Copyright 1999 by Religious Tolerance. org
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NOTE: The term "G-d" is used in this essay to respect the Jewish prohibition against spelling the name of the deity in full. Dates listed which are prior to the 4th century BCE are approximate.

Early History of Judaism

Circa 2000 BCE, the G-d of the ancient Israelites established a divine covenant with Abraham, making him the patriarch of many nations. From his name, the term Abramic Religions is derived; these are the four religions which trace their roots back to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i World Faith. The book of Genesis describes the events surrounding the lives of the  three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Joseph, who is recognized as a fourth patriarch by Christians is not considered one by Jews). Moses was the next leader of the ancient Israelites. He led his people out of captivity in Egypt, and received the Law from G-d. After decades of wandering through wilderness, Joshua led the tribes into the promised land, driving out the Canaanites through a series of military battles.

The original tribal organization was converted into a kingdom by Samuel; its first king was Saul. The second king, David, established Jerusalem as the religious and political center. The third king, Solomon built the first temple there.

Division into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah occurred shortly after the death of Solomon in 922 BCE. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BCE; Judah fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The temple was destroyed. Some Jews returned from captivity under the Babylonians and started to restore the temple in 536 BCE. Alexander the Great invaded the area in 332 BCE. From circa 300 to 63 BCE, Greek became the language of commerce, and Greek culture had a major influence on Judaism. In 63 BCE, the Roman Empire took control of Palestine.

Four major (and some minor) religious sects had formed by the 1st century AD: the Basusim, Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. Many anticipated the arrival of the Messiah who would drive the Roman invaders out and restore independence. Christianity was established initially as a Jewish sect, centered in Jerusalem. Paul broke with this tradition and spread the religion to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Many mini-revolts led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. The Jewish Christians were wiped out or scattered at this time. The movement started by Paul flourished and quickly evolved into the religion of Christianity. Jews were scattered throughout the known world. Their religion was no longer centered in Jerusalem; Jews were prohibited from setting foot there. Judaism became decentralized and stopped seeking converts. The local synagogue became the new center of Jewish life, and authority shifted from the centralized priesthood to local scholars and teachers, giving rise to Rabbinic Judaism.

The period from the destruction of the temple onward give rise to heavy persecution by Christians throughout Europe and Russia. In the 1930s and 1940s, Adolph Hitler and the German Nazi party drew on centuries of anti-Semitism, and upon their own psychotic beliefs in racial purity. They organized the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of all Jews in Europe. About 6 million were killed in one of the world's greatest examples of religious and racial intolerance.

The Zionist movement was a response to centuries of Christian persecution. Their initial goal was create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The state of Israel was formed on 1948-MAY-18.

There are currently about 18 million Jews throughout the world. They are mainly concentrated in North America (about 7 million) and Israel (about 4.5 million).

Jewish Texts

The Tanakh corresponds to the Jewish Scriptures, (often referred to as the Old Testament by Christians). It is composed of three groups of books:

the Torah Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
the Nevi'im, the Prophetic books of Isaiah, Amos, etc.
the Ketuvim, the "Writings" including Kings, Chronicles, etc.

The Talmud contains stories, laws, medical knowledge, debates about moral choices, etc. It is composed of material which comes mainly from two sources:

the Mishnah, 6 "orders" containing hundreds of chapters, including series of laws from the Hebrew Scriptures. It was compiled about 200 CE.

the Gemera (one Babylonian and one Palestinian) is encyclopedic in scope. It includes comments from hundreds of Rabbis from 200 - 500 CE, explaining the Mishnah with additional historical, religious, legal, sociological, etc. material. 

Traditional Jewish Beliefs

They include:
G-d is the creator of all that exists; he is one, incorporeal (without a body), and he alone is to be worshiped as absolute ruler of the universe.
The whole of the Torah was revealed to Moses by G-d. It will not be changed or augmented in the future.
God also communicates to the Jewish people through prophets.
God monitors the activities of humans; he rewards individuals for good deeds and punishes evil.
Jewish belief does not follow the Christian concept of original sin (the belief that all people have inherited Adam and Eve's sin when they disobeyed G-d's instructions in the Garden of Eden). Judaism affirms the inherent goodness of the world and its people as creations of G-d. Believers are able to sanctify their lives and draw closer to G-d by fulfilling mitzvot (divine commandments). No savior is needed as an intermediary.
The Jews are G-d's chosen people
The 613 commandments found in Leviticus and other books regulate all aspects of Jewish life.
The Ten commandments, as delineated in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, form a brief synopsis of the Law.
The Messiah (anointed one of G-d) will arrive in the future and gather Jews once more into the land of Israel. There will be a general resurrection of the dead at that time. The Jerusalem Temple, destroyed in 70 CE, will be rebuilt.
Boys reach the status of Bar Mitzvah on their 13th birthday; girls reach Bat Mitzvah on their 12th birthday. This means that they are recognized as adults and are personally responsible to follow the Jewish commandments and laws; they are allowed to lead a religious service; they are counted in a "minyan" (a quota necessary to perform certain parts of religious services); they can sign contracts; they can testify in religious courts; theoretically, they can marry, although the Talmud recommends 18 to 24 as the proper age for marriage.

The more liberal movements within Judaism differ from some of the above beliefs concerning the source of the Torah, the concept of direct reward and punishment according to one's behavior, etc.

Jewish Practices

They include:
  The Passover, which is held each Spring to recall their deliverance out of slavery in Egypt. A ritual Seder meal is eaten in each observing Jewish home at this time. Some Passover dates are: 1995-APR-15, 1996-APR-4 and 1997-APR-22
The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) which are days of fasting and penitence. Some Rosh Hashanah dates are 1995-SEP-25, 1996-SEP-14 and 1997-OCT-2.
The local synagogue is governed by the congregation and led by a rabbi who has been chosen by the congregation. The Chief Rabbis in France and Great Britain have authority only by the agreement of those who accept it. Two Chief Rabbis in Israel have civil authority in areas of family law. 

Jewish Movements:

There are five main forms of Judaism in the world today:

Jewish-Christian Relations:

The faith of Israel, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, had divided into a number of Jewish Sects (the Basusim, Pharisees, Essenes, Saducees, Zealots and others) by the early first century CE. Subsequently, a number of events of momentous importance occurred: Out of these events came two major world religions:

Judaism in its Rabbinical form, centered in local synagogues, scattered throughout the known world, and Pauline Christianity which later became centered in Rome.

Relations between the two religions became strained. The Christian Scriptures include many examples of anti-Judaism. One of the gospels, written during the last third of the 1st century CE, included the accusation that all Jews, (past, present, and future), are responsible for deicide: the killing of God. This form of religious propaganda was serious enough in its original setting, as long as Christianity remained a small reform movement within Judaism. There are many examples of inter-religious friction throughout literature of that era; indeed, it is prevalent today. But when the Christian religion became the official religion of Rome in the late 4th century CE, Christianity became sufficiently powerful to actively oppress and persecute Jews. This led to numerous exterminations of groups of Jews during the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the modern era. Ancient Christian teachings and practices paved the way for the Nazi holocaust during World War II.

Today, only a few fringe Christian groups still teach that Jews are responsible for Christ's death. Many Christian denominations teach that the promises that God made to the Jewish people have been withdrawn and transferred to the Christian Church. This teaching has led to conflicts over attempts to evangelize Jews. Although anti-Semitism has been abandoned by most in North America, the relationships between Christians and Jews have much room for improvement.


  1. A page of links to Jewish web sites is at:
  2. An index of class notes for a University of Alberta course called "Judaism in the Modern Age" is at:
  3. The official FAQ of the Soc.Culture.Jewish newsgroup is at:   This extensive list of questions and answers was developed by a committee of Jews from all denominations.
  4. Robert Kaiser, "Frequently Asked Questions about Jewish Principals and Beliefs," is at:

  5. Robert Kaiser, "Frequently Asked Questions about Jewish Beliefs and Theology," is at: He discusses the Jewish concept of G-d, compares the beliefs of different Jewish denominations, the concept of the Chosen People, etc.