The word Judaism does not appear anywhere in the Bible or in early rabbinical literature. So, let’s ask ourselves: what does being Jewish mean?
Hellenized Jews actually introduced this concept in the second century B.C.E. to describe their religious practice.
Judaism is a tradition with a long history. In spite of many changes, trials, and tribulations, it has endured for thousands of years, demonstrating an amazing ability to survive while remaining true to its essence.
Judaism developed the concept of monotheism, the belief in one God, and served as the foundation for Christianity and Islam. All of these accomplishments, and more, make Judaism a religion worthy of study.
The answer for the initial question “what does being Jewish mean” is simple: Judaism is more than just a religion however, it is also a way of life.
Through the ages, Jews have been regarded as a “people,” a “nation” (though, for most of its existence, one without a homeland), a “race,” and a “culture.”
Because it is such a comprehensive term, it is difficult to pinpoint all of the many facets that encompass and define Judaism.
Over the course of history, non-Jews often took it upon themselves to define what it meant to be Jewish.
Sometimes motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs, they did not limit their concept of the Jews to those who professed the faith of Judaism and complied with its tenets.
In some cases, people who did not consider themselves to be Jewish were labeled Jews just the same. The worst example came when, in 1933, the German Third Reich decreed that a person was Jewish as long as he or she was descended from at least one Jewish parent or grandparent.
This was a more expansive interpretation than the traditional Orthodox requirement, which stipulates that a person must be born of a Jewish mother to be Jewish. Of course, the Nazis had their own sinister reasons for expanding this delineation.
There is no doubt that Jewish people should determine what it means to be a Jew and to practice Judaism. In fact, Jews have been considering this subject for centuries, and today it remains a point of argument and controversy among Jews.
What Does Judaism Teach?
Judaism teaches that God made an eternal covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel), and that every Jew participates in this covenant as one of the Chosen People. However, being “chosen” by God does not necessarily impart a notion of superiority.
What does being Jewish mean?. First and foremost, Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, wherever they reside. Though over the centuries Jews have dispersed among nations, a strong sense of kinship has remained.
This “transnationalis” explains why some Jews feel a connection when introduced to someone else who is also Jewish, experience a sense of pride when a Jew is honored for a major accomplishment, or bear an inordinate sense of loss when learning of something terrible that has befallen a fellow Jew. As Amos Oz, an Israeli writer, observed, “To be a Jew means to feel that wherever a Jew is persecuted for being a Jew—that means you.”
Unlike many other religious traditions, Judaism does not trace its origins to the life and teachings of a single individual.
Rather it is like a cable or rope that gathers its strength by intertwining multiple strands of diverse events and memories, stories, significant people, writings produced through the centuries, rituals, and holiday traditions.
Although Jews have never been a group large in number (there are 13 to 14 million Jews worldwide, and they comprise just .02 percent of the world’s population), the influence of their ideals, aspirations, and actions has been far greater than their size might imply.
Judaism’s central affirmation of one God who is the creator and sustainer of the world and all humanity is one of the earliest expressions of monotheism.
Further, Jews have widely accepted the belief that knowledge of God (Yahweh) and His will for human morality and ethics has come to Judaism through revelation.
Over centuries Judaism has created a canon of sacred writings to encapsulate this revelation, beginning with the Torah, prophetic views, and wisdom writings (notably the Psalms and Proverbs), which were collected into what is now known as the Hebrew Bible.
The Oral Torah- Mishna
The Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, in which Moses’ integral role figures prominently—is revered by all of the diverse communities that have been a part of Judaism through the ages.
However, having lived in many different cultural and political settings for more than twenty-five centuries, Jews have repeatedly had to reinterpret and adapt their worldviews and lifestyles to changing situations.
And so, alongside the writings, Judaism’s tradition developed further into what is called the Mishnah, or Oral Torah, and the Talmud, rabbinical interpretations of the Torah.
These works were also collected in written form in the first centuries of the Common Era.
Different branches of Judaism—including Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—have developed over time, and each branch interprets scripture and oral teachings in its own distinctive way.
And yet, one touchstone stands out in all of Judaism’s various forms: the theme of exile and restoration (or return).
The Hebrews’ enslavement in Egypt and their escape into the Sinai Desert, led by Moses and his brother Aaron, exemplify the stories so often retold in Jewish history.
Once again, during biblical times, the Hebrews’ imprisonment in Babylonia in the sixth century B.C.E. was followed by a return to Israel when the Persians liberated them.
This cycle of exile and return continued into the Common Era, through the Middle Ages and beyond. For example, from the seventh through the thirteenth centuries, during the time of Islamic rule over much of modern-day Spain, the Jews flourished.
Then, during the fifteenth century the Jews were expelled from this region and were not allowed to return to Europe until centuries later.
This theme continued to play out, right into more recent times when, in the nineteenth century, the Jews’ desire to return to Palestine and have a home of their own developed into the idea and ideal of Zionism.
After Nazi Germany perpetrated the almost unimaginable decimation of European Jews during the Holocaust in the twentieth century, the Jews’ dream of having a home of their own was finally realized when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Today, Jews from anywhere and everywhere in the world can now claim citizenship there.
Indeed, there is much to relay about the Jewish saga, not only in terms of religious faith, but history and culture as well.
Yet, Judaism’s legacy also reaches beyond its own heritage and tradition,its profound influence extends to both Christianity and Islam, which are daughters of Judaism.
Although much larger than their mother in numerical terms, both traditions, along with Judaism, hold fast to the reality of one God, assert the centrality of ethical norms and moral behavior, and perpetuate a hope for the fulfillment of the promises their traditions carry.
Some people have concluded that there is no greater proof of the existence of God than the survival of the Jews amid all they have endured throughout their tumultuous history. Keep reading and decide for yourself.
Development of Judaism and Its Origin
Judaism is a religion steeped in history. Over the course of 4,000 years, what began with the covenant God made with Abraham, the first Jew, evolved through Moses and other Jewish leaders and prophets, all the way to the present.
Today, Judaism is a religion with a rich tradition, and several different offshoots have developed. It’s important to note that the different branches within Judaism should not be referred to as “denominations.”
For instance, although there are differences in the respective philosophies of the Orthodox and Reform movements, involving such religious elements as custom, practice, and observance, the differences are not nearly as great as those between and among some Christian denominations.
Although throughout history various movements in Judaism have sometimes split off, they have remained different branches growing from the trunk of the same tree