Judaism is a religion with a long and rich history. In the United States, many people are familiar with the beliefs of Christianity, even those who do not practice it, due to a cultural tie to the religion. But what about Judaism? Those who are outside of the religion may not be as familiar with it. It would be impossible to explain the entirety of Judaism in a short time but what are the major beliefs of Judaism?
Belief in One God
As in Islam and Christianity, a major tenant of Judaism is the belief in and worship of one God. Religions in which there is only one god are called monotheistic religions while religions with two or more gods are known as polytheistic religions. The Jewish people believe that they have been sent into our world in order to bear witness to the one true God and to communicate with him while on Earth.
In Judaism, God created the entire universe. There are no other gods in existence just the God of Israel and he cannot be divided into separate parts, unlike the Christian God who is presented as “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. This God is above all earthly things, has no physical body or gender (though you may see God referred to as “Him”), and has always existed and will always exist as an omnipresent being. The Jewish God is just, fair, and forgiving.
Unlike some other monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Judaism does not demand worship of God by all people. They believe that their God is the true one and that He is universal but only the Jewish people must obey His commands and worship Him. The Israelites (the Jewish people) were chosen by God to be the ones to serve Him and when reading scripture, you may find some references to Israel as being the spouse of God.
[If you want to know how to learn Biblical Hebrew to understand better the Hebrew Bible, read here my article on this topic.]
Belief in a Covenant with Israel
In Judaism, the Jewish people are the Chosen People of God and have entered into a covenant with God. A covenant is simply a pact or agreement. Believing that they are the Chosen People does not mean that those who practice Judaism believe themselves to be superior to others or that they believe they will be the only ones to reap the benefits of living a good life.
This actually means that they have more of a responsibility than those who do not practice the Jewish faith. The Jewish people carry with them the responsibility of passing on the knowledge of their God to the rest of the people on Earth.
Outside of the covenant mentioned above, there are other covenants the Jewish people have entered into with God. Examples of the origins of some of these covenants can be seen in the story of Abraham. Abraham is a figure who is revered in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, giving them the name “Abrahamic religions” and he is the first patriarch of Judaism. He is the one who originally entered into the covenant with God that made the Jewish people the Chosen People.
The covenant of circumcision is also a covenant that Abraham entered into with God. In exchange for practicing circumcision (an act that set the Jewish people apart from other peoples), Abraham and his descendants were promised a great deal of land. All the land from “the river of Egypt” to the Euphrates became known as the Promised Land. It is also called the Land of Israel.
While many people may have heard of the Torah, this is just one part of the holy texts of Judaism. The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh or Mikra and it is the whole collection of canonized Jewish scripture. This collection is also the basis for the Old Testament in Christianity. The Tanakh has 24 books and these are divided into three sections: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.
Torah means “teaching”. The books contained in this section are also known as the Five Books of Moses. These books are Bereshit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bemidbar (Numbers), and Devarim (Deuteronomy). The books cover the story of the creation of the world, the exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt, and God’s speeches to Moses. Much of the writing is considered to be done by Moses, often dictated to him by God.
Nevi’im means “prophets” and these books cover a wide period of time, from when the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. These books are not in chronological order and contain stories of many of the Jewish prophets, including Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There is also the book of Judges, which covers a period of time where judges were serving as temporary leaders in the Land of Israel.
Ketuvim means “writings”. There are eleven books in this section. The poetic books of Tehillim (Psalms), Mishlei (Proverbs), and Iyyobh (Job) are considered to be one subsection and they are followed by the Hamesh Megillot (Five Megillot) which are books that are to be read aloud in the Jewish synagogues during special occasions such as Passover and Shavuot. The last three books cover later narratives of the Jewish people.
The Jewish Law can be found in the Torah. There are certain sets of rules and practices that the Jewish people must follow as God’s Chosen People. These laws are also known as commandments and there are 613 of them. These laws cover a variety of things, from religious practices to day-to-day life. The most well known of these laws would be the Ten Commandments.
Examples of these commandments include “to know that God exists” and “to love God”, “to recite grace after meals”, and “not to cherish hatred in one’s heart”. There are laws about how to treat the poor, how to treat gentiles (non-Jews), and about marriage, divorce, and family.
There are also laws discussing forbidden sexual relationships, most of which include relations between family members. Many people may already be familiar with some of the laws about food and diet, such as not eating pork or shellfish. The purpose of all these laws is to ensure that the Jewish people are living good lives and that they are worthy of the blessings of their God.
Divine Providence, called Hashgochoh Protis in Hebrew, is the divine supervision of people. This is a concept discussed by Jewish philosophers. Classical Jewish philosophy has two main views about Divine Providence. These views have to do with God’s relation to the natural order of the world.
The first view accepts that there is an established natural order but this can be interfered with or disturbed by God, by means of things such as miracles. In this view, miracles are outside of the natural order and God may use them at any time in order to regulate or bring about certain human events. This view does believe that the universe has physical properties and laws of nature but God may choose to intrude upon them at any time.
The second view does not necessarily discount miracles but it believes that miracles can be rationalized and fit into the established natural order. Those who believe in this type of Divine Providence believe that the universe was given certain properties by God and it follows the rules established by God.
The “rationalists”, as those with this type of belief are known, believe that providence is a natural process and that the individual providence we experience depends on the development of the human mind. Essentially, they believe that God created a perfect set of rules for the universe, as God is perfect, and therefore “miracles” are more about our ability to understand and comprehend that which is under control of Divine Providence.
Redeeming the People of Israel
The word “redemption” means to “buy back” and is a concept in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and of course Judaism. In Judaism, God redeems the people of Israel from their exiles. There are many examples in the history of Judaism of the Jewish people being exiled or cast out of their homes, only to later be redeemed by God. This is actually seen as a pattern in Jewish history, one of trials and suffering followed by times of rejoicing.
The first redemption was when the Jewish people were taken out of their exile in Egypt. This redemption can be seen in the Passover story. In this story, the Jewish people were forced into slavery by the Pharaoh of Egypt and each of their firstborn sons were drowned in the Nile. One child, Moses, escapes this fate and is adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses later develops a connection with the God of Israel and is told to demand that the Pharaoh lets the Jewish people go. Each time the Pharaoh refuses, God unleashes a plague onto Egypt, ten in all. The final plague is the source of the term “passover”: God goes through Egypt, passing through each home and killing the firstborn son in every home.
The Jewish people avoid this plague by sacrificing a lamb to God and marking their doors with the lamb’s blood. God then “passed over” these homes and the firstborns were saved. After the Pharaoh’s son is killed during this plague, he allows the Jewish people to leave, only to later change his mind and pursue them.
This is when Moses “parted the Red Sea” and was able to get his people safely across it while also destroying the Pharaoh’s army that was pursuing them. After this redemption, Moses and the Jewish people wander in the desert for 40 years before they finally end up in the Land of Israel.
The Final Redemption will take place at the End of Days. The Jewish people believe that this is when history as we know it will end. Eventually, society will begin to deteriorate and the world will be filled with suffering. God will be hidden from the people. There will be massive economic turmoil, rebellion, and suffering.
There will be a great war, one in which the Jewish people will be attacked by all the nations of the world, defeated, and forced out of their Holy Land. The redemption will take place when the Messiah comes and leads the Jewish people out of their exile and reestablish Israel.
Body and Soul
In Judaism, the body and soul are separate from one another yet they are also partners. The body is a tool given to people by God in order to fulfill his commandments and do sacred work. It is not a vessel that in any way corrupts the soul. The soul is our sense of self, who we are outside of our physical body.
The body and soul work together in all things. The body does not force the “pure” soul to sin. The soul is not a prisoner inside the body waiting to be freed. When we are good, both body and soul get credit. When we are bad, both body and soul are to blame.
All souls were created by God during the creation of the universe and when it is time for a soul to enter a body, it is guided to its body by angels. The soul is told about the reason for the need for earthly existence and sent on its way. The body and soul do not remain together until death.
According to a Midrash (Jewish teaching), the body and soul temporarily separate during sleep. Jewish people practice certain holy acts before bed due to this temporary separation and also recite a prayer in the morning, thanking God for reuniting the body and soul.
Interestingly, Judaism does not have any specific beliefs about the afterlife, as Christianity does. Where the soul goes after the body dies is not really described. There is some talk of an “ethereal realm” in some teachings and this realm is where the soul lives separately from the body but this is not necessarily “where we go” after we die.
Judaism in a Nutshell
What are the major beliefs of Judaism? Many of them are in some ways similar to the major beliefs of Christianity. In fact, the beliefs of Judaism predate Christianity by centuries. The Jewish people believe in one God, they believe in a Messiah, and they follow many rules and laws which are also described to Christians in the Old Testament. Whether you are Jewish or not, we can all agree that Judaism is an interesting religion with a long and varied history that is worth learning about.