9: Rabbinic Judaism



Flag of Israel
(And the many faces of Israel)

Key Terms

  • Israelites
  • Jews: religion, race, ethnicity?
  • Believing vs. Belonging
  • The Talmud
  • Midrash
  • Siddur
  • Tikkun Olam
  • Noahide Laws
  • Holocaust
  • Zionism
  • Shabbat
  • High Holidays
  • Halakhah
  • Aliyah


I. Ancient Jewish Identity

  • A. Short Biblical History of the Hebrews
    • Noah’s first son is Shem = Semitic peoples (cf. antisemitism)
      • Shem’s great-grandson is Heber = the Hebrews
        • Heber’s great4-grandson is “Father Abraham
          • Abraham’s grandson is Jacob/Israel
          • Jacob’s 12 sons = the Israelites
  • B. Jewish History: 12 Tribes of Israel
    Cultural Influences: Canaan, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon
  • C. Jewish History: the Jews
    Cultural Influences: Persia, Greece, Rome
    • 538 BCE: the remaining Israelite tribes return from Exile to Judah
      • Remaining Israelite Tribes:
        Benjamin (assimilated), Judah (kingly line), and Levi (priestly line)
        • Benjamin: Paul | Judah: David, Mary, and most Jews
          Levi: Moses, Aaron*, Ezra, John
          • *Descendants of Aaron were (and would be if the Temple
            were rebuilt) the Priesthood/Kohanim
      • The conquering Greeks and Romans will collectively call all Israelites “Jews”

II. Modern Jewish Identity

  • A. Jewish History: Jews as a Religion | “Judaism”
    Cultural Influence: Modern Nationalism, German Protestant Christianity
    • 1614: The Jewish people are categorized by Protestant scholars as practicing “Judaisme”
    • 1769: Moses Mendelssohn is the first Jewish philosopher to self-identify as practicing the “religion” of “Judaism”
      • Modern identity creates separate categories of “nationality” and “religion” (eg. You can now be a “German Jew!”)
      • Mendelssohn: Judaism is compatible with German Enlightenment values AND respects Christianity as a co-religion.
  • B. Jewish History: Jews as a Race
    Cultural Influence: Aryan Race Theory
    • 1700s: Religious tolerance becomes the norm, following the Wars of Religion in Europe (Catholic vs. Protestant)
    • 1800s: Jews are now recategorized as an inferior “race” threatening Western society (6m clip)
      • With American support, German scientists classify people into “Aryan,” “Mixed,” & “Subhuman” races
      • 1879: Judenhass (“Jew Hatred”) is replaced with the more scientific-sounding name “Antisemitism
      • 1940s: Aryan Race Theory mostly collapses. Many use the new social category of “ethnicity” to describe Jews.
  • C. Jewish History: The Jewish Nation | Israelis
    Cultural Influences: Ottoman Empire, British Empire, Arabs
    • 1948: Jews declare the independence of the modern state of Israel
      • Citizens of this nation are “Israelis” — not all Israelis are Jews, and only about ½ of all Jews are Israelis
      • 75% of Israelis are Jews, 21% of Israelis are Arabs, and 4% are other ethnicities
      • Jews come from all over the world, including Africa, India, the Middle East, Spain, and across the West

III. Who is a Jew?

  • Believing vs. Belonging
    • Christians and Muslims can belong to any tribe, and are part of their religion so long as they “believe” 
    • Jews can believe almost anything, but must “belong” to the Jewish tribe to be Jewish
  • Like American citizenship, a Jew is Jewish either by birth or by legal application
    • Jewish by birth: Orthodoxy upholds maternal Jewishness. Progressives uphold Jewishness through either parent.
    • Jewish by conversion: one can apply through a Jewish legal court (bet din) to be Jewish (see below…)
  • Belonging to the Jewish people ultimately means holding to Jewish traditions (3m clip)

Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman

Hebrew Bible ≠ Judaism

To describe Judaism within the framework of the Old Testament is as misleading as constructing a picture of American life in terms of the Constitution, which is, to be sure, the basic law of the land but far from coextensive with our present legal and social system.

Rabbi Robert Gordis

Talmud: White Lies

When asked if a man should lie 
to protect an ugly bride’s feelings on her wedding day, Rabbi Shammai said no (cf. Exodus 20:16). But Rabbi Hillel said yes — every bride is beautiful on her wedding day. Hillel won.

Talmud, Ketubot 16b-17a


I. The Texts of Judaism

  • A. The Hebrew Bible: the “Written Law”
    • Torah (“Instruction”) | 5 books: Creation –> Moses
    • Nevi’im (“Prophets”) | 8 books: After Moses –> Babylonian Exile
    • Ketuvim (“Writings”) | 11 books: Exile –> (Second) Temple

  • B. The Talmud (“Learning”) | 6,200 pages of Biblical commentary
    • 200s CE: The Mishnah (“Secondary”)
    • 500s CE: The Gemara (“Study”)
      • Analysis and elaboration of the Mishnah

  • C. Midrash (“Investigation”) | Ongoing...
  • D. Siddur (“Order”): The Jewish Prayerbook, ca. 800s CE
    • Jews read/pray from a siddur during a Jewish service (eg. Reader's Kaddish, txt)
    • Jewish prayer services occur daily in the Morning, Afternoon, and Evening
    • There exist many regional rites of siddurim (eg. Sephardic, German, Yemenite)

The Shema

Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is One!

Deuteronomy 6:4

II. Key Concepts in Jewish Thought

  • A. Monotheism and the Covenant
  • B. Tikkun Olam (“Repairing the World”)
    • Jews stay connected (tzava) with God by performing good deeds (613 mitzvot)
    • Mitzvot — chiefly Repentance, Prayer, and Charity — repair our world
    • Jews are called by God to be righteous and “a light among the nations
    • Why do Jews do this? (6m clip)

  • C. Righteousness for Non–Jews
    • Non-Jews are righteous if they follow the 7 Noahide Laws
      • Prohibitions against murder, theft, idol worship, sexual immorality,
        or blaspheming God
      • Requirements to treat animals well and maintain fair courts of justice

III. Traditions of Jewish Observance

Talmud scholars question God

If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?

Rabbi Joshua
Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a-b

  • A. From the Talmud: The Caving Walls of the Study Hall
    • Dispute between two rabbinic sages breaks out
      • R. Eliezer says if hes right, may the carob tree move 100 cubits (it does)
      • R. Eliezer says if hes right, may the aqueduct water flow backwards (it does)
      • R. Eliezer says if hes right, may the walls of the room collapse (begin to)
      • R. Joshua argues, “what are your qualifications to intervene?”
        • God gave the Law at Mt. Sinai, but left it to Jews to interpret
    • The walls stopped, but did not straighten out, in deference to both rabbis
    • God responds, “my children have triumphed over me!”

  • B. Orthodox Jewish Observance (all promote ritual law and purity)
    • 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox
    • Major Branches of Orthodox Judaism
      • Haredi Orthodox: desire total separation from modern culture — so, you’ll probably never meet one
      • Hasidic Orthodox: focus on joy of God & rigorous Torah observance (eg. Breslov group, Chabad group)
      • Modern Orthodox: desire to balance modern life and fully observing Jewish law
  • C. Progressive Jewish Observance
    • Major Branches of Progressive Judaism (all promote gender and LGBT equality)
      • 18% of U.S. Jews | Conservative Judaism: emphasizes tradition and choice as a movement
      • 35% of U.S. Jews | Reform Judaism: emphasizes personal choice in ritual observance
      •   6% of U.S. Jews | Reconstructionist & Renewal Jewish movements
      • 30% of U.S. Jews | Secular Jews (“just Jewish”) with little to no ritual observance
        • Eg. Sigmund Freud & Albert Einstein were Secular Jews

  • D. Jewish Observance in Israel
    • 75% of Israelis are Jews
      • 16% of Israeli Jews identify as Orthodox
      • 15% of Israeli Jews identify with a Progressive movement (eg. Conservative, Reform)
      • 67% of Israeli Jews identify as Secular — half of Israeli Jews don’t keep the Sabbath


  • A. Jews in Medieval Europe
    • Jews & the State
      • Edict of Thessalonica (380): all Roman citizens must profess Christianity. Jews are outlaws.
      • The Crusades (1095-1291): Jews stripped of the right to live in the Holy Land. Massacred by roving knights.
    • Jews & Christian Society
    • The Medieval Witch has roots in antisemitic portrayals of Jewish women
      • Abracadrabra: (Hebrew) “It happened as I spoke it.”
      • Christians describe Witches: woman outside the village, dark clothes, long nose, strange books, magical powers
      • Christian narrative: A cabal of Witches meet in secret at a synagogue, led by the Devil, to manipulate Christians

  • B. 1938-1945 | the Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah)
    • 1938: Hitler’s leadership of Germany results in Kristallnacht (3m clip)
    • America and other Western countries turn Jews away and pass laws to ensure Jews could not immigrate (1m clip)
    • In his Final Solution to the “Jewish Question,” Hitler’s Nazi regime murders 6,000,000 Jews (1m speech clip)
    • 1945: The Concentration Camps are liberated by Soviet, American, and British forces (3m clip)
      • Most European Jews have nowhere to return. Many seek a new life with fellow Jews in the Land of Israel.
      • Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed today in the Diaspora and the State of Israel (2m clip)

  • C. Zionism (named for Mt. Zion of Jerusalem)
    • Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have the right to self–determination in a country of their own
      • Israel — while occupied by empires throughout history — has never been any nation other than Israel (see chart)
      • Both the Christian Old Testament and the Muslim Qur’an attest to the Land of Israel belonging to the Jewish people
      • 20th century antisemitism, in Europe and the Arab world, essentially made the State of Israel an historical necessity
    • Jews in the Ottoman empire
      • 1500s: Joseph Nasi starts a movement to resettle Jews (fleeing Spain) in Ottoman Palestine
      • 1700s: Jewish culture flourishes in the Four Holy Cities of Ottoman Palestine: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias
      • 1856: Jews purchase coastal land in Israel from Ottoman land owners (pic: 1944)
    • Early Zionism
      • 1896: As European antisemitism flares up, Theodore Herzl writes of a modern Jewish State free of antisemitism
      • 1917: The British write the “Balfour Declaration.” The empire promises the Jews a “national home” in British Palestine.
      • 1922: After WWI, the League of Nations grants Britain the Mandate of Palestine, in which it must establish a
      • “Jewish national home” while the “civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants” are safeguarded
    • Post–Holocaust Zionism

The Jewish State

The Jews who wish for a State
will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.

The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.
And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good
of humanity.

Theodore Herzl, 1896

Political Timeline of the Land of Israel

Hamas Charter

The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, 'O Muslim, O servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.

Exerpt of Hamas Charter, 1988

Hamas is a terrorist organization in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. They are banned in Egypt and Jordan.

  • D. Protecting the State of Israel (map)
    • 1948-9: Jewish leaders declare the independence of the modern State of Israel
    • 1967: The next major war between Israel and its Arab neighbors lasts Six Days
      • Israel gains the West Bank (including the Western Wall) from Jordan
      • Israel gains the Golan Heights from Syria
      • Israel gains the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula from Egypt
      • The U.S. had been neutral with Israel up to this point, but becomes warmer 
    • 1972: Munich Massacre – Israeli Olympic athletes killed in Germany (2m clip)
    • 1973: Egypt and Syria lead a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur
      • The Arab attempt to regain the Golan (Syria) and the Sinai (Egypt) fails
    • 1978: Camp David Peace Accords – U.S. President Carter brokers peace deal.
      • Israel gives the Sinai back to Egypt for peace. Anwar Sadat assassinated.
    • 1982: First Lebanon War – became the Lebanese Civil War
    • 1987-93: First Intifada – Hamas (Gaza) and Fatah (West Bank) uprising stopped.
    • 2000-05: Second Intifada – Hamas (Gaza) and Fatah (West Bank) uprising stopped
      • 2005: Israeli Army (IDF) officially withdraws all Israeli presence from the Gaza Strip
    • 2006: Second Lebanon War – Stalemate in Hizbollah proxy war (Iranian Forces in Lebanon)
    • 2008-9: Gaza War – Rockets fired by Hamas (Gaza) into Israel are stopped
    • 2011: Israel gives Hamas (Gaza) 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit
    • 2012: Op. Pillar of Defense – Rockets fired by Hamas (Gaza) into Israel are stopped
    • 2014: Op. Protective Edge – Invasion tunnels built by Hamas (Gaza) with humanitarian aid money are destroyed

  • E. Contemporary Antisemitic violence
    • You can follow how many days it’s been since Israel was attacked with rockets at this website
      • Since 2001, Israel has been hit with over 25,000 rockets

  • F. Antisemitic themes and recent figures
    • Antisemitic canards
      • Cultural Antisemitism: Socialist Jews as undermining Aryan, Capitalist, Christian, or Western values
      • Economic Antisemitism: Jews as raging Capitalists — controlling world finance, banks, and taxes
      • Political Antisemitism: Jews as controlling politics — being too left wing, or too right wing
      • Racial Antisemitism: Jews as an inferior race. Also: Jews as not originally from Israel (ie. not “real Jews”).
      • Religious Antisemitism: Jews as the killers of Jesus Christ — the only culture ever accused of deicide
      • “New” Antisemitism: Jews as having no right to self-determination. Double-standards in Arab-Israeli conflict.
    • Today American Jews easily remain the largest target of hate crimes toward religious groups
      • 2017: 1,342 American victims of hate crimes against a religious group (1,017 Jews and 325 Muslims)


I. The Jewish Calendar

Jewish Holidays

They tried to kill us.
We won. Let’s eat!

Jewish comedian Alan King
describes all Jewish holidays

  • A. Shabbat (The Sabbath: Saturday)
    • 25 hours of ritual rest: sunset on Friday until nightfall on Saturday
    • Woman of the house lights two candles and says a blessing (4m clip)
    • Songs, blessings, wine, and food are shared
    • A blessing after nightfall on Saturday ends the Sabbath

  • B. The High Holy Days (10 Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur)
    • Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish New Year / Birthday of the World
    • Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement – Jews fast and pray for atonement of sins against God

  • C. Other Major Jewish Holy Days
    • Sukkot: Feast of Tabernacles (rd. Ecclesiastes) – commemorates the Israelites wandering in the desert
    • Simchat Torah: Joy of Torah  (rd. 1st part of Genesis) – commemorates end and beginning of yearly Torah reading cycle
    • Hanukkah: Festival of Lights – commemorates victory over Greeks
    • Tu BiShvat: Festival of Trees – Jewish Earth Day
    • Purim: Festival of Lots  (rd. Esther) – commemorates Queen Esther saving the Jewish people in Iran
    • Passover: (rd. Song of Songs) commemorates victory of the Israelites from of Egyptian bondage
    • Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day – commemorates the loss to the Jewish people during the Holocaust
    • Shavuot: Feast of Weeks  (rd. Ruth) – commemorates Moses receiving the Torah
    • Tisha B’Av: Ninth of Av  (rd. Lamentations) – Day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies

II. Enacting Jewishness

  • A. Halakhah (The Path/Law) 
    • 613 commandments (mitzvot): ways for Jews to connect (tzava) to God
    • Orthodox and Progressive Jews view Halakhah (Jewish Law) differently
      • Orthodox Jews - Halakhah is binding on all Jews, unchanging, for all time
      • Progressive Jews - Halakhah should be viewed through the lens of history

  • B. Bar Mitzvah & Bat Mitzvah
    • Before 12 (for girls) or 13 (for boys), a child’s observance of Torah mitzvot is their parents’ responsibility
    • After this age, a boy is “bar mitzvah” (son of the law) and a girl is “bat mitzvah” (daughter of the law)
    • There’s usually a coming-of-age party (cf. quinceañera) in recognition of this, but it’s not required

  • C. Ritual Purity
    • Dietary Restrictions
      • Jews refrain from eating reptiles (eg. eel, turtle, gator)
      • Jews refrain from eating specific mammals and birds (eg. pigs, rats, vultures)
      • Jews refrain from eating aquaculture missing fins or scales (e.g. shrimp, sharks, catfish)
      • Jews refrain from mixing dairy with meat in the same dish
      • During Passover week, Jews abstain from the “5 grains” of wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt
    • Dietary Features
      • Jewish culture gave rise to bagels, pastrami, schnitzel, potato cakes, and chicken noodle soup
      • Jewish culture is alcohol friendly, requiring wine for weekly Sabbath blessings
    • Cultural Restrictions
      • Christmas: the December Dilemma – half of all American Jews have Christmas trees!

  • D. Aliyah (Return to Israel)
    • The State of Israel is a refuge for Jews worldwide (Jewish Agency)
    • Many opportunities for Jews who return to the Land of Israel

III. Becoming Jewish

  • If you werent born Jewish, you may convert to Judaism
    • Tradition says a rabbi should make 3 attempts to talk you out of converting — it may save your life
  • A convert then begins a 1+ year process of self-discovery and Jewish study under a rabbi
    • Study Halakhah: Jewish law and tradition
    • Gain a knowledge of Hebrew for blessings, prayers, and songs
    • Have an active role in local Jewish life — Judaism revolves around community
  • Meet with a Bet Din (Jewish Court of 3 ordained rabbis)
    • Male circumcision
    • Mikveh (c.f. Baptism)
    • After that, you’re Jewish for life — and just as Jewish as any born Jew
    • Should you decide to make aliyah, you may become an Israeli citizen
      • If you're <30, you’ll probably serve in the Army like other Israelis

IV. General Guidelines for visiting a Jewish Synagogue

  • Q. How should I be dressed?
    • Dress formally. Most men wear ties. Progressive women wear slacks, but legs should always be covered below the knee.
    • Jewish men cover their heads. Orthodox women do too.

  • Q. What are the totems used in the service?
    • The sanctuary faces toward the Temple Mount (ie. Western Wall) in Jerusalem
    • At the front of the sanctuary is an Ark — the Ark contains a Torah Scroll
      • The Torah is dressed as an ancient priest: wearing a crown, robes, breastplate, and bells
      • Non–Jews are not allowed to read from the Torah, but can do basically everything else
    • The Ark is adorned with representations of the Ten Commandments, and an eternal flame (like in the ancient Temple)
    • Shabbat candles are also located at the front of the sanctuary
      • These are lit to mark the official beginning of the Sabbath — the Jewish Day of Rest
    • Progressive sanctuaries will seat mixed genders, with a siddur (prayer book) at each seat. Men and women pray together.
    • Orthodox sanctuaries separate men and women. Also Orthodox women (generally) can’t become rabbis. This is changing.

  • Q. Will contributions to the temple/synagogue be collected?
    • Never! Handling money on Shabbat is forbidden.
      • Instead, synagogue members pay monthly dues on a preset system through the synagogue secretary.
    • Visitors are welcome to send a check to the temple/synagogue on another day, though this is generally not expected.

  • Q. How should I behave in a Jewish temple/synagogue?
    • Many Christians find visiting a Jewish house of worship a positive experience
      • Members of other faith communities are always welcome (without fear of proselytization)
        • However, it is considered rude to wear a cross or other religious symbolism in a synagogue
        • Men are typically expected to wear a kippah, which are available at the front (Reform is less stringent on this)
    • Also, never bring treif foods into a Jewish house of worship. When in doubt, ask the rabbi beforehand!
    • It is expected for guests to stand when the congregation stands, but you do not have to bow, pray, or sing
      • This is similar to respectfully standing during a foreign national anthem (which Americans do), but not singing along
    • After a Friday night Shabbat service, there’s usually a blessing over wine and bread followed by a social hour (Oneg)
      • Guests are always welcome to take part in these activities. Most Jews enjoy meeting guests!