Who are the Jewish people? Part three: Judaism

This is part three of an abridged and edited version of a Powerpoint series compiled by Margie Kinsella.


The religion that  is today called “Judaism” is not Biblical. Where did it come from? [i] Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser stressed the fact that the Rabbinic sages and the Talmud are the source of Judaism: “This is not an uncommon impression and one finds it sometimes among Jews as well as Christians – that Judaism is the religion of the Hebrew Bible. It is, of course, a fallacious impression. Judaism is not the religion of the Bible.” [Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, Judaism and the Christian Predicament, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967, p. 59,]. “The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees. Their leading ideas and methods found expression in a literature of enormous extent, of which a very great deal is still in existence. The Talmud is the largest and most important single member of that literature. In the Old Testament atonement was by the sacrificial system as required by the Law of Moses. This was no longer possible after the temple was destroyed in 70AD. Consequently the Pharisees developed a new system for atonement: The rabbinic program fashioned by Johanan ben Zakkai’s circle [Pharisees] replaced sacrifice and pilgrimage to the Temple with study of the scripture, prayer, fasting and works of piety, thus eliminating the need for a central, sanctuary in Jerusalem.  


Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Ultra-Orthodox, Chabad, and hundreds of different sects.  (Messianic Jews are not considered as part of Judaism). According to Wikipedia the population of American adherents of Judaism was estimated to be approximately 5,128,000 (1.7%) of the total population in 2007 (301,621,000); including those who identify themselves culturally as Jewish (but not necessarily religiously), this population was estimated at 6,489,000 (2.2%) as of 2008.





OTHERS 29% (Reconstructionist, Secular etc.)

Figures vary according to different polls. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that around 3.4 million American Jews call themselves religious — out of a general Jewish population of about 5.4 million. The number of Jews who identify themselves as only culturally Jewish has risen from 20% in 1990 to 37% in 2008, according to the study.


The Reform movement was established in 1817 in Germany when many European Jews struggled to achieve full political emancipation and social integration with the rest of the society. [iii] At its core, the Reform movement challenged the belief that the Laws and rituals taken from the Bible required strict observance in the modern world. With exception of circumcision, Reform Judaism dispensed with almost all traditional Jewish rituals. [There is some movement to reclaim them.] One of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual. A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to a particular belief or practice. Reform Judaism rejects the doctrines of the divine revelation of the Torah, the election of Israel as a chosen people and all other supernatural elements of classical Jewish faith. It stresses “ethical monotheism“— moral behaviour over ritual observances as the true fulfilment of the human purpose on earth. “Salvation” is through the spread of universal moral ideals in this life. Reform congregations are noted for their deep involvement in many forms of social activism. Its goal is to preserve the core moral teachings of the biblical prophets and to facilitate the integration of the Jews into the surrounding Gentile society … without their conversion to Christianity. While it never actively proselytized Gentiles, Reform ready embraces converts. It’s acceptance of mixed marriages and it’s recognition of children of patrilineal Jewish descent as Jews has greatly increased its numbers. It allows the ordination of women, interfaith marriages, and full participation of gay and lesbian members. Initially it opposed Zionism but with knowledge of the Holocaust in early 1940’s the Reform movement embraced Zionism. Its members financially support Israel but do not immigrate to any extent. (Most Jewish support is based upon the idea “some day I might need to go there; today I don’t”).


Conservative Judaism began in the 1850’s in Germany. It was formed in response to Reform Judaism’s complete dismissal of halakha (Jewish laws and regulations). Conservative means: Conserve Jewish tradition rather than “reform” it. Conservative Judaism accepts all laws of the Torah as binding, but accepts more modern and appropriate ways of following them. It offers a compromise between the opposite poles of Reform and Orthodox Judaism. Conservative Judaism maintains the rabbinic understanding of Jewish identity: A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Conservatism thus rejects patrilineal descent, which is accepted by the Reform movement. Conservative Rabbis are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Conservative Jews support Israel as the Jewish state and answer for the national aspirations of the Jewish people.


Orthodox Jews believe the entire Torah – including “Written,” the Pentateuch, and “Oral,” (the Talmud) was given to Moses by God at Sinai and remains authoritative for modern life in its entirety. They believe the rabbis to be the authentic heirs to God’s revelation of the Torah to Moses, which included an “oral torah,” or interpretive tradition handed down from generation to generation in an unbroken chain of tradition. This tradition was maintained only in oral form until about the 2nd century C.E., when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah. Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This was completed in the 5th century C.E. Note: Haggai 2:11, Deuteronomy 33:8 and Exodus  24:4,7 say that the priests are to interpret the law not the rabbis nor sages nor pharisees.

The famous warning of Jesus Christ about the tradition of men that voids Scripture (Mark 7:1-13), is considered a direct reference to the Talmud, or more specifically, the forerunner of the first part of it, the Mishnah, which existed in oral form during Christ’s lifetime, before being committed to writing.

The Bible says more than once that Moses wrote down the law which he was given Exodus 34:27 & Deuteronomy 31:9. Therefore there is no biblical basis for “oral torah.” It is simply the “Rabbis traditions”. Orthodox Jews [iv] believe that in the absence of prophetic voices and temple sacraments, whose restoration are contingent on the arrival of the Messiah, deep study of the canonical texts of Judaism, including the Talmud, is believed to be the closest humans can get to communing with the divine. They believe God endows each individual with good and evil impulses that are in a constant struggle for dominance within the human psyche. They believe that the only effective antidotes to the temptations of the evil impulse are assiduous study of torah and strict obedience to its commandments. Suffering is considered a sign of divine displeasure with humankind, and, in the words of the Talmud, “there is no suffering without sin.” It holds the classical rabbinic belief in the eternity of the human soul— reward and punishment in Olam ha-bah (“world-to-come”). However, in the wake of the holocaust’s unprecedented challenge to this traditional thinking, a number of orthodox thinkers have developed more complex theories about suffering and evil. “Ritual is an essential feature of Orthodox life. Jewish law demands that men pray three times per day in a group of at least ten men (a minyan). The Sabbath is also demanding. Hours of communal prayer and socializing occur around the Sabbath dinner table. Orthodox Judaism holds that both Conservative and Reform Judaism have made major and unjustifiable breaks with historic Judaism, both by their skepticism of the verbal revelation of Written and Oral Torah, and by their rejection of halakhic (Jewish legal) precedent as binding (though to varying degrees). While not recognizing Reform and Conservative as valid expressions of Judaism, it recognizes Jews affiliated with these movements as full-fledged Jews, aside from those whose Judaism is of patrilineal descent and/or were converted under Conservative or Reform auspices.[v]


Modern Orthodox Judaism began in 19th-century Germany.  Its central goal—to normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law, i.e., to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world. The Modern Orthodox desires to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence. Though modern Orthodox Jews do not typically wear the long beards, side curls and black, Old World garments favored by the ultra-Orthodox, the men do wear beneath their clothes a small fringed prayer shawl. Morning prayers are accompanied by the daily donning of phylacteries. The Bible prohibits work on the Sabbath. The rabbis began with 39 categories as to what “work” was—each of which called for its own classification into as many as 39 further subcategories.  So the debate continues: “What is work?”


The ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as Haredim, or those in awe of God, are 10 percent of Israel’s population. 56% of the ultra-Orthodox live in poverty – most depend upon welfare support.  They usually don’t work nor do they serve in the army. Their distinctive dress helps them to define, and then insulate, their communities, as well as maintain a traditional and spiritual focus. They dress as their ancestors dressed in 18th and 19th century Europe. The men tend to wear dark suits with white shirts, and to cover their heads with black, wide-brimmed hats. The men usually have beards and sidelocks (peyot). Women, in line with strict standards of modesty, tend to wear long skirts and shirts with long sleeves and high necklines. Married women cover their heads with either scarves, hats or wigs. Outside the Orthodox world, Jews have the lowest population growth of any ethnic group; while the Haredim number 700,000 and have the largest families of seven or more children. Demographers predict that if present trends continue the Orthodox Haredim will become the majority group of Jews in America by 2050. In Israel, the same trend is visible and raises concerns in many eyes.  It is referred to as “the explosion of Haredim”.[vi] In 1948, Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, granted full-time Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students state financing and exemption from army service in order to refill the ranks of Torah scholarship destroyed in the Holocaust. Then, there were 400 students, 18 and older, of draftable age. Today, there are about 60,000. The Haredi community in Israel, while adopting a policy of cultural dissociation from the secular state, at the same time perceives itself as the true protector of the country’s Jewish nature. The issues date to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century, with the rise of Zionism. The vast majority of Haredi Jews rejected Zionism for a number of reasons. Chief among these was the claim that Jewish political independence could only be obtained through Divine intervention, with the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Any attempt to force history was seen as an open rebellion against Judaism. More important was the dislike that the political and cultural Zionism of the time felt toward any manifestation of religion. Influenced by socialism, secular Zionists looked on religion as an outdated relic, which should disappear (or, according to some extreme views, even be eradicated) in favour of Jewish nationalism. The result was mutual recriminations, rejection, and harsh verbal attacks. To Zionists, Haredi Jews were either “primitives” or “parasites”; to Haredi Jews, Zionists were tyrannizing heretics. This kulturkampf still plagues Israeli society today, where animosity between the two groups has even pervaded both their educational systems.[vii] In recent years some programmes have been introduced to provide training and employment for Haredim. While exempt from military conscription, some in this group are sending their boys to IDF units specially designed to meet their religious needs.


Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest sects of Hasidic Judaism within the Orthodox movement, with over 200 000 adherents worldwide and approximately 10000 followers inIsrael.  The name “Chabad” is an acronym for ChochmahBinahDa’at (חכמה, בינה, דעת): “Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge.” Chabad was founded in the late 18th century by Shneur Zalman of Liadi. The Lubavitch branch takes its name from the Russian town, Lyubavichi, where the group was based until the early 20th century. Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn the sixth leader fled war-torn Europe for New York in 1940, where he established a synagogue. His son-in-law, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, turned the movement into a powerful force within Judaism. They believe that if all Jews spend more time praying and doing more mitzvot (good deeds) this will usher in the coming of the Messiah. Chabad is known for its outreach work with assimilated or unaffiliated Jews all over the world bringing them closer to orthodox practice to accelerate the coming of the Messiah. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, encouraged holding Succot festivities outdoors in the most visible locations possible. Long before the end of Schneerson’s life in 1994 some of the Hasidim had begun to believe that the Messiah they were expecting to appear during Schneerson’s lifetime was Schneerson himself. His death did not dissuade them, many of them still believing that he will return as the Messiah. Chabad is just one of many Hasidic sects within the Haredi or ultra-orthodox camp. Pray that Jewish people from all these sects may realize their need of a Saviour and find their refuge in Yeshua the Messiah. Pray that the chains that hold them captive to traditions of men may be broken and that their eyes may be opened to see the glory of the true Messiah.

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