Judaism, the first and oldest of the three great monotheistic faiths, is the religion and way of life of the Jewish people. The basic laws and tenets of Judaism are derived from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
The most important teaching and tenet of Judaism is that there is one God, incorporeal and eternal, who wants all people to do what is just and merciful. All people are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
A Covenanted People
The Jewish people serve God by study, prayer and by the observance of the commandments set forth in the Torah. This faithfulness to the biblical Covenant can be understood as the “vocation,” “witness” and “mission” of the Jewish people.
Unlike some religions, Judaism does not believe that other peoples must adopt its own religious beliefs and practices in order to be redeemed. It is by deeds, not creed, that the world is judged; the righteous of all nations have a share in the “world to come.”
For this reason, Judaism is not an active missionary religion. The community does accept converts, but this is at the decision of competent Jewish religious authorities. It is not simply a matter of personal self-identification.
Sacred and Religious Writings
The most important Jewish religious text is the Bible itself (what some Christians call the “Old Testament”), consisting of the books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE, Jewish religious scholars in the Land of Israel compiled the six volumes of the Mishnah in order to record and preserve the canon of Jewish religious legislation, laws and customs. During the next five centuries, this was supplemented by the Gemara, recorded commentaries, discussions, and debates contributed by rabbinical scholars in the Land and in Babylon. Together these two texts comprise the Talmud which remains a living source of religious study, thought and commentary.
Much of Jewish religious observance is centered in the home. This includes daily prayers which are said three times each day - in the morning, the afternoon, and after sunset.
Congregational prayers usually take place in a synagogue, a Jewish house of prayer and study. On Mondays, Thursdays, the Sabbath, festivals and High Holy Days, the synagogue service includes readings in Hebrew from the Torah and the Prophets.
The synagogue service can be led by any knowledgeable member of the congregation. In most synagogues this function is performed by a cantor or by a rabbi, an ordained religious teacher, who has studied in a yeshiva, a Jewish religious seminary.
Among his professional duties, a rabbi is expected to conduct weekly or daily study sessions for members of the congregation. The rabbi can also be called upon to give informed decisions concerning application of Jewish religious law and tradition to daily life. This may include adjudication of personal disputes. More serious matters, such as religious divorce, are referred to a beit din, a local Jewish religious court.
Health permitting, all Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day after birth. Practiced since the days of Abraham, the Brit Milah is a physical sign of the Covenant.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
When a Jewish girl is 12, and a Jewish boy is 13, they come of age in terms of their religious duties and responsibilities. On this occasion, the Bar Mitzvah boy is for the first time called up to read the Torah portion and the reading from the Prophets. In congregations where women participate in conducting the service, Bat Mitzvah girls are also called up to read from the Torah and the Prophets.
Traditional Jews observe the dietary laws derived from the Book of Leviticus. These laws include prohibitions against the eating of meat and dairy products at the same meal, humane ritual slaughter of animals, and total prohibition against the eating of blood, pork, shell-fish and other proscribed foods.
Though the dietary laws may be of hygienic benefit, the principal motivation seems to have been a desire to instill morality, self-control and self-abnegation in the personal lives of a people expected to observe the laws of the Torah even in the worst of circumstances.
However, in this, as in other matters of Jewish religious law and custom, the degree and manner of observance differs among the three major contemporary trends in Judaism - Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
Festivals and Days of Remembrance
The seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, a biblically ordained day of rest. No work is permitted, except that connected with worship or the preservation of life and health. Central to the observance of the Sabbath is the morning reading in synagogue of the week’s portion of the Torah. The High Holy Days (observed in September - October) are a time of prayer and solemn introspection. The two days of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, mark the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe that end with the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The three major festivals of the Jewish religious year are also biblically ordained. Pesach (Passover) commemorates the biblical Passover and Exodus from Egypt: Shavuot (Pentecost, the “Festival of Weeks”) commemorates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; and Sukkot (Tabernacles) commemorates the Sojourn in the Wilderness.
Today, as in ancient times, these three festivals are occasions of pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, with prayer at the Western Wall, a remnant of the outer retaining wall of the Temple Mount. The destruction of the Temple is mourned on the fast of Tisha B’av (the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av). Other Jewish holidays include Hanukkah, commemorating the victory of the Maccabees and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem; Purim, commemorating the rescue of the Jewish people in the days of Queen Esther; Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, honoring the
memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis; and Israel Independence Day, on which the restoration of Israel to national sovereignty is celebrated.
Centrality of Israel
The Land of Israel is central to the history, life, hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people. It is toward Jerusalem that observant Jews turn in prayer, and it is here, in the Land promised in the Bible, that Jewish custom and tradition, as well as the identity of the Jewish people, can be most fully realized.
Traditionally, the Jewish people live in expectation of the coming of a Messianic Age in which universal peace will be established on earth according to the vision of the prophets of Israel.