Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
The key to understanding Judaism is the giving of the Law to Moses. However, it is important to understand what torah (law) means in Hebrew. When people think of the word law, they think of being commanded to do one thing or forbidden to do another. The Hebrew word torah means teaching. The central defining characteristic of the Jewish culture is the Law: the commands, traditions, customs, and worship practices that bind the Jewish people together.
Because of the importance of the Torah, Judaism is expressed by the presence of a rabbi to teach the Torah to the congregation, a place to worship, and Torah scrolls that are treated with utmost respect. Judaism can exist without a local rabbi, but the leadership of a rabbi is considered a priority. The synagogue may be quite elaborate and large or quite modest, but worship demands a place where the proper services may be performed.
Judaism is divided into three main associations today: Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox. The Reformed are most like the liberal denominations of Christianity in their approach toward many issues. For instance, the Reformed Jews were the first to ordain women rabbis. Conservative Judaism also ordains women rabbis, but they made that change later. Orthodox Jews maintain the oldest traditions, including having only male rabbis.
The Jewish scriptures are the Old Testament books, but they are organized with different names for the groups of books. The Five Books of Moses are the Torah (although Torah also has the broader meaning of the Teaching of God). The other two groups of books are the Prophets (the Old Testament prophets) and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.). One very important fact for Christians is that the Christian faith agrees with Judaism about the inspired books of the Old Testament. The Jewish Bible corresponds exactly with the Christian Old Testament, except that Roman Catholics also include the books of the Apocrypha (1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, etc.).
Another important source of religious teaching is the Talmud. Started in the earliest days, after the Christian faith began to be taught, the Talmud is comprised of several layers of commentary. Below is a link that gives a page of the Talmud:
The content of the Talmud itself is so extensive that it would take many years to discuss it. Judaism expects all rabbis to be highly educated in their own religion and in the liberal arts as well. Moreover, the typical Jew is also expected to have extensive training in Hebrew, in Judaism, and in various academic studies. When Jews came to America in great poverty, they carried with them a tradition of pursuing the highest levels of education. Kept away from the best schools at first, Jews nevertheless excelled in learning and earned their way into the Ivy Leagues and every branch of learning.
Today in America a synagogue will have a Jewish school to train the children in Hebrew and Judaism. Many websites also encourage more learning. A key event in the life of every Jewish boy is the bar mitzvah. Many Jewish girls participate in the female counterpart, but the bar mitzvah seems to be the most significant as a community event and as a turning point in the life of a Jewish family. At a bar mitzvah the boy (usually around age 13) will read from the Torah. He trains a long time to do this perfectly. Following the service is a very elaborate family and community meal accompanied by impressive gifts.
The influence of Judaism is so strong in Christianity and in America that people often do not think about their debt to the Jews.
1. The liturgical service of the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox follow the general lines of Jewish worship.
2. The practice of appointed scripture readings is common to Judaism and the Christian denominations listed above.
3. Educated Christian clergy are expected to learn Hebrew to understand Judaism and the Old Testament.
4. The prominence of Jewish leaders in America is out of proportion to the number of Jews in this country. They earn honors in every field of learning, in the performing arts, and in entertainment.
We also have the political events in the Middle East to consider. The daily conflicts in the Holy Land involve the three religions of this course: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The more we understand their history and culture, the more we understand world events.
1. What do you think is most distinctive about Judaism? Pick one concept and discuss it.
2. Name some prominent members of our society who are Jewish – and you never realized it. Here are some links to help: