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Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions, characterized by a belief in one God (monotheism), and the belief that the Torah is the source of divine knowledge. The Shema, ”Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One,” affirms Judaism’s monotheism.
The Torah is also referred to as the Holy Scriptures, and is the first five books of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament. Abraham (ca. 1600 BCE) is considered the founder of Judaism, although, similar for other religions, researchers today question the possible mixture of legend and fact. The Jewish calendar goes back 1,946 years before Abraham, based on the 19 generations listed inclusively from Adam and Eve to Abraham (Abram) in Genesis 5:3-32 and Genesis 11:10-26. The Christian year of 2010-11 equals the Jewish year of 5770-1. The Jewish day begins at sundown instead of at midnight.
From a cultural perspective, most Jews today are classified as Sephardic-Mizrahi (backgrounds from Iberia or mostly Muslim counties of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Near East) or Ashkenazim (backgrounds in Europe, except Iberia, mostly Christian lands). Judaism has changed over time and has developed different definitions, degrees of traditionalism, and practices. The patterns are different for Ashkenazim and Sephardim-Mizrahim.
In most Ashkenazi areas, there are two main divisions, Orthodox or Traditional Judaism, and Liberal or Progressive Judaism. Orthodox Judaism requires a strong degree of traditional belief and daily observance. It is divided into Modern Orthodox and Traditional Orthodox. Liberal Judaism has made significant changes in both beliefs and practices. The USA, over 90 percent Ashkenazi, has a three-fold division of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism because of migration patterns which were not experienced in other countries. A fourth branch of Judaism in the United States, Reconstructionism, views Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, and generally follows modern practices. Intermarriage, and the loss of children from Judaism, is a major challenge to Judaism in many parts of the world today.
Sephardic-Mizrahi migration patterns are different from Ashkenazic patterns, and did not lead to a division like the Ashkenazim. All Sephardic-Mizrahi Judaism is Orthodox, but because it represents all Sephardim-Mizrahim, with various degrees of traditionalism and modernization, it has adjusted internally and tends to be more flexible than Ashkenazi Orthodoxy.
Judaism has several major holidays, and many minor holidays. Most important are Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins a ten-day period of repentance, and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest day of the Jewish year which ends the ten-day period. They occur in September or October. Other major Jewish holidays reflect Judaism’s long religious and cultural history, including persecutions and victories. Purim (February-March) is a joyful holiday that celebrates the victory of the Jews over a plot to destroy them in ancient Persia. Pesach, or Passover (March-April) is a celebration of the Jewish escape from slavery in ancient Egypt in the thirteenth century BCE Sukkot (September-October) is a joyful festival symbolizing the return of Jews to Israel after escaping from Egyptian slavery. Simchat Torah is a joyful holiday which celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle. Hanukkah (usually December) lasts for eight days and celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid oppression in 165 BCE Historically, Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday, but it has become more important in Christian countries partly to offset Christmas so that Jewish children do not feel left out.
There are about 13 million Jews in the world today, with about 40 percent living in Israel and about 60 percent living in the diaspora (i.e., the dispersion outside Israel, the original homeland). The USA alone accounts for about 40 percent. About 37 percent of world Jewry were killed in the Holocaust, drastically reducing the number of Jews. Israel is roughly divided evenly between Ashkenazim and Sephardim-Mizrahim.
- Neusner, J. (1992) A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.
- Zohar, Z. (ed.) (2005) Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry: From the Golden Age of Spain to Modern Times. New York University Press, New York.