Judaism is very difficult to define because in truth it is a religion, a race of people, and a culture all at the same time. There are people who have no Jewish blood in them and practice Judaism as a religion. Still others are complete atheists yet practice elements of Judaism as a means of cultural identity. In both instances it would be entirely proper to call these people Jews. Despite the fact that Judaism cuts a wide swath of inclusiveness, there is a proper and visible religion that can be examined on its own. As we look at Judaism the religion we will consider its major beliefs, its central practices, and its different divisions. Finally we will consider its similarities and differences with Christianity.

First and foremost, Judaism is a religion of the Book. “..Judaism consists of the religious tradition enshrined in the holy books, expressed by the holy words, deeds, way of living, principles of faith subsumed under the word Torah.” The Jews call their scriptures the Tenakh which is an acronym for the three major divisions within what is more widely known as the Old Testament. Jews of course do not call it the Old Testament for the reason that in their minds nothing has been superceded. Writings central to the faith of Judaism are the Bible (Old Testament), the Talmud (rabbinical teaching on the Law), and the Siddur or prayer book. The New Testament and Apocrypha are permitted reading in Judaism but considered to have only historic interest and are external to scripture. Midrash is the Hebrew method of interpretation of the scripture. There are many forms ranging from practical to fanciful and are contained in two major writings known as the Mekhilta and Midrash Rabbah which are large collections of commentaries dating back to the third and fourth centuries AD. Unlike Islam, which is related through a strong connection with Abraham and Moses, Judaism is quite fluid in its ongoing relationship with the Torah. While the Torah is absolutely unchangeable, its interpretation and application does evolve in time, place, and circumstances. This is not to say that they play fast and loose with the scriptures but rather that adjustments are made to fit the circumstances and times in which the Jews live.

While there are many beliefs held within Judaism, there is a core of belief which was delineated by the great 12th century Rabbi Maimonides as definitive and essential to the faith. These would include the existence of God, that God is one, that God is eternal and does not exist in bodily form, that God is to be worshipped alone, that He has communicated through the Prophets and Moses is the chief of them all. Jews also believe that the Torah is of divine origin and eternally valid, that God knows the deeds of human beings and will reward or punish accordingly, that God will send Messiah and will resurrect to dead.

Central to this core of belief in Judaism is their covenant with God. A covenant is quite different from a contract in that it is not mutually negotiated but unilaterally offered and requires a response from the second party to make it effective. Their are several covenants basic to Judaism. The Noahic covenant is the guarantee that God will not destroy mankind through a deluge and also a basic law covenant binding on all humans Jew and Gentile. The Abrahamic covenant calls them out as a nation and gives them a geographic location. Circumcision is the sign of this covenant. The Mosaic Covenant establishes them with special blessings and obligations as a people. The Davidic covenant establishes Davids descendants as the rightful kings of Israel forever. Finally the New Covenant which would establish the law in their hearts and not through external obligations. This came as a renewal after their punishment of captivity in Babylon.

Because of the wide array of beliefs within Judaism, orthodoxy is primarily found in orthopraxy; hence the term “observant” is attached to the Jew keeps the basic practices of the Old Testament law minus temple sacrifice. Most well known among Jewish practices are the dietary or kosher food laws of the Torah. In Judaism all food fits into three categories. Food that is permitted by the Law is called kosher (lit. “right” or “fit”). Food that is prohibited by the Law is called trefah (lit. “torn”). Finally there are foods that are considered neutral since they contain neither meat or milk. These are usually marked with the Yiddish word parve which means neutral. A final category of food is called hametz (lit. “fermented”). These are foods that contain yeast or leavening. These foods can be eaten by the observant Jew except during certain festivals and holy days. Prayer is another important practice to the observant Jew. In the Jewish conception prayer is directed towards changing the order of the world but also as a door of communion between the human soul and God himself. During times of prayer Jewish men also wear a small skull cap or yarmulkah. This is worn out of reverence for God who looks down on us “from above”. Some men choose to wear the skull cap at all times. In the synagogue men will also don a tallit or prayer shawl. The main feature of the shawl is its long fringes which are to serve as a reminder of the commandments of God. While private prayers are permitted, public prayers are prescribed in the synagogue and are generally done standing facing Jerusalem. These are usually liturgical prayers that include biblical phrases and recitation of the Psalms.
Keeping the Sabbath and the feasts and holidays are also of great importance in Judaism. In pointing out the significance of keeping appointed days and festivals, religious philosopher Abraham Herschel writes: “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans, nor the Germans were able to burn-the Day of Atonement. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

In the Talmud (Shabbat 7:2) there are seven basic categories of creative work which are prohibited. These would include growing or preparing food, making clothing, leather working or writing, providing shelter, creating or extinguishing fire, completing work, and transporting goods. Orthodox Jews do whatever they can to avoid doing anything remotely related to these lines of work on the Sabbath. It should be noted that Sabbath keeping is to be a delight for the Jew not a burden. The idea is not making life inconvenient but rather enforcing a true day off to seek God and renewal. In circumstances of sickness, threats to health and life, and general emergencies certain prohibitions are overruled by the higher ethics of saving and preserving life.

Aside from Sabbath observance there are also the many feasts and holidays. The four most important are Passover, Pentecost, New Years (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement. Passover or Pesah commemorates when God was liberating the Jews from Egypt. On the final night of their slavery God sent the plague of killing the first born son in each Egyptian home. The Jews were instructed to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and the plague would pass over them. Passover is a commemoration of God’s faithfulness to the nation of Israel and a celebration of freedom.

Pentecost or Shavuot was originally a harvest festival that merged with a commemoration of when God gave Moses the Torah on Mt. Sinai. While there are no special rituals on this day, it is customary to decorate the synagogue building with flowers and plants signifying the flowering of Mt. Sinai when the Law was given.

Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Years happens in the fall. It is celebrated by the Jews as the birthday of the World and the human race. The attention is focused on God as creator and the fact that people are answerable to Him for how they live their lives. This holiday is considered a time a reflection and repentance.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. The night before the synagogues hold a service where confessions of sin are made before God by the people. The day of Yom Kippor is a day of forgiveness and finally restoration. It is a renewal of the world the way it was intended by God. While the emphasis is on repentance during Rosh Hashanah, the emphasis during Yom Kippor is on restoration.

Within the nexus of Judaism are many different theological stripes. The largest of these groups are the Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Hasidim. Naturally, Orthodox Jews regard themselves as the only true Judaism. They keep the obligations, regulations and rituals of the Torah because they believe it is from God and therefore binding. Orthodox Jews will integrate with larger societies and will even adopt their practices if they are not in conflict with the Law. This group usually supports the nation of Israel and believes in the coming of a personal Messiah.

Reform Jews are a product of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. They keep the ethics and moral imperatives of the Prophets, but feel that the keeping of the Mosaic law because it is divinely inspired is not a tenable position in today’s world of scientific advancement. The truth of the scriptures must be established by reason, experience, and good science before it can be adopted. Reform Jews are the most integrated into society.

Conservative Jews emerged as a reaction to Reform Jews in the 19th century. They were uncomfortable with the radical rejection of the Jewish rituals and traditions by the Reformed group. Conservatives are theologically closer to Reformed than Orthodox Jews but tend to keep many of the Orthodox traditions. This is done more out of solidarity with being Jewish than with religious imperative.

The Ultra Orthodox have many different groups but the most well known in the United States are the Hasidim. Hasidic Jews and their ken prefer to not integrate in any way with the gentile world. As they live in their own closed society they seek to regulate every aspect of their life from the Torah. The Hasidim are those who wear only black clothing and have long locks of hair in the front.

Comparing Judaism and Christianity is like comparing a mother to her daughter; depending on your point of view it could be cause for flattery or great offense! Christianity grew from the root of Judaism and is centered on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the hoped for Messiah of Israel who came to redeem mankind from their sin and offense before God almighty. Current Jewish thought has gone so far as to elevate Jesus of Nazareth from the worst of blasphemers in the first century, to a valid Messiah for the Gentiles. Pinchas Lapide, a Jew himself, has written on the points of commonality between Judaism and Christianity. Some of them include belief in God as creator and father, hope in salvation, ignorance of God’s ways, humility before God’s omnipotence, knowledge that we belong to Him not He to us, and love and reverence for God. Other points of commonality include the paradox of being made of dust and yet being the image of God, a consciousness that God wants to use us as partners in the sanctification of the world, the condemnation of arrogant religious chauvinism, the conviction that love of God cannot be divorced from love of neighbor, and the knowledge that all our speech about God is but stammering until we meet Him face to face.

Despite the similarities between the two, there is a wide gulf between Judaism and Christianity–His name is Jesus. The Jews rejected Jesus as their messiah in the first century because they were expecting a deliverer from political oppression. The Jews have long vacillated on the issue of the messiah to the point that many today believe messiah is not a person but rather an age of righteousness and truth. From the time of Christ until now no less than 34 prominent Jews have claimed to be the messiah. Christianity is Christ. He is the messiah foretold by the Jewish prophets and the final word from God to mankind. While some within Judaism might be comfortable with the idea that Jesus is the gentile messiah, Christians reject the notion on the basis that the Christ is rightfully Lord over all humanity. Another great difference between Judaism and Christianity is the conception of sin and salvation. Judaism does not hold the idea of the total depravity of man or original sin. It also holds the view that salvation comes through a system of good works related to the Law of Moses and God’s grace. On the other hand, Christians believe that sin is an offense before our holy and perfect Creator that has been the cause of our separation from Him and our ever present troubled existence. Sin is forgiven and man is restored not through the works of the Law of Moses, but rather through the once for all atonement of the messiah Jesus that makes possible a renewed relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. Christians view this as the fulfillment of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31.

While there is much to be appreciated about the rich culture of Judaism and their legacy of revelation to the world through the Law and Prophets, there is one inescapable fact–the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty on Easter morning. Jesus rose from the dead thus vindicating that He was who He said He was. Though rejected by His own people at the time, He stands with open arms willing to accept anyone who comes to Him in humility and repentance.

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