The roots of the Jewish religion are ancient ones that have grown and developed over thousands of years. Its tomes of literature and conceptual ideals have filled whole libraries. Each and every stage of its development and outlook have been discussed and debated by Jews and non-Jews for centuries. In this introduction, we will discuss the primary pillars of the Jewish religion.
If there is one thing all believing Jews can agree on – it is that there is only one God. This God has a number of names, each highlighting one of His attributes, but the names all refer to the same God. According to Judaism, God is beyond this world, all powerful and all knowing. He alone created the world and serves as its ruler. As the Jewish prophet Isaiah (8th century BCE) said in his book (Chapter 45, Verse 7) “I form the light, and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil, I the LORD do all these things”.
Indeed, idolatry, or more specifically the prohibition against believing in or worshipping multiple Gods is considered one of Judaism’s gravest sins. There are many stories where Jews offered their life rather than be forced to bow down to idols. This prohibition is so severe that Jews are forbidden by religious law to make any pictures or sculptures of humans or animals.
Judaism is a religion which is based primarily on ritual observance and law. This law covers all aspects of life – from social and political relations to ethics, prayer and food. Adherence to these laws is one of the cornerstones of Jewish life – it is the framework within which all Jewish life takes place.
The written foundation of the law is the Torah, or the Pentateuch. The Torah is divided into five books – Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra, Bamidbar and Devarim (in English: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). According to tradition, the books were written by Moses, the greatest prophet who ever lived according to Judaism. These books contain the core laws and instructions which were given by God to his prophet Moses in the 13th century BCE, as well as the history of the Jewish people from the creation of the world until the 13th century BCE
Although not holding as high a status as the Torah, the other two sections of the Jewish Bible (Neviim and Ketuvim, or Prophets and Scriptures) also carry religious weight when it comes to the law. The second section of the Jewish Bible, the Prophets’ books, contains the history and teachings of the Jews and their prophets during the First Temple period (1200-586 BC) and the beginning of the Second Temple period (6th-5th century BC). The third section, the scriptures, contains assorted historical and ethical writings of prominent Jews from both the First and Second Temple periods. These texts, while not as binding as the Torah, also serve as the basis for Jewish rules and teachings.
Expounding on this foundation lies the Oral Torah. A combination of ancient oral tradition and textual interpretation, the Oral Torah is the tool by which the written Torah is kept flexible and adaptable to each new generation, thus ensuring that Judaism remains a “living faith”. This Oral Torah was handed down from generation to generation from teacher to student, as well as added to through textual interpretation.
While Jews avoided recording the Oral Torah for many generations, Rabbi Yehuda Nassi, a great religious authority (2nd-3rd century CE), decided to record the teachings, laws and rules of interpretation of the Oral Torah to prevent it from being forgotten. This record is known as the Mishna. These teachings and laws were subsequently developed in a centuries-long discourse that was put to writing in two collections of books both known as the Talmud.
There was the Talmud written in Israel known as the Talmud Yerushalmi (literally: the Jerusalem Talmud) and the Talmud written in Babylon (modern day Iraq) known as the Bavli. The Babylonian Talmud is generally considered among Jews to have greater authority due to its greater length and breadth and better editing. The Babylonian Talmud is the written binding text of Oral law principles and legislation. Subsequent generations of religious authorities, known as the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim (In Hebrew: Higher Ones, First Ones, Later Ones) continue to develop and perfect the Oral Torah to this day.
A People Apart; A Light Unto the Nations
One of the ideas that are spread throughout the Torah but also in the other holy written books of Judaism is the idea that the Jews are a standard bearer for humanity. The Torah summarizes these ideas quite nicely in the book of Exodus (Chapter 19, Verse 6): “You [Israel – A.W.] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, these are the words you are to speak to the Israelites”. Many subsequent Jewish writings speak of Judaism’s unique mission among the peoples of the world.
Jews disagree on what exactly this mission is and how to carry it out. Some see this mission as acting towards social justice and ending human suffering – thus carrying out the ideal of Tikkun Olam (literally: repairing the world). Others see this mission as establishing a separate, ideal society of God worship from which the rest of the world can draw inspiration. Many others believe that this mission will be fulfilled in the messianic era and that until then the Jews must concentrate on survival.
The idea of the mission of the Jews and the image they project to the rest of the world deeply informs Jewish conduct. This is especially the case since the mission involves spreading the faith and good name of God. To act disgracefully projects badly not only on individual Jews but on God himself, resulting in a desecration of His name. Such an infraction is one of the worst infractions of Jewish law one can commit. Conversely, an act which gives a positive impression on non-Jews is considered a sanctification of His name.
Although it is not part of the obligations of Judaism, connection with the world of the spirit has always been present to one degree or another in Judaism in most of its forms. Sometimes this spirituality was minimal; an abstract connection to God and nothing more. In other cases, the spiritual connection was far deeper, more detailed and more profound.
There are two key schools of spirituality that reverberate today: Kabbala and Chasidut, and the two are connected to each other. The roots of both have to do with an ancient tradition of individually special Jews who led more strictly religious lives. In the first Temple period, this task was largely restricted to prophets. From the second temple period onward, there were always small groups of Jews, known as Chassidim (literally: devout people), who lived strict, more isolated lives to come closer to their creator. These groups developed ideas of communicating with God and reaching the spiritual world that lies beyond the physical one.
The school which succeeded in reaching the broader populace and maintaining its appeal was the Kabbalah (literally: receiving) mystical school of the 12th-13th centuries in Spain and southern France. The central book of this school is the Book of the Zohar, published in the 13th century. Attributed to the 2nd century religious sage R. Shimon Bar Yochai, the Book of the Zohar served as the foundation for the schools of Jewish mysticism that developed later on. The most famous of these mystical schools was the Lurianic school of Kabbala (named after Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), developed in the city of Tzfat in the land of Israel in the 16th century.
Briefly, Kabbalah dedicated itself to connecting to the spiritual world and the Divine through religious experiences and careful study. Students of Kabbalah spent their time finding the Divine in every aspect of life and nature – including nature, holy texts and even the shape of Hebrew letters. Kabbalah scholars argued for a close connection between the earthly world and the spiritual world and that any action – good or bad – affects the spiritual world as well.
If Kabbalah aimed at bringing humans to the Divine, Chassidut aimed to bring the Divine to humans. Started in the 18th century by the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Divine Name”, Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, 1698-1760), Chasiddut stressed the idea that ordinary Jews can connect with God. If Kabbalah students argued that only years of study and isolation can bring one to God, Chassidut argued that any Jew can do so. By praying fervently, fulfilling religious commandments with happiness, enjoying nature and the world around oneself, one can achieve deveikut (adherence to or a connection with God). Thus any Jew, even an uneducated one, can connect to God.