Judaism (from the Greek Ioudaïsmos, derived from the Hebrew יהודה, Yehudah, "Judah"; in Hebrew: יַהֲדוּת, Yahedut, the distinctive characteristics of the Judean eáqnov) is the religion of the Jews. In 2007, the world Jewish population was estimated at 13.2 million people, 41% of whom lived in Israel.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion based on principles and ethics embodied in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), as further explored and explained in the Talmud and other texts. Judaism is among the oldest religious traditions still being practiced today. Jewish history and the principles and ethics of Judaism have influenced other religions, such as Christianity, Islam and the Bahá'í Faith.
In modern Judaism, central authority is not vested in any single person or body, but in sacred texts, traditions, and learned Rabbis who interpret those texts and laws. According to Jewish tradition, Judaism begins with the Covenant between God and Abraham (ca. 2000 BCE), the patriarch and progenitor of the Jewish people. Throughout the ages, Judaism has adhered to a number of religious principles, the most important of which is the belief in a single, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, transcendent God, who created the universe and continues to govern it. According to Jewish tradition, the God who created the world established a covenant with the Israelites and their descendants, and revealed his laws and commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of both the Written and Oral Torah. Judaism has traditionally valued Torah study and the observance of the commandments recorded in the Torah and as expounded in the Talmud.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion based upon principles and ethics embodied in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), as further explored and explained in the Talmud and other texts. According to Jewish tradition, Judaism begins with the Covenant between God and Abraham.
While Judaism has seldom, if ever, been monolithic in practice, it has always been fiercely monotheistic in theology - although the Tanakh records significant periods of apostasy among many Israelites from Judaism's beliefs.
Historically, Judaism has considered belief in the divine revelation and acceptance of the Written and Oral Torah as its fundamental core belief, but Judaism does not have a centralized authority dictating religious dogma. This gave rise to many different formulations as to the specific theological beliefs inherent in the Torah and Talmud. While some rabbis have at times agreed upon a firm formulation, others have disagreed, many criticizing any such attempt as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah. Notably, in the Talmud some principles of faith (e.g., the Divine origin of the Torah) are considered important enough that rejection of them can put one in the category of "apikoros" (heretic).
Over the centuries, a number of formulations of Jewish principles of faith have appeared, and though they differ with respect to certain details, they demonstrate a commonality of core ideology. Of these formulations, the one most widely considered authoritative is Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith, formulated in the XII century. These principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Hasdai Crescas and Joseph Albo. Maimonides thirteen principles were ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. Over time two poetic restatements of these principles ("Ani Ma'amin" and "Yigdal") became canonized in the Jewish prayer book, and eventually became widely held.
Joseph Albo and the Raavad have criticized Maimonides' list as containing too many items that, while true, were not fundamentals of the faith, and thus placed too many Jews in the category of "heretic", rather than those who were simply in error. Many others criticized any such formulation as minimizing acceptance of the entire Torah (see above). As noted however, neither Maimonides nor his contemporaries viewed these principles as encompassing all of Jewish belief, but rather as the core theological underpinnings of the acceptance of Judaism. Along these lines, the ancient historian Josephus emphasized practices and observances rather than religious beliefs, associating apostasy with a failure to observe Jewish law and maintaining that the requirements for conversion to Judaism included circumcision and adherence to traditional customs.
Today most Orthodox authorities hold that Maimonides' 13 principles of faith are obligatory, and that Jews who do not fully accept each one of them are potentially heretical.
Judaism has at all times valued Torah study, as well as other religious texts. The following is a basic, structured list of the central works of Jewish practice and thought. For more detail, see Rabbinic literature.
While there have been Jewish groups whose beliefs were claimed to be based on the written text of the Torah alone (e.g., the Sadducees, and the Karaites), most Jews believed in what they call the oral law. These oral traditions were transmitted by the Pharisee sect of ancient Judaism, and were later recorded in written form and expanded upon by the rabbis.
Rabbinic Judaism has always held that the books of the Torah (called the written law) have always been transmitted in parallel with an oral tradition. To justify this viewpoint, Jews point to the text of the Torah, where many words are left undefined, and many procedures mentioned without explanation or instructions; this, they argue, means that the reader is assumed to be familiar with the details from other, i.e., oral, sources. This parallel set of material was originally transmitted orally, and came to be known as "the oral law".
By the time of Rabbi Judah haNasi (200 CE), after the destruction of Jerusalem, much of this material was edited together into the Mishnah. Over the next four centuries this law underwent discussion and debate in both of the world's major Jewish communities (in Israel and Babylonia), and the commentaries on the Mishnah from each of these communities eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the two Talmuds. These have been expounded by commentaries of various Torah scholars during the ages.
Halakha, the rabbinic Jewish way of life, then, is based on a combined reading of the Torah, and the oral tradition - the Mishnah, the halakhic Midrash, the Talmud and its commentaries. The Halakha has developed slowly, through a precedent-based system. The literature of questions to rabbis, and their considered answers, is referred to as responsa (in Hebrew, Sheelot U-Teshuvot.) Over time, as practices develop, codes of Jewish law are written that are based on the responsa; the most important code, the Shulchan Aruch, largely determines Orthodox religious practice today.
Jewish philosophy refers to the conjunction between serious study of philosophy and Jewish theology. Major Jewish philosophers include Solomon ibn Gabirol, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and Gersonides. Major changes occurred in response to the Enlightenment (late 1700s to early 1800s) leading to the post-Enlightenment Jewish philosophers. Modern Jewish philosophy consists of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox oriented philosophy. Notable among Orthodox Jewish philosophers are Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Yitzchok Hutner. Well-known non-Orthodox Jewish philosophers include Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Mordecai Kaplan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Emmanuel Lévinas.
In contrast to this point of view, practices such as Humanistic Judaism reject the religious aspects of Judaism, while retaining certain cultural traditions. Jewish law also recognizes converts who are not ethnically Jewish.
According to traditional Jewish Law, a Jew is anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in accord with Jewish Law. American Reform Judaism and British Liberal Judaism accept the child of one Jewish parent (father or mother) as Jewish if the parents raise the child with a Jewish identity. All mainstream forms of Judaism today are open to sincere converts. The conversion process is evaluated by an authority, and the convert is examined on his sincerity and knowledge.
Traditional Judaism maintains that a Jew, whether by birth or conversion, is a Jew forever. Thus a Jew who claims to be an atheist or converts to another religion is still considered by traditional Judaism to be Jewish. However, the Reform movement maintains that a Jew who has converted to another religion is no longer a Jew, and the Israeli Government has also taken that stance after Supreme Court cases and statutes.
The question of what determines Jewish identity in the State of Israel was given new impetus when, in the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion requested opinions on mihu Yehudi ("who is a Jew") from Jewish religious authorities and intellectuals worldwide in order to settle citizenship questions. This is far from settled, and occasionally resurfaces in Israeli politics.
The total number of Jews worldwide is difficult to assess because the definition of "who is a Jew" is problematic as not all Jews identify themselves as Jewish, and some who identify as Jewish are not considered so by other Jews. According to the Jewish Year Book (1901), the global Jewish population in 1900 was around 11 million. The latest available data is from the World Jewish Population Survey of 2002 and the Jewish Year Calendar (2005). In 2002, according to the Jewish Population Survey, there were 13.3 million Jews around the world. The Jewish Year Calendar cites 14.6 million. Jewish population growth is currently near zero percent, with 0.3% growth from 2000 to 2001. Intermarriage and the declining birthrate have influenced Jewish population figures, although conversion to Judaism may help to offset this slightly.
It has been noted by some writers that the apparent prominence of Jews is disproportionate to the size of their population. One example, Mark Twain comments:
Over the past two centuries the Ashkenazi Jewish community has divided into a number of Jewish denominations; each has a different understanding of what principles of belief a Jew should hold, (although belief plays a lesser role than practice and observance in Judaism) and how one should live as a Jew. To some degree, these doctrinal differences have created schisms between the Jewish denominations. Nonetheless, there is some level of Jewish unity. For example, it would not be unusual for a Conservative Jew to attend either an Orthodox or Reform synagogue. The article on Relationships between Jewish religious movements discusses how different Jewish denominations view each other. Many non-Ashkenazi Jews, especially in the United States, are members of congregations affiliated with the various movements, although they may not specifically identify themselves as members of that denomination. They frequently do so out of convenience, and are likely to describe their religious practice as "traditional" or "observant", as opposed to "Orthodox" or "Conservative".
The term "traditional" (masorti) is most common as a self-description among Israeli families of "eastern" origin (i.e., the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa). This term, as commonly used, has nothing to do with the official Masorti (Conservative) movement.
There is a great deal of ambiguity in the ways "secular" and "traditional" are used in Israel. They often overlap, and they cover an extremely wide range in terms of ideology and religious observance.
The term "Orthodox" is not popular in Israeli discourse, although the percentage of Jews who come under that category in Israel is far greater than in the diaspora. Various methods of measuring this percentage, each with its pros and cons, are the proportion of religiously observant Knesset members, the proportion of Jewish children enrolled in religious schools, and statistical studies on "identity."
What would be called "Orthodox" in the diaspora includes what is commonly called dati (religious) or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in Israel. The former term includes what is called "Religious Zionism" or the "National Religious" community, as well as what has become known over the past decade or so as haredi-leumi (nationalist haredi), or "Hardal," which combines a largely haredi lifestyle with nationalist ideology.
Haredi applies to a populace that can be roughly divided into three separate groups along both ethnic and ideological lines: (1) "Lithuanian" (non-hasidic) haredim of Ashkenazic origin; (2) Hasidic haredim of Ashkenazic origin; and (3) Sephardic haredim. The third group is the largest, and has been the most politically active since the early 1990s.
Unlike the above denominations, which were ideological reactions that resulted from the exposure of traditional rabbinic Judaism to the radical changes of modern times, Karaite Judaism did not begin as a modern Jewish movement. The followers of Karaism believe they are the remnants of the non-Rabbinic Jewish sects of the Second Temple period, such as the Sadducees, though others contend they are a sect started in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Karaites (or "Scripturalists") accept only the Hebrew Bible and what they view as the Peshat: "Plain or Simple Meaning"; and do not accept non-biblical writings as authoritative. Some European Karaites do not see themselves as part of the Jewish community, while most do. It is interesting to note that the Nazis often did not associate Karaites with Jews, and therefore several Karaite communities were spared in WWII and exist to this day even in places such as Lithuania where Jewish communities were completely devastated. In other areas, such as Greece, the Nazis deemed Karaites as belonging to a greater Jewish tradition and abused them accordingly.
Another historical division among ethnic Jews are the Samaritans, who maintain a distinct cultural and religious identity from mainstream Judaism, and are located entirely around Mount Gerizim in the Nablus/Shechem region of the West Bank and in Holon, near Tel Aviv in Israel.
Tzitzit (Hebrew: צִיציִת) (Ashkenazi pronunciation: tzitzis) are special knotted "fringes" or "tassels" found on the four corners of the tallit (Hebrew: טַלִּית) (Ashkenazi pronunciation: tallis), or prayer shawl. The tallit is worn by Jewish men and some Jewish women during the prayer service. Customs vary regarding when a Jew begins wearing a tallit. In the Sephardi community, boys wear a tallit from bar mitzvah age. In some Ashkenazi communities it is customary to wear one only after marriage. A tallit katan (small tallit) is a fringed garment worn under the clothing throughout the day. In some Orthodox circles, the fringes are allowed to hang freely outside the clothing.
Tefillin (Hebrew: תְפִלִּין), known in English as phylacteries (from the Greek word φιλακτέριον, meaning fortress or protection), are two square leather boxes containing biblical verses, attached to the forehead and wound around the left arm by leather straps. They are worn during weekday morning prayer by observant Jewish men and some Jewish women.
A kittel (Yiddish: קיטל), a white knee-length overgarment, is worn by prayer leaders and some observant traditional Jews on the High Holidays. It is traditional for the head of the household to wear a kittel at the Passover seder, and some grooms wear one under the wedding canopy. Jewish males are buried in a tallit and sometimes also a kittel which are part of the tachrichim (burial garments).
Traditionally, Jews recite prayers three times daily, with a fourth prayer added on Shabbat and holidays. At the heart of each service is the Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei. Another key prayer in many services is the declaration of faith, the Shema Yisrael (or Shema). The Shema is the recitation of a verse from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4): Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad — "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is One!"
Most of the prayers in a traditional Jewish service can be recited in solitary prayer, although communal prayer is preferred. Communal prayer requires a quorum of ten adult Jews, called a minyan. In nearly all Orthodox and a few Conservative circles, only male Jews are counted toward a minyan; most Conservative Jews and members of other Jewish denominations count female Jews as well.
In addition to prayer services, observant traditional Jews recite prayers and benedictions throughout the day when performing various acts. Prayers are recited upon waking up in the morning, before eating or drinking different foods, after eating a meal, and so on.
The approach to prayer varies among the Jewish denominations. Differences can include the texts of prayers, the frequency of prayer, the number of prayers recited at various religious events, the use of musical instruments and choral music, and whether prayers are recited in the traditional liturgical languages or the vernacular. In general, Orthodox and Conservative congregations adhere most closely to tradition, and Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are more likely to incorporate translations and contemporary writings in their services. Also, in most Conservative synagogues, and all Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, women participate in prayer services on an equal basis with men, including roles traditionally filled only by men, such as reading from the Torah. In addition, many Reform temples use musical accompaniment such as organs and mixed choirs.
Shabbat, the weekly day of rest lasting from shortly before sundown on Friday night to shortly after sundown Saturday night, commemorates God's day of rest after six days of creation. It plays a pivotal role in Jewish practice and is governed by a large corpus of religious law. At sundown on Friday, the woman of the house welcomes the Shabbat by lighting two or more candles and reciting a blessing. The evening meal begins with the Kiddush, a blessing recited aloud over a cup of wine, and the Mohtzi, a blessing recited over the bread. It is customary to have challah, two braided loaves of bread, on the table. During Shabbat Jews are forbidden to engage in any activity that falls under 39 categories of melakhah, translated literally as "work." In fact the activities banned on the Sabbath are not "work" in the usual sense: They include such actions as lighting a fire, writing, using money and carrying in the public domain. The prohibition of lighting a fire has been extended in the modern era to driving a car, which involves burning fuel, and using electricity.
Jewish holy days (haggim), celebrate landmark events in Jewish history, such as the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, and sometimes mark the change of seasons and transitions in the agricultural cycle. The three major festivals, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, are called "regalim" (derived from the Hebrew word "regel," or foot). On the three regalim, it was customary for the Israelites to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
The High Holidays (Yamim Noraim or "Days of Awe") revolve around judgment and forgiveness.
Hanukkah, חנוכה, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight day Jewish holiday that starts on the 25th day of Kislev (Hebrew calendar). The festival is observed in Jewish homes by the kindling of lights on each of the festival's eight nights, one on the first night, two on the second night and so on.
The holiday was called Hanukkah meaning "dedication" because it marks the re-dedication of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Spiritually, Hanukkah commemorates the "Miracle of the Oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days - which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.
Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Bible and was never considered a major holiday in Judaism, but it has become much more visible and widely celebrated in modern times, mainly because it falls around the same time as Christmas and has national Jewish overtones that have been emphasized since the establishment of the State of Israel.
Purim (Hebrew: פורים Pûrîm English: "Lots") is a joyous Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from the plot of the evil Haman, who sought to exterminate them, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther. It is characterized by public recitation of the Book of Esther, mutual gifts of food and drink, charity to the poor, and a celebratory meal (Esther 9:22). Other customs include drinking wine, eating special pastries called hamantashen, dressing up in masks and costumes, and organizing carnivals and parties.
Purim is celebrated annually on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, which comes out in February-March.
Synagogues are Jewish houses of prayer and study. They usually contain separate rooms for prayer (the main sanctuary), smaller rooms for study, and often an area for community or educational use. There is no set blueprint for synagogues and the architectural shapes and interior designs of synagogues vary greatly. The Reform movement mostly refer to their synagogues as temples. Some traditional features of a synagogue are:
The laws of kashrut ("keeping kosher") are the Jewish dietary laws. Food in accord with Jewish law is termed kosher, and food not in accord with Jewish law is termed treifah or treif. The Torah cites no reason for the laws of kashrut, but the rabbis have offered various explanations, including ritual purity, teaching people to control their urges, and health benefits. Kashrut involves the abstention from consuming birds and beasts that prey on other animals, and creatures that roam the sea floor eating the excretions of other animals. Major prohibitions exist on eating pork, which is considered an unclean animal, and seafood. Meat is ritually slaughtered, and meat and milk are not eaten together, based on the biblical injunction against cooking a kid in its mother's milk.
Although hygiene may have been a factor, the deeper purpose of kashrut is to lend a spiritual dimension to the physical act of eating. The idea is that Jews should not put anything into their mouths that involves spiritual "negatives" such as pain, sickness, uncleanliness, or cruelty to animals.
The laws of niddah ("menstruant", often referred to euphemistically as "family purity") and various other laws regulating the interaction between men and women (e.g., tzniut, modesty in dress) are perceived, especially by Orthodox Jews, as vital factors in Jewish life, though they are rarely followed by Reform or Conservative Jews. The laws of niddah dictate that sexual intercourse cannot take place while the woman is having a menstrual flow, and she has to count seven "clean" days and immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) following menstruation.
See also:-Yetzer harah
The most common professional clergy in a synagogue are:
Jewish prayer services do involve two specified roles, which are sometimes, but not always, filled by a rabbi and/or hazzan in many congregations. In other congregations these roles are filled on an ad-hoc basis by members of the congregation who lead portions of services on a rotating basis:
Many congregations, especially larger ones, also rely on a:
The three preceding positions are usually voluntary and considered an honor. Since the Enlightenment large synagogues have often adopted the practice of hiring rabbis and hazzans to act as shatz and baal kriyah, and this is still typically the case in many Conservative and Reform congregations. However, in most Orthodox synagogues these positions are filled by laypeople on a rotating or ad-hoc basis. Although most congregations hire one or more Rabbis, the use of a professional hazzan is generally declining in American congregations, and the use of professionals for other offices is rarer still.
At its core, the Bible is an account of the Israelites' relationship with God from their earliest history until the building of the Second Temple (c. 350 BCE). This relationship is often a contentious one, as the Israelites struggle with their faith in God and attraction to other gods. Among the larger-than-life figures we meet in the Bible are the Patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who wrestled with their beliefs —- and Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt.
Abraham, hailed as the first Hebrew and the father of the Jewish people, rejected the idolatry that he saw around him and embraced monotheism. As a reward for this act of faith in one God, he was promised many offspring: "Look now toward heaven and count the stars/So shall be your progeny." (Genesis 15:5) Abraham's first child was Ishmael and his second son was Isaac, whom God said would continue Abraham's work and inherit the Land of Israel (then called Canaan), after having been exiled and redeemed. God sent the patriarch Jacob and his children to Egypt, where after many generations they became enslaved. God later commanded Moses to redeem the Israelites from slavery, leading to the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai in 1313 BCE (Jewish Year 2448) and received the Torah - the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books, together with Nevi'im and Ketuvim are known as Torah Shebikhtav: literally the "Written Torah," as opposed to the Oral Torah, which refers to the Mishna and the Talmud. Eventually, God led them to the land of Israel.
God designated the descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother, to be a priestly class within the Israelite community. They first officiated in the tabernacle (a portable house of worship), and later their descendants were in charge of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Once the Israelites had settled in the land of Israel, the tabernacle was planted in the city of Shiloh for over 300 years during which time God provided great men, and occasionally women, to rally the nation against attacking enemies, some of which were sent by God as a punishment for the sins of the people. This is described in the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges. As time went on, the spiritual level of the nation declined to the point that God allowed the Philistines to capture the tabernacle in Shiloh.
The people of Israel then told Samuel the prophet that they had reached the point where they needed to be governed by a permanent king, as were other nations, as described in the Books of Samuel. Samuel grudgingly acceded to this request and appointed Saul, a great but very humble man, to be their King. When the people pressured Saul into going against a command conveyed to him by Samuel, God told Samuel to appoint David in his stead.
Once King David was established, he told the prophet Nathan that he would like to build a permanent temple, and as a reward for his actions, God promised David that he would allow his son to build the temple and the throne would never depart from his children (David himself was not allowed to build the temple because he had been involved in many wars, making it inappropriate for him to build a temple representing peace). As a result, it was David's son Solomon who built the first permanent temple according to God's will, in Jerusalem, as described in the Books of Kings.
Rabbinic tradition holds that the details and interpretation of the law, which are called the Oral Torah or oral law, were originally an unwritten tradition based upon what God told Moses on Mount Sinai. However, as the persecutions of the Jews increased and the details were in danger of being forgotten, these oral laws were recorded by Rabbi Judah haNasi (Judah the Prince) in the Mishnah, redacted circa 200 CE. The Talmud was a compilation of both the Mishnah and the Gemara, rabbinic commentaries redacted over the next three centuries. The Gemara originated in two major centers of Jewish scholarship, Palestine and Babylonia. Correspondingly, two bodies of analysis developed, and two works of Talmud were created. The older compilation is called the Jerusalem Talmud. It was compiled sometime during the fourth century in Israel. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled from discussions in the houses of study by the scholars Ravina I, Ravina II, and Rav Ashi by 500 C.E., although it continued to be edited later.
These scholars have various theories concerning the origins of the Israelites and Israelite religion. Most agree that the people who formed the nation of Israel during the First Temple era had origins in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, although some question whether any or all of their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. Many suggest that during the First Temple period, the people of Israel were henotheists, that is, they believed that each nation had its own god, but that their god was superior to other gods. Some suggest that strict monotheism developed during the Babylonian Exile, perhaps in reaction to Zoroastrian dualism.
In this view, it was only by the Hellenic period that most Jews came to believe that their God was the only God (and thus, the God of everyone), and that the record of His revelation (the Torah) contained within it universal truths. This attitude reflected a growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a God that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which sought to establish universal truths, thus leading - potentially - to the idea of monotheism, at least in the sense that "all gods are One." It was also at this time that the notion of a clearly bounded Jewish nation identical with the Jewish religion formed. According to one scholar, the clash between the early Christians and Pharisees that ultimately led to the birth of the Christian religion and Rabbinic Judaism reflected the struggle by Jews to reconcile their claims to national particularism and theological universalism.
According to Prof. Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, monotheism, as a state religion, is likely "an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel." Herzog states that "The question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods: Jehovah and his Asherah. At two sites, Kuntiliet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet el-Kom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention "Jehovah and his Asherah," "Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah, "Jehovah Teman and his Asherah." The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple's name.
The origins of Yahweh himself may be rooted in earlier Canaanite religion, which was centered on a pantheon of gods much like the Greek pantheon. Ba’al is the most recognized of this pantheon, mentioned over sixty times in the Bible. Ba’al was the storm-god and the god of fertility to who worship is repeatedly forbidden in the Tanakh. In a society focused on survival, fertility represented the ultimate good. He was not, however, the head of the pantheon. That title belonged to El, the Compassionate. According to a theory originally posited by Mendenhall, a group of oppressed and self-marginalized people, the ‘apiru (a term for people who stood outside the established order, also possibly the origin of the word Hebrew) began to worship El as their primary deity.
The worship of the god known as Yahweh, not originally a Canaanite god, was probably developed in south of the Levantine region, in Midian and brought to the region of the Levant by a group of nomads from the south (slaves from Egypt, according to biblical tradition). The foreign god Yahweh is believed to have become amalgamated with the native god El and taken on many of his characteristics: an aged god; a wise god; even the creator god. As further evidence for the amalgamation, the Tanakh uses the word “El” for God. Notably, the Priestly source uses the term “El-Shaddai” for God. El-Shaddai most likely means “El, the mountain one,” in reference to El’s terrestrial dwelling.
Israel as a new, established ethnic group is generally thought to have consolidated in the twelfth century BCE, although some archaeologists, notably Israel Finkelstein, reject the claim that Israel was a coalition of oppressed peoples, arguing that the emergence of the Jewish people as a distinct ethnos did not occur until the ninth or eighth century BCE.
Eventually, Judaism dropped all associations with other gods and goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon and become monotheistic. When exactly this occurred, however, is also debated. Plausible cases have been made for the continued worship, or veneration, of Asherah by the Israelites, as Yahweh’s consort, well after the amalgamation of Yahweh and El and the official orthodoxy of that preached Yahweh-alone. Asherah, El’s consort in the Canaanite pantheon, is mentioned over forty times in the Tanakh, usually within the context of a condemnation of the worship of her or the use of her cult symbol, believed to be that of a stylized tree. Not quite a graven image, it is believed to have been generally-tolerated (amongst the people if not the official orthodoxy) as a common tool of worship among Israelite women.
Inscriptions from Kuntillet‘Ajurd and Khirbet el-Qom refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah”. It is debated whether the inscriptions refer to Asherah the goddess or “the Asherah,” a symbol of Asherah’s cult. In either case, Yahweh is undoubtedly associated with Asherah. Just as Yahweh took up many traits of El’s; it is perceived as likely that he also took up El’s consort.
The United Monarchy was established under Saul and continued under King David and Solomon with its capital in Jerusalem. After Solomon's reign the nation split into two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Israel (in the north) and the Kingdom of Judah (in the south). The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian ruler Sargon II in the late 8th century BCE with many people from the capital Samaria being taken captive to Media and the Habor valley. The Kingdom of Judah continued as an independent state until it was conquered by a Babylonian army in the early 6th century BCE, destroying the First Temple that was at the center of ancient Jewish worship. The Judean elite were exiled to Babylonia and this is regarded as the first Jewish Diaspora. During this captivity the Jews in Babylon wrote what is known as the "Babylonian Talmud" while the remaining Jews in Judea wrote what is called the "Palestinian Talmud". These are the first written forms of the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud is the Talmud used to this day. Later many of them returned to their homeland after the subsequent conquest of Babylonia by the Persians seventy years later, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity. A new Second Temple was constructed, and old religious practices were resumed.
During the early years of the Second Temple, the highest religious authority was a council known as the Great Assembly, led by Ezra of the Book of Ezra. Among other accomplishments of the Great Assembly, the last books of the Bible were written at this time and the canon sealed. Hellenistic Judaism spreads to Ptolemaic Egypt from the 3rd century BC, and becomes a notable religio licita throughout the Roman Empire, until its decline in the 3rd century parallel to the rise of Gnosticism and Early Christianity.
After a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 66 CE, the Romans all but destroyed Jerusalem. Following a second revolt, Jews were not allowed to enter the city of Jerusalem and most Jewish worship was forbidden by Rome. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews, Jewish worship stopped being centrally organized around the Temple, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and worship was rebuilt around rabbis who acted as teachers and leaders of individual communities (see Jewish diaspora).
Like the Sadducees who relied only on the Torah, some Jews in the 8th and 9th centuries rejected the authority and divine inspiration of the Oral Law as recorded in the Mishnah (and developed by later rabbis in the two Talmuds), relying instead only upon the Tanakh. These included the Isunians, the Yudganites, the Malikites, and others. They soon developed oral traditions of their own, which differed from the rabbinic traditions, and eventually formed the Karaite sect. Karaites exist in small numbers today, mostly living in Israel. Rabbinical and Karaite Jews each hold that the others are Jews, but that the other faith is erroneous.
Over time Jews developed into distinct ethnic groups — amongst others, the Ashkenazi Jews (of central and Eastern Europe), the Sephardi Jews (of Spain, Portugal, and North Africa), the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Yemenite Jews, from the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. This split is cultural, and is not based on any doctrinal dispute, although the distance did result in minor differences in practice and prayers.
This was different in quality to any repressions of Jews in ancient times. Ancient repression was politically motivated and Jews were treated no differently than any other ethnic group would have been. With the rise of the Churches, attacks on Jews became motivated instead by theological considerations specifically deriving from Christian views about Jews and Judaism.
Hasidic Judaism was founded by Yisroel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (or Besht). It originated in a time of persecution of the Jewish people, when European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study; many felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too "academic", and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. His disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life for many Jews in Europe. Waves of Jewish immigration in the 1880s carried it to the United States.
Early on, there was a serious schism between Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement were dubbed by the Hasidim as Misnagdim, (lit. "opponents"). Some of the reasons for the rejection of Hasidic Judaism were the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship, its untraditional ascriptions of infallibility and alleged miracle-working to their leaders, and the concern that it might become a messianic sect. Since then differences between the Hasidim and their opponents have slowly diminished and both groups are now considered part of Haredi Judaism.
In the late 18th century CE, Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment led to reductions in the European laws that prohibited Jews to interact with the wider secular world, thus allowing Jews access to secular education and experience. A parallel Jewish movement, Haskalah or the "Jewish Enlightenment," began, especially in Central Europe, in response to both the Enlightenment and these new freedoms. It placed an emphasis on integration with secular society and a pursuit of non-religious knowledge such as reason. The thrust and counter-thrust between supporters of Haskalah and more traditional Jewish concepts eventually led to the formation of a number of different branches of Judaism: Haskalah supporters founded Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism, while traditionalists founded what is called Orthodox Judaism, and Jews seeking a balance between the two sides founded Masorti and Conservative Judaism. A number of smaller groups came into being as well.
Religious (and secular) Jewish movements in the USA and Canada perceive this as a crisis situation, and have grave concern over rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation in the Jewish community. Since American Jews are marrying later in life, and are having fewer children, the birth rate for American Jews has dropped from over 2.0 to 1.7 (the replacement rate is 2.1). (This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate relations, p. 27, Elliot N. Dorff, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1996). Intermarriage rates range from 40-50% in the US, and only about a third of children of intermarried couples are raised as Jews. Due to intermarriage and low birth rates, the Jewish population in the US shrank from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.1 million in 2001. This is indicative of the general population trends among the Jewish community in the Diaspora, but a focus on total population obscures growth trends in some denominations and communities, such as Haredi Judaism.
The Baal teshuva movement is a movement of Jews who have "returned" to religion or become more observant.
Islam and Judaism have a complex relationship. Traditionally Jews living in Muslim lands, known as dhimmis, were allowed to practice their religion and to administer their internal affairs, but subject to certain conditions. They had to pay the jizya (a per capita tax imposed on free adult non-muslim males) to Muslims. Dhimmis had an inferior status under Islamic rule. They had several social and legal disabilities such as prohibitions against bearing arms or giving testimony in courts in cases involving Muslims. Many of the disabilities were highly symbolic. The most degrading one was the requirement of distinctive clothing, not found in the Qur'an or hadith but invented in early medieval Baghdad; its enforcement was highly erratic. Jews rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and they were mostly free in their choice of residence and profession. Indeed, the period 712-1066 under the Ummayads and the Abbasids has been called the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain. The notable examples of massacre of Jews include the killing or forcibly conversion of them by the rulers of the Almohad dynasty in Al-Andalus in the 12th century. Notable examples of the cases where the choice of residence was taken away from them includes confining Jews to walled quarters (mellahs) in Morocco beginning from the 15th century and especially since the early 19th century. There were some forced conversions in the 12th century under the Almohad dynasty of North Africa and al-Andalus as well as in Persia. Standard antisemitic themes have become commonplace in the propaganda of Arab Islamic movements such as Hizbullah and Hamas, in the pronouncements of various agencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and even in the newspapers and other publications of Refah Partisi."
Alternative views are that this overlooks the enormous importance assigned in antiquity to beliefs in local gods dominant over specific regions, and that Cyrus reportedly funded the reconstruction to gain the approval and blessing of the local "god" over the nation of Israel. Disregarding or angering the regional god was understood to be bad luck, generating curses, conflict, and poverty in the region affected.
Other examples of syncretism include Judeo-Paganists, a loosely-organized set of Jews who incorporate pagan or Wiccan beliefs; Jewish Buddhists, another loosely-organized group that incorporates elements of Asian spirituality in their faith; and some Renewal Jews who borrow freely and openly from Buddhism, Sufism, Native American religion, and other faiths.
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