Judaism is an old religion. Unlike Islam or Christianity, Judaism is more about Right Action than Right Belief. As a non-missionising religion, Judaism cannot compete in terms of numbers but its influence is immeasurable. At its centre is the concept of Tikkun Olam -- repairing the world. Jews seek to create a world worthy of God, to build the `Kingdom of God' on earth.

In the Name of God,
Blessed be the Name

What is Judaism?

Judaism is an old religion. Unlike Islam or Christianity, Judaism is more about Right Action than Right Belief. As a non-missionising religion, Judaism cannot compete in terms of numbers but its influence is immeasurable. At its centre is the concept of Tikkun Olam -- repairing the world. Jews seek to create a world worthy of God, to build the `Kingdom of God' on earth.

What do Jews believe?

Jews believe in One, Unique, Incomparable God. The central declaration of Jewish belief is a passage of Scripture known as the Shema: 'Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Elohenu, Adonai Echad' (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One). All other Jewish belief stems from this declaration. This singular, unique, unitary God gave the Jewish people the Torah (the Law) at Mt. Sinai and this Law defines the parameters of Jewish belief and practice. Contained in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) are 613 commandments or `Mitzvot' (singular: 'Mitzvah') divided into 248 positive commandments and 365 negative ones.

How does someone become a Jew?

Judaism does not seek converts so the easiest way to become a Jew is to be born Jewish! Conversion is possible but it is not an easy path and the process takes several years of study, commitment and examination.

What does 'Judaism' mean?

The word comes to us from the Roman Empire when the Holy Land was the Roman province of Judea (from the Hebrew: `Yehudah') and all who lived there were referred to as Judeans. This became Jews over the course of time. Judah was one of the sons of Jacob.

Do Islam and Christianity share origins with Judaism?

The first Christians, including Jesus, were Jews and Christianity grew out of Judaism. Islam developed later and owes aspects of its character to both Judaism and Christianity. However, the theology of both Christianity and Islam, to a greater or lesser extent, embraces important figures whom Jews claim as their own. Abraham is acknowledged as the Father of all three religions.

Who is Moses?

Moses was born in Egypt about 3,500 years ago, at a time when the Hebrew people were enslaved and oppressed. Although he grew up in a privileged position he became known for his compassion. Eventually, he led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and slavery (the Exodus, an event still commemorated each year at Passover) and became their leader, teacher and greatest prophet.

After the Exodus he ascended Mt. Sinai and God gave him the Torah to deliver to the Children of Israel. He led them for forty years and died just before they passed over the River Jordan from the `wilderness' to the 'promised land.' The account of his life and works is found in the Biblical Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Jews, Christians and Muslims all revere him as a prophet.

What is the Torah?

The Torah is the Law that was revealed by God at Mt. Sinai. The term usually refers to what Christians call the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). In Jewish literature and worship the word is sometimes used to denote certain other things but one cannot go wrong in applying it solely to these books. The Torah, written in Hebrew and on a single Scroll, is read in Jewish synagogues and is central to Jewish faith and practice.

The Torah contains history, law, legend, poetry and song. It recounts the story of the Jewish people from the creation of the world until their arrival in the land promised them by God. Along the way it delineates the rules that God has ordained for the Hebrew people and for all the peoples of the world.

Are there any other sacred sources?

Yes, the Nevi'im or Prophets and the Ketubim or Writings, along with the Torah make up the Written Law, known by the acronym: TaNaKh. In addition, the Oral Law -- which is often referred to as the Talmud, was committed to writing over a period of about 500 years starting nearly 2,000 years ago. It contains stories, legal rulings and explanations of the Torah. Belief in the Talmud is part of the Jewish faith.

Examples of the Talmud's writings:

'Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.'
'Who can protest and does not, is an accomplice in the act.'
'Live well. It is the greatest revenge.'
'Anyone who shames his fellow in public, it is as if he shed blood.'
'Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.'
'Teach your tongue to say "I do not know", lest you be led to lie.'
'In a city where both non-Jews and Jews live, the tzedakah (charity) collectors collect from Jews and non- Jews and support Jewish and non-Jewish poor; we visit Jewish and non-Jewish sick and bury Jewish and non-Jewish dead, and comfort Jewish and non-Jewish mourners, and return lost goods of non-Jews and Jews, to promote the ways of peace.'

Does Judaism tolerate other beliefs?

The Jewish religion does not teach that Jews have a monopoly on the truth. Rather, it teaches that all peoples are 'chosen' by God for different missions and that each people must fulfil its own mission.

For the Jew, Judaism is the path to God but others must follow their own paths. Throughout Jewish Scripture and post-Scriptural writings there exists a thread of concern for the 'stranger' and the 'oppressed'. Jewish law protects and honours all human beings, regardless of whether or not they are Jewish. It forbids Jews to deal unjustly with non-Jews.

What do Jews think about Jesus and Mohammed?

Judaism teaches respect for the faith of others. So, such religious figures as Jesus or Mohammed are respected but not worshipped. Although they play no part in the Jewish religion it is forbidden to disrespect them. Jews do not accept the Virgin Birth or atoning death of Jesus but recognise the Christian position on these. Likewise, Judaism does not accept that Mohammed was a prophet but recognises and respects Muslim convictions.

What about Jewish women?

Judaism sees a woman, whether single or married, as an individual in her own right, with the right to own and dispose of her property and earnings. A marriage contract is drawn up and signed by the groom to the bride which identifies and guarantees her rights.

The Hebrew Scriptures include women prophets (such as Miriam), judges and generals (such as Deborah), war heroes (such as Jael), great women of faith (such as Ruth and Abigail), and others.

Traditional Judaism exempts women from many of the commandments incumbent upon men for historical and theological reasons, but they play pivotal roles in the life of Judaism: ushering in the Sabbath, fulfilling the role of first teachers of Jewish children, maintaining the everyday laws of kashrut (fitness) and perpetuating Judaism itself through childbirth.

Why is family so important to Jews?

The family unit is designed and ordained by God: 'Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh' (Genesis 2:24). The family is also the means of perpetuating Judaism, through propagation and education.

What does Judaism say about war?

Sometimes war is necessary. Although Judaism teaches the supreme value of life, Jews are not pacifists. Wiping out evil is also part of justice. As Rashi (a great Bible commentator who lived 1,000 years ago in France) explains, dangerous disputes must be resolved because if evil is left alone it will eventually attack you.

Before a war, the other side must be given the chance to accept peace terms (Deut. 20.10). The hope is that they will change and accept the Seven Universal Laws of humanity. These 'Noachide Laws' are basic to any functioning society and embody fundamental respect for human rights and civilized values:

  • Do not murder.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not worship false gods.
  • Do not be sexually immoral.
  • Do not eat the limb of an animal before it is killed.
  • Do not curse God.
  • Set up courts and bring offenders to justice.

In the event that the other nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jews were still commanded to fight mercifully! For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape.

Throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews' peace-loving nature. King Saul lost his kingdom when he showed misplaced mercy by allowing the Amalekite king to live. And in modern times, when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied, 'It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers.'

How do Jews view death?

In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Our deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of God's plan. In addition, Jews have a firm belief in an afterlife, a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded, and live on in memory. Perhaps the worst 'punishment' is to be forgotten or remembered for evil (such as Hitler). Mourning practices in Judaism are extensive, but they are not an expression of fear or distaste for death. Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes: to show respect for the dead (kavod ha-met), and to comfort the living (nihum avelim), who will miss the deceased.

How does Judaism guarantee human rights?

A commitment to human rights is founded on the recognition of the importance of human life, which is also fundamental to the Jewish faith. Human rights and the relationships between humans in general are firmly established by the Torah and the Talmud. These form the very substance of Jewish faith and practice.

Many Jewish festivals celebrate basic human rights such as freedom from slavery, self-determination, freedom of association and freedom of worship.

Jewish conceptions of the rights of humans stem, ultimately, from the Genesis account of the creation of humanity and the declaration that human beings are made in the 'image and likeness' of God.

What about food?

Food plays a great part in Jewish life and worship. An old joke, with more than a grain of truth in it, suggests that all Jewish festivals can be summed up in three sentences: 'They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat'.

While it is not as simple as that, yet every festival is marked by its own distinctive foods. In addition, there are foods that are prohibited to Jews. Dietary rules were first established in Leviticus 11 and were expounded upon over the millennia by the rabbis and sages of Judaism. In a nutshell, the rules forbid eating any land-dwelling animal that does not both chew the cud and have cloven hooves, any water dwelling animal that does not have both fins and scales, all carrion-eating birds and almost all insects. As well as this there is a prohibition against eating meat and dairy products together.

Despite these restrictions, Jewish food is both varied and justifiably famous and includes such modern staples as bagels and chicken soup.

Living Judaism

Living Judaism Leaflet Cover

The Union of Progressive Judaism resources 23 congregations, schools, youth groups and communal organisations across Australia, New Zealand and Asia, serving about one-fifth of the region's affiliated Jewish community. They have produced a book on aspects of Jewish life and worship which is availble for your reading. Chapter titles include:

  • Creation
  • Inclusiveness
  • Torah
  • Derekh Eretz
  • Mitzvot
  • Halachah
  • Prayer
  • Shabbat
  • Festivals
  • Kashrut
  • Social justice
  • Rabbi
  • Patrilineal descent
  • Conversion
  • Life-cycle events
  • Israel
  • Kehillah

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