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Home: Religion: Judaism: Basic Jewish Beliefs.


The seven-branched Menorah
is an ancient symbol of Judaism.

Judaism, Basic Jewish Beliefs

The word Jew is used in a wide number of ways, but generally refers to a follower of the Jewish faith, a child of a Jewish mother, or a member of the Jewish culture or ethnicity and often a combination of these attributes.

The term Jew came into being when the Kingdom of Israel was split between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Hence, the Israelites (who were later destroyed by the Assyrians) were those of the northern kingdom and the Jews (who survived) were those of the southern kingdom. Over time, the word Jew has come to refer to those of the Jewish faith rather than those from Judah. In modern usage, Jews include both those Jews actively practicing Judaism, and those Jews who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jews by virtue of their family's Jewish heritage and their own cultural identification.

Most Jews regard themselves as a people, members of a nation, and the ancestry of Jewish national identity is traced from the Biblical patriarch Abraham through his son Isaac and in particular Jacob, Isaac's son, as well as to those who subsequently joined them over the course of history as converts.

Jewish culture

Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief, and has been called not only a religion, but also a "way of life," which has made the job of drawing a clear distinction between Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish nationality rather difficult. In many times and places, such as in the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after the Enlightenment (see haskalah), and in contemporary United States and Israel, cultural phenomena have developed that are in some sense characteristically Jewish without being at all specifically religious. Some factors in this come from within Judaism, others from the interaction of Jews with others around them, others from the inner social and cultural dynamics of the community, as opposed to religion itself.


Jewish Principles of Faith

While Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish Principles of Faith, it has never developed a binding catechism. That is, there is no formal agreed-upon dogma (set of orthodox beliefs.) While individual rabbis, or sometimes entire groups, at times agreed upon a firm dogma, other rabbis and groups disagreed. With no central agreed-upon authority, no one formulation of Jewish principles of faith could take precedent over any other.

The ancient historian Josephus emphasizes practices and traditions rather than beliefs when he describes the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherence to traditional customs). Despite the above, in Orthodox Judaism some principles (e.g. the Divine origin of the Torah) are considered important enough that public rebellion against them can put one in the category of "apikoros" (heretic).

A number of formulations of Jewish principles of faith have appeared; most of them have much in common, yet they differ in certain details. A comparison of them demonstrates a wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives. Below is a summary of Jewish principles of faith. A more detailed discussion of these beliefs, along with a discussion of how they developed, is found in the article on Jewish principles of faith.

  • Monotheism - Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality.
  • God is one - The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical for Jews to hold; it is considered akin to polytheism. Interestingly, while Jews hold that such conceptions of
  • God are incorrect, they generally are of the opinion that gentiles that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.
  • God is all powerful (omnipotent), as well as all knowing (omniscient). The different names of God are ways to express different aspects of God's presence in the world. See the entry on The name of God in Judaism.
  • God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God.
  • To God alone may one offer prayer. Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical.
  • The Hebrew Bible, and much of the beliefs described in the Mishnah and Talmud, are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine", has always been a matter of some dispute. Different understandings of this subject exist among Jews.
  • The words of the prophets are true.
  • Moses was the chief of all prophets.
  • The Torah (five books of Moses) is the primary text of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism holds that the Torah is the same one that was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah that we have today is exactly the same as it was when it was received from God by Moses with only minor scribal errors. Due to advances in biblical scholarship, and archaeological and linguistic research, most non-Orthodox Jews reject this principle. Instead, they may accept that the core of the Oral and Written Torah may have come from Moses, but the written Torah that we have today has been edited together from several documents.
  • God will reward those who observe His commandments, and punish those who violate them.
  • God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish people do not simply say that "God chose the Jews." Jews believe that they were chosen for a specific mission; to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the Torah. This idea is discussed further in the entry on the chosen people. Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the concept of chosenness as morally defunct.
  • The messianic age. There will be a moshiach (messiah), or perhaps a messianic era.
  • The soul is pure at birth. People are born with a yetzer ha'tov, a tendency to do good, and with a yetzer ha'ra, a tendency to do bad. Thus, human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take.
  • People can atone for sins. The liturgy of the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (dutiful giving of charity) atone for sin. Atonement is deemed only meaningful if accompanied by sincere decision to cease unacceptable actions, and then only if appropriate amends to others are honestly undertaken. It covers wrongdoings by which a person has fallen short of divine wishes in his daily life, and thus there is always a "way back" to God. In Judaism, sin is more considered in terms of a wrongful action, contravening divine commandment to live a holy life, than wrongful thought. A more detailed discussion of the Jewish view of sin is available in the entry on sin.

What Makes A Person Jewish?

According to Jewish law, someone is considered to be a Jew if he or she was born of a Jewish mother or converted in accord with Jewish Law. (Recently, the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements have included those born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers, if the children are raised practicing Judaism only.)

A Jew who ceases to practice Judaism is still considered a Jew, as is a Jew who does not accept Jewish principles of faith and becomes an agnostic or an atheist; so too with a Jew who converts to another religion. However, in the latter case, the person loses standing as a member of the (practicing) Jewish community and becomes known as an apostate in said community, though this might not affect his standing with non-practising Jews. In the past, family and friends would often formally mourn for the person, though this is rarely done today.

The question of what determines Jewish identity 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. The question is far from settled and is one of the recurrent tensions in Israeli politics and in the divide between Orthodox vs. Reform (or Conservative) Judaism.

Jewish Clergy

Note that the following positions are not mutually exclusive. The same person is often qualified to fill more than one of the following positions, and often does.
  • Rabbi of a congregation - Jewish scholar who is charged with answering the religious questions of a congregation. Usually requires semicha (Rabbinical ordination). A congregation does not necessarily require a Rabbi. However, at least some of the members need to know how to lead the prayer services.
  • Hassidic Rebbe - Rabbi who is the head of a Hassidic dynasty.
  • Hazzan (cantor) - Person who is charged with leading the prayers in the synagogue. Chosen for a good voice, knowledge of traditional tunes, understanding of the meaning of the prayers and sincerity in reciting them. A congregation does not need to have a dedicated hazzan. Any participant who knows how to lead the prayers can be the hazzan for that prayer service.

Jewish Clergy-like positions include:

  • Dayan (judge) - expert in Jewish law who sits on a beth din (rabbinical court) for either monetary matters or for overseeing the giving of a bill of divorce. A dayan always requires semicha.
  • Hazzan (cantor) - in some synagogues, the leader of prayer in place of a rabbi. Hazzans are chosen for their vocal qualities and expertise in nusach or other musical notations alongside Hebrew texts.
  • Kohen (priest) - patrilineal descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. The first one called up at the reading of the Torah, performs the priestly blessing, as well as having other unique laws. In the Temple in Jerusalem, the kohanim were charged with performing the sacrifices.
  • Levi (Levite) - Patrilineal descendant of Levi the son of Jacob. Called up second to the reading of the Torah. When the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, they had additional responsibilities and privileges.
  • Mohel - performs the brit milah (circumcision). An expert in the laws of circumcision who has received training from a qualified mohel. (Despite the spelling, it is usually pronounced "moyl" in English, although the proper Hebrew pronunciation is as spelled.)
  • Shochet (ritual slaughterer) - slaughters all kosher meat. In order for meat to be kosher, it must be slaughtered by a shochet who is expert in the laws and has received training from another shochet, as well as having regular contact with a rabbi and revising the relevant guidelines on a regular basis.
  • Sofer (scribe) - Torah scrolls, tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzahs (scrolls put on doorposts), and gittin (bills of divorce) must be written by a sofer who is an expert in the laws of writing. vRosh yeshivah - head of a yeshiva. Somebody who is an expert in delving into the depths of the Talmud, and lectures the highest class in a Yeshiva.
  • Mashgiach of a yeshiva - expert in mussar (ethics). Oversees the emotional and spiritual welfare of the students in a yeshiva, and gives lectures on mussar.
  • Mashgiach over kosher products - supervises merchants and manufacturers of kosher food to ensure that the food is kosher. Either an expert in the laws of kashrut, or (generally) under the supervision of a rabbi who is expert in those laws.
  • Gabbai (sexton) - Calls people up to the Torah, appoints the Hazzan at for each prayer session if there is no standard Hazzan, and makes certain that the synagogue is kept clean and supplied.

Jewish Ethnic divisions

The most commonly used terms to describe ethnic divisions among Jews presently are: Ashkenazi (meaning "German" in Hebrew, denoting the Central European base of Jewry); and Sephardi (meaning "Spanish" or "Iberia" in Hebrew, denoting their Spanish, Portuguese and North African location). They refer to both religious and ethnic divisions. (Some scholars hold that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Palestinian Jewish religious tradition, and Sephardic Jews are descendants of those who originally followed the Babylonian religious tradition.)

Other Jewish ethnic groups include Mizrahi Jews (a term overlapping Sephardi, but emphasizing North African and Middle Eastern rather than Spanish history, and including the Maghrebim); Teimanim (Yemenite Jews); and such smaller groups as the Gruzim and Juhurim from the Caucasus, the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews of India, the Romaniotes of Greece, the Italkim (Bené Roma) of Italy, various African Jews (most notably the Falasha or Ethiopian Jews), and the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia.

Judaism, Jewish Life-cycle events

Life-cycle events occur throughout a Jew's life that bind him/her to the entire community.
  • Brit milah - Welcoming male babies into the covenant through the rite of circumcision.
  • Bar mitzvah and Bat mitzvah - Celebrating a child's reaching the age of majority, becoming responsible from now on for themselves as an adult for living a Jewish life and following halakha.
  • Marriage
  • Mourning - Judaism has a multi-staged mourning practice. The first stage is called the Shiv'ah (observed for one week), the second is the shloshim (observed for one month) and for those who have lost one of their parents, there is a third stage, avelut yud bet chodesh, which is observed for one year.


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