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JUDAISM - AN OVERVIEW

This overview follows the outline in the NSW Studies of Religion Syllabus.

        

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Introduction

There are approximately 14 million Jewish people in the world.  5.5 million live in Israel, some 6 million in the US and about half a million each in the UK, France, South America and the former Soviet Union.
 
The first Jews came to Australia as convicts with the First Fleet. Since then Jewish people have arrived in Australia in each generation, many as refugees from persecution. There are presently about 110,000 Jews in Australia. Over 90,000 live in Melbourne or Sydney.

The Jews are not a 'race', as they comprise people of all skin colours and racial types. Jews resolve the question of definition by describing themselves as a 'people', with an identity which incorporates elements including religion, culture, language and historical memory. It follows that Judaism is more than a faith or a belief system. It might best be described as a religious culture, originating in the historical narrative of the Jewish people.

In this sense Jews see themselves as a family, tracing their origins to the Biblical Patriarchs, 
generally dated as about 1900 BCE (Before the Common Era). Two thousand years later, in the year 70 CE, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and this is the traditional date for the beginning of the present Jewish Dispersion. As they moved throughout the world, the Jewish people brought with them particular spiritual and ethical values, a body of inspired literature and a sense of continuing history - the religion known as Judaism.

Jews believe in a single God who is without shape or form, who is both the creator and ruler of the universe, and who prescribes a moral law for humanity.

(The Jewish concept of 'ethical monotheism' has passed to Christianity and Islam with some variations. See also Modern Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive on the Divine character of the Law.)
 
The key sacred text of Judaism is the Hebrew Bible (called the “Old Testament” by Christians). In addition there is the 'Oral Law' collated in later writings. See The Hebrew Bible and The Literature of Judaism.

Origins of Judaism

See The Story of the Jewish People for a chronological outline of Jewish history.

  • Abraham and The Covenant

    Jews trace their ancestry, as well as the origins of their religion, to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For a summary of Abraham’s physical and spiritual journeys, see Abraham and The Covenant, which also examines the Biblical idea of a nation committed to God.
  • Moses, the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah

    The release from slavery in Egypt and the giving of the Torah (Law) in the desert at Mount Sinai are central elements in Jewish historical memory. See Moses, the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah.

  • Modern Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive

    The emancipation of the Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century led to the development of Progressive Judaism, particularly in Germany, which sought to adapt Jewish law and liturgy to European customs and attitudes. Today Progressive Judaism, also known as Liberal or Reform Judaism, attracts the affiliation of the majority of Jews in the United States, while a majority of Jews in Australia are affiliated to Orthodox synagogues. The twentieth century also saw the development of Conservative Judaism, which follows Orthodox practice in most but not all areas, with an emphasis on full equality for men and women. See Variants within Judaism


    Principal Beliefs of Judaism

    Unlike Christianity or Islam, Judaism has no dogma, and metaphysical beliefs are not prescribed. The idea of a single deity as the creator of the universe with incorporeal, omnipotent and eternal attributes is simply taken as given, and is proclaimed in Jewish literature and prayer. Physical representations of the divine are forbidden. 

    In the 12th century CE Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher and physician born in Spain, wrote the “Thirteen Principles of the Faith”, which can be found here in Principal Beliefs of Judaism. Maimonides' Thirteen Principles are not theologically binding in any sense, and there are differing Jewish attitudes towards them.

    Sacred Texts

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  • The Hebrew Bible, referred to by Christians as the 'Old Testament', is not so much a religious text as a library of inspired literature. Its books were written, edited and collated over a period of nearly a thousand years, and comprise a great storehouse of history, law and legend, poetry, philosophy and prophetic insight. See The Hebrew Bible for a summary.
  • The Talmud represents the concept of an 'oral law', which is derived from the Biblical law by a process of interpretation. The Talmud is an encyclopaedic work of law and literature completed in the sixth century and comprising 63 Tractates and over four million words. See The Talmud and other Literature, for an introduction to the Talmud and other continuing legal, philosophical and mystical texts.
  • Extracts from the literature illustrating Jewish beliefs also appear in Principal Beliefs of Judaism.

    Core Ethical Teachings of Judaism

    Jewish culture, sourced in the moral law of Torah, includes an emphasis on justice, including social justice; “loving-kindness”, “righteousness”, and individual liberty. See Core Ethical Teachings of Judaism.

    Observance

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  • Shabbat

    The Sabbath is the only one of the mass of Jewish observances which is included in the preliminary syllabus, representing as it does the one religious observance prescribed by the Ten Commandments, to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Shabbat is considered to be the central element of Jewish practice, combining as it does the importance of both rest and freedom. See Shabbat.

    Significant People and Ideas

    The following significant figures appear on this website:

  • Isaiah

    The moral vision of Isaiah, expressed with poetic grandeur in the eighth century BCE, represents a profound contribution to human civilisation. His condemnation of hypocrisy, immorality and social oppression and his vision of a world of nations living in peace under Divine justice remain central features of the Judaeo-Christian ideal.  See Isaiah.

  • Hillel

    From about 20 BCE until about 10 CE, Hillel was president of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which operated both as a political assembly and as the superior court in Judea under Roman rule. As a leader of the Pharisees, the rabbinical architects of the Oral Law, Hillel was a pioneer in the adaptation of Biblical law to current needs by a process of interpretation. His moral pronouncements still remain profoundly influential. See Hillel.

  • Rashi and the Medieval Commentators

    The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw a flowering of Jewish culture in the Rhineland and in Islamic Spain. It was a period of both prosperity and oppression which produced encyclopaedic commentaries, poetic works which adorned the liturgy, and legal reforms including the development of women’s rights. See Rabbi Solomon Isaac (“Rashi”).

  • Nehama Leibowitz and Jewish Feminism

    This article is a personal memoir by a former student of Professor Nehama Leibowitz. Professor Leibowitz died in Jerusalem at the age of 92, renowned for her religious insights and her remarkable personal qualities, expressed in teaching and writing. See Nehama Leibowitz and Jewish Feminism.


    Ethics

    A survey of Jewish attitudes to abortion, organ transplantation, in vitro fertilisation, cloning and euthanasia appears in Bioethics in Judaism. See also Environmental Ethics in Judaism and The Environment, Food and Kashrut.


    Significant Practices in the Life of Adherents

  • Death and Mourning

    Jewish burial is performed by the community without profit, and there are particular mourning practices. See Death and Mourning.

  • Marriage

    Marriage is created by the bride and groom following the procedures prescribed by Jewish law, usually accompanied by traditional ceremonies. There are also procedures for divorce by mutual consent. See Marriage.

  • Synagogue Services

    In Judaism the elements of the architecture of synagogues are prescribed, as is the traditional liturgy, which in Orthodox synagogues is entirely in the Hebrew language. Services may be held outside the synagogue in any place at all with a quorum of ten men, and many ceremonies take place in the home. See Synagogue Services.


    Religion and Peace

    The writing of Isaiah provides one example of the Jewish concept that peace between nations is the ideal. As a defenceless minority for two thousand years, Jews have also found it necessary to avoid conflict at almost any cost. However, Judaism acknowledges the need for self-defence, at the same time as it opposes and rejects aggressive war. See The Ideal of Peace in Judaism and Isaiah.


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    Summary by Ian Lacey

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