jews and the relationship of Jews to general society, its institutions and culture. Various reformulations of Judaism were a product of the encounter with general culture and were made in direct response to demands for social and political accommodation. Equally significant are modes of piety and ritual behavior that, while governed by internal traditions and hermeneutics, were influenced by larger social and cultural forces as well. Thus historians have discovered that even mystical and pietistic expressions of Judaism, such as Kabbalah and Hasidism, though not a direct product of overtly modernizing trends, offer equally fruitful subjects for social historical analysis.

Traditional Judaism is rooted in a set of beliefs and values that are discernible in its distinctive patterns of social organization, ritual, and religious concepts. Outlined in the Torah (the Pentateuch), its fundamental teachings draw upon an ethical-monotheistic faith that combines religious universalism and particularism. In contrast to other ancient religions, Judaism emphasized that the divine presence is encountered mainly within history rather than in nature. The doctrine of the election of Israel implied a responsibility to live an exceptionally moral and religious life, to serve as "a light unto the nations" by exemplifying a heightened awareness of God's presence, sovereignty, and ultimate purpose in the world. The conviction that Israel's relationship to God is unique has shaped the lifestyle and mode of existence of Jews since ancient times. This special relationship, known by the term berit (covenant), required obedience to the ethical, moral, and ritual imperatives of the Torah. Formalized at Sinai, the covenant centered on the attainment of holiness as the ultimate purpose of Judaism and coupled the ideal of faithfulness to the God of Israel with the emphatic denial of the legitimacy of idolatry. Based on the numerous biblical admonitions warning of the harsh consequences that would befall Israel should it fail to live up to the ideals of the Torah, a rabbinic theology of history came to view exile from the land, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and suffering at the hands of other nations as divinely ordained. Ultimately, divine retribution was intended to restore Israel's commitment to the terms of the covenant, to facilitate its spiritual and political redemption, and to pave the way for the establishment of divine sovereignty on earth.

Jewish law and social separation. The system of law known as halakhah (from the Hebrew root "to go") supplied the essential structure for the pursuit of holiness. It consists of traditions either rooted explicitly in biblical legislation or believed to have been transmitted orally to Moses. Halakhah and aggadah (nonlegal teachings) together constitute the Oral Law, which, according to rabbinic tradition, was revealed with the Written Law. The power of the rabbis to enact legislation beyond the areas set forth in the classical literature rests on their authority as interpreters of the oral tradition. Over the centuries, the detailed norms of halakhah have come to regulate virtually every area of life, including personal status, family relations, ritual, torts, purity laws, and communal affairs. The attainment of holiness has remained a central objective of this massive legal framework and, owing to the interconnectedness of the moral, ritual, and ethical spheres, has had important social implications. Biblically, it entailed both a separation from the immoral influences of idolatrous nations and a dedication to the service of God. Social segregation was mandated by the prohibition against following "in their ways" (Leviticus 18:3) and was amplified in the Talmud and by medieval rabbinic literature to include restrictions on the consumption of food and wine prepared by gentiles, the appropriation of non-Jewish folkways and rituals, and the emulation of gentile dress. The extent to which these laws succeeded in limiting the interaction of Jews and non-Jews has varied considerably over the course of history. How restrictively these limitations were applied normally depended on the intensity of social and economic relations in a particular locale, and frequently corresponded to the concerns of rabbinic and communal leaders about the dangers of extensive social intermingling and acculturation that modernity posed.

Ritual observances have also contributed to the ethos of separation, although this may not have been their intended purpose. The elaborate dietary laws are a case in point. A detailed classification system specifying which quadrupeds, fish, and fowl may be consumed (Leviticus 11:1–47), rigorous requirements concerning ritual slaughter, prohibitions against the consumption of blood and certain kinds of fat, and the strict separation of meat and milk products were legislated for the expressed purpose of establishing Israel as a holy nation. Although in the course of discussions concerning the aim of these laws various medical, philosophical, religious, and psychological benefits have been proposed, the social role of the dietary restrictions as markers of Jewish distinctiveness, and their implications for a separate Jewish economy, have remained paramount. These regulations, like many other ritual requirements such as the observance of the Sabbath and festivals, public prayer, religious education, and care for the dead, not only encouraged the formation of separate Jewish communities but also reveal the common interest shared with ecclesiastical and lay authorities that were intent on keeping Jews socially apart.

Divine service. No less than its role in distinguishing the Jews as a separate nation, the ritual system of classical Judaism provided a highly structured framework for divine service, falling under three main headings: worship, the study of the Torah, and the performance of acts of kindness. Worship is broadly defined to include a spectrum of divinely ordained rites known as mitzvot that are designed to hallow the mundane aspects of daily life; using symbolism and ceremony, they seek to cultivate human consciousness of the divine presence, and to place human nature, needs, and instincts in a religiously meaningful context. Some assume the form of blessings recited upon the performance of bodily functions in the morning, before eating, and in advance of any obligatory act, such as the affixing of a mezuzah upon the doorpost, recitation of kiddush (sanctification) over wine at the onset of the Sabbath, or the performance of the rite of habdalah (separation) at its close. Each of the aforementioned rites, like most Jewish ceremonies, is performed in the home, the principal arena for the realization of the vita religiosa alongside the synagogue. Though from the standpoint of talmudic law women are exempt from most affirmative precepts limited as to time, such as wearing phylacteries (tefilin) and ritual fringes (tzitzit), they traditionally enjoyed a central role in the private rituals of the home.

Public ritual, including formal prayer and rites of passage such as circumcision, bar mitzvah, naming of children, and weddings, were generally conducted in the synagogue, not because of its inherent sanctity but because of its communal character; hence the original Hebrew term bet-knesset (house of assembly). Technically, each of the ceremonies marking a lifecycle event could be performed in private, but it became customary to conduct these in a public forum. By its presence the community acknowledged and affirmed the passage to the new status. This was also the case for death and burial rites: beginning with the sixteenth century, preparations of the body for burial were performed by the Hebra Kadishah (sacred society) of the community. Even mourning rites, including condolence visitations during the week of intensive bereavement and the gathering of a minyan (a quorum of ten men) in the home, reflected a public dimension of an otherwise private experience. The central elements of synagogue worship included ancient liturgical compositions that positioned the biblical declaration of faith in the God of Israel, the conception of reward and punishment, and the centrality of mitzvot within a framework devoted to the theme of redemptive history; petitional prayers; and the public reading of the Torah. In contrast to the domain of the home, where women were vitally involved in private family rituals, active participation in the public ritual of the synagogue was limited to men. Historically, so long as the home remained central in the ritual life of Judaism, this imbalance only mirrored the generally distinct roles performed by men and women in Jewish life.

The annual cycle of major and minor festivals played a crucial role in the life of the community. In addition to the Sabbath, the calendar listed the three pilgrimage holidays (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), the days of repentance (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Hannukah, the carnival-style Purim celebration, Rosh Hodesh (new moon), and several fasts marking the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem or other catastrophes. The pilgrimage holidays were originally agricultural festivals signifying the beginning of spring (Passover), the summer harvest (Shavuot), and the conclusion of the harvest season (Sukkot). In talmudic times they assumed a primarily historical meaning, commemorating crucial moments in Israel's early history: the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the divine protection accorded to the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert. The Passover seder and narration of the exodus is a particularly paradigmatic rite of memory. Festivals and fasts provided a framework both for understanding contemporary developments in a national-historical perspective and for reassessing the significance of earlier events in light of the present. Ritualized remembering forged and sustained the national character of the Jewish people and its religious ideals. At the social level, Jewish festivals fostered shared values and a strong collective identity by bringing ordinary people and elites together regularly in common rituals.

While the study of Jewish ritual can tend to emphasize both separation and timelessness, social historians have contributed some correctives. For example, until the seventeenth century in central Europe, many Jewish rituals were accompanied by considerable spontaneity and even rowdiness, much like popular celebrations by non-Jews in Europe. But religious leaders began to attack these elements, much as their Catholic and Protestant counterparts were doing, and gradually Jewish ceremonies became more consistently somber and serious.

The study of the Torah, according to rabbinic tradition, is a devotional act that stands above all other meritorious activities. Early sources prescribed an equal allotment of time for the study of scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, but medieval Franco-German practice modified this injunction in favor of the virtually exclusive study of Talmud, said to contain the others. Medieval authorities also debated whether Torah study should be the exclusive preoccupation of the elite and whether it ought to be combined with engagement in either philosophical inquiry or mystical speculation. The debate, which subsequently broadened to include the status of other branches of knowledge such as the natural sciences and humanistic studies, continued into modern times. The ideal of Torah study as a lifelong pursuit was incumbent upon all Jews. According to the majority view among talmudic authorities, however, women were exempt from Torah study. Nevertheless, there is abundant historical evidence of women's involvement in the study of the Bible and those sections of the oral law that applied to them.

Conceived in significantly broader terms than the obligation to give charity, the performance of acts of kindness (gemilut hasadim) encompasses the entire range of duties of consideration toward one's fellow human beings. Rabbinic tradition derived its theoretical and practical dimensions from an interpretation of several biblical narrative passages, concluding that one is enjoined to imitate God's moral attributes. Providing clothing for the needy, visiting the sick, and comforting the mourner, for example, are viewed as acts of divine worship, and such acts are understood, especially according to kabbalistic teaching, as a crucial human-divine partnership in the perfection of the world. The mandate to be holy thus expressed itself in efforts devoted to the needy and, at the communal level, in an array of confraternities and societies for free loans, needy brides, visitation of the sick, burial, and consolation of the bereaved. Occasionally, religious and moral idealism was compromised by financial strain, interethnic tensions, and an antialien and antipoor bias that intensified in response to the growing number of beggars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Scholarly opinion remains divided on how the essential feature of modernity ought to be defined and precisely when its impact was first felt in Jewish history. Debate centers on whether the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, an era of momentous political, economic, social, and cultural transformation, left an enduring mark on Jewish society and culture as well.

Influence of the 1492 expulsion and the Renaissance. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which completed a pattern begun by earlier expulsions from England (1290) and France (1394), offers an example of an event that, according to the standard view, set in motion a monumental rippling effect on Jewish life and culture. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, much of the European Jewish population had shifted eastward to Poland-Lithuania, while centers of Jewish life in the Protestant Netherlands, northwestern Germany, England, and Italy were reinforced by the arrival of the Iberian émigrés. As a result of these migratory patterns, and owing to the pronounced political, social, and cultural dissimilarities between east and west, the Jewish experience of modernity varied widely from region to region. Variability is also reflected in the vastly different patterns of modernization that Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews experienced, owing to their distinctive cultural traditions and histories. These dichotomies emerged boldly in the early modern period and, owing to their comparative dimension, offer social historians numerous opportunities to study European Jewry's dynamic encounter with modernity.

According to the pioneering view advanced by Gershom Scholem, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain set in motion a three-stage process that unfolded over the ensuing several centuries and precipitated the decline of rabbinic hegemony. Initially, the Spanish expulsion aroused acute messianic longings and produced a novel interest in the kabbalistic (mystical) doctrine of redemption. The central force in this development was the system of Kabbalah devised by Isaac Luria, with its strong emphasis on the myth of primeval catastrophe and the conception of tikkun as the mystical essence of salvation. Over the next century, according to Scholem, the revival of Kabbalah produced a wave of ascetic piety, new rituals, liturgical compositions, and mystical meditations that prepared the way for the popular embrace of the pseudomessiah Shabbetai Tzevi in 1666. The expectation of immediate redemption entailed halakhic aberrations, signaling a breakdown of rabbinic authority. The third stage in the process was the emergence of eighteenth-century Hasidism, a movement that attempted to make the world of Kabbalah accessible to the masses. Hasidism preserved those elements of Kabbalah that were capable of evoking a popular response, but it removed the messianic component in the hope of neutralizing the redemptive theology believed to be the cause of the Shabbetai Tzevi debacle. The implications of Scholem's explanation are very far-reaching, especially in relation to the history and phenomenology of mysticism. In constructing his theory of historical causality, Scholem posited a direct linkage between the expulsion, its imputed theological meaning, and movements that would later break with orthodox tradition. Accordingly, Lurianic Kabbalah and the aftermath of Shabbetai Tzevi's apostasy prepared the way for the modernization of Jewish life and the emergence of modern deviant and reformist movements. This interpretation gained wide acceptance among a full generation of historians.

In the 1990s the Scholem thesis underwent thorough reconsideration. Moshe Idel has shown that Lurianic Kabbalah was not an innovative response to the trauma of expulsion but an extension of older mystical trends, some of which even originated in ancient rabbinic Judaism. He has also demonstrated that Lurianic Kabbalah was not the dominant form of Jewish mysticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, further, that it failed to infiltrate the masses as Scholem claimed. Where it was disseminated, as in Italy, it was nonmessianic. This refutation of the Scholem thesis, drawing on modes of analysis used in the fields of religion and intellectual history, has recently received additional substantiation from the realm of social history. The publishing history of early modern kabbalistic conduct literature has shown that Lurianism spread much later than has been assumed and that its influence can be documented only after the Shabbetai Tzevi movement. In fact, even the laws and customs contained in the Zohar, the thirteenth-century kabbalistic commentary to the Torah, failed to penetrate ritual life until the emergence of Hasidism. Demonstrating that the eighteenth-century revival of mystical piety did not draw upon Lurianic Kabbalah, which had already weakened by the time the movement appeared, but bore a closer connection to the nonmessianic Cordoveran Kabbalah, Idel has proven that Hasidism was not a reaction to crisis. Far from having become the adversary of rabbinic Judaism, Kabbalah evinced an affinity with patterns of classical rabbinic thought and had firmly permeated normative rabbinic culture before the breakdown of traditional society.

Italy offers an equally instructive case study of vastly differing assessments of the influence of the Renaissance on Jewish life. All agree that the rise of humanism and the emergence of modern science stimulated Jewish scholarly interest in classical philosophy, science, and rhetoric, as well as participation in the arts. Likewise, works of Hebrew poetry and grammar, biblical commentary, historical writing, and systematization of talmudic and halakhic learning reflected the unmistakable imprint of Italian humanism. David Ruderman, for one, cited collaboration between leading Italian humanists and Jewish scholars as proof of the widespread tolerance enjoyed by Jews. Accordingly, the Renaissance is commonly characterized as an era in which Jewish culture and thought was thoroughly transformed, as evidenced by the emergence of new terms of reference, literary sources, and modes of expression, while Judaism was accepted as intrinsically valid by Christians. Others, led by Robert Bonfil, argue that the various indications of acculturation do not represent adaptation to the majority culture, nor do they suggest that Jews came to view their own religion as inferior to that of others, but only that they maintained an openness toward general culture. In spite of noteworthy instances of scholarly cooperation, the social barriers separating Jews and non-Jews were still in force. Jews continued to be an insecure minority threatened with expulsion and forced conversion, and amidst the penetration of humanist ideals and the considerable evidence of cross-cultural exchange, they nonetheless continued to assert their spiritual superiority and uniqueness over their Christian neighbors. Most importantly, there is no evidence of appreciable improvement in the social relations between Jews and non-Jews. The social and political status of the Jews in Renaissance Italy remained virtually unchanged from medieval times.

The example of Italy reveals that the main features of medieval Jewish life—segregation, discriminatory legislation, public assaults on Judaism, and the centrality of rabbinic authority and law—were strongly resistant to the forces that had transformed European society and culture. In fact it was in Venice in 1516 that the term "ghetto" was first used to designate the section of the city where Jews were required to settle; the term was subsequently applied to Jewish quarters in major cities on the continent. European Jewry was largely unaffected by the rise of humanism, the emergence of modern science, and the advent of capitalism, insofar as most could only settle in eastern Europe or in the eastern Mediterranean, far from the centers of economic growth and cultural advancement. As a result, the largest number remained outside the mainstream of society, while medieval social structures and mentalités persisted until the late eighteenth century. One exception to this pattern was the converso diaspora, where there was an encounter of Jewish and Western culture in the seventeenth century. We have also seen a connection between attacks on ceremonial spontaneity and wider currents in European popular culture.

Patterns of modernization. Dissimilarities between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic models of transformation in early modern Europe reflect the divergent historical experiences of the two main ethnic branches of the Jewish people. "Ashkenaz" and "Sepharad" are biblical terms identified with Germany and Spain respectively; each subsequently evolved into a religious and cultural tradition connoting distinctive pronunciation of Hebrew, liturgical rites, religious customs, and approaches to general culture. Ashkenazic Jews traced their lineage to the Land of Israel, from there to Italy, and in the High Middle ages were concentrated in the Rhineland. By the beginning of the early modern period, when the largest concentration was in Poland and smaller numbers resided in central Europe, opportunities for contact with Christian society and culture were severely restricted. Their communities, known as kehillot, were recognized as legally autonomous by the secular governments, and the lay and rabbinic leadership was empowered to govern in accordance with Jewish law. Rabbinic jurisdiction over civil cases, and the right to punish those who failed to abide by communal regulations, evinced their cultural self-containment. Their literary production echoed this social reality, insofar as the language of learned culture was mainly Hebrew and its focus was limited to the religious sphere. With the rapid expansion of printing, rabbinic literature was widely disseminated, and in the seventeenth century numerous communities imposed obligatory participation in a study group or study on one's own. Study assumed its most intensive form in the large concentration of yeshivot of Poland-Lithuania, where professional students were supported by the local community. After the 1648–1649 Chmielnicki massacres, the yeshivot declined, but they were still attended by students from western Europe.

Tracing its religious traditions to Babylonia, Sephardic Jewry was a product of the unique political and cultural forces that shaped Andalusian society of medieval Spain. In contrast to the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim were involved in governmental affairs and in extensive social and intellectual intercourse with the elite of the Muslim population. Their secular poetry and scientific works were inspired by the Arabic literati, and they used Arabic in their prose works. They took keen interest in philosophy, ascribed greater importance to Bible study, and developed systematic approaches to biblical exegesis and the codification of Jewish law. This rich medieval legacy under Islam, as well as the experience of crypto-Judaism engendered by Christian intolerance, predisposed Sephardic Jews historically to successful integration in public life and culture. Moreover, their subsequent resettlement in areas of western Europe where tolerance reigned, and the fact that their reconstituted communities did not possess the range of social and religious controls available to Ashkenazic kehillot, accelerated the Sephardic encounter with modernity. Their extensive participation in European society and culture, as well as a variety of modern religious expressions that included voluntary Jewish identity and individualism, were attained without the concomitant breakdown of traditional Jewish society.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, historians of European Jewry have expanded our understanding of the transformation of traditional Jewish society, some after investigating Levantine Jewry and Sephardic communities of the West, and others on the basis of an examination of individual Ashkenazic communities in western and central Europe. Having detected signs of a break from traditional patterns in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they agree that the process of acculturation had begun before the onset of ideological and political efforts to ease the acceptance of Jews in general society. In their view, resettlement in the West, not enlightenment and emancipation, marked the beginning of social and cultural reintegration. Communities of Sephardim in France, Holland, Germany, and England exhibited evidence of advanced acculturation, but their integration into general society did not require emancipation from the patterns of social and cultural segregation typical of Ashkenazic Jews.

The argument that sectors of western Ashkenazic Jewry began departing from the traditional lifestyle at the turn of the eighteenth century rests on evidence of growing laxity in ritual observance, increased social interaction between Jews and Christians, imitation of gentile dress and appearance—including shaving the beard and adopting gentile hairstyles—an increasing preoccupation with luxury, the cultivation of secular branches of knowledge such as philosophy and science, and a decline in sexual morality. Many of these changes found expression in contemporary iconography as well, especially in the depiction of Christian interest in Jewish rites and the harmonious relations between Jews and non-Jews. The new tendencies met with an intensification of efforts on the part of leaders of Ashkenazic communities such as Metz and Frankfurt to regulate public morality in the late seventeenth century. Growing social control in communities of western and central Europe corresponds to Peter Burke's theory that after 1650 the struggle to suppress deviant behavior passed from ecclesiastical to lay powers. Lay leaders sought to delineate the boundaries between the sacred and the profane and keep the two domains distinct in order to prevent the incipient dissolution of traditional society. In some instances, class affiliation determined the type of accommodation made by Jews to modernity. Signs of acculturation among the middle and lower classes in England, for example, resemble those changes that had been limited elsewhere to elites, and suggest that Jews imitated the behavior of their economic peers in gentile society while discarding much of Jewish tradition.

Whether the aforementioned indications of acculturation were elements of a new process or were only variations on the traditional pattern is still fiercely contested. According to Jacob Katz, a genuine break from tradition is indicated when nonnormative acts are justified by a new value system; this occurred in the last third of the eighteenth century when the authority of the rabbinic tradition came under attack and a new vision of the future was first formulated. For Katz, it was the era of Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation that launched the process leading to both acculturation and acceptance within European society as citizens. Gentile advocates of Jewish emancipation expected the bestowal of citizenship to bring the Jews' social and cultural isolation to a close. Liberal thinkers envisioned a society open to all persons, irrespective of class, national origin, or religious affiliation. The Jews were invited to participate in this new undertaking, provided they were willing to accept the conditions set by discussants of the Jewish question in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Concretely, this involved the surrender of communal autonomy and rabbinic jurisdiction in civil affairs, and was predicated on the envisioned transformation of Jewish social and economic life.

The Haskalah movement. A cultural revolution from within accompanied the external forces leading to the curtailment of communal autonomy. The promise of a "neutral society" founded upon secular, humanistic, and rational principles, together with a growing frustration with the cultural limitations imposed by ghetto life, inspired the emergence of the Haskalah movement (from the Hebrew root sekhel, which means intellect or reason), a Jewish variant of the European Enlightenment. Its chief proponents, known as maskilim, worked mainly as teachers, writers, employees in Hebrew printing presses, and tutors to the rich. As they became acquainted with the major writings of the philosophes, they subjected traditional Jewish society to a critical reevaluation according to new criteria drawn from the Enlightenment, such as the primacy of reason, the aesthetic ideal, the universal brotherhood of man, and economic productivity. In their writings and through their activism on behalf of educational and communal reform, they constructed a new vision of the ideal Jew and of the relationship of Jews to non-Jewish society.

The Haskalah movement undermined the theological, halakhic, and cultural foundations of social separatism. Conscious of the alleged liabilities presented by traditional Judaism, Jewish intellectuals developed strategies to advance the process of cultural and social integration by adjusting Jewish religious and social teachings to the cultural norms of European society. In the realm of education, the maskilim distinguished between two categories of knowledge, one pertaining to human affairs and another relating to more narrowly conceived religious subjects. The former, humanistic and scientific studies, was an autonomous sphere that was accessible through human reason and empirical observation. Viewed as absolutely crucial for citizens of the modern state, instruction in secular subjects became the highest educational priority in Jewish schools, while the religious curriculum was recast to reflect an emphasis on Hebrew language and grammar, Bible, ethical obligations, and morality. The new schools that were formed under the influence of the Haskalah aimed to produce a generation of Jews capable of taking their place in the new order as productive and loyal citizens. To accomplish this goal, a new Judaism was substituted for the old, one that was refashioned to correspond to the social, cultural, and political underpinnings of emancipation. Restrictions on social intercourse with non-Jews were deemed incompatible with the concrete demands of citizenship and its wider implications; halakhic constraints on the consumption of gentile wine and the emulation of gentile customs were cited as the most egregious examples of the outmoded character of traditional Judaism. Emphasizing the central elements of the Sephardic legacy, particularly its rationalist tradition and integrationist ethos, the maskilim mounted energetic efforts against the rabbinic establishment, which they viewed as the embodiment of cultural obscurantism and excessive political power. Critical of religious and social traditions that were purportedly the product of superstition and persecution, radical maskilim distinguished, as did deism, the divine core of religion from variable customs.

Emancipation and reform. In contrast to the common core of ideological positions to which maskilim in most areas of central and western Europe subscribed, the process of Jewish emancipation varied significantly from state to state, and even from region to region within states. Insofar as emancipation was the product of complex local political forces, the bestowal of civic equality in Europe tended to be uneven. Historically, the era began with the admission of the Sephardic Jews of France to citizenship in 1790 and ended more than a century later with the formal extension of equality in Russia in 1917. Whether granted immediately or only after a prolonged battle, "emancipation" has come to signify the extended process of Jewish acculturation and integration in modern society. The range of its manifold effects is discernible not only in diverse political frameworks but also in various social contexts pertaining to urban or rural populations, class, and gender.

On the basis of these considerations, recent studies have debunked the older view that emancipation led inexorably to rampant assimilation and the rupture of tradition. In the case of the Jews of rural Alsace, occupational patterns, family life, and religious observance were resistant to change because social and economic conditions in the region remained relatively stable for much of the nineteenth century. The conservatism of the rural population is evident in the persistence of folk customs, the use of Yiddish, fertility patterns, opposition to religious reform, use of Jewish names, sentiments of ethnic solidarity, and in the slow pace of assimilation to bourgeois standards of behavior. The city, by contrast, facilitated economic transformation, acculturation to bourgeois lifestyle, and accommodation to the norms of non-Jewish society; as a result, traditional loyalties and affiliations waned, while assimilation accelerated in larger cities such as Paris, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna. Economic and intellectual urban elites active in communal institutions typically labored to "regenerate" the lower classes in accordance with ideals expounded by the Haskalah, and their efforts found expression both in the creation of philanthropic schools for the Jewish urban poor and in broader activities directed at the transformation of Jews in rural areas.

These developments obviously call attention to links between social and religious history in modern Judaism. Divergences emerged within the Jewish community based in part on social class. Many Jews took advantage of opportunities in higher education, and their religious outlook tended to differ from that of other social groups within Judaism. The rural-urban split was pronounced. Patterns of emigration of Jews within Europe by the later nineteenth century added to the complex mix. Many Russian and Polish Jews moved west, interacting with more assimilated coreligionists in places like Britain, and even internal movements, as from Alsace to Paris, had implications for religious outlook and relationships with the wider society.

Barriers to social integration were in the forefront of internal Jewish discussions concerning adaptation to modern society. Concerns about the compatibility of Jewish ritual with the demands of social integration and patriotic loyalty were exacerbated by the acknowledgment that emancipation had shattered the theological assumptions about exile, the return to the Land of Israel, and social separation from non-Jews. For many, citizenship required the removal of problematic aspects of the Jewish religion, and therefore proponents of modernization, including the majority of delegates to the Napoleonic Sanhedrin, repudiated its social and political dimensions. Various factors, including growing indifference to religious observance and the assimilation of bourgeois values, led some to conclude that moderate ritual reform was in order. Typically, efforts to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the synagogue included recitation of prayers in the vernacular, the regularization of the modern sermon, the use of the organ, and the insistence on greater decorum. In Germany, disappointment with the slow progress of legal emancipation, the decline in Jewish observance, the increasing wave of conversion to Christianity, and rising anti-Semitism induced more radical views. As the prospects of civic emancipation grew dimmer, German reformers intensified their efforts to eliminate traces of the political from Judaism. They removed references to the Land of Israel and the Messiah from the prayer book for fear that these might weaken their claim to equal rights, and sought to blur the ethnic and national features of traditional Judaism by eradicating the dietary laws, traditional Sabbath observance, the prohibition of intermarriage, and circumcision.

Despite the vast differences and bitter struggles between reformers and staunch defenders of the normative tradition, all sectors of the Jewish community acknowledged the debilitating effects of modernity. Strongly rejecting the efforts of radical reformers, Neo-Orthodoxy and Positive-Historical Judaism—later to be known as Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism—offered solutions to the challenges of rampant assimilation and the erosion of rabbinic authority that reflected their respective conceptions of halakhah and Jewish peoplehood, while upholding an unswerving commitment to emancipation and social integration. Ultra-Orthodox opponents of religious reform, on the other hand, resisted any and all compromises to the integrity of the ancestral faith, urging a greater degree of separation from general society.

As in western and central Europe, growing numbers believed that the Russian Haskalah would facilitate acceptance within general society. Education was regarded as the vehicle that would accelerate the acculturation process by encouraging students to reject patterns of traditional behavior and thought believed to be irrational, retrograde, and divisive. As a result of state involvement in the creation of modern Jewish schools in the 1840s and 1850s, together with the policy of liberalization under Alexander II and the example of modernization in the West, the Russian Haskalah flourished. Although it stressed values similar to those of the German Haskalah, it was less inclined to surrender the distinctive social or religious ideals of traditional Judaism, and the idea of religious reform was only rarely considered. Owing to the stagnant economy, lack of liberalism, and discriminatory legislation, the process of modernization in the East was exceedingly slow. Within this context, the response to modernity in eastern Europe assumed several distinct forms: the creation of communal yeshivot to fight off assimilation; the emergence of the pietistic Musar movement; the Jewish socialist movement; the emergence of secular Jewish culture, particularly through the advocacy of national cultural autonomy in the multiethnic society of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and the creation of the Zionist movement.

Zionism. Influenced by nineteenth-century nationalism, Zionist leaders viewed emancipation in the West as an enormous political disappointment and argued that cultural autonomy would ultimately fail to preserve Jewish identity, although the latter claim proved to be exaggerated. Ethnic identity remained strong, as evidenced by continued Hebrew literacy, Jewish folkways, and the vigor of Yiddish literature and theater. Whether Zionism viewed its goal of national resettlement in the Land of Israel as the solution to the problem of anti-Semitism or to the problem of Judaism in the modern world, its program was a positive, though secularized, assertion of the belief in messianic redemption and the historic destiny of the Jewish people. For Zionism, as for other modern Jewish movements, modernity marked the end of the traditional concept of exile and the passive waiting for divine redemption, and signified the beginning of an active pursuit of personal or national fulfillment. Differences between cultural and political Zionism reflected the contrasting historic experiences of east and west European Jews. In the east, where ethnic identity was strong and anti-Semitism physically brutal, Zionism struck deep roots. In the west, Zionism appeared to contradict the social and political premises of emancipation, and therefore remained a largely philanthropic movement until the advent of Nazism. Known as the "Final Solution," the Nazi policy of extermination tragically confirmed Zionism's analysis of the nineteenth-century Jewish question.

Gender. Emphasizing the different ways that Jewish men and women experienced acculturation and assimilation, recent scholarship has shown that emancipation was a highly gendered process. Limited mainly to the domestic scene, women did not have the same opportunities as men to encounter general society and culture in the workplace or in institutions of higher education; this difference would persist as long as the boundaries between domestic and public realms remained in force. Consequently, among most Jewish women the incidence of conversion to Christianity was far less than for men, as long as women's entrance to the workforce was limited. On the positive side, it has been shown that Jewish women in imperial Germany were more traditionally minded than their assimilated husbands. Because bourgeois culture understood religious sentiment as an expression of family values, religion was believed to fall naturally within the private sphere dominated by women. In eastern Europe, where traditional Jewish society did not discourage women from participating in the public realm, Jewish women were more vulnerable to the allure of modern society than men, as evidenced by the fact that more women than men converted to Christianity. It is also noteworthy that in east European Jewish society, where the cult of domesticity was not adopted, responsibility for the inculcation of Jewish religious values was not entrusted to women only. Owing to the progressive relegation of the home and home-based rituals to a less important status, and the concomitant prominence attached to the public sphere, as well as the broad social movement of feminism in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the participation of women in ritual life has increased, even in areas considered halakhically nonobligatory. This has produced numerous new ritual expressions, mainly in the Reform and Conservative movements, and more recently, the proliferation of women's prayer groups and women's Torah institutes, including the rigorous study of Talmud among the Modern Orthodox.

See alsoThe Jews and Anti-Semitism (volume 1) and other articles in this section.


Berkovitz, Jay R. The Shaping of Jewish Identity in Nineteenth-Century France. Detroit, 1989.

Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Translated by Anthony Oldcorn. Berkeley, Calif., 1994.

Cohen, Richard I. Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Dubin, Lois C. The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture. Stanford, Calif., 1999.

Endelman, Todd M. The Jews of Georgian England, 1714–1830: Tradition andChange in a Liberal Society. Philadelphia, 1979.

Frankel, Jonathan, and Steven J. Zipperstein, eds. Assimilation and Community: TheJews in Nineteenth-Century Europe. New York, 1991.

Gries, Ze'ev. Conduct Literature: Its History and Place in the Life of Beshtian Hasidism [in Hebrew]. Jerusalem, 1989.

Horowitz, Elliott. "Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry." Association for Jewish Studies Review 14 (1989): 17–46.

Horowitz, Elliott. "The Eve of Circumcision: A Chapter in the History of Jewish Nightlife." Journal of Social History 23 (1989): 45–69.

Hyman, Paula E. The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, Conn., 1991.

Hyman, Paula E. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles andRepresentation of Women. Seattle, Wash., 1995.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven, Conn., 1988.

Israel, Jonathan I. European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550–1750. 3d ed. London, 1998.

Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, andIdentity in Imperial Germany. New York, 1991.

Katz, Jacob. Divine Law in Human Hands: Study in Halakhic Flexibility. Jerusalem, 1998.

Katz, Jacob. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. Translated by Bernard Dor Cooperman. New York, 1993.

Kieval, Hillel J. The Making of Czech Jewry. New York, 1988.

Lowenstein, Steven M. The Berlin Jewish Community: Enlightenment, Family, andCrisis, 1770–1830. New York, 1994.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Reinharz, Jehuda. The Jew in the Modern World. 2d ed. New York, 1995.

Meyer, Michael A. Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement inJudaism. New York, 1988.

Rozenblit, Marsha J. The Jews of Vienna, 1867—1914: Assimilation and Identity. Albany, N.Y., 1983.

Ruderman, David. Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. 3d rev. ed. New York, 1954.

Shulvass, Moses A. From East to West. Detroit, 1971.

Tirosh-Rothschild, Hava. "Jewish Culture in Renaissance Italy: A Methodological Survey." Italia 9 (1990): 63–96.

Zipperstein, Steven J. The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794–1881. Stanford, Calif., 1985.


views updated May 23 2018








Judaism is the religion founded upon the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, which is viewed as an exhaustive account of Gods will for humanity. Judaism is the oldest of the three monotheist religionsthe others being Christianity and Islam. The Hebrew scriptures first took shape around 450 BCE with the assembling of the Torah (instruction), which recorded the revelation of God to Moses at Mount Sinai. The Torah is composed of the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The sacred Scripture also encompasses the Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets; as well as the Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

The Torah and the Prophets tell twin stories of exile from Paradiseone concerned with humanity as a whole, the other with Israel, the people of the Torah. Adam and Eve, representing humanity, lose Paradisethe Garden of Edenbecause of their rebellion against God. The people of Israel likewise lose their paradisethe Land of Israelbecause of their disregard of Gods will as revealed in the Torah. Israel had acquired the Promised Land in fulfillment of Gods covenant with Israels founders, Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants. In 722 BCE, however, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and was incorporated into Assyria, and in 586 BCE the southern kingdom of Judea fell to the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem. Following this, the Jews went into exile in Babylonia (present-day Iraq). In the later sixth century BCE the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, who in 530 permitted the exiled Judeans to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple there on Mount Zion. Some did just that. Then, around 450 BCE the scribe Ezra, in cooperation with the Temple priests, promulgated the Torah of Moses as the law for Israel.

The Torah portrays Israels exile as the consequence of rebellion and its return as its reward for repentance, and sets forth the rules that Israel must keep if it is to retain paradise in the Land of Israel. The parallel narrativesthe stories of Adam and Eve and their counterpart, the people of Israelpart ways with the return to Zion, for whereas Israel could repent and reform, Adam, representing the rest of humanity, without the Torah could do nothing to regain Paradise.


The theology of Judaism is set forth by the rabbis of the first six centuries CE in their readings of Scripture. These readings took place in dialogue with a set of documents that record the oral traditions that had been passed on via a chain of masters and disciples stretching back to Moses and up to the early centuries of the Common Era. The first of these documents recoding oral tradition is the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE), a law code that both amplifies the laws of Scripture and sets forth laws that take up topics not treated by Scripture. A collection of supplements, the Tosefta (ca. 300 CE), and two commentaries to the Mishnah, the Talmud of the Land of Israel (ca. 400 CE) and the Talmud of Babylonia (ca. 600 CE), augmented the laws of Scripture as systematized in the Mishnahs topical expositions. The same rabbis produced commentaries on Scripture, called Midrashim: among others, Genesis Rabbah (ca. 400), on Genesis; Mekhilta Attributed to Rabbi Ishmael (ca. 300), on Exodus; Leviticus Rabbah (ca. 450), on Leviticus; and Sifré to Numbers and Sifré to Deuteronomy, on Numbers and Deuteronomy, respectively.

The monotheism of Judaic theology as set forth in Scripture and oral tradition contrasts strongly with the polytheism prevalent at the time of Judaisms foundation. For a religion of numerous gods, lifes problems have many causes; for a religion of only one God, there is only one cause. To explain why life is seldom fair and often unpredictable, polytheism identifies multiple causes, one god per anomaly. Diverse gods do diverse things, so it stands to reason that the outcomes of their actions conflict. Monotheism by its nature explains many things in a single way. One God rules all and everywhere. Life is meant to be fair, and just rules are supposed to describe what is ordinary, all in the name of that one-and-only God. Thus, in Judaic monotheism a simple logic governs, to limit ways of making sense of things. But that logic contains its own dialectics. If one true God has done everything, then, because he is God all-powerful and omniscient, all things are credited to, and blamed on, him. In that case he can be either good or bad, just or unjustbut not both.

Jewish theology attempts to systematically reveal the justice of the one-and-only God of all creation. God is not only God but also good. The Torah pictures a world order based on Gods justice and equity. Judaism finds its dynamic in the struggle between Gods plan for creationto create a perfect world of justiceand mans will. That dialectic is embodied in a single paradigm: the story of Paradise lost and regained.

Four key sets of beliefs characterize the theology of Judaism:

  1. God formed creation in accord with a plan, which the Torah reveals. The facts of nature and society set forth in that plan conform to a pattern of reason based on justice and together constitute Gods world order. Private life as much as public order conforms to the principle that God rules justly in a creation of perfection. Those who possess the Torahnamely, Israelknow God and those who do notthe gentilesreject him in favor of idols. What happens to these two sectors of humanity, respectively, corresponds to their relationship with God. Israel in the present age is subordinate to the nations, because God has designated the gentiles as the medium for penalizing Israel for its rebellionmeaning that Israels subordination and exile is intended to provoke repentance.
  2. The perfection of creation, realized in the rule of exact justice, is signified by the timelessness of the world of human affairs, and its conformity to a few enduring paradigms that transcend change. Perfection is further embodied in the unchanging relationships of the social commonwealth, which assure that scarce resources, once allocated, remain unchanged. Further indications of perfection lie in the complementarity of the components of creation, and in the correspondence between God and man, who was created in Gods image.
  3. Israels condition, public and personal, constitutes flaws in creation. What disrupts perfection is the sole power capable of standing on its own against God: mans will. What man controls and God cannot coerce is mans capacity to form intention and therefore choose either arrogantly to defy, or humbly to love, God. Because man defies God, the sin that results from mans rebellion flaws creation and disrupts world order. As with Adam and Eves exile from Eden, the act of arrogant rebellion leads to humanitys flawed condition. God retains the power to encourage repentance through punishing mans arrogance. In mercy, moreover, God exercises the power to respond to repentance with forgivenessthat is, a change of attitude bringing about a change in mans condition. Because man also has the power to initiate the process of reconciliation with God through repentancean act of humilityman may restore the perfection of that order his arrogance has marred.
  4. God ultimately will restore that perfection that embodied his plan for creation. In the process of restoration, deathwhich exists because of sinwill die, the dead will be raised and judged for their deeds, and most, having been justified, will go on to eternal life in the world to come. The paradigm of man restored to Eden is realized in Israels return to the Land of Israel. In that world or age to come, idolaters will perish, and the remaining portion of humanity, comprising Israel, will know the one, true God and spend eternity in his light.


The theology of Judaic monotheism set forth by the rabbis of the first six centuries CE was subsequently amplified by philosophers and mystics. Judaic intellectuals in the Islamic world, from the advent of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century CE, faced the challenge posed by Muslim rationalism and philosophical rigor. The task at hand was to reconcile and accommodate Torah and the philosophical form of science.

That is why alongside the study of Torahmeaning the Babylonian Talmud and later codes, commentaries, and rabbinical court decisionsa different sort of intellectual-religious life flourished in Judaism. This was the study of the Torah-tradition through the instruments of reason and the discipline of philosophy: the quest for generalization, a critical sifting of evidence, and, above all, the attempt to find harmony between the generalizations of the Torah and the scientific principles of Aristotle. For example, how can the scriptural notion that God changes his mind be harmonized with the Aristotelian principle that change indicates imperfection, and how can the belief that miracles interrupt the course of nature be reconciled with the philosophical principle that laws of nature are immutable? If God is arbitrary, then God is no philosopher. But for Judaic, Christian, and Islamic theology, God is the source of all truth, whether revealed in nature or in scripture.

The Judaic philosopher had to cope with problems imposed not only by the Torahs conflict with philosophy, but also by the anomalous situation of the Jews themselves. For instance, what was the meaning of the unfortunate history of the Jews? How was philosophy to account reasonably for the homelessness of Gods people, who were well aware that they lived as a minority among powerful, prosperous majoritiesChristian or Muslim? If the Torah were true, why did different revelations claiming to be based upon itand to complete itflourish, while the people of Torah suffered? Why, indeed, ought one to remain a Jew, when every day one was confronted by the success of the daughter religions? Conversion was always a possibilityan inviting one even under the best of circumstancesfor a member of a despised minority.

The search was complicated by the formidable appeal of Greek philosophy to medieval Christian and Islamic civilizations, two cultures in which Judaism was practiced. Its rationalism, openness, and search for pure knowledge challenged all revelations. Philosophy called into question all assertions based not on reason, but on appeals to a source of truth not universally recognized. Specific propositions of faith and the assertions of holy books had to be measured against the results of reason. Belief in mysterious divine plans conflicted with claims for the limitless capacity of human reason. It seemed, therefore, that reason stood in opposition to revelation, and free inquiry could not be relied on to lead to the synagogue, church, or mosque. Faith or reasonthis seemed to be the choice.

For the Jews, moreover, the very substance of faithin a personal, highly anthropomorphic God who exhibited traits of character not always in conformity with humanitys highest ideals and who in rabbinic hands looked much like the rabbi himselfposed a formidable obstacle. The obvious contradictions between belief in free will and belief in divine providence further enriched classical philosophical conundrums. Is God all-knowing? Then how can people be held responsible for what they do? Is God perfect? Then how can he change his mind or set aside his laws to forgive people? No theologian in such a cosmopolitan, rational age could begin with an assertion of a double truth or a private, relative one. The notion that something could be true for one party and not for another, or that faith and reason were equally valid and yet contradictory were ideas that had little appeal.


From the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century declared Christianity legal and whose heirs made it the religion of the Roman Empire, to the nineteenth century, Jewry in Christendom had sustained itself as a recognized and ordinarily tolerated minority. The contradictory doctrines of Christianitywhich saw Jews as Christ-killers to be punished, and as witnesses to be kept alive and ultimately converted at the second coming of Christheld together in an uneasy balance. Official policykeep the Jews alive, but do not reward their disloyaltyaccounts for the Jews survival in some of the Christian realms, particularly those on the frontiers of Christian Europe, south and east. The pluralistic character of some multiethnic societies explains the welcome accorded Jewish entrepreneurs in certain territories, including Spain before 1492, and Norman England, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine in the early centuries of their development.

The rabbinic system, for its part, had addressed the agenda of Christianity and for long centuries had given answers that, for Israel, proved self-evidently valid. Judaism had answered the question made urgent by Christianitys triumph: What is Israel in the divine plan? This it did by appeal to the sanctification of Israel and its future salvation. Normative Judaism had taken shape in response to the challenge of Christianity. So long as in Christian lands Christianity defined the issues, Judaism would flourish without effective competition within Jewry, absorbing and accommodating new ideas. The same was true of Islamic lands and the character of Judaism in the Muslim world.


In modern times, faced with the political changes brought about by the American Constitution of 1787 and the French Revolution of 1789, Jews in western Europe and the United States aspired to rights possessed by the majority population: citizenship, equality before the law. But an urgent question emerged: How could and why should one be both Jewish and German or Jewish and French or Jewish and British? (The issue was conceived in terms of the categories of religion and nationality; that is, Jews were Jewish by religion and German by nationality. In the late-twentieth-century United States the issue would be conceived in terms of religion and ethnicity; thus, one could be both Christian and ethnically Jewish.) From the earliest decades of the nineteenth century, new Judaisms took shape, dealing with this and other urgent questions. They offered explanations of how a Jew could be not solely an Israelite but also somethinganythingelse. To do so, people had to identify a neutral realm in the life of individuals and consequently of the community, a realm left untouched by the processes of sanctification leading to salvation, which had for so long made Jews into Israel, the community of Judaism. Each of these Judaisms claimed to continue in linear succession the Judaism that had flourished for so long, to develop it incrementally, and so to connect, through the long past, to Sinai. But in fact, each one responded to contemporary issues deemed urgent among one or another group of Jews.


Three main new Judaisms took shape between 1800 and 1850. The first to emerge was Reform Judaism, which developed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Reform Judaism made changes in liturgy, then in doctrine and in the Jewish way of life. More significantly, perhaps, it recognized the legitimacy of making changes and regarded change as reformhence its name.

Second to develop was Orthodox Judaism, which achieved its first systematic expression in the middle of the nineteenth century. A reaction to Reform Judaism, Orthodox Judaism was in many ways continuous with traditional Judaism, but in other ways it was as selective in its adoption of elements of traditional Judaism as was Reform Judaism. Orthodox Judaism denied the validity of change, and held that Judaism lies beyond history; it is the work of God, and constitutes a set of facts of the same order as the facts of nature. Hence change is not reform, and Reform Judaism is not Judaism. But, at the same time, Orthodox Judaism affirmed that one could devote time to science as well as Torah-study, an accommodation with contemporary culture different only in degree from the Reform compromise.

Third in line and somewhat after Orthodox Judaism came positive Historical Judaism, known in America as Conservative Judaism, which occupied a middle position between the two other new Judaisms. This Judaism maintained that change could become reform, but only in accordance with the principles by which legitimate change may be separated from illegitimate change. Conservative Judaism would discover those principles through historical study. In an age in which historical facts were taken to represent theological truths, the historicism of Conservative Judaism gave it compelling weight. Positivism and dependence on history to validate theological conviction would serve Conservative Judaism poorly later on, however, when the discoveries of archaeologists called into doubt principal parts of the scriptural narrative.



Baron, Salo Wittmayer. 19521993. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2nd rev. ed. 18 vols. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel, ed. 1976. A History of the Jewish People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Finkelstein, Louis, ed. 1966. The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1987. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Neusner, Jacob. 1987. The Enchantments of Judaism: Rites of Transformation from Birth through Death. New York: Basic Books. Reprint, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005.

Neusner, Jacob. 2003. The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.

Schwarz, Leo W., ed. 1956. Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People. New York: Random House.

Jacob Neusner


views updated May 08 2018


Jewish conceptions of childhood have undergone considerable transformation from the biblical era to the present. The practical challenges posed by child rearing have elicited a wide range of approaches to child care, discipline, and education, while also raising important questions concerning the role of gender, the scope of parental authority, and the nature of parent-child relations. The evolution of these issues reflects the impact of ethnic, cultural, and regional factors in Jewish history, and also bears unmistakable traces of the ever-changing role of religious ritual in Jewish life. No aspect of childhood has remained immune to these forces or indifferent to the dynamic influence of neighboring cultures.

Conceptions of Childhood

Research conducted by Jewish historians over the last thirty years, similar to most general studies devoted to childhood, stands largely in opposition to the theories advanced by French historian Philippe AriÈs. Ariès argued that childhood as we know it today did not exist in medieval society, owing to a lack of "awareness of the particular nature of childhood." Only with the approach of modernity was childhood "discovered." Countering these claims, Judaic scholars have assembled overwhelming evidence, culled from ancient and medieval Jewish sources, attesting to distinct develop-mental phases of childhood within Judaism and a clear appreciation of the child as such. As understood within Jewish society and culture, childhood refers broadly to all stages of life that precede adulthood, at which point an individual attains economic independence and assumes family or communal responsibilities. Abundant evidence in the Talmud indicates that the transitional stages, which include infancy, childhood, adolescence, and youth (young adulthood), were widely acknowledged within ancient Judaism.

Several ritual ceremonies denote critical moments in the development of the child. Circumcision, a ceremony that takes place on the eighth day after birth, marks the entrance of the male child into the covenant of Israel. In the Talmudic age it served additionally to set Jewish males apart from others in the Greco-Roman world. An intricate new ritual created in northern France and Germany during the twelfth century marked the initiation of boys at the age of five or six into Hebrew studies. Dressed in his best clothes, the boy was escorted to the synagogue and was fed eggs, fruit, and cakes of honey. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet were written on a slate and read to the boy. Then the letters were covered with honey, which the boy licked. Staged during the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), the ceremony symbolically incorporated the child into the ranks of the Jewish people by reenacting the Torah covenant that was created at Mount Sinai. It was also intended as a rite against forgetfulness and as a means to open the heart. Some scholars have suggested that this initiation, insofar as it contains elements resembling the Christian Eucharist devotion, was designed as a counter-ritual to challenge the claims of the majority faith. Bread, wine, and honey likely were included in the Jewish ceremony simply because they represented knowledge and were commonly used to teach the alphabet. The initiation ceremony later found its way to distant Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin and eastern Europe during the seventeenth century.

The bar mitzvah ceremony commemorates a boy's reaching the age of religious majority: thirteen years and one day. No comparable ritual marked a girl's attainment of her majority (twelve years and one day). The bar mitzvah first arose in Germany during the eleventh century, though it only became popular two centuries later. Thirteen had been established as the male age of religious obligation during the previous century; in the new ritual the boy's father was called to the Torah to declare that he was now relieved of responsibility for his son's misdeeds. Although minors had been technically permitted to participate in the full range of ritual commandments before their bar mitzvah, they were nonetheless dissuaded from performing certain rites until they attained their religious majority. Fourteenth-century sources describe a boy being called to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath that coincided with or followed his thirteenth birthday; in sixteenth-century Poland, the ceremony developed into a bona fide rite of passage.

For all practical purposes, however, a young person did not become a full-fledged member of the community until he was much older than age thirteen. The precise age at which this occurred varied according to time and place. Furthermore, in many communities, unmarried men regardless of age were not eligible for certain synagogue honors; for example, religious authorities in eighteenth-century Metz refused to authorize unmarried men as ritual slaughterers. Marriage by itself could not definitively confer adult status, however, in part because child marriages were still prevalent in the early modern period. Seeking to harmonize the Talmudic tradition of "at eighteen to the marriage canopy" with the social and cultural desirability of marriage at a younger age, the authoritative Shulhan Arukh code of 1566 stated: "It is the duty of every Jewish man to marry a wife in his eighteenth year, but he who anticipates and marries earlier is following the more laudable course, but no one should marry before he is thirteen." The phenomenon of young men who married even at the age of ten was not unknown in early modern Europe. In some instances where the age at marriage was significantly higher, limitations were still imposed on relative newlyweds. According to an enactment of the Council of Lands in Poland in 1624, no note signed by a man within two years after his marriage had any validity; this period was subsequently extended to three years. Similarly, the council barred the extension of a loan to any person who was either under the age of twenty-five years or who had not been married for at least two years.

Care of Children

In sharp contrast to ancient Greece, where the practice of leaving newborns to die of exposure was not uncommon, Jews of antiquity emphatically rejected infanticide as murder. Philo of Alexandria, a leading Jewish philosopher of the first century, forcefully articulated the importance of caring for all infants. His revulsion against infanticide (he called it "a violation of the laws of nature") went hand-in-hand with the Judaic view of procreation as a divine command. Eventually this teaching would enter the mainstream of Christian thought as the Roman Catholic Church subsequently outlawed infanticide in the fourth century. Child abandonment would nonetheless persist as an acute social problem well into the modern age, tolerated by the Church so long as there was an economic argument for it.

The care given to young Jewish children reflected Judaism's overwhelmingly positive attitude toward childhood. According to ancient rabbinic law as recorded in the Talmud, a father was obligated to redeem his (first-born) son, circumcise him, teach him Torah, teach him a trade, obtain a wife for him, and according to one other opinion, to teach him to swim as well. No provision for child maintenance was mentioned explicitly in this list of parental obligations because the moral obligation to care for one's children was so elemental. Only after the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132135 c.e.), in an era when Roman law developed in a parallel fashion, mishnaic law was recast so as to offer greater protection for children. The father's obligation to feed his children became a matter of law, and the prerogative to sell a son as security was abolished, though this legal advancement was not applied as fully to daughters. Even so, in times of severe economic hardship some parents felt compelled to offer their sons and daughters for sale.

Most sources describe the ideal medieval home as a gentle regime resting on mutual affection between parent and child. Ethical writings of the Middle Ages, such as the thirteenth-century German Sefer Hasidim, emphasized the obligations of mothers to keep their infants clean, well fed, and protected from the elements. Unlike other cultures that showed a clear preference for adult children, Judaism was partial to infants. This is evident in Jewish tomb inscriptions, where more attention was paid to the deaths of young children than was the case in ancient Egypt and Rome. Similarly, the anguish expressed upon the death of a child by Rabbi Judah Asheri of fourteenth-century Spain and others, consistent with the advice offered by Sefer Hasidim about showing sensitivity to parents who have lost a child, confirms the depth of attachment to children. Consistent with this is the imagery of Midrash Rabbah (on Psalm 92:13), which portrays playfulness between parents and their young children in the most positive terms.

Medieval sources also point to the growing involvement of Jewish fathers in their child's upbringing, as is evident in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultural orbits. Fathers are depicted as becoming increasingly aware of intensity of love for an infant rather than an older child. Perhaps for this reason, the ethical literature was alert to the tensions between the competing demands of child care on the one hand and adult responsibilities on the other, and therefore under-scored the priority that fathers were expected to give to their own Torah learning. Parents were nonetheless cautioned against indulging the child in an overabundance of affection. Excessive indulgence, it was argued, would undermine the goal of training children to fear their parents. This oftrepeated concern, which can be traced to a fourteenth-century Spanish moralistic work, Menorat Ha-Ma'or, also confirms that such expressions of affection were commonplace.


In the biblical era corporal punishment was commonly viewed as the primary means of discipline, as exemplified by Proverbs 13:24, "Spare the rod, despise the child." In the Talmudic age the strap replaced the rod, and by all accounts, strict punishment was meted out both in the home and at school. From the third century on, however, a reduction of physical punishment was favored; instead, alternative disciplinary measures were employed. For example, in response to the problem of the inattentive student, the specific recommendation of the Talmud was to "place him next to a diligent one" rather than to impose physical punishment. Parents and teachers were advised to exercise patience and sensitivity. Medieval sources point to a reality that was frequently at variance with the picture emerging from these Talmudic prescriptions. Although Sefer Hasidim was equivocal about corporal punishment, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) (11351204) and Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (12351310) acknowledged the right of the parent or teacher to strike a boy in the course of his studies. The fourteenth-century Sarajevo Passover Haggadah and the Coburg Pentateuch show teachers with whips, and a number of early modern sources, such as the Brantshpigl, advised teachers to gauge the severity of the punishment in accordance with the pupil's age.


Owing to the primacy of ritual in traditional Judaism, instruction of children focused on the attainment of ritual literacy as its central goal. In the Talmudic era, boys attended elementary school or studied with a tutor from the age of five, six, or seven until the age of twelve or thirteen. A network of schools operated in the Land of Israel by the second century. School children learned to read the Torah and to write; at age twelve they studied Mishnah. No formal instruction in secular courses such as mathematics, Greek, or gymnastics, was included in the Jewish school curriculum in this period. Initially, the houses of study excluded children from the lower strata of society, but by the third century education was made available to children of all classes. Girls were, by and large, excluded from the elementary schools, however, though some Talmudic sources suggest that fathers taught their daughters informally.

In the medieval period there was no system of communally funded elementary schools in northern France or Germany. Schooling was a private arrangement between parents and teachers. By contrast, the Jews of Spain and Italy maintained a more formal educational structure; moreover, in southern France there are references to elementary schools, though it is unclear whether these were schools or synagogues. Conditions in Italy were likely exceptional. Women gave elementary lessons in reading and writing to girls and boys, often in the teacher's home; the most striking example was the establishment of a special elementary school ("Talmud Torah") for girls in Rome in 1475.

Quite apart from formal schooling, great emphasis was placed on ritual education within the home and the synagogue. Each of the Jewish festivals provides an opportunity for children to acquire an understanding of the religious ideals of Judaism within a national and historical perspective, while at the social level the holidays foster shared values and a strong collective identity. The Passover seder offers perhaps the most outstanding paradigm of informal education in the entire Jewish calendar. The narration of the exodus from Egypt follows a question-and-answer format and uses rituals and symbols specially created to hold the interest of the children and to deepen their experience. Talmudic in origin, these strategies stress the importance of adapting both the supporting materials and the level of discussion to the child's ability to understand.

The importance attached to ritual literacy was also emphasized in less formal settings. The seventeenth-century Polish mystical-ethical work Shnei Luhot Ha-Berit emphasized the importance of teaching the child from the age of two or three, as this was seen to be the critical period for acquiring proper moral virtues, such as fear of one's father. The author, like the author of the Brantshpigl, went so far as to assign great importance to the role of mothers in rebuking their children, "even more than the father." Although children were formally exempt from reciting the Shema (dailycredo) and from putting on tefillin (phylacteries), they were nonetheless obligated in prayer, mezuzah (scriptural verses attached to the door posts of the home), and grace after meals for training purposes. Nevertheless, at each successive stage in the child's development a new level of ritual involvement was added, and children were thus taught to observe certain commandments as soon as they were old enough to perform them. When a boy reached the age of three, he was given tzitzit (ritual fringes) to wear, and by the age of five, he was taught to recite the Shema. At the age of nine or ten the oaths that a child might take were considered valid. Girls and boys at this age were also encouraged to fast for several hours on Yom Kippur, with the time period increasing by one hour each year "so that they may be versed in the commandments" and so that when they reached the ages of twelve and thirteen, respectively, they would be ready to observe the full day of fasting.

Developments in the Early Modern and Modern Periods

The sixteenth century opened an era of escalating intergenerational tension. Challenges to parental authority in numerous Jewish communities became especially pronounced in the age of the Protestant Reformation, and this trend would continue through the modern period. Numerous Jewish communities in the 1520s and 1530s prohibited marriages that were contracted without parental consent. Nevertheless, several distinguished rabbinic authorities at mid-century upheld the independence of young people to choose their marriage partners. Misgivings about the instability of youth and juvenile delinquency found expression in a variety of communal initiatives, including the creation of publicly funded schools and legislation establishing compulsory education. Other efforts sought to curb the freedom sought by adolescents from parental authority, especially in the realm of sexual conduct.

Revolutionary changes in society's attitude toward children were felt conspicuously within Jewish communities as well. Since the Renaissance era, thinkers had placed ever increasing emphasis on the power of nurture over nature. The European Enlightenment, and its Jewish variant, the Haskalah movement, favored the image of a child's mind as a tabula rasa on which teachers could write suitable information. Modern Jewish schools, founded in Berlin and other centers of Haskalah in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, drew heavily on the new pedagogical theories advanced principally by J. B. Basedow and J. H. Pestalozzi. Their emphasis on a systematic approach to education that was attuned to the individual needs and talents of each child exerted enormous influence on Jewish educational reformers such as Naphtali Herz Wessely (17251805). Ambitious efforts to provide vocational training to children of poor Jewish families were part of the same modernization project. In the traditional heder (Jewish elementary school) of Eastern Europe, however, the modern spirit was much less in evidence. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, corporal punishment continued to be severe.

Powerful currents of religious modernization in the nineteenth century not only dominated the ideology of religious reform, but also substantively influenced the leadership of traditional Judaism. Among the most pressing issues was the recasting of educational and religious opportunities to include girls. Early in the century, most modern Jewish schools in Germany and France had been designed to educate both girls and boys. At the 1856 Paris rabbinical conference, a new ceremony for the blessing of newborn girls was created and adopted. The most widely implemented innovation in France and Germany was the confirmation ceremony. Adopted by traditionalist rabbis, the ceremony was conducted for boys and girls who had passed examinations in Hebrew reading and in the catechism designed for Jewish students.

In the same spirit of egalitarianism, bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls proliferated in Conservative and Reform congregations in the United States in the twentieth century. In the second half of the century, such ritual celebrations also found acceptance, albeit in a more limited manner, in the Orthodox movement. There is also an increasing trend among vastly different Orthodox streams to provide Jewish elementary (and higher) education for girls that is virtually identical to that of boys. Dynamic forces at work in the State of Israel, as well as developments in the United States, are setting the pace for these trends.

See also: Catholicism; Christian Thought, Early; Holocaust; Holocaust, Jewish Ghetto Education and; Islam.


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Jay R. Berkovitz


views updated May 23 2018


Judaism is a monotheistic, scriptural religion that evolved from the religion of ancient Israel during the Second Temple period (516 b.c.e.70 c.e.). Two core beliefs shaped the attitude of Judaism toward nature and toward the systematic study of nature (i.e., science): that God is the creator of the universe and that God revealed God's will in the form of Lawthe Torah (literally "instruction")to the chosen people, Israel.

The doctrine of creation facilitates an interest in the natural world that God brought into existence, even though the details of the creative act remain beyond the ken of human knowledge. Several Psalms express the notion that the more one observes nature, the more one comes to revere its creator, since the world manifests order and wise design. Awareness of nature's orderliness leads the observer to praise and thanksgiving and evokes awe and reverence. The study of nature, then, did not conflict with love of and obedience to God. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophers regarded the study of God's created nature as a religious obligation. Nonetheless, the natural world was not to be worshiped for its own sake; that is the form of idolatry against which Judaism rails. In Judaism, nature always points, rather, to the divine creator who governs and sustains nature and who intervenes in human affairs, making God's will known through the performing of miracles, the greatest of which is the revelation of the Torah to Israel.

Rabbinnic attitudes

Even though in principle there is no theological impediment to study the natural world, the degree to which Jews should engage in scientific inquiry has always been debated in traditional Jewish society. Since philosophy and science originated in ancient Greece, the debate pertained to the cultural boundaries of Judaism, especially because Jews encountered Hellenistic culture as the culture that occasionally oppressed them, curtailing Jewish political independence and threatening Jewish mores. Since immersion in Greek culture could conceivably lead one away from commitment to God's Torah and the life it prescribed, rabbinic literature contains suspicious attitudes toward "alien wisdoms" (hochmot hitzoniyot ) and issues a call to avoid teaching "Greek wisdom" to children. This caution is found side by side with information about rabbis who promoted the Greek paideia or who were themselves learned in the natural sciences. More problematically, the primacy of Torah study itself was justified by the claim that the revealed Torah, identical with God's wisdom, encompasses all true knowledge. If so, Jews have no need to pursue knowledge outside the perimeters of Torah. It is difficult, then, to generalize about the rabbinic attitude toward the study of nature and determine the precise scope of rabbinic knowledge of the science in their day.

The main scientific data in rabbinic literature pertains to astronomy and human physiology. Several rabbis (e.g., R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, Gamaliel II, and Joshua ben Hananya) were expert astronomers, using observed data for the calculation and adjustment of the lunar-solar calendar. The rabbinic corpus is also replete with information about the motions of celestial bodies, the four seasons, the planets, the zodiac, and even comets. The picture of the universe in Talmudic texts has the Earth in the center of creation with heaven as a hemisphere spread over it. The Earth is usually described as a disk encircled by water. Interestingly, cosmological and metaphysical speculations were not to be cultivated in public nor were they to be committed to writing. Rather, they were considered as "secrets of the Torah not to be passed on to all and sundry" (Ketubot 112a). While study of God's creation was not prohibited, speculations about "what is above, what is beneath, what is before, and what is after" (Mishnah Hagigah: 2) were restricted to the intellectual elite.

Within the created world, the human body was of utmost interest to the rabbis, although their information about human anatomy was shaped by religious concern for ritual purity. Rich in details about the skeleton, the digestive organs, the respiratory system, the heart, the genitals and other organs, the rabbinic corpus also includes rather fanciful material and is totally lacking in graphic illustration. The discussion is concerned primarily with physical disfigurements that disqualify men from the priesthood, with rules concerning menstruating women, and with other sources of ritual pollution. The rabbinic corpus also includes informative claims about embryology, diagnosis of diseases, and a host of medications and hygienic strategies for prevention of disease. Indeed, the physician is viewed as an instrument of God, treated with utmost respect, and several Talmudic scholars were themselves physicians. Nonetheless, the rabbinic discourse about scientific matters was unsystematic, primarily because it was embedded in the interpretation of Scriptures. Whether the rabbinic legal reasoning as a whole could be considered "science" is debated in contemporary times, reflecting twentieth-century changes in the philosophy of science.

Scientific learning in the Middle Ages

The cultivation of science as a public, albeit elitist, activity began in earnest in the ninth century, when most of world Jewry lived in the orbit of Islam. Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and science were translated into Arabic and stimulated the rise of Islamic rationalist theology. Writing in Arabic, Jews emulated Islamic scholars, reinterpreting rabbinic Judaism in rationalist categories derived from Muslim neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism. Jewish scholars studied all branches of the sciences and a few Jews (e.g., Isaac Israeli, Moses Maimonides, and Levi ben Gershom, known as Gersonides) achieved distinction in the non-Jewish world. Jews participated in astronomy at the court of Alphonso X and were largely responsible for the construction of the Alphonsine Tables for computing planetary positions that remained popular until the mid-seventeenth century. Lacking an institutional setting, Jewish scientific learning was an autodidactic, bookish activity of translating texts of the liberal arts and natural philosophy from Arabic into Hebrew and occasionally from Hebrew into Latin, writing commentaries on them, and working out the theological implications of the apparent conflict between revealed knowledge ("religion") and knowledge discovered by human reason ("science"). One primarily exception was the astronomical observations of Gersonides (12881344), who built an instrument to study the distance between the stars, the Jacob Staff remained in use by European navigators until the mid-eighteenth century.

Moses Maimonides (11351204) articulated the most sophisticated synthesis of science and Judaism. In principle, he held, there can be no contradiction between the inner, nonliteral meaning of the Torah and what is true in the sciences of physics and metaphysics. Apparent conflicts emerge either because a nondemonstrable scientific theory is adopted (for example, Aristotle's view that the world is eternal and his explanation of celestial motions), or because the biblical text is not interpreted in light of philosophy and science. For Maimonides, who accepted Aristotelian science in regard to processes of the sublunar world, possessing knowledge about the physical world was a religious obligation, because accurate knowledge about the physical world leads one to understand how God governs the world (i.e., God's attributes of action). However, Maimonides's radical negative theology, according to which scientific knowledge does not yield valid knowledge about God's essence, placed a limit on science and made the intellectual perfection (the goal of human life according to Maimonides) unattainable.

For the subsequent four centuries, Maimonides's followers translated scientific literature into Hebrew and interpreted Scripture as an esoteric text that contains scientific-philosophic truths. To disseminate philosophic-scientific knowledge Jewish scholars composed encyclopedias that summarized known scientific data in the linguistic sciences (logic, rhetoric, and grammar), the mathematical sciences (arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, music, mechanics, algebra), the physical sciences (based on the eight books of Aristotle's Organon ), metaphysics, and politics (including ethics and economics). This vast knowledge was deemed necessary for the attainment of intellectual perfection, resulting in immortality of the intellect. Whether it was also sufficient knowledge for immortality was vigorously debated, especially after Maimonides's theory of divine attributes was modified by Gersonides to mean that scientific knowledge does yield positive knowledge about God's essence. For Jewish philosophers to attain religious perfection, they had to be philosopher-scientists.

Jewish scientific learning during the Middle Ages was broad in scope and ambitious in aim but it was not unproblematic. First, scientific learning was cultivated only by Jews in Mediterranean communities of Spain, Southern France, Italy, and North-Africa but did not penetrate the Jewish communities north of the Alps. Second, the Jewish scientists-philosophers did not have an institutional setting and did not receive official support for their inquiries. Unlike their Christian neighbors, Jews did not create universities, and the scientific curriculum was not incorporated into the rabbinic academies for higher learning. Third, scientific knowledge was cultivated by a very small number of experts and did not engage the community at large. Finally, there was organized opposition to the cultivation of the sciences, spearheaded not just by rabbis who regarded secular knowledge to be irrelevant or even undermining to the authority of the Jewish tradition, but sometimes by Jews who were themselves quite knowledgeable in the sciences. The Maimonidean controversy that engulfed world Jewry during the thirteenth century and resurfaced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries indicated that the cultivation of science remained problematic even in the Middle Ages.

Early modern period

In the early modern period (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries), the Maimonidean tradition lost its interpretative power and was replaced by Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, as the official theology of Judaism. In a way, the turn to Kabbalah was an attempt to overcome the restrictions of Maimonides's radical negative theology. For the kabbalists, knowledge of God's essence and intimacy with God were to be attained not through observation of the material world interpreted by Aristotelian scientific theories, but through fathoming the symbolic meaning of God's revealed Torah. Constructed out of the building blocks of the Hebrew alphabet, nature mirrors God's essence and the primordial Torah is the key to decipher nature's symbolic structures. The kabbalists regarded nature not as observable, measurable mass, but as an information system that has to be decoded. Their elaborate speculations about the origins of the universe were ultimately a hermeneutic activity, framed by the very language of Jewish canonic texts. This approach to nature was in accord with trends in Renaissance culture and usually went hand in hand with preoccupation with magic, astrology, and alchemy, but it did not necessarily prevent the Jewish scholar from also being informed about new scientific discoveries in astronomy, human physiology, botany, zoology, and mineralogy.

While Kabbalah did not preclude one from interest in nature, on the whole, Kabbalah probably retarded the involvement of Jews in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Jewish scholars played a marginal role in the development of early modern science, although a small number of Jews were aware of the emerging new sciences. David Ganz (15411613), for example, corresponded with the astronomer Johannes Mueller and was personally familiar with Johann Kepler and Tycho Brahe. The first Jew to mention Copernicus and praise him, Ganz nonetheless adapted Brahe's model, which reconciled the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems on the basis of actual observations. For Brahe, Ganz translated the Alphonsine Tables from the Hebrew into German, and for his Jewish audience Ganz composed in Hebrew the history of Jewish involvement in astronomy. That book, however, was printed only in 1743, indicating a relative lack of interest in the subject among Jews. A typical Jewish response to the heliocentric theory was voiced by Isaac Cardozo (1604-1681), the most scientifically informed Jew of his day, who rejected it on religious grounds and adduced nineteen biblical verses against the theory. By contrast, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (15911655), who had contacts with Galileo Galilei and who was the first Jewish scholar to use the recently invented logarithmic tables, parted company with the followers of Ptolemy to espouse the Copernican system. Delmedigo was also a student of Kabbalah, which he proceeded to criticize, but he promoted knowledge of the empirical sciences as a way to alleviate the miserable conditions of Jewish life in Europe's ghettos. The small cadre of Jews who earned doctoral degrees from European universities, especially in medicine from the University of Padua, did not change the fact that interest in the natural sciences was marginal in Jewish culture during the early modern period. Instead, the study of Halachah and Kabbalahboth are elaborate, textual, self-referential, abstract edificespreoccupied Jewish intellectual interests. The ethos of Jewish traditional life in eighteenth-century Europe remained largely uninformed by the scientific revolution.

In the late eighteenth century, a small group of Jewish intellectuals in Germany began to agitate for change. Inspired by the Enlightenment, these Jews insisted that Judaism must embrace scientific knowledge or else stagnate. Desiring social integration and an end to Jewish segregation and persecution, the advocates of Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah ) were very critical of traditional Jewish education and encouraged Jews to study the sciences in order to become fit to enter modern society. The proponents of Haskalah worked tirelessly to persuade European states to grant Jews equal civil rights.

France was the first country to grant citizenship to Jews (1791), as the logical consequence of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). Yet the struggle for legal emancipation lasted until the 1870s in central Europe and was achieved in Russia only with the revolution of 1917. As citizens, Jews who flocked to the universities of western and central Europe embraced the natural sciences as secular pursuits that promised social progress and modernization. Some even converted to Christianity in order to be able to hold academic positions, and for those who remained nominally Jewish, science replaced traditional Jewish Torah-study and was devoid of religious meaning. In the nineteenth century, individual Jews contributed immensely to a plethora of natural sciences, but they did so as individuals and not as members of Israel, God's chosen priestly nation. The secularization of Western (Christian) culture, which privatized religion, and the prevailing scientific theories of classical physics exacerbated the perception that science and religion were diametrically opposed. The main Jewish responses to modernityReform, Conservative, and Orthodoxyarticulated distinctive approaches to the perceived tension.

Strands of modern Judaism

Reform Judaism essentially denies that there is a conflict between Judaism and science. Reform thinkers assume that Judaism is a rational religion that welcomes the scientific, ongoing sequence of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion, with each conclusion subject to further investigation by the same method. The rationalist spirit of Reform Judaism intended to strip Judaism from the morass of ossifying, legalistic minutiae and bring to the fore the timeless, universal truths of Judaism. The rationalist temper, which led Reform Judaism to discard many traditional practices or invent new rituals, did not necessarily mean endorsing the most challenging scientific theory of the nineteenth centuryDarwinism. In the United States, the radical reformer David Einhorn (18091879) sneered at the idea that humans descended from lower animals, and his opponent, Isaac Mayer Wise (18191900), also took a dim view of Darwinian thought. However, by the 1880s several Reform rabbis attempted to reconcile religion with the new science and defended Judaism's superiority over other religions because of its nondogmatic, ever-evolving character. Reform rabbis accepted biblical criticism and viewed the Bible itself, and not only rabbinic Judaism, as a product of history. To their chagrin, however, Reform rabbis had to contend with Protestant biblical criticism that used the Darwinian model to prove that Judaism was a primitive religion out of which evolved the superior religion of Christianity.

Interest in the relationship between science and religion is stronger in Conservative Judaism because it takes the rabbinic tradition to be obligatory, while acknowledging that it evolved over time. More than the natural sciences, the academic discipline of history was the scientific inquiry that concerned Conservative Judaism. In the nineteenth century, Conservative scholars accepted the evolutionary model and applied it to the history of Jewish law, leaving the Bible untouched. In the twentieth century, the critical method has been applied to the biblical text and the perceived challenge by science is rebuffed by saying that the revealed biblical text did not intend itself to be understood literally but as a poetic statement of certain truths: that the world was created by God, and that God planned it carefully and designed it to be hospitable to human beings. These conclusions are consistent with contemporary scientific theories in physics and cosmology. Indeed, the twentieth-century move away from classical physics to a new model of the universe explained by relativity theory or by quantum mechanics enabled some Conservative rabbis to make the biblical narrative more intelligible. Rabbi Lawrence Troster, for example, argued that the Anthropic Principle shows that the universe is not a neutral entity, empty of purpose and meaning, and that partnership between science and religion is possible and desirable. For him the Big Bang theory can lead to an intellectual or emotional enthusiasm for the creator. Conversely, contemporary physics should lead to rethinking the meaning of the doctrine of creation, especially creation in the image of God, and of the problem of evil. Troster's studies are consistent with the work of Norbert Samuelson, the only Reform rabbi who has made a significant contribution to the dialogue of science and religion.

The main area for the confluence of science and religion in Conservative Judaism is bioethics. Conservative legal thinkers such as Elliot Dorff maintain that scientific research is both possible and potentially fruitful and that contemporary interpretation of Halachah must be informed of advances in science and technology. Yet, scientific activity cannot be taken for its own sake: Scientific means and ends have to be evaluated by religious values. Science, and especially its application in technology, can be used to solve legal problems or to alleviate legal restrictions. Though rabbis must be informed about science, the scientific facts of every disputed issue do not settle anything since how one construes the facts is crucial, and this is determined by one's religious and moral values. Biomedical issues of most concern to Conservative thinkers are issues of human sexuality (e.g., fertility and homosexuality) as well as questions of the beginning and end of life (i.e., abortion and euthanasia). Conservative legal thinkers legitimize the consultation with science by insisting that Jewish law itself presupposes the existence of knowledge and morality independent of Jewish law.

Of all variants of modern Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy (in contradistinction from Ultra Orthodoxy) is most preoccupied in the dialogue between science and religion, precisely because on the surface the two may appear to be contradictory. Founded by Samson Raphael Hirsch (18081888) in Germany, Modern Orthodoxy was also a response to the challenges of modernity, even though it rejected the radical ritual changes of Reform Judaism or the historical approach of the positive-historical school, the ideological foundation of Conservative Judaism. For Hirsch, a "Torah-True Judaism" meant that the Torah is eternal and unchanged, but that Judaism must be informed about and selectively involved in the secular world. His slogan, "Torah im Derekh Eretz " (Torah combined with secular knowledge), became the institutional credo of Yeshiva College in New York City, which was founded in 1928 and became a university in 1946. This institution was committed to the synthesis of "Torah U-Mada" (Torah and science), although the precise meaning of this ideal is repeatedly questioned. The faculty and graduates of Yeshiva University publish essays about the interplay of science and religion in their academic magazinesTradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought and The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and even founded a magazine devoted solely to that issue: The Torah U-Mada Journal. Precisely because Orthodoxy understands Judaism as truth, it takes note of seemingly competing truth claims in science.

For Modern Orthodoxy the affirmation of the dialogue between science and Judaism is based on the following assumptions: first, Halachah is binding and all-encompassing and no aspect of human life is irrelevant to it, including science. Second, since halachic discourse exposes the true meaning of divine revelation, there can be no contradiction between what is true in science and what is true in Judaism. Third, scientific and technological advances can help resolve many practical details of religious practice, especially in matters that concern the human body. Medical ethics is thus a primary area in which a fruitful interaction between science and Judaism can take place.

Fourth, science is not the source of value, and science requires a framework of values whose authority is other than human. Judaism's moral values are absolute and immutable because they are revealed by God.

Orthodox scholars reject biblical criticism and treat the halachic tradition as an eternally valid legal system that has its internal mechanisms of self-interpretation. In terms of the doctrine of creation, Orthodox Jews, who tend to pursue the study of the natural sciences but shun the humanities and social sciences, argue, not without a tinge of apologetics, that the Big Bang theory validates even the details of biblical narrative of creation, although science still fails to explain why the world was created. That explanation is available only to the believing Jew who ascribes the creative act to God's will. In regard to bioethics, Orthodox jurists such as Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who are informed in contemporary medicine, bring their extensive knowledge of the halachic tradition to bear on a host of medical problems. These include dwarfism, transsexual surgery, egg donation, and implantation, Tay-Sachs disease, dental practices, skin grafting, organ transplantation, hazardous medical procedures, establishment of death, the treatment of human corpses, eugenics, sterilization, contraception, the proper conduct of physicians, gene therapy, and cloning technology. Though no medical issue is outside the scope of Halachah, it is the halachic corpus itself that defines the principles that enable the Modern Orthodox jurist to determine what is permissible. To the extent that this endeavor requires a theological justification, the model is found in medieval Jewish philosophy of Maimonides and his disciples. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, do not accept the Maimonidean synthesis, are not interested in accommodation to modern life, and take a literalist approach to Scripture. For them, science and Judaism belong to different realms and their truth-claims are of unequal epistemic value.

In sum, while there is no theological impediment to the study of nature in Judaism, there has been some unease about the pursuit of science in traditional Jewish society. Either because scientific knowledge originated outside Jewish society, or because scientific inquiry could divert Jews focusing exclusively on Torah, premodern Jewish culture harbored suspicion toward the study of nature, classified as "secular learning." In the Middle Ages, especially in Spain and Southern France, Jews cultivated the natural sciences and excelled in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, but these achievements were overshadowed by the preoccupation with law and with Kabbalah in the early-modern period. In the modern period, the dialogue between science and religion has been configured in the context of Jewish social integration into Western society and the need to rethink the authority of Halachah. Reform Judaism, which champions full integration and denies the authority of the rabbis, takes for granted that Judaism is rational, and does not see science as a challenge to Judaism at all. Conservative Judaism, which promotes allegiance to the Jewish tradition along with admission that Halachah evolved over time, is aware of the challenge but considers scientific theories useful for a deeper understanding of Scripture and legal decision-making. Finally, modern Orthodoxy, which insists on the eternal validity of Halachah while being open to modern life, is most creative in attempting to respond to new scientific theories and technological advances. Most modern Jews, who define themselves religiously, and not only ethnically or culturally, regard scientific study of God's created world positively, while insisting that scientific means and ends be judged and/or complemented by Jewish religious and moral values.

See also Judaism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Medieval Period; Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Modern Period; Maimonides


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hava tirosh-samuelson


views updated May 11 2018


Judaism is the world's oldest monotheistic faith and traces its historical beginnings to the convenant established by God with the biblical Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants almost four thousand years ago. This covenant was later renewed and elaborated upon at Mount Sinai through the revelation of the Torah: divine teachings issued as commandments that are incumbent upon Jews of every generation.

Judaism, as it had been understood and lived for much of the last two thousand years, is largely a rabbinic creation, based on the teachings of the Hebrew bible as interpreted by rabbinic sages of the first few centuries before and after the common era. It further developed during the Middle Ages and modern era and, through changes and additions to its laws and customs, continues to develop today. There has never been one creed or specific set of beliefs to which all Jews have adhered. Nonetheless, the three components or "symbolic structures" of God, Torah, and Israel, referring to the land of Israel and the entire Jewish people, have been central to Judaism since its inception.

Jews and Judaism in America

Out of a total Jewish population of twelve million (less than 0.2 percent of the world's population), approximately 5.8 million Jews live in the United States today. While this number represents slightly more than 2 percent of the U.S. population, it makes the United States home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Given the voluntary nature of religious and ethnic identification in the United States, it is also the most diverse.

The first Jews to settle in America arrived in New Amsterdam, the unofficial capital of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, in September 1654. Just as their Spanish and Portuguese ancestors had fled to South America hundreds of years before, so these twenty-three Brazilian Jews came to America seeking physical protection and religious freedom. Like many Jews in Brazil, they had sided with the Dutch in their earlier, successful struggle to take Brazil from the Portuguese, hoping to gain the kinds of religious rights already enjoyed by the Jews of Holland. When Brazil was recaptured, all those who had openly sided with the Dutch fled, the twenty-three Jews who eventually sailed to New Amsterdam on the Ste. Catherine among them.

Soon after their arrival, however, Governor Peter Stuyvesant requested permission from the directors of the Dutch West India Company to expel such "hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ." Had a second, more outspoken group of Jewish settlers not launched their own counterappeal, he might well have succeeded. Nonetheless, Stuyvesant issued a number of regulations that remained in effect throughout Dutch rule: Jews could not build synagogues (though by 1756, at the order of the Dutch West India Company, he was forced to let Jews worship in private homes); they could not build a ritual bath or have their own ritual slaughterers (kosher butchers); and they could neither vote, hold office, open shops for retail trade, nor serve in the colony's militia. Consequently, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, when it appeared that New Netherland would soon fall into British hands, most of the Jews of the colony left, having failed to gain religious, political, or economic equality under the Dutch and unsure as to what their situation under the British would be. While some sought greater freedoms elsewhere in America, many set sail for the Netherlands or for other Dutch colonies in the West Indies where, without Stuyvesant, the local Jewish population could live more freely, and more fully, as Jews.

By 1700, there were about 250 Jews in America; by 1776 that number had increased to 2,500, no more than 0.1 percent of the colonial population. Most of the early immigrants were traditionally religious Sephardim —Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Settling in such major seaport cities as New York City, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah, many found work in areas related to shipping and international trade. They built synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths), purchased land for use as cemeteries, supervised the slaughter and preparation of meat, created mutual aid societies, and assumed communal responsibility for the religious education of their children. In each of the congregations they established, worship was in accordance with the liturgical customs of Sephardic Jews. Given the small size of pre–Revolutionary War Jewish communities, it is perhaps not surprising that throughout the eighteenth century, those Jewish immigrants of Central European origin (Ashkenazim) who settled in these cities, joined already existing Sephardic congregations rather than establishing synagogues of their own.

As early as 1730, the number of Ashkenazic Jews in America surpassed that of the Sephardim. This imbalance became even greater during the nineteenth century. Between 1830 and 1880, as the general population of America dramatically increased, almost 250,000 Jews immigrated to the United States, most from Central Europe. Unlike their eighteenth-century counterparts, the majority came with their families. Educated and primarily middle class, they were eager to take advantage of the many economic, political, and social opportunities that America offered and to build a new life in a country they soon considered to be home. Part of the attraction of America was its "newness." With neither a centuries-old history of anti-Semitism nor ghetto walls to serve as reminders of the medieval status of Jews as outsiders, and without an established church to formally identify them as "religious dissenters," America seemed to be filled with unlimited possibilities. Indeed, with religious affiliation voluntary and freedom of religion guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants saw America as offering them the unique opportunity to fully integrate into American society, as individuals and as Jews.

Coming to the United States during a period of great, geographical expansion, they spread out more widely than had earlier Jewish immigrants, in search of new places to settle and new economic opportunities. While many followed earlier patterns of Jewish immigration, settling in the north and southeast, a significant number joined the mid-nineteenth-century American migration to the west and southwest. Thousands put down roots in such pre-existing areas of Jewish settlement as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, establishing their own, German Jewish congregations, while others created new and vibrant German Jewish communities in such cities as Albany, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and (after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803) New Orleans and St. Louis. By the end of the century, sizeable and enduring German Jewish communities had been created in cities like Atlanta, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, and San Francisco as well.

By the 1850s, those who came to America from Germany included a number of ordained rabbis. Most of them were committed to moderate, if not radical, religious reform as a means of both adapting Judaism to the modern world and accommodating Judaism to America. Instigating liturgical and theological change in synagogues throughout the United States, leaders of America's nascent Reform movement soon created a network of organizations and institutions that facilitated Reform Judaism's influence and growth. Most notable were three national institutions established by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise: the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), with which over one hundred synagogues were affiliated by 1880; Hebrew Union College, America's first rabbinical seminary, located in Cincinnati (1875); and the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis (1889). (In 1950, Hebrew Union College merged with Rabbi Stephen Wise's Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Today, HUC-JIR has campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, and includes among its programs a Graudate School and Schools of Sacred Music and Education.)

Reform Judaism's overwhelming popularity began to decrease by the 1890s, as hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews began to arrive in America. Escaping the waves of anti-Semitic violence first set in motion after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, a great many of the 1,250,000 Eastern European Jews who arrived between 1881 and 1914 had abandoned Judaism long before coming to America. Most who remained traditionally religious were willing to make certain accommodations in ritual observance, yet few, if any, were willing to declare all of them "inessential," as had the Reformers. For most Eastern European Jewish immigrants and their children, a Judaism stripped of such ethnic elements as the use of Hebrew and distinctive prayer garb in communal worship; the dietary laws; and holidays and prayers reflecting an ongoing, emotional attachment to the land of Israel was no longer Judaism. Even if they had been attracted to the Reform movement, they would not have received a warm welcome, for most German Jewish immigrants and their children had little if any desire to worship alongside of poor, uneducated, and not yet Americanized Jews who threatened their own, successful integration into American society.

Almost all of the congregations established by the new immigrants were Orthodox. A great many of them were tiny, impoverished congregations where immigrants worshiped and socialized with other traditionally religious Jews who came from the same area or town. Among the more religiously devout were thousands who identified themselves as hasidic (though Hasidism primarily grew in the United States after World War II). They, like those immigrant rabbis who joined the newly created Association of American Orthodox Rabbis (Agudath Ha-Rabonim), opposed the Americanization of Judaism, a stance maintained by the association even today. On the other hand, a significant number of immigrants and their children were attracted to a more modern form of Orthodoxy. While modern Orthodoxy, like Hasidism, has experienced greatest growth since 1945, earlier organizations and institutions facilitating its success include the Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York City (1897); the Rabbinical Council of the Union of Jewish Congregations of America, created by Elchanan Seminary graduates as a modern alternative to the Agudas HaRabonim; Yeshiva College (1928, chartered as a university in 1945) and Yeshiva's Stern College for Women (1954). They also include Young Israel, a movement that, by the 1920s, introduced greater decorum and the use of English into traditional Jewish worship and sponsored public lectures aimed at attracting young, well-educated Jews to Orthodoxy.

The religious movement that proved most successful in attracting Eastern European Jewish immigrants and especially, their children, was Conservative Judaism, with its emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and its dual commitments to tradition and change. Established by a number of prominent, traditional rabbis in direct response to the radical universalism of Reform and the parochialism of Orthodoxy, it began in Januay 1887 with the opening of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. Reorganized in 1902 under the leadership of Rabbi Solomon Schechter, the seminary soon boasted a distinguished faculty, a library, and a Teachers Institute to prepare lay people for careers in Jewish education. Established in 1909, the Teachers Institute was ably led for over fifty years by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of the seminary's first ordinees, who later founded American Judaism's fourth major religious movement: Reconstructionism.

From 1902 until his death in 1915, Solomon Schechter laid a philosophical and organizational foundation for Conservative Judaism that remains today. He helped initiate the establishment of the Rabbinical Assembly (of Conservative Rabbis); instigated the creation of the movement's congregational arm, the United Synagogue of America (now known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) in 1913; and in numerous essays, books, and lectures, expounded an understanding of Judaism that offered an all-embracing concept of Jewish peoplehood as Klal Yisroel (translated by Schechter as " Catholic Israel"). He unabashedly proclaimed a love for the land of Israel, as Judaism's spiritual and cultural home, and viewed religious observance within the context of a rabbinic, legal system (halakhah) that contained within it the mechanisms for change.

Contemporary Concerns and Developments

According to a 1990 population survey conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), more than 50 percent of American Jews who religiously identify themselves as Jewish do not belong to a synagogue. Included among the unaffiliated are those who confuse, or conflate, Judaism with Jewishness ( Jewish ethnic and cultural identity); those whose observance is limited to such family-oriented holidays as Chanukah and Passover, attending synagogue on the Jewish High Holidays and, perhaps, fasting on Yom Kippur; and those who are, in fact, affiliated Jews, though they are not members of religious congregations. Actively supporting such seemingly secular Jewish organizations as those involved in communal fund-raising, Jewish education, social service, support for Israel, or the fight against anti-Semitism, may not appear to be religiously motivated. Yet, as Jonathan Woocher convincingly argues in his book Sacred Survival (1986), such involvement is, in fact, an expression of a "civil Judaism" rooted in a distinct, Jewish religious sensibility and a passionate commitment to the survival of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish moral values.

Among the 41 percent of American Jewish households with current synagogue affiliation, 43 percent are affiliated with the Conservative movement; 35 percent with Reform, 2 percent with Reconstructionism, and 16 percent with Orthodoxy. The remaining 4 percent, who listed their affiliation on the CJF survey as "other" or "don't know," presumably belong to a Jewish religious fellowship (havurah) or group that is not affiliated with American Judaism's four major denominations. Included among them are those within the Jewish Renewal movement, a loosely organized, international network of havurot (fellowship members) that see themselves as part of a larger Jewish alliance committed to the healing and transformation of one's self, one's communities (both local and national), and the world. Particular concerns of this movement include mysticism, feminism, and ecology. Historically rooted in the American Jewish counterculture of the 1960s, its popularly acknowledged spiritual elder is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of ALEPH: [The] Alliance for Jewish Renewal. While the number of those self-identifying as Renewal Jews is relatively small, its progressive political and religious agenda continues to reach a wide Jewish audience through books and publications such as Tikkun, founded and edited by Michael Lerner, and New Menorah and The Shalom Report, published by Arthur Waskow's Shalom Center, now a division of ALEPH. In addition to special events and presentations throughout the country, ALEPH offers courses, holiday programs, and spirititual retreats at Elat Chayyim, its retreat center in upstate New York.

Contemporary Concerns and Developments

Reform Judaism

While Reform Judaism continues to place greatest emphasis on Judaism as a religion whose essence is ethical monotheism, the last few decades have witnessed a greater appreciation for rituals and observances long dismissed by the movement as oldfashioned, if not obsolete. The Centenary Perspective, issued by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1976, counterbalanced Reform's long-held universalistic hopes with a particular focus on Jewish survival. Without mandating a specific code of behavior, the perspective insisted that Jewish living does not just mean living an ethical life but engaging in activities "which promote the survival of the Jewish people and enhance its existence." Suggested activities included creating a Jewish home, observing the Sabbath and holy days, engaging in private and public worship, and making a serious commitment to Jewish study. At its May 1999 convention in Pittsburgh, the CCAR adopted a new statement of principles. Reidentifying those activities suggested in the 1976 perspective as modes of living to which the Reform movement was committed, it also affirmed the importance of Hebrew knowledge and of religious obligations, some long observed by Reform Jews, others demanding renewed attention. While the creation of ARZA (The Assocation of Reform Zionists of America) in 1967 signaled a radical departure from the movement's early anti-Zionism, the 1999 perspective, addressing itself to all Reform Jews, went even further. It described love for the Jewish people as a mitzvah (religious obligation), affirmed Reform's commitment to the State of Israel, and encouraged immigration to Israel (aliyah), acknowledging the unique opportunities for Jewish living that it affords.

Yet despite what some have heralded, or decried, as Reform's return to tradition, the movement continues to support ideas and activities that reflect an ongoing adaptation to modernity. As the 1999 perspective makes clear, Reform Judaism remains firmly committed to egalitarianism. This is reflected in the movement's early obliteration of sex-differentiated religious roles; the ordination of women as rabbis (since 1972); women's investiture as cantors (since 1975), and the recent creation of gender-inclusive liturgies. Reform's most radical break with tradition remains the CCAR's Patrilineal Discent Decision of 1983. In contrast to rabbinic law's insistence that in cases of mixed marriage, religious status follows that of the mother (matrilineality), the CCAR maintained that such offspring are Jewish if either parent is a Jew and if he or she is religiously raised and self-identifies as Jewish. Moreover, having long accepted interested gay and lesbian Jewish congregations as members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and more recently, qualified gay and lesbian Jews into the Reform rabbinate (1990), the movement continues to see itself as an inclusive community, open to different kinds of families "regardless of their sexual orientation," including those who have converted or inter-married, who are committed to creating a Jewish home.

Conservative Judaism

Having emerged as a movement driven less by ideology than by specific actions in reaction to the extremes of Orthodoxy and reform, Conservative Judaism long refrained from promulgating any ideological platforms or perspectives. Indeed, as some sociologists have observed, the lack of a clear-cut ideology may well contribute to Conservatism's wide appeal. At the very least, it helps explain why there remains less uniformity in religious attitudes and behavior among Conservative synagogues, and between Conservative clergy and laity, than in other Jewish religious movements (though the increasing use of the movement's recently published prayer book, Sim Shalom, has helped promote greater liturgical uniformity among congregations). It also helps explain what Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the seminary, described as the "admirable and intriguing" tension lying beneath the surface of the movement's first collective statement of principles, Emet ve'Emunah (Truth and Faith), issued by lay and rabbinic leaders in 1988.

Recognizing the difficulty of effecting change within the framework of halakhah, the Rabbinical Assembly's Law Committee has long maintained that its decisions are not binding, giving Conservative pulpit rabbis far greater power in establishing congregational religious policy than that exercised by rabbis serving other types of congregations. It has also prompted the movement to put difficult issues on hold, sometimes "indefinitely," including the recently debated question of whether or not to admit openly lesbian and gay Jews into the Conservative rabbinate. Because the spectrum of those self-identifying as Conservative Jews is fairly large, the long-standing concern that the movement might split was realized following the seminary's 1983 decision to admit women into its rabbinical program and the subsequent ordination of Amy Eilberg in 1985 (soon thereafter, women were admitted into the seminary's School of Sacred Music, invested as cantors, and after a protracted struggle, gained entry into Conservatism's professional cantorial association as well). Opposed to these decisions, a small but vocal group of Conservative rabbis and lay people formed their own Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism. Still small in number, the group (now known as the Union for Traditional Judaism), no longer identifies with the Conservative movement, thus ending the split initially caused by their departure.


More so than any other American Jewish movement, Reconstructionism remains closely tied to the thought of one individual: Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), a Conservative rabbi whose emphasis on Judaism as an ongoing, ever-changing religious civilization created by the Jewish people, led to the establishment of a small, yet vibrant movement whose date of origin is considered by some to be 1922 (with Kaplan's assuming leadership of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City), by others, 1934 (the publication date of his monumental Judaism as a Civilization). Its major organizations and institutions currently include the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Wyncote, Pennsylvania (first opened in Philadelphia in 1968); the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot. Decisions reached by other Jewish movements after years of debate and dissension have been arrived at more easily, and with far less fanfare, by Reconstructionist leaders. Such decisions have included the ordination of women as rabbis (women were admitted to RRC from its inception), the ordination of openly gay and lesbian Jews, and the acceptance of patrilineal descent. Reconstructionist prayer books of the 1940s deleted references to the election of the Jewish people, God as a supernatural miracle worker, and a future messianic redeemer. Its newer liturgies, including the Sabbath and holiday prayer book published in 1994, have "remained faithful to these principles," while including formerly deleted prayers as liturgical options. Other recent liturgical changes include the use of gender-inclusive language, poems and prayers written by contemporary Jewish men and women, and new, theologically diverse, metaphors for God.


The term "Orthodoxy" applies to Jews who strive to live in accordance with God's teachings as revealed in Judaism's sacred texts and codified by rabbinic sages. It does not, however, refer either to a unified movement or a single religious community. Thus, for example, concerns and trends within modern Orthodoxy are very different from those within Hasidism, while Hasidism itself does not refer to a single group of Jews, but rather to a number of different religious communities, each with its own leaders, beliefs, and particular religious concerns.

Since the 1970s, some of the most visible developments within modern Orthodoxy have concerned the religious roles and education of women. There has been a proliferation of traditional women's prayer groups, created by Orthodox women as a means of participating more fully in public worship. Such groups meet once or twice a month, most often on Shabbat morning, and conduct a full service, with the exception of prayers for which a minyan (prayer quorum) is needed. Since men are not present, participants are halakhically permitted to lead prayers, recite the Torah blessings, and read from the Torah scroll. While strong opposition to these groups continues, they continue to receive the guidance and support of Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who believe that to seek more Jewish responsibility is not anti-halakhic but, to the contrary, claims halakhah as "the birthright of all Jews." Since February 1997, over a thousand women, and some men, have attended annual conferences on feminism and Orthodoxy in New York City. The interest and excitement they have generated, along with the development of new educational programs, growing demands to remedy halakhically sanctioned injustices against women, and, since December 1997, the hiring of a female "congregational intern" to serve as pastor, teacher, and counselor at Manhattan's Lincoln Square Synagogue, demonstrate that even among Jews who accept halakhically based, gender-distinctive roles, a growing number are actively seeking to raise women's legal status, while creating new opportunities for women to participate more knowledgeably, and more fully, in communal religious life.

Hasidic Jews continue to live in tightly knit, pietistic communities, bound together by their strict adherence to Jewish law; devotion to the rebbe (the charismatic leader of a particular, Hasidic dynasty or group); distinctive dress, customs, and educational institutions; a unique sense of history; and, to as great a degree as possible, isolation from "outsiders" (including other Jews) and from the modern world. Political and ideological disagreements continue to engender hostility among Hasaidic communities, including rabbinical supervision of kashrut (the proper observance of Judaism's dietary laws); political recognition and support of the modern State of Israel (still opposed by some Satmar Hasidim); and out-reach to nonobservant Jews (a major effort of Lubavitcher Hasidim since the 1960s). Finally, there continues to be disagreement over the immanence of messianic redemption. By the early 1990s, many Lubavitchers were heralding their rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as the messiah. Since Schneerson's death in 1994, most Lubavitch Jews have accepted this belief, some denying his death, others awaiting his physical resurrection.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah; Chanukah; Crypto-Judaism; Divorce, Jewish; Hasidim; Heschel, Abraham Joshua; Holocaust; Holy Land; Inclusive Language; Jewish High Holy Days; Jewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Jewish Renewal; Jews for Jesus; Judeo-Christian Tradition; Kabbalah; Kahane, Meir; Kaplan, Mordecai; Kippah; Kosher; Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement; Marriage, Jewish; Menorah; Midrash; Mikveh; Mysticism; Ordination of Women; Passover; Rabbinate; Religious Persecution; Sabbath; Schechter, Solomon; Shavuot; Shivah; Synagogue; Talmud; Torah; Zionism.


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