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Judaism: An Overview

Author: Lena Santos

Judaism, the fundamental religion of the Jews, is the oldest and purely monotheistic religion of the world. For over three thousand years, Judaism continuously remained the religion, philosophy and way of life of the Jewish people. The Jewish religion is recognizable by its belief in one, single God (Monotheism); its belief that Jews are the “chosen people” through God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses; its belief that God will restore to them the ‘promised land’ to preserve and protect their ethnic and territorial identity; its specific laws and practices, particularly the Ten Commandments; and its belief in the coming of the Messiah to liberate the Jewish people from sufferings and persecution.

According to Biblical accounts, God renewed its covenant to Moses and the Israelites through the Ten Commandments which is the essence of Judaism. God commanded the people of Israel to love and worship only one God and to love one another.

Christianity and Islam both shared with Judaism the same belief that there is only one God. However, they differ in the matter of recognition of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and the Son of God. Judaism and Islam recognizes Jesus Christ as a one of the greatest prophets, second to Moses while Christianity recognizes Jesus Christ as the son of God, the Messiah, who sacrificed his life for the salvation of mankind for their sins committed to God, the Father.

In modern times, and unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism has no central authority that would teach or guide an exact religious dogma. For this reason, different variations on the basic beliefs of Judaism have arisen but to some extent these variations still continue to adhere to the basic or central beliefs of Judaism.

Thus, Judaism has evolved into several religious sects: Orthodox Judaism; Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism. Their main differences lie in their approach of the Jewish law. Orthodox Judaism teaches that the Torah and Jewish laws are divine in origin, eternal, unchangeable and should be strictly followed. Conservative and Reform Judaism are more liberal though but still differ in the interpretation of the Jewish laws.

Conservative Judaism promotes a more traditional interpretation of the Jewish laws and customs. Conservative Jews are more open-minded to modern culture, in the observance of the Jewish non-fundamentalist teaching of its principles of faith, and observance of the traditional Shabbat and Kashrut. It also teaches that the Jewish laws are always responsive to changing conditions. However, it rejected the Orthodox idea that the Tora, which is a divine document written by prophets under the guidance and inspiration of God to reflect His will, is dictated to Moses by God.

Reform Judaism (also called Liberal or Progressive Judaism) emphasizes that Jewish laws are a set of general guidelines rather than a set of restrictions and obligations for the Jews to follow. However, it holds that Judaism is a religion and follows the observance of its moral laws and the ethical teachings of the Prophets.

Other small Reform religious movements of Judaism that evolved are: the Humanistic Judaism, non-theistic and recognizes Jewish culture and history as the sources of Jewish identity and found mainly in Israel and North America; the Reconstructionist Judaism, rejects the idea that Jewish law requires observance but acknowledge the role of the community in formulating the observances to follow; and the Jewish Renewal, a North American movement wherein men and women participate equally in prayer in the synagogue and emphasizes spirituality and social justice rather than the issues involving the Jewish laws.

Rabbinic Judaism or Rabbinism has been the original and principal form of Judaism since the 6th century CE, after the Talmud has been codified. According to Rabbinism, the written Torah law will not be correctly interpreted without the oral Torah because it specifically identifies actions that are allowed by law called the halakha, “the way”. However, in the later part of the 18th century, the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment has caused the division of Ashkenazi (Western) Jewry into various religious movements in North America and Anglo countries in Europe. Today and outside Israel, these denominations are: Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed Judaism.

Also in today’s Israel, the Jewish movements resulted into various classifications of the Jews into “religious” (dati), refers to those called Orthodox or haredi (Ultra-Orthodox); “traditional” (masorti), refers Israeli families of “eastern” origin (Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa); and “secular” (hiloni) which refers to Israeli families of western European origin and who ignores organized religious life.

At present, Judaism is the smallest of the world’s four great monotheistic religions- Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is practiced mainly by Jews by birth and those converted to Judaism. The Jewish population estimated at 15 million people, more or less, is scattered all over the world, with 40% living in the United States of America, 40% in Israel and the remaining 20% resides in other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa.

JUDAISM, the great mother of all monotheistic religions, despite political repression in the ancient times, the evolution of the religious reformist movements, and the theological attacks of the powerful Christian Churches on the views of the Jews and Judaism, has survived the test of times in human history.

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