The Jewish religion has undergone theological shifts due to culture clash and contrasting cultures, and modern Judaism has come a long way from pre-Mosaic Judaism. From the thirteen principles that Judaism encompasses within its beliefs to the many splits and sub-categories within the Jewish religion, it remains a rich and beautiful religion even within the modern era.
It is important to realize that like every religion, the Jewish religion has changed over time as well as the biblical Hebrew, and had to acclimate to several cultural niches to survive. In the pre-Mosaic stage, from 1950 BCE to 1300 BCE, little can be definitively stated about early Jewish religion and beliefs. The book of Genesis, which documents the Jewish religion before the flight from Egypt, is one of the best sources to as what Jewish religious practices were like.
[If you are interested in learning Biblical Hebrew to better understand the Bible and the Jewish religion, read hear my article on this topic.]
You may be surprised to learn that the Jewish religion originated from polytheism, or the belief in several gods. This belief is evident throughout the book of Genesis, but most strikingly clear in God’s name being Elohim, not El, signifying a plurality in nature. Furthermore, the foundation of the Jewish religion is thought to be animistic, that is, early Jews worshiped natural forces that lived inside inanimate things. Early Jewish religion even went as far as to believe that the gods could take human forms. There is no indication that early Jews worshipped the same god as there was not the concept of a universal Jewish deity.
Historical Events and Their Impact on Jewish Beliefs
When Moses led the flight of Jews from Egypt around 1300 BCE, he united the Jewish people and religion. The Jewish people became unified as Israelites and certain aspects of their religion are made evident under Judaism’s new description as a Mosaic religion, an aspect still surviving in the modern days. This includes the beginning stages of monotheism because the unity of the Jews allowed for the concept of a universal Jewish god, referred to as Yahweh.
While the Jews now had the one primary deity of Yahweh, it is important to note that they were not true monotheists yet. Instead, they qualified as somewhat monolatrous, which means while they worshipped Yahweh, they didn’t deny the existence of other gods. An example of this is the concept of the goddess Asherah, which archaeologists have found evidence that there was a belief she was married to Yahweh around 800 BCE.
From 800 BCE onward, the Jewish religion became one that considered the word of the prophets. This was brought about by the tribes of Israel deciding to develop into a monarchy, or a government with a monarch’s rule. A prophet named Samuel warned against it, but the Jewish people decided to continue monarchy despite Yahweh’s disapproval.
Yahweh’s revelation comes true when Saul, their first king, became a tyrannical ruler who did not benefit the Jewish people. Thus, there is an emergence of a theme which considers the messages of the prophets and tension between Yahweh and the rules of the Israelites.
It is with the introduction of these prophets that Yahweh starts to become more established as the only god (introducing the notion of monotheism), that Yahweh can do nothing but good and righteous things, and that Yahweh cares about his people being ethical in nature and pursuing justice.
Monotheism really became a critical part of Jewish religion and beliefs, however, around 587 BCE or the sacking of Jerusalem in which their temple was destroyed. This began the Diaspora, a time of great stress for the Jewish people in which they were geographically moved to Babylon.
When Cyrus the Great reconquered Babylon, he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to remake their temple. It is thought that the period of time the Jews spent in Babylon due to the Diaspora aided in the development of monotheistic theology because the destruction of Yahweh’s temple discontinued any “proper” way to worship him.
Another reason could be the influence of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that was prevalent around 550 to 330 BCE. Whatever the reason, Yahweh’s worship as “the one and only true God” became prevalent around this time, establishing Judaism in a more recognizable form.
The Modern Jewish Religion and Beliefs
From Judaism’s vibrant religious history, we have a religion that has lasted for thousands of years and still exists today. It is a monotheistic religion that considers the concept of one true God, or Yahweh. In Jewish beliefs, Yahweh is not only the creator of the universe, but also a God which each Jew is free to pursue a relationship with.
They believe that God is an active force within the world and can affect people’s daily actions. Furthermore, Jews consider themselves in a Covenant relationship with God, that is, God does many good deeds for them and in return, they keep God’s laws and sanctify their own lives through every action. Because of this, living in a pious way is important for Jews.
Essentially, Jewish people consider Thirteen Principles of Faith central to their beliefs that were summarized by Rambam/Maimonides, a notable Jewish rabbi and philosopher. They believe that God is real, and that God is eternal and has no material existence. Furthermore, prayer is for God and only God, and God knows the thoughts and the actions of all men.
He will punish the bad and reward the good accordingly. They believe in prophets, the Torah being true, and the concept that there are no other Torahs than the Torah given to Moses.
Finally, Jews believe that the Messiah, also known as Moshiach, is yet to come (in contrast to Christians who believe the Messiah has already come), and that the dead will resurrect when the Creator so wills it. While the Jewish denomination can vary, it is these thirteen principles which stay consistent within Jewish religion and beliefs.
The Torah is the Jewish holy book which contains the Five Books of Moses. The Torah was said to be given by God to Moses on top of Mount Sinai, and thus contain the laws of Judaism. It unites the people of Israel, the Jews or Israelites, into a holy nation. It is thought in rabbinic tradition to be from heaven, and is highly held by the Jewish community. Interestingly, the Torah is also the Old Testament that is studied and followed throughout many Christian denominations. In the beginning, the Christians were able to know the Old Testament due to the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Old Testament.
[The Greek translation of the Bible influenced the whole Western culture. If you want to learn Biblical Greek, read here my review of some great Biblical Greek courses.]
The End of Days and Moshiach
The term Moshiach is the Jewish word for “Messiah”. Within the Jewish religion and beliefs, the Messiah will be a Jewish leader who is a direct descendant from the line of the Davidic dynasty. This individual will remake Jerusalem’s Temple and bring all Jews back to the Land of Israel. The entire world will recognize the Moschiach’s power, and his arrival will mark the end of disease, suffering, and famine. Everyone will worship one God and be united.
There are said to be several warning signs as to when the coming of Moshiach will occur. It is claimed that he will come in a time of tyranny and unrest, according to the Talmud. There is also an alleged war that will occur, which will take place around the Messiah’s arrival.
It is also said that forty years after Moshiach’s arrival, the dead will rise from the land of Israel. Despite the Jewish belief that the Messiah will arrive in a time of stress, they constantly pray Ani Maamin, which states their belief in the arrival of Moshiach. In Jewish religion and beliefs, the coming of Moshiach is not something to fear, but something they hope will happen in their lifetime.
In contrast with Christianity, the Jewish religion is not as concerned about the afterlife or achieving eternal salvation. This is to be expected, as the Torah does not specifically talk about the afterlife at all. It’s theorized that this is due to the Ancient Egyptian society being obsessed with death, the Torah was written as to avoid the Egyptian’s fixation. Whatever the reason, the afterlife isn’t talked about in Jewish culture that much and what is known about it is inferable from the rest of their belief system.
Known as the Olam Ha-Ba, the Jewish afterlife’s justification for existing is that because God is all-good and all-powerful, there has to be an afterlife that is separate from the evil contained in the living world. Little is known about the Jewish afterlife, but there are folk stories which talk about what the afterlife is like.
For the good, it is suggested that they will be satiated and feed each other. For the bad, representations of starving are at hand. It is also suggested that in the afterlife Moses teaches the Torah. For the good this would be considered heaven but for the bad people, hell. In any case, the afterlife is not a subject on the typical Jew’s mind and they leave their fate in Yahweh’s hands.
Traditional Jewish Worship and the Synagogue
The Synagogue is the Jew’s center of worship. Typically, it has chairs and pews that face Jerusalem. In the front and center rests the Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark. This houses Torah scrolls which contain the Five Books of Moses. The Aron Kodesh is typically opened during prayer sessions.
There is also the Ner Tamid or Eternal Light which is often hung above the Ark which symbolizes a lamp that is lit in Jerusalem’s temple. There is also a birmah, a platform from which the Torah is read, the amud, or pillar where the Chazzan serves as a prayer leader, and a metchizmeh, or a veil that separates the women and men’s seating sections.
Significant figures within the synagogue include the Rabbi, the spiritual guide of the congregation, the Rebbetzin, the rabbi’s wife, the Chazzan, who leads prayers, and the Gabbai who helps to run Jewish services. It’s also important to realize that not every Synagogue may be the same as different congregations consider.
Jews typically congregate at their synagogue for a circumcision event, a bar or bat mitzvah, an Aufruf or pre-wedding Shabbat celebration, and a ceremony which honors the dead known as a Kaddish. Most typically, however, Jews meet up weekly to celebrate Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath and day of rest. It begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until Saturday evening with a ceremony known as Havdalah.
The worship itself consists of singing and music, Torah readings, and different types of prayers including but not limited to the Bar’chu or call to worship, the Amidah or standing prayer, and the Aleinu. The Torah reading is known as the Seder K’riat HaTorah, and is usually preceded by the hakafah in which the scrolls of the Torah are carried into the sanctuary. After the Torah reading, it is customary to read the Haftarah, a thematic reading from the Prophets.
Over time, just like a lot of religious texts, the Torah’s different interpretation and various traditional beliefs have led to many Jewish spin-off denominations. Each interprets the Torah in a different way, and this concept may be paralleled to that of Christian denominations. In most religions, there are differing religions, each with their own beliefs, and the Jewish religion is no exception.
There is Reform Judaism, which probably forms the largest group of Jews within America. It takes Jewish traditions and modernizes them to fit into the mesh of the modern era. Within reform Judaism, the concepts of social justice and politically progressive dogma are evident. There is also Conservative Judaism. Conservative Jews see the Jewish Law as mandatory, but practice greatly varies.
For example, they may consider the Jewish Laws only partially, such as breaking the Sabbath when needed, or loosening their beliefs on interfaith marriages. It is considered an in-between state between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. It should come as no surprise, then, what Orthodox Judaism aims to achieve. Orthodox Jews follow traditional Rabbinic Jewish law, and as such, observe the Shabbat very strictly. This rigor also applies to the rest of the Jewish laws.
There are also sects of Judaism with differing ideas from mainstream Judaism. Reconstructionist Judaism, founded by Mordecai Kaplan, considers changing elements of Jews and Judaism. It is considered extremely progressive, with its seminary accepting gay students. Perhaps the farthest movement from the initial Jewish religion and beliefs stands Humanistic Judaism, which celebrates nontheistic Jewish culture, that is, the Jewish culture that is separated from the religious aspect. There are many other different divisions within the Jewish religion that are not speculated upon here.
The Religious Jew
Clearly, to be a religious Jew is to live a life in which each action establishes sanctity, and God is revered through the state of living. Through their rich traditions held within the synagogue to the evolution of the beliefs held within Judaism, the Jewish religion manages to encapsulate the Jewish people’s history. Within Judaism, culture and religion run hand in hand. It is clear that the Jewish nation as a whole has vibrant religious history which leads to beliefs that are still popular in the present media today and continue to be celebrated throughout the world.